Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Should India demonstrate a staged nuclear burn?

In present day nuclear weapons technology - a staged thermonuclear burn represents the most challenging of technical tasks. You can make nuclear bombs without this kind of burn, but the yield to weight ratio remains non-ideal. The higher the design yield (usually something that comes into play when you are talking about hardened targets that are ~1k+ miles away) the higher is the demand on the yield to weight.

As of today, the Indian Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has not claimed to have ever tested a multi-stage TN burn at design yield. Despite what others may have said about S2 in 1998 - per DAE statement it was never a multistage TN burn with an emphasis of a large fusion yield. The only thing I have consistently heard from all the people I know is that the fusion burn was de-emphasized for reasons relating to the site itself. As the overburden at Pokhran was much lower than ideally desired for a test of a full yield device, the test device was deliberately kept to a lower design yield.

I feel this is essentially correct as a venting event would result in a radioactive plume spreading across the India-Pakistan border. This would have been interpreted by Pakistan as a hostile act and at the very least India would have had to pay Pakistan reparation for any damage of life caused by the exposure to the plume.  One also has to remember that by detecting the composition of the plume itself Pakistan would have gained considerable insight into how to construct a similar nuclear weapon and that would have completely destroyed any advantage India could stand to gain out of it.

I have on occasion asked people in India - "Why not test the device in a place where such a plume is unlikely to occur or cause as much of an erosion of India's technical edge?" - Each time around I have asked this question - I have been met with a stone faced silence. My interpret this response is - "Option is under consideration but we can't possibly comment on it publicly".

Perhaps I am foolish - but it occurs to me that the entire decision making around the Indian nuclear deterrent may be based on a very cold cost benefit analysis, one which takes into account the iron law of consequences.

As of today - we know that

1) that North Korea tested an advanced nuclear device - most likely a staged burn - at a yield that matched or exceeded the maximum design yield of S2.

2) that the Arihant platform (despite its marketing assuring otherwise) has unique vulnerabilities that make it possible for China to get an escalatory dominance over India in a standoff.

3)the PLAGF have planted an entire armor formation south of the Tsang Po. Taken in conjunction with the increase in PLAAF strength in the immediate vicinity - the IAF's natural advantage is considerably eroded. (I mean clearly the presence of Su-30s at Hasimara AFB did not deter this PLAGF Armor column from wandering all the way out from Golmud to Doklam!)

So it is fair question to ask -

Does India need to test a multi-stage device  in order to stop the situation from sliding into an unacceptable situation vis-a-vis China? 

I strongly suspect the answer in the minds of many Indians is increasingly  - "Yes!"

This worries me no end because if India should develop such capabilities, it will drastically increase the extinction pressures on Pakistan.

Pakistani national security thinking has to operate under the assumption that India is able to deploy devices of a certain yield in all the possible locations that Pakistani national security systems can detect.

If one were to suddenly jack up that "certain" yield to some incredibly high number (as would happen with an Indian demonstration of a staged-burn) then Pakistani national security calculations would point towards an extremely large extinction risk.

Add to this the usual stage of miscommunication that exists between the political formations on both sides and you have the makings of another Mahabharata or a World War III.

When listing the nuclear flashpoints of the world, please remember that this India-China-Pakistan triad is as worrisome as the rest. 


At 2:00 PM, Blogger Ralphy said...

if india starts testing again there will be other consequences besides pakistan. it will cost india dearly so india better make sure its the right thing to do in resuming testing. i'm sure everybody is a rational actor, blah....blah...blah, but.....if india doesn't mind being treated like north korea then test to your hearts content.

At 2:04 PM, Blogger Ralphy said...

i mean to say....... how much do you trust The Donald to be a rational actor? i think if india starts testing.....then they trust him not to chimp out. have fun with that.....

At 2:09 PM, Blogger Ralphy said...

i'm talking banking.....immigration...scientific....education......import/export.....yeah...yeah....yeahh......trust The Donald.

At 5:54 AM, Blogger maverick said...

I think in this part of the Indian calculation, Donald Trump and his precarious relationship with the USIC is a small perturbative effect at best.

I guess another way to put it is -

As long as Donald continues to collect "baksheesh" for the use of his brand in India and those UberHindu types keep pouring money into his "re-election account" there is little likelihood of him making too much real trouble. His entire op is falling apart as is.
He has too much on his plate, if he does one more thing he will disintegrate completely.

For its part the USIC will become rightly concerned but unlike Donald Trump - they are a reasonable lot and as long as the situation is clearly explained and meaningful assurances are given that India will not mass produce warheads of this yield, the USIC should IMHO be mollified. It should be possible to make meaningful reassurances in this context because the cost of maintaining a high yield low weight TN arsenal will be substantially higher than the cost of the current FBF proposals. Given that the launch platform risks have be reanalyzed in the context of a higher cost warhead, everything will have to be tightened up before a higher yield warhead deployment is attempted.

These two effects can be made to pull in opposite directions at any given time. It is reasonable to assume that their net effect will be very small.

I am not advocating that India do this. I am merely stating that it will be attractive to people in India.

From the Pakistani perspective, this can only be highly disturbing. Their current calculations assume a max yield of O(50kT) per deployed Indian nuke. They can crudely estimate a low bound on total number of nukes based on CIRUS and Dhruva Pu production, and they can make reasonable assumptions about likelihood what the high bound is assuming some amount of RgPu being used in pits.

If one adds a multi-stage burn to the mix of options, the number per nuke jumps to O(500kT). That is too much of a shift for any national security machinery to handle. The effect will be similar to what the Soviet Union felt after the first US demonstration of a staged burn. The only thing that I feel held it together at the time was that Ivy Mike was so large that it was a militarily impractical device.

That won't be the case with India's devices, in fact India will end up going to great lengths to show that it has a weaponizable package that fits neatly into existing AF&F and warheads.

At 7:32 AM, Blogger maverick said...

I apologize for the fast typing

"Their current calculations assume"

Should read

"Their current calculations probably assume" - this would be based on the high end of the estimates of S2 yield.

At 12:52 AM, Blogger Ralphy said...

ah, so you do think trump is a rational actor.......

At 5:51 AM, Blogger maverick said...

No I don't but they might!

They don't have eyes on him 24x7x365.

I do think USIC is a rational actor. I don't trust Trump to do anything right but you already know that.


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