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Fusion as confusion

india Updated: Aug 28, 2009 19:40 IST

Nuclear testing will always attract an unusual degree of public attention. One, it is a technological accomplishment which has over the decades developed an unusual aura of cultural symbolism. Two, its very nature means it cannot be carried out in a transparent nature. It does not help that nowadays they must take place underground, making third party measurements uncertain. Three, even after thousands of such events, nuclear tests are still temperamental. The data collected from each test is unique to that device. Which is why it is easy to question whether a nuclear test is successful and difficult to prove the opposite.

However, the question of whether the thermonuclear device detonated as part of the Pokhran II tests was a success or not is a literally academic issue. Though it sounds strange, the point of a nuclear weapons test is not to collect data but to establish the credibility of a country’s nuclear deterrent. Nuclear deterrence works by persuading a potential adversary that the cost of waging war against a nuclear-armed nation outstrips any advantage that conflict is unwinnable. Military strategy becomes less a test of strength than a test of psychology. The question should be: did the Pokhran tests strengthen the view that India has a credible nuclear deterrent? The answer is yes. First, no one doubts India’s nuclear fission tests went off perfectly. A fusion test may be a source of pride, but fission bombs levelled two cities. They inflict unacceptable levels of damage. Second, other countries will be equally uncertain as India has a thermonuclear weapon. Even if the tests are proven to have failed, a flaw can always be repaired without another test. No one wages atomic war on a kiss and a prayer.

A perfect example of how mindgames dominate nuclear defence is the case of Israel. Officially, Israel has no nuclear arsenal. It has never publicly tested a device. Yet its neighbours live in fear of the so-called ‘Samson Option’. What matters is less Israel’s technical ability than its fearsome reputation when it comes to national security. Unfortunately, whether India has the mental toughness that underpins deterrence is arguably in greater doubt than whether it has crossed a specific technical hurdle.