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Tucson Weekly Nuke Duds?

A UA Scientist Thinks India And Pakistan Engaged In A Bit Of Puffery About The Size Of their Atomic Weapons.

By Dave Irwin

NOVEMBER 9, 1998:  ACCORDING TO University of Arizona scientist Terry Wallace, India and Pakistan just barely qualify to join the fraternity of Nations with Nukes, but they each deserve full voting privileges in the Liars Club.

Wallace, a seismologist in the Geosciences Department, recently published a study of the seismic data from the underground nuclear tests conducted in May, first by India and then by Pakistan. Those tests sent shockwaves throughout the Indian subcontinent and around the world, with concerns over stability for the region with the two longtime adversaries going nuclear.

Research by Wallace and others, however, challenges the veracity of both governments regarding the sizes of the nuclear devices exploded and how successful the tests really were.

The government of India announced on May 11 that it had exploded three nuclear devices, including a fission-type bomb with a yield of 12 kilotons (a kiloton yield is the equivalent explosive power of 2 million pounds of TNT; the fission bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was approximately 15 kT), as well as a more sophisticated thermonuclear or fusion-type bomb with a 45-50 kT yield.

On May 13, India claimed to have exploded two additional, smaller devices. The move to join the exclusive group of nuclear countries (U.S., Russia, China, France and England) was part of recently elected Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party platform. The BJP has had steady gains in Indian politics over the years thanks to its increasingly shrill and jingoistic pro-India program. By going nuclear, Vajpayee hoped to demonstrate India's rightful place as a major power, as well as scare the bejesus out of his neighbors in China and Pakistan.

Backed into a corner by his own nationalist politics and sense of rivalry, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif responded by going nuclear as well. On May 28, Pakistan announced it had exploded two, three or five nuclear devices, depending on who you talked to at the time, the largest with a yield of 40-45 kT. On May 30, it exploded what it then claimed was its sixth device, in the 15-18 kT range.

However, according to Wallace, an expert on verification of nuclear explosions, it ain't necessarily so. Writing in the September issue of Seismic Research Letters, he reported that a detailed study of the seismologic evidence gathered at geological reporting stations around the world give a very different picture.

His calculations show that the three May 11 Indian tests had a sum total yield in the 10-15 kT range, much less than the stated yield of the 45-50 kT fusion device. If the three devices detonated simultaneously, a standard procedure to minimize costs, the yield would have been a sum of all the explosions. If exploded individually, the largest explosion would be visible on the seismic evidence. Further analysis, according to Wallace, doesn't show evidence of multiple explosions. So, Wallace concedes diplomatically, perhaps we don't understand what the Indians mean when they talk about yields. However, the other possibilities are that the Indian government simply lied about the number and size of explosions, or that the May 11 test went "pop" instead of "kerrrblam!!"

"We are very certain our yield estimates are very accurate," Wallace said from his office at the UA. "We've had at least three different groups now that have worked on this, and their numbers are all very consistent, even using different methodologies."

Wallace was also among 19 co-authors from around the world for an article on the test results in the September 25 issue of Science magazine.

The May 13 tests make Wallace nervous, at least from a political science standpoint. Having studied nuclear issues for some 25 years, he has become an expert in the politics of nuclear treaties and the thinking behind various test scenarios.

"The 0.6 kT number, the reason people are concerned is that when you get that small, sometimes those are air-to-surface tactical weapons," he said. "If they actually have a deliverable tactical weapon, that would represent a huge step forward. We know that it couldn't have been more than 50 tons."

That means India was likely testing a tactical battlefield weapon, something to strap on a cannon shell or a missile.

The May 28 Pakistani tests were so muddled that its government, through various statements, was unable to even decide on how many bombs it exploded.

"The Pakistanis made three different announcements on how many devices they tested," Wallace notes. "They don't have an official story that anybody can vet." He says that however many they blew up, the yield was only a total of 9-12 kT, nowhere near the stated 30-35 kT. The May 30 test was probably 4-6 kT.

"You have to ask the question, 'what do you gain from this?' " Wallace says. "Going back to the May 11 test, you have to ask, was this a thermonuclear device? At 12-18 kT, you may still be able to have a thermonuclear device, but why would you do that? You have to look at everything that was done here through a political lens."

WALLACE SAYS his information has gotten much bigger play in Europe, where he recently returned from a conference. Virtually ignored at home, he made headlines on the BBC and other foreign news networks.

"Europe is more aware of nuclear issues and being anti-nuclear," Wallace explained. "The countries there are moving much more rapidly towards trying to ratify and implement the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

In the U.S., it has not been nearly as big a deal. Part of that is due to the fact that America is the biggest nuclear weapons state that's left, and the issue seems to generate less public concern. The uncertainty with our own government on nuclear weapons treaties and arms control right now is making it a very mixed message. The CTBT was first proposed by Eisenhower in 1955. So we finally get to this point and we realize we're the only superpower left and they're wondering in Washington, why does the U.S. need this treaty? Arms control is only desirable when you have a major opponent on the other side."

Treaty enforcement is what first drew Wallace into the area of seismological verification. The 1976 Limited Threshold Test Ban Treaty restricted tests to less than 150 kT, but verification was difficult. Wallace's subsequent doctoral dissertation was on verification issues.

Now recognized as an expert on interpreting seismic signals, Wallace spends most of his time with earthquakes, since the last prior nuclear tests were a limited series done by the French in 1996.

"When you try to understand the seismic signal, you want to understand the science behind it," he said. "When you get into the issue of yield, you get into complicated test scenarios. But it turns out that seismology is a pretty good microscope."

In response to Wallace's findings of exaggerated nuclear claims, the press office at the Indian Embassy in Washington's only reply was, "I do not think we will have very much to say about that." Further calls were not returned.

In a rare show of solidarity, the Pakistani Embassy said virtually the same thing. "As far as we are concerned, we stick to our initial announcement," Information Minister Malik Ahmed stated. "If people have second thoughts or different views, we cannot stop that."

Although the underground tests produced no atmospheric radiation, there has been plenty of political fallout. Both India and Pakistan have been shaken by the withdrawal of aid and investment by countries around the world. While many Indians celebrated with gleeful national pride, opposition to the tenuous hold of the BJP in India has also strengthened. Pakistan, its weaker economy more heavily hit by the sanctions, could collapse without outside help. Compounding the problems in Pakistan, reports in the London Observer have accused Prime Minister Sharif of misappropriating funds and have reported that the army has considered a coup. In any case, neither country can afford the cost of a new arms race, much less the cost of world censure.

Both Prime Ministers Vajpayee and Shafir, each addressing the United Nations recently, indicated hey are now willing to reopen discussions on signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. However, President Clinton's planned visit to the region to discuss weapons and trade issues, scheduled for this month, has been cancelled.

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