Sunday, September 27, 2009

"Naked India"--Will a well-tested bomb make you safer?

I'll admit it: the "Naked India" headline in The Hindu last week got my attention! "The Hindu!" I thought, "What is the world coming to?"

As it turned out, "naked" was used metaphorically; The Hindu was referring to a statement made last week by K. Santhanam, former Chief Adviser of the Defence Research Development Organisation: “We are totally naked vis-À-vis China which has an inventory of 200 nuclear bombs, the vast majority of which are giant H-bombs of power equal to 3 million tonnes of TNT.”

Come to think of it, the widespread use of words like "fizzle" and "dud" in this context suggests another metaphor is at work: nuclear bombs as fire crackers. Between Dasara and Diwali, we'll be exploding a lot of patakas: Atom Bombs, Hydro Bombs...all kinds of bombs. Even I want to use the fire cracker metaphor; there are just so many funny stories I could use.

But there's one problem: nuclear weapons are not "fire crackers". Just this week, I argued that symbols are powerful beasts. Let me expand that: sometimes the power of a symbol or metaphor lies its ability to confuse rather than clarify. The atom bombs and the hydro bombs your child explodes at Diwali are nothing at all like their namesakes--they may take off a finger at most, but they won't incinerate a lakh or crore of human beings.

So let's clarify things a bit. Nobody is saying that India was unable to explode a really big fission bomb. The question is whether we were able to explode an efficient fusion bomb (AKA "hydrogen bomb"). Fusion bombs are much more powerful than fission bombs, but both are huge.

As it turns out, there are a lot of prominent scientists saying the 1998 test was a success. Even those who say the test failed concede it yielded a 25 kiloton explosion. Put in perspective, a 15 kiloton bomb exploded over Hiroshima "yielded" 65,000 deaths. Lest we forget, here is one of them, and it's not for the faint of heart.

I, for one, agree with Mehtab Dere, who writes in the Indian Express that from a national security point of view, 25 kilotons is probably enough to deter China.

In fact, there are a lot of reasons why China would be unlikely to use their bombs on us, even if we lacked any nuclear arsenal at all. Remember that thing called nuclear winter? That's the climate change we used to worry about during the Cold War, before we figured out global warming.

Nobody knows for sure what would happen in a nuclear war, but modern models suggest that even a relatively small exchange involving 50 Hiroshima-sized bombs would have devastating human and environmental consequences. Of course there are doubters, including the late novelist Michael Crichton, who, by the way, also questioned whether global warming was real. (Why we feel compelled to quote science fiction writers in the name of "balanced reporting" is beyond me.)

If Hiroshima-sized bombs over Beijing and the prospect of nuclear winter aren't enough to deter the Chinese, consider the refugee problem they would face in the aftermath of a "successful nuclear attack" on India. (I'm not going to spell this one out for you: I'll rely on your ability to make intelligent inferences about where Indian survivors would go when faced with a non-existent government, radioactive land and water, etc.)

Of course there is no accounting for madmen (please follow that link!), but I can imagine no scenario under which a rational leader would wage war on India, save, perhaps, one. That is the collapse of the global economic and political order and the widespread starvation and breakdown of civil society that could very well follow from such a collapse.

There were many problems with Jared Diamond's book Collapse (it was unnecessarily long-winded for one), but it argued two points quite clearly. First, many powerful societies have collapsed at the peak of their power for any number of reasons-- and often with horrible human consequences. Second: because of the way we are consuming resources and destroying our environment, this could happen to us if we are not careful.

Well-tested hydrogen bombs and major increases to our defense budget will not make us safe. It's time we put aside national pride for long enough to figure this out: real security for us and our children will only come if we remake our society into something capable of sustaining life, not destroying it.

Note: I just got word that the India Youth Climate Network and others are organizing a "Delhi Rally" on October 1 and 2nd to protest "India's reckless nuclear policies..." If you are in Delhi, this will be the place to be. For details, check the INCN website. And do spread the word.


  1. The only case in which China will attack India with Nukes is a last resort case. Based on history, India isn't going to be an aggressor and China really doesn't want any war with India that will hamper it's economic growth since India isn't going to lie down and give up without a fight.

    It's enough to have nuclear weapons if the other side has them, but come on, they're not really going to be used. Even if China uses them on us, they'll be shut off from the world, cut off from trade, and treated as outcasts - devastating to their economy and development.

  2. I hope you are right. I think that if the truth ever came out, we might be surprised with the number of close calls we've had up to this point, world wide. But I guess my point is that if they ever are used, the consequences would go far, far beyond sanctions. And if they are never going tol be used, then why spend so much money on them?
    Good to see you.

  3. @Bhagwad: mathematics has never been the plasticgraduate's forte. My Ph.D. is in Superficiality. But if I understand you correctly, you are saying the following:

    40 + -40 = 0

    17 + -17 = 0
    33 + -33 = 0

    Are my sums correct?

  4. My guess is we're spending money on them since the other side is. Pretty much the prisoner's dilemma where no matter what the other side is doing, you're better off having nukes. Since the US started the ball rolling, it's been a given that the rest of the world will.

    Before this, if countries were sure that if they were developed weapons then others would too, maybe no country would have started it. But this logic fails and countries would still have gone ahead since it's possible for any country to develop nukes secretly. If everything was open and it wasn't possible to conceal development, then my guess is that no country would take the first step.

    But of course, the US had them first. Then Russia, France, China, UK etc...and then no going back for anyone.

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