ASCENT OF THE FAKIRS: INDIA'S NUCLEAR TESTS
For the last few weeks I have been reading "The Nuclear Express" by Thomas Reed and Danny Stillman. Both Reed and Stillman are veteran nuclear weapons and security experts who worked in the government and at Los Alamos. The book is densely packed with previously unknown information. Perhaps the most important- and most concerning -part of the book is about China's nuclear weapons program and Chinese nuclear aid to Pakistan, but the book also has excellent discussions on the development of Israel's nuclear program, including the French-Israeli alliance that blossomed after the Suez Canal crisis of 1956, and the Russian-Chinese alliance that was broken off by the Russians in 1959.
The book gives an impression that in some way all nuclear nations are proliferators. Naturally some are less responsible than others, but even India which is generally considered to be a model non-proliferator has two scientists on the US State Department list who are supposed to have provided enrichment know-how to Iran. However, by that token, hundreds of scientists and officials including those in the US should be on the same list; after all when the Shah was in power, Dick Cheney among others was instrumental in selling reactor technology to the Iranians. It seems that we always proliferate to a nation when we consider it to be our friend.
In any case, there is a vast amount of information in the book that is worth reading. Stillman and Reed have some interesting facts about India's 1998 nuclear tests. In spite of many assertions to the contrary, we don't seem to have successfully tested a thermonuclear device (hydrogen bomb) in our first test called Shakti 1. The official stated Indian estimate for the test was 45 kilotons. However, Stillman and Reed look at three rather authoritative sources and find that the total yield was only 16 kilotons, which would make the claim impossible. According to the authors' sources, the second test Shakti 2 was a close replica of the 1974 Smiling Buddha device and yielded 12 kilotons. The third test Shakti 3 was for diagnostics purposes and was only 0.2 kilotons. That puts Shakti 1 at only 4 kilotons, far less than the 45 kilotons that the Vajapayee government claimed. The thermonuclear weapon tested was supposed to be a boosted fission design in which a primary fission weapon ignites a secondary fusion weapon by radiation implosion. The primary is "spiked" by the addition of tritium or deuterium which in turn is supposed to ignite the secondary. It seems that the primary's yield was very low, which meant that the secondary did not ignite at all. Thus the low 4 kiloton yield. This indicates that India is not truly in the "nuclear club" since all strategic weapons with yields of several hundred kilotons are thermonuclear.
Pakistan's test results were even more dubious according to Reed and Stillman. At first the Pakistanis could not even agree in public about how many tests they conducted. Then, simply to indicate parity with India, they announced that they had conducted five. In Pakistan's case only one weapon fired as expected.
But given that Pakistan conducted its tests only eighteen days after India conducted its must mean than Pakistan already had a device ready for testing. This is one of the most important and startling sections in Reed and Stillman. The device was ready for testing because eight years earlier, another nuclear device had been tested by China on Pakistan's behalf in May, 1990 at their Lop Nur test site. Author Stillman was among the first Americans to set foot inside China's nuclear weapons complex, and there is plenty of evidence that China tested Pakistan's nuclear bomb and that it provided unprecedented support to Pakistan's nuclear complex. There are many pieces of evidence cited in the book which make this an almost inescapable conclusion; for instance, a neutron initiator scheme used for initiating the nuclear weapons was found in a book published by none other than A Q Khan. Plus, Stillman saw several Pakistani scientists within the Chinese weapons complex in the 90s. Chinese support for Pakistan's bomb had clearly been long-standing and extensive. What China expects to gain from this is ominous and will be a topic for another post.