A classic technical folly

Print edition : May 08, 1999

India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU

Pokhran-II and attempted nuclear weaponisation are a worthy and significant end-of-the-century Indian contribution to the list of the world's major technical follies.

PROFESSIONAL soldiers rarely, if ever, invent new weapons. New weapons are invented or designed by scientists and engineers, by the application of either established or newly discovered scientific principles and technologies. In the modern world, such inventions or advances in weaponry are not the product of individual minds, but the result of the work of a large scientific and technological establishment dedicated wholly or in part to this purpose. Such establishments will certainly push the products of their work with energy and enthusiasm, convinced of the importance of their efforts in the promotion of national security.

But what happens when such scientists promote their work without corrective mechanisms, either self-imposed or imposed from outside, that ensure that their inventions, designs and ideas measure up to the needs of the real world, outside the confines of their laboratories and think-tanks? Unfortunately, this situation is all too common. The history of weapons is replete with examples of ingenious inventions and seemingly fool-proof strategies, based on the latest technology, that have failed the test of practice. We are not referring to weapons that are faulty in design. Even the best-designed weapons can be rendered useless if there is no suitable way in which they can ever be used for the purpose for which they were made. It is such inventions or advances, and the strategies based on them, that the well-known American theoretical physicist and arms control expert, Freeman Dyson, refers to as technical follies.

Dyson, in his 1984 book Weapons and Hope, a reflective and insightful study from a scientist's viewpoint of various aspects of the nuclear dilemma, uses the concept of technical folly to characterise the scientific dimension of nuclear weapons. The book lists a variety of examples, drawn from the history of both conventional and nuclear weapons, ranging from individual weapons to large-scale miscalculations about the strategic utility of particular weapons systems.

Vajpayee with A.P.J. Abdul Kalam (right), Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister, and Dr. R. Chidambaram, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, in New Delhi on May 14, 1998.-SUNIL MALHOTRA / REUTERS

For instance, during the Second World War, large numbers of aircraft built by the Allies were equipped with guns that could fire beyond visual range, but the system could not reliably distinguish friend from foe and could rarely be used. Among the major follies, Dyson lists the strategic bombing of German cities by the Allied forces in the Second World War, a strategy that he suggests was of little or no use to the actual winning of the war and probably delayed its conclusion owing to the huge amount of resources that it consumed.

Sometimes technical follies are brought under check before they are foisted on the professional soldier. Aircraft prototypes were designed in the United States to be powered by nuclear energy. It was soon realised that they could never safely fly and had, it was eventually observed, no particular advantage over conventionally powered aircraft. Missiles were designed, but fortunately never built, to fly close to the ground at supersonic speeds, flattenning all structures that lay under its flight path through shock waves. The idea was given up when it became clear that, among other things, such weapons could not even be tested.

Dyson lists three characteristic features of a technical folly. First, it is incapable of doing the job for which it has been designed. Second, it is inflexible and cannot be adapted to changed circumstances or to any other purpose. Third, it is inordinately expensive. Dyson's examples are drawn from the experience of Britain and the United States. Almost a year after the triumphant announcement of the nuclear weapons tests in the Rajasthan desert, and on the eve of the first National Technology Day, as May 11 was designated by a boastful Government that has since collapsed, Pokhran-II and India's nuclear weaponisation appear to be a worthy and significant Indian contribution to a list of the world's major technical follies.

WHAT precisely is the task that India's nuclear weapons are supposed to perform? The major argument has been, of course, that nuclear weapons are needed to guarantee India's security. But this argument was irreparably damaged within days after Pokhran-II by Pakistan's Chagai tests of May 28 and 30. In the heady days after the Indian tests and before the Pakistani response, sections of India's political leadership, the scientific leadership in the atomic energy and defence research sectors and other assorted hawks clearly thought that India had gained a strategic edge over Pakistan. While the political leadership of the country warned Pakistan of the changed geopolitical realities in the subcontinent, the scientific establishment crowed about how the tests had guaranteed security to the people of India. After May 28, it was obvious that Pokhran-II had not conferred any strategic advantage on India but had, on the contrary, helped Pakistan attain strategic parity with India.

January 20, 1957: Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr. Homi Bhabha, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, at the inauguration of the Atomic Energy Establishment at Trombay.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The security rationale for India's nuclear weaponisation, unconvincing and weak to begin with, has become even more suspect in the months since Pokhran-II. For one thing, the primary 'threat perceptions' cited by the Government to justify weaponisation have been constantly shifting over time. Apologists for weaponisation have not hesitated to push significantly different versions of the security argument while addressing different constituencies. More important, as a wide spectrum of informed public opinion in India increasingly recognises, Pokhran-II has opened a nuclear Pandora's box of problems in terms of peace and stability and has heightened the dangers of a nuclear stand-off in the subcontinent. Rather than provide any quick-fix technological solutions to national security, nuclear weaponisation has only eroded India's options in dealing with its actual security concerns. Despite the hype following the bus diplomacy of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and the Lahore Declaration, the situation has only worsened following the intensification of the arms race with India's Agni-II missile tests and Pakistan's immediate response with the Ghauri-2 and Shaheen tests.

Apart from the security argument, several other reasons have been bandied about in defence of India's nuclear weaponisation. All of them have fallen by the wayside since the subcontinental nuclear summer of 1998. Far from being the harbinger of an era of greater self-reliance in Indian science and technology, Pokhran-II has marked the beginning of a 180-degree turn on the question of standing up to the discriminatory global nuclear order. India's authority to speak on issues of global disarmament has been considerably diminished, while the hope that possession of the bomb would confer some kind of superpower status on India has proven to be utterly misplaced. The agenda of the Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott talks and the support that these talks have received from the pro-weaponisation lobby make it clear that India's nuclear weapons are not even remotely related to any anti-imperialist foreign policy stance.

However, from the standpoint of science and technology, what gives India's nuclear weapons the true status of a technical folly is their active advocacy by India's atomic energy and defence research establishment. Significantly, the scientists have pushed their case even when the political leadership of the country has not been favourably disposed to the idea.

THE trend, as is now known, began with Homi Bhabha himself, the founder of the Indian nuclear energy programme. John Maddox, Editor Emeritus of the respected scientific journal Nature, has described, in an interview to Frontline (to appear shortly), a meeting that Bhabha had with four British journalists in 1957 in London. Maddox, who was one of those present on the occasion, recalls that Bhabha argued that "India had a strategic need for nuclear weapons", which was "every bit as important as the strategic needs of the United States." In Bhabha's view India needed nuclear weapons to "deter China", even though China had no nuclear weapons at that time. Bhabha reiterated these views at a similar meeting with a small group of journalists a few years later. Bhabha's views, it bears emphasis, were diametrically opposed to those of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Several years later, in 1964, soon after the first Chinese nuclear test, Bhabha, in response to a debate at the top levels of the Congress party on whether India should develop a nuclear explosives programme, made his position clear at a press conference in London. Following some philosophical observations about the nature of nuclear deterrence and the comment that the acquisition of "the capability and threat of retaliation" was "the only defence" against nuclear attack, Bhabha made the following remark: "We are still 18 months away from exploding either a bomb or a device for peaceful purposes, and we are doing nothing to reduce that period." According to strategic affairs analyst K. Subrahmanyam, Bhabha was immediately rebuked by Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon.

Advocacy of nuclear weaponisation by the leadership of the atomic energy programme clearly continued after Bhabha. While Vikram Sarabhai, Bhabha's immediate successor as Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, was not in favour of nuclear weapons, others who followed, incuding H.N. Sethna, Raja Ramanna and P.K. Iyengar, were considerably more enthusiastic. Even if much of their advocacy was not publicly known at that time, it is clear from the tenor of their comments after Pokhran-II that they have tended to push, if not directly for weaponisation, at least for the development of the nuclear option in the direction of weaponisation. As is well-known today, over the last few years the atomic energy leadership, joined by the defence research establishment, had actively petitioned successive governments to sanction the conduct of further tests and to advance nuclear weaponisation. The ascent to power in Delhi of a political formation for which nuclear weaponisation was a long-standing ideological commitment provided the pro-weaponisation scientists with a congenial political climate that they had long desired.

Indeed, on the question of nuclear weapons, the political neutrality of leading scientists in India's atomic energy establishment, an image that they have assiduously cultivated, has proven to be a myth. In the larger sense of the pursuit of the vision of a 'strong' India, where strength is interpreted in a predominantly military sense and is perceived as arising from the possession of nuclear arms, with China and subsequently Pakistan being the primary targets of such weapons, the atomic energy establishment has clearly been highly political. Nuclear weaponisation is an agenda that they have made very much their own.

But political aspects apart, the atomic energy establishment's push towards nuclear weapons is distinguished by the clear underlying conviction that the possession of nuclear weapons confers a technological route to solving India's security problems. Subsequent to Pokhran-II, this has been very much in evidence. The leaders of both the defence research and atomic energy establishments have spoken with pride of their scientific and technological contribution to national security and have remarked on the utility of a military-industrial complex as a stimulus for technological development. The political leadership seized the 'scientific achievement' idea with alacrity. It made this claim an integral part of its strategy of legitimation of its hawkish nuclear policy line, with Vajpayee's announcement of the slogan "Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan, Jai Vigyan", and his pronouncement in the Lok Sabha on May 26 that India's nuclear weapons state status was an 'endowment' given to the nation by its scientists and engineers.

December 1974: Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with Energy Minister K.C. Pant (left) and Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Dr. H.C. Sethna at the nuclear test site at Pokhran.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

As is the case with technical follies that go unchecked, India's armed forces have remained substantially outside the decision-making loop in government on nuclear weapons issues. It is clear that they have not played any essential role in the decision-making process before either Pokhran-I in 1974 or Pokhran-II in 1998. Undoubtedly, a small but vocal group of retired military leaders, led by the late Gen. K. Sundarji, have been advocates of nuclear weaponisation, together with a group of strategic affairs 'apologists'. But the only section of the pro-weaponisation lobby that has been closely involved at all stages of the decision-making process in government on nuclear weaponisation has been the scientific leadership of the atomic energy and defence research establishments.

It is by no means the case that nuclear weapons constitute a technical folly only in India. All nuclear weapons, to a greater or lesser degree, fall in this category, though in the Indian case there is the extra twist of a considerable exaggeration of the actual scientific and technological capabilities of India's nuclear weapons programme. If nuclear weaponisation proceeds apace, one may expect (as has happened elsewhere) several smaller technical follies within the larger one. With every advance in missile technology, major or minor, with the announcement of the details of the nuclear doctrine that is expected some time soon, with even rudimentary advances in command and control, the claim will be made that a significant advance in further enhancing India's security has been achieved even as each of these steps pushes the country towards nuclear brinkmanship.

HOW much will nuclear weaponisation cost India? Basic, preliminary estimates such as those made by economist and journalist C. Rammanohar Reddy suggest that at the very least it will be anywhere within the range of Rs.40,000 crores to 50,000 crores, to be spent over the next decade. But given the characteristics of technical follies in general and nuclear weapons in particular, weaponisation is a potentially bottomless pit of expenditure. If India is to have a "minimum credible nuclear deterrent", with the minimum undefined and subject to change, then one can expect all current estimates to be substantial underestimates. Jingoistic statements that no price is too high to pay when it comes to national defence, as have been made by prominent pro-weaponisation members of the Vajpayee Cabinet, suggest that the Goverment had neither a clear idea of what weaponisation would cost nor was it politically inclined in any way to limit its expenditure. The inevitable accompaniment of secrecy will add to the problem of runaway and profligate expenditure on nuclear weapons.

Technical follies bring little credit to the scientific establishments that promote or push them. But in a nation like India, which is home to a substantial fraction of the world's poor, which has urgent developmental needs that have yet to be addressed seriously, which has to concentrate all its political energies on the task of the empowerment and the economic uplift of its people, the self-indulgent pursuit of technical follies by the scientific establishment and the political leadership raises serious socio-political, ethical and moral questions. It is time the scientific and technological community in this country began to examine these questions with greater attention and intensity than it has displayed so far.

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