India tests ASAT weapon

In a live address to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India had successfully tested an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile against a live satellite in low-Earth orbit.

Though he didn’t explicitly mention a date, he implied in his 15-minute announcement that the test was conducted today, March 27.

Modi also lauded the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) for developing various space-related technologies that benefit society. He added that given India had already established itself as a space power, a demonstration of its military prowess in space was necessary for regional peace.

An FAQ released by the Ministry of External Affairs attested to this: “The test was done to verify that India has the capability to safeguard our space assets.”

These words about peace allude to China’s ASAT test in 2007. In that test, a multistage missile successfully intercepted and destroyed a Chinese weather satellite in a polar orbit, at an altitude of 865 km.

The Indian ASAT test is believed to have destroyed either the Microsat-R or the Microsat-TD satellite, likelier the former according to some sources. They were both built by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). ISRO launched the Microsat-R on January 24 this year and the Microsat-TD a year before that.

Prime Minister Modi declared the test, codenamed Mission Shakti, a success and claimed that an ASAT missile had destroyed the satellite in its low-Earth orbit.

The missile in question is described as a kinetic kill vehicle, which means it does not carry any explosives or other devices. Instead, its ‘kill’ capability arises simply from the fact that it smashes into the target satellite and shatters it using its kinetic energy.

At this altitude, about 300 km, experts said that debris from the collision would fall back to Earth, burning up in the atmosphere in a matter of weeks instead of posing a threat to other satellites. As a result, Mission Shakti is called a controlled ASAT test.

In contrast, the Chinese test in 2007 provoked international ire because it destroyed a satellite at a little over 800 km, producing over 14,000 pieces of debris that endangered hundreds of other satellites in its vicinity. The act violated the principles of the Outer Space Treaty.

With this test, India has become the fourth nation in the world with ASAT capabilities, after the US, Russia and China. The US conducted its first such test in 1985 and Russia, in 2015.

The Microsat-R weighs 740 kg and is in a 268 km by 289 km orbit. The Microsat-TD weighs 130 kg and is in a 327 km by 368 km orbit. Both of them are classified as Earth-observation satellites. The lower mass of the TD variant renders it an unfavourable target.

India’s ASAT programme, publicly acknowledged in 2012 when an Agni V missile’s parabolic trajectory took it up to 600 km in space, is subsumed under its Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) programme, responsible for intercepting and destroying ballistic objects before they threaten Indian territories or assets. The BMD has two broadly defined target tiers, called endo-atmospheric and exo-atmospheric. Mission Shakti falls in the exo-atmospheric category.

While more details are awaited from the DRDO, it is possible that the organisation used a modified version of the Agni V missile for the task. In 2012, shortly after testing the Agni V, DRDO’s then chief V.K. Saraswat had said that the missile could be modified for use as an ASAT weapon.

However, LiveFist, a defence publication, reported that the vehicle was “an extended range derivative of the Prithvi Defence Vehicle”, and that it had been launched from “the Integrated Test Range in Odisha”.

In its 2007 test, China used a DF-21 ballistic missile equipped with an infrared seeker.

According to defence experts, the DRDO has had ASAT capabilities for almost a decade, developed under its BMD programme. Saraswat has acknowledged before that the DRDO was ready to perform a test in 2012, and then in 2014, if the Centre gave its go ahead. That it was finally conducted now, weeks ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, suggests Modi’s green-light was more political than strategic.

Depending on the situation, the BMD has two kinds of major targets: foreign missiles and satellites. One observer noted that India had successfully tested its anti-missile capabilities first and then proceeded to work on ASAT capabilities, contrary to China, which completed its ASAT tests first before proceeding to the anti-missile systems.

Even though both vehicles showcase extreme abilities to cause damage, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and ASAT missiles don’t work the same way. One engineer told The Wire that the BDM is more comparable to an ASAT system.

For example, intercepting an ICBM requires three kinds of radar: one each to detect, intercept and fire the rebutting weapon. An incoming ICBM also follows an inherently unpredictable trajectory that requires response systems with very low reaction times.

On the other hand, a satellite in low-Earth orbit follows a predictable trajectory. But that said, satellites at that altitude move at about eight times the speed of sound in the atmosphere, outpacing ICBMs by up to 1 km/s. Third, because of their speed and altitude, the object being sent to strike them needs to be very precisely guided. Even an error so small that an ICBM is not affected by it could throw an ASAT missile off course, potentially towards a different satellite.

Modi also noted in his speech that through Mission Shakti, India had not violated any international law. The most overarching agreement in this context is the Outer Space Treaty, and while it stresses on the peaceful use of outer space, it doesn’t ban exo-atmospheric ASAT missiles either.

ASAT weapons have yet to be used in war. In fact, all countries that have tested them have claimed thus far that they were developing ASAT technology to protect against dysfunctional satellites in uncontrollable descent.

However, it is difficult to see an ASAT missile as an entirely peaceful machine because of the tremendous consequences of its use as well as the sophistication of the underlying technology. For example, the Agni V missile that India tested in 2012 can also be used to quickly launch micro-satellites into low-Earth orbits for wartime reconnaissance. In this situation, keeping ASAT systems ready can allow India to knock enemy microsats down as a countermeasure.

If at all such a threat looms on India’s horizon, it is likely to be from China. One expert said that ASAT missiles are one of the most difficult to develop. They often succeed the development of other technologies, such as satellite launch vehicles, so Pakistan is unlikely to have ASAT capabilities.

The Wire
March 27, 2019

T.V. Ramakrishnan’s pseudoscience

In November 2018, T.V. Ramakrishnan reviewed a book called Modern Atomism, edited by J. Pasupathy and published in 2017, for Current Science. To the uninitiated, TVR is a condensed matter physicist of considerable repute and currently works at the Indian Institute of Science. He won the S.S. Bhatnagar Prize in 1982, the Padma Shri in 2001 and the Trieste Science Prize in 2005. In his review, TVR describes Modern Atomism as accessible but in need of stronger editorial control. In the final third, he also evaluates the book based on Indian scientists it included or left out – mostly left out – and concludes:

… this book is not an appropriate representative of modern atomism in the Indian context, and as such does not sit comfortably in the array of volumes detailing science, philosophy and civilisation in the Indian context.

However, shortly before this sobering judgment, there are a few lines that mention two Indian scientists as famous for their scientific work as for missing out on lasting international recognition (you know which I’m prize I’m talking about): G.N. Ramachandran and E.C.G. Sudarshan. And as you move past them, you expect TVR to climb further up the “forgotten Indian giants” ladder – and why not. It’s useful to remind ourselves of these people, albeit with less self-pity, less jingoism and more unadulterated pride. However, the next rung in TVR’s diatribe is unexpected. He writes:

Much farther afield, two proponents of traditional Indian knowhow (Annie Besant and George Leadbetter) used a yogic siddhi called ‘anima’ acquired by them over decades of practice in India, and claimed that the proton consists of three quarks, nearly half a century before the experimental discovery of the quark constitution of the proton (this is not modern science, but could mark an intriguing connection between other ways of knowing, and modern atomism).

I had to pause for a few minutes when I first read this, buried as I was between a few layers of disbelief. The uppermost layer was of course motivated by the discovery that TVR of all people is spouting this nonsense. As one of the most respected physicists in India, he should have thought twice before writing this. TVR is of course entitled to his opinions – just the way I am to mine. As one of the country’s most respected scientists, his words carry greater import than he might care to acknowledge, and now endorse an idea that all of us can do without.

The second layer pertained to the disbelief that TVR is unable to distinguish between what is a scientific text – as he himself acknowledges as the reviewer – and text that chronicles various historical claims. He does write that Besant’s and Leadbetter’s “work” is “not modern science”, but then why try to shoehorn them in at all? By failing to maintain the distinction science and non-science, TVR has brought Besant/Leadbetter closer to the realm of scientific thinking – at least from the PoV of a non-scientist reader who either doesn’t know better or is looking to validate ill-founded beliefs of their own.

The third layer was that Current Science published this. Some might argue that it’s fair that they let Pasupathy respond at length but that wouldn’t spare what is fundamentally a journal of science and scientific research from the blame of unqualified claims – especially unqualified claims from a highly qualified scientist. (Amazingly, Current Science even failed to notice that the Leadbetter in question was a Charles, not a George.) It’s comforting that Pasupathy saw fit to rebut various other aspects of TVR’s review but to have him respond to the comments about Besant/Leadbetter is a waste of time, a pseudo-debate where there should’ve been none.

Excerpt from Pasupathy’s response:

The discovery of plethora of resonant states of the proton and strange particles was made possible by building high-energy accelerators which then forced physicists to reluctantly invent the quark model in 1964. But the quark model was not taken seriously by everyone till Feynman came up with his parton model in 1969, triggering intense research leading to the theory of gluons and quarks in 1973. … If one can believe that Besant and Leadbetter came up with the quark model using their yogic clairvoyant microscope, we can close all labs and get rid of the expendable theorists. …

Vivekananda attended the Paris Exposition 1900, held to celebrate the achievements of the past century and to accelerate development into the next. To Vivekananda’s deep distress, he found that there was just one Indian scientist, J. C. Bose, among the large number of famous European scientists. During this Paris visit, Vivekananda sent a passionate appeal to Indian youth to shed their superstitions and take to the study of science. Vivekananda disliked theosophy and strongly disapproved closed minds.

The fourth layer was, of course, the lengthening shadow of hopelessness. I’ve no clue what Besant or Leadbetter really did – nor am I interested. But a Google search showed that the most detailed description of their “ESP experiment” was penned by one Stephen Phillips in 1995, and promptly derided by an independent peer-reviewer – also a pseudoscientist! – as speculative and resorting to strawmen. What dark comedy.

Featured image credit: dimitrisvetsikas1969/pixabay.

Look right and left before you cross

For as long as there were two political groups at loggerheads with each other, there has been an aspiration to be – or remain – on friendly terms with someone on the other side. “Don’t let politics get in the way of a friendship,” they said, and it was useful advice. However, with this political balance having prevailed for many decades, ‘friendship over politics’ has become a maxim directly associated with any kind of political or ideological dichotomy, and has been presumed to be good advice on all occasions.

The political climate in India now stands to disrupt this. This is difficult to acknowledge but it is about time. If you are on the political left, it is almost always nearly impossible to remain on friendly terms with someone on the right without brooking the possibility that they are incompetent, selfish, insular or just mindless – none of which is a marker of good character.

To quote at length from Rohit Kumar’s excellent open letter to a friend, in The Wire:

You know I value friendships, because a good friendship is a rare and wonderful thing. But a good friendship is also based on shared, common values, wouldn’t you agree? Just how am I supposed to be good friends with you if you see nothing wrong in demonising an entire community? It’s a sincere question, not a rhetorical one.

I would also like to tell you at this point that if are you ever in a situation where you need my help, I will be there for you. We have, after all, been friends for 15 years. I will try my best to be a blessing, but as far as being on the same wavelength and having the same free and frank camaraderie that we have shared over the last decade and a half, I really don’t know how to take that forward.

Science has its part to play in this. The right’s prejudices have amplified the consequences of ignorance that, in a different time, could have been harmless, and lowered the quality of intellectual discourse. Some consequences include an inability to distinguish between science and technology, a generally poor sense of what constitutes a fact, as well as what is and is not scientific fact, ignorance of how research works and its purpose, ignorance of the need for and the role of topical experts in society, a tendency to ignore the differences between good and bad Western ideas, etc. This isn’t a war on science but a neglect of it.

This said, the left isn’t exempt either. Indeed, it has been more socially responsible in India in the last five years and its discourse (in the media) has contributed significantly to the people’s understanding of science’s relationship with society. Significant examples include the ‘March for Science’, climate change – e.g. when analysing the impact of official climate action on lower class/caste groups – and forest conservation. But on some other issues, the leftists have run roughshod over decidedly good research and innovation because they are paranoid.

For instance, upbraiding the Government of India for how it set up the Challakere ‘science range’ is just as socially responsible as mounting a Pyrrhic assault against GMOs is socially irresponsible. It may not make sense to claim the male and female brains are different but why do people need to scream at someone who wants to find out? (As in a curious person asking questions, not James Damore or Alessandro Strumia.) All of this inspires just as much displeasure towards the left as it does when the right goes bonkers. The quality of discourse matters just as much as the freedom people have to ask questions and have them answered.

It is easily forgotten that the right does not have a monopoly on distorting science, and it is proving increasingly difficult to remain friends with those from the left who do it as well. Some other examples of their faith-based propaganda overshadowing fact-based conversations include nuclear power, hydroelectric power, evolutionary psychology (though not as much as in the 1980s), cellphone tower radiation, pesticide-based farming, “crystal healing”, etc.

Staying friends, or making new ones, has got harder in the last five years but it hasn’t been easy for a long time. This is partly because the underlying mechanism is common to both groups. Science places fact over faith, so the problem arises when a person believes something as a matter of faith instead of as a matter of fact (beginning with something as amusing as why farting inside a plane doesn’t slow it down).

The more extreme your political view, the more likely you are to distort facts so you don’t have to confront challenges to what you would like to continue believing. Of course, the left does have some redeeming qualities – in India and elsewhere – but it usually doesn’t matter which side of the spectrum you were on to begin with.

The Wire
March 25, 2019

Lord of the Rings Day

A happy Lord of the Rings Day to you! March 25 is celebrated as such around the world (though not by too many people, I imagine) to commemorate what still endures as an excellent work of epic fantasy as well as – by its fans – to commemorate Frodo’s destruction of the One Ring at Mount Doom.

I was recently having a conversation with Thomas M. and Srividya T., which he’d mooted by asking what fantasy fiction would’ve looked like today if it had descended not from J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal trilogy but from Marlon James’s Dark Star trilogy, which I’m yet to read.

The conversation swiftly segued to what it was that made Tolkien tick (the extent of inventiveness), the influences on Lord of the Rings (World War I and Christianity) and the parts of modern fantasy fiction that can’t trace their roots to Tolkien’s writing (drugs, sex and depiction of race). The last bit’s a bit of a stretch, of course: you’re either deriving from him or reacting to him.

This is what makes Lord of the Rings Day just as relevant 65 years after Fellowship of the Ring was first published. Lord of the Rings assumed primacy not because it was the first work of epic fantasy that we know of (this should take some research to uncover) but because it was the first major work of its kind written by a white, British man in the colonial era. And the fact that no fantasy fiction writer can ignore Tolkien on their way to creative glory is a testimony to our collective colonial hangover.

However, this doesn’t mean we should start ignoring Tolkien’s works. It’s important to remember at all times that irrespective of their provenance, Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion are still brilliant fantasy, and by virtue of being fantasy, they’re much more than about their author alone.

For example, what I’ve always loved about fantasy fiction is that – inasmuch as it is an expression of trauma that struggles to find expression in the shared languages of the world (although Marlon James puts it much better in his 2019 Tolkien lecture) – the fantasies of others are frequently the seeds of our own worlds. Its reward is more of itself, and that’s beautiful.

So today, if you have the chance, pick up a copy of the Lord of the Rings, flip to a chapter you like and read it again. You might just have new ideas.

Featured image credit: Annie Spratt/Unsplash.

LHCb spots CP violation in charmed mesons

Where did we come from?

That’s a really big question for anyone to answer. And if we want to answer such questions, we’re going to have to break it down into smaller questions, and then break the smaller questions further until we have something we know we can pin down.

One of the smaller questions we’ll need to answer to unravel the mystery of our origins is why the universe is made of matter and not antimatter. To be fair, this is still a pretty big question, so scientists have been looking for clues in the way fundamental particles work. After all, you really can’t get smaller than that.

On March 21, physicists announced that they’d observed one such particle display peculiar behaviour. The observation is one of the small things that need to fall in line to one day explain where all the antimatter went.

The universe is made entirely of matter today even though there were equal quantities of matter and antimatter at the moment of its birth.

The discovery was announced at the Rencontres de Moriond, an annual particle physics conference that happens in Italy, as well as at a special CERN seminar. CERN is the European lab for nuclear research that runs the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s largest physics experiment and where the physicists made their discovery.

The ‘peculiar behaviour’ is called CP violation, and is believed to be responsible for the universe losing all its antimatter as it evolved, before the first atoms formed.

‘CP’ stands for charge-parity. If our universe adheres to CP symmetry, then a particle replaced with its antiparticle and its spin replaced with its mirror-spin should behave the same way as the original particle. To rephrase Patrick Koppenburg, a member of the collaboration that made the discovery, “antimatter seen in a mirror should look like matter”.

However, our universe violates CP symmetry. Antimatter seen in the mirror doesn’t look like matter, and this aberration could have helped wipe out the universe’s supply of antimatter.

CP violation has previously been observed in two kinds of mesons. Mesons are particles made of one quark and one antiquark of different types.

In all, there are six kinds of quarks – and six kinds of anti-quarks: up, down, top, bottom, charm, strange. And they combine to form dozens of different kinds of mesons. For example, a kaon is a meson made of one strange quark and one up/down antiquark; a B meson is a meson made of one bottom antiquark and one up/down/strange/charm quark. And physicists have observed kaons and B mesons violating CP symmetry in the 1960s and in 2001, respectively.

On March 21, physicists working with a detector called the LHCb, at the LHC, announced that a third particle had joined this group: the D0 meson, discovered in the 1970s. Each D0 meson is made of a charm quark and an up antiquark. This is the first time a particle comprising the charm quark has showed signs of violating CP symmetry.

But even though we now have three instances of CP violation, the matter-antimatter problem isn’t considered solved. This is because the instances aren’t enough by themselves to explain why all of the antimatter has gone away. We need other, perhaps stronger ‘sources’.

For example, CP symmetry violation has thus far been observed only in particles containing quarks and/or antiquarks. We also need to find proof of this violation in the ‘lepton sector’ – i.e. observe electrons and neutrinos violating CP symmetry – and in interactions involving the strong nuclear force. And this is just in the Standard Model of particle physics, which is a set of rules physicists use to understand the currently known elementary particles.

Key to uncovering all of these is figuring out why the violation happens in the first place in the particles already in the dock.

The crime at the heart of the CP symmetry violation is committed by a fundamental force called the weak nuclear force. This force is famous for causing radioactivity in heavy atoms like those of uranium and plutonium. The same force also preferentially interacts with left-handed quarks, and ignores right-handed quarks.

So in a series of reactions involving quarks and antiquarks, among other particles, the weak force ensures that processes that produce matter happen more often than those that produce antimatter. This way, there is a lot of matter still left over after some of it has combined with antimatter and turned into pure energy.

Matt Strassler, a theoretical physicist, called the discovery of CP violations in D0 mesons a “real coup” for the LHCb in a blog post, as well as that it was “consistent with expectations”.

The Standard Model of particle physics already predicts that these violations should occur in different particles. However, the predictions are somewhat approximate – not with as many decimal places as we’d like.

This is because, as mentioned earlier, there are three expected sources of CP violations: quark sector, lepton sector and interactions involving the strong nuclear force. So when a D0 meson violates CP symmetry, the extent of its violation has two contributions: some from the quark sector and some from the strong nuclear force, the force that holds quarks together. And calculations involving the strong nuclear force are extremely complicated, so physicists make approximations on the road to finding an answer.

As a result, we don’t know how well the extent of violation spotted by the LHCb and the extent of violation predicted by the Standard Model match up. If they’re close, then that’s okay; the discovery of CP violation in D0 mesons will have been something we already saw coming. But if it’s not close – i.e. if the extent of violation seen by the LHCb is greater than what the Standard Model predicts – then it becomes very, very interesting.

So far, the Standard Model has explained the behaviour of all known fundamental particles: leptons, quarks and bosons. But it doesn’t have answers to questions about why the particles’ properties are what they are, why there are six types of quarks, what dark matter is, etc. Many physicists expect there are more particles out there whose behaviour can help answer these questions. The physics of these particles is called ‘new physics’.

Long story short: we don’t know if the CP violation in D0 mesons is a sign of ‘new physics’ yet. If it is, it will then be a monumental result. But it’s not likely to be because the Standard Model is notoriously good at making accurate predictions.

But as Marco Gersabeck, a physics lecturer at the University of Manchester, wrote, “There’s every reason to be optimistic that physics will one day be able to explain why we are here at all.”

The Wire
March 22, 2019

Rich-poor divide

Deadly air exposes rich-poor divide, Channel News Asia, March 21, 2019:

Delhi’s affluent, who are often better informed about the dangers of pollution, increasingly expect the same safety measures they have in place at home, to be available when they are out. High-end eateries, bars and cinemas are tapping into that demand – installing electronic air purifiers and creating dedicated areas of rich vegetation to help filter airborne toxins. But for … the one in five Indians living on less than US$2 a day, visiting such places is nothing more than a fantasy.

This is a very important piece not because it captures the experience of being poor in a polluted world but because it describes what it’s like to be rich at the same time.

News articles don’t usually concern themselves with the lives of the elite – they’re not supposed to, at least – but when it comes to air pollution, being affluent and having access to ‘protected spaces’ is also a window into how the elite are postponing having to deal with polluted air in the short-term. Specifically, we’re responding to air pollution as if acknowledging the underprivileged will reap the longer-term fruits of solutions we sow now whereas the already-privileged have access to both short-term and long-term solutions. (cf. the bit about the “shot of oxygen”).

The short-term, stopgap solutions are what go unaddressed when elite policymakers are strategising ways to ‘fix’ the air pollution problem. The article highlights how much harder life becomes in the here and the now for those who can’t access these solutions – whether that’s effective pollution masks or public parks maintained to have cleaner air.

(I wrote about just this issue in 2016 but restricted to the life of a journalist in Delhi.)

Re: science journalism in India

A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of being interviewed – together with the amazing Nandita Jayaraj – by Pavan Srinath on the Pragati Podcast. Our conversation was about science journalism in India, and both Nandita and Pavan were excellent interlocutors.

I particularly liked Nandita’s observations on why we need to focus on the processes of science instead of outcomes and the plans she and Aashima Dogra have for The Life of Science. The entire episode is available to listen to here or on the player below.

What went boom in Balakot?

Did the Indian Air Force strike the various structures at the madrasa in Balakot with lethality sufficient to have caused “heavy casualties”, as foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale told reporters on February 26?

Sections of the Indian media and of course BJP politicians believe it did and have even put a figure on the number of dead terrorists that ranges from 250 to 400. Pakistan has denied any damage or casualties and said the Indian payload landed on a nearby forest. On their part, international analysts have raised doubts about the Indian version based on their reading of pre- and post-airstrike satellite imagery of the madrasa.

While the truth is known to both the Indian and Pakistani governments, neither side appears keen to allow independent verification of its claims. The Pakistani military has prevented reporters from visiting the madrasa while the Indian government has also been circumspect about sharing imagery of the sort the US, Israeli and western air forces routinely release into the public domain.

In this vacuum, different people are resorting to different ways to settle the matter for themselves – including chest-thumping. In this clamour, there is now a debate among ammunition and aviation experts, who are trying to piece together what they know about the bombs the IAF dropped to figure out what might have happened on the ground.

Since World War II, missiles and their warheads have been designed to do things other than just be dropped and blow up. In the Balakot case, virtually the entire Indian media has reported that the IAF dropped 2,ooo-pound (lb ) bombs over the madrassa. This claim, which has never been properly sourced, seems extremely unlikely based on post-airstrike satellite imagery.

It also reinforces the need for authentic, verifiable information about what happened in Balakot. However, with the governments’ silence and campaigns for the national elections gaining momentum in India, it is important to understand what is possible and why, and to keep from getting carried away.

According to media reports, the bombs were delivered using a guidance kit called SPICE, which can convert unguided bombs into guided ones. It is manufactured by Rafael Advanced Defence Systems, an Israeli company, and is used by the Israeli and Indian air forces.

The SPICE 2000, which can carry 2,000 lbs of bombs, is one of India’s most powerful (non-nuclear) air-to-surface weapons, depending on its configuration. And thanks to its precision guidance and long range, such weapons are often used as ‘bunker busters’: devices that can penetrate heavily fortified structures to blow them up from the inside.

At the same time, a bomb weighing 2,000 lbs (907 kg) can effect different kinds of damage on the ground, depending on its own specifications as well as those of the targets.

This forms the crux of the current debate, which takes off from sections of the media sharing higher resolution satellite images than were previously available of the Balakot madrasa after the IAF strike. The images show a clump of small buildings surrounded by a forest. Small dark smudges are visible on the roof of the main structure.

The confusion and uncertainty assailing the wider debate are relevant here. An official Indian statement claimed – before the images were released – that these buildings were a Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) training camp. Journalists who spoke to people living nearby say it is a madrasa and a school linked to the Jaish. Al Jazeera reported that the madrasa was run by the JeM and, according to Reuters, a signboard attesting to this was subsequently removed.

Whatever the purpose of the structure, it looks like a regular brick-and-mortar building. And many have claimed that the dark smudges are evidence of a SPICE bomb (or perhaps four SPICE bombs, since there are four smudges or holes) penetrating the roof’s outer shell to burrow in and kill everyone inside using explosives.

In the face of initial satellite images showing limited damage to the buildings, senior government officials had told reporters that the Pakistani army had been able to go back and put the roofs back on in two days, thus fooling the world that India hit nothing. But with the latest satellite imagery with its smudges on the roof, the briefing given to defence reports has changed. Now, the claim is not that the roofs were replaced but that the smudges/holes still visible on it are actually evidence of India having successfully struck its target.

The latest account of Indian “sources”, however, has been challenged by Western analysts.

George William Herbert, an expert on missile systems, tweeted on March 6 that a 2,000-lb non-penetrator warhead comprises 945 lbs of explosive filling and 1,055 lbs of metal casing. Assuming the filling is made either of tritonal (TNT + aluminium powder) or Composition B (TNT + RDX), the Gurney equation for a cylindrical casing indicates the explosion will set the metal – assumed to weigh 478.5 kg – off at 1.83-2.13 km/s. So if it went off inside a madrasa, the shrapnel would have obliterated the building.

Herbert continued on Twitter, “The thousand pounds of explosive becomes hot gas at over a thousand degrees kelvin, and that’s about 1,000 cubic meters of air equivalent. [This] will approximately double the pressure inside a typical three-story building around 25 meters [wide]” – further contributing to explosive damage.

As a result, the most popular claims that the SPICE 2000 dealt damage on the inside but not on the outside don’t hold up. Forget about Pakistani forces replacing the roof in two days. If a SPICE 2000 with a 2,000-lb bomb had hit the madrasa, they would have had to refill the crater, re-lay the foundation and rebuild the whole structure in two days.

However, Herbert told The Wire he wanted to make it clear that he does not know what actually happened, that he wasn’t proposing any particular theory and was simply clarifying the technical aspects.

Now, this analysis did assume that the warhead on the SPICE 2000 was a non-penetrator Mk 84 (which uses tritonal, Composition H6 or minol for the explosive filling). If it had been a penetrative weapon, most of the weapon’s mass would’ve been contained in the casing so that the weapon can smash through a strong outer layer first.

For example, the BLU-109 is another 2,000-lb bomb that can be used with SPICE guidance kits. As a bunker buster, it can penetrate up to six feet of reinforced concrete with a casing that weighs 634 kg, to deliver a 240-kg payload of tritonal. A BLU-116 weighs the same 874 kg but carries only 109 kg of tritonal filling to be able to penetrate over 10 feet of reinforced concrete.

As Angad Singh, an aviations expert, commented on Twitter, “Depending on effects required at the target (for example, fragmentation) the explosive filling in the bomb could be even less. So there is no hard and fast rule that a 2000-lb class bomb will wipe out half a hillside.”

He also noted that if India’s defence procurement was anything to go by, the SPICE units were likelier to be all-up rounds, where the bomb is already configured and attached to the guidance kit at the time of purchase. However, he told The Wire, “We have no good information on the exact bomb mated to the Indian SPICE munitions,” although it was “not an Mk 84”.

As a result, he said on Twitter, India’s “Spice 2000 [could all be] earmarked for high-value targets” and “that all but guarantees they have low-mass warheads”.

On March 8, the Indian Express quoted an unnamed “top” military officer as saying, “Each warhead used by the IAF to target buildings on the campus of the JeM madrasa at Balakot … had a net explosive quantity (NEQ) of only 70-80 kg of TNT.” This is further indication that a low-mass warhead was used – and it also indicates the kind of warhead that might have been used.

This is because, if the filling was made of a high explosive like tritonal, the Gurney equation poses a problem. The shrapnel from a BLU-109 would still be released at 1.3 km/s and from a BLU-116 at 0.8 km/s. If, say, an NEQ of 80 kg of TNT was used in the BLU-116 configuration, it would still release shrapnel at nearly 1 km/s, and have a range of 14 metres. The madrasa is likely to have received significant damage any which way.

These numbers also hold for all conventional explosives of other kinds – not just bunker busters – as long as they use tritonal, which has a relatively lower Gurney constant of 2.3, similar to TNT, and which have a similar casing-to-filling mass ratio.

Second: considering neither the IAF nor the Government of India have released any official statements about which warhead was used, the radius of possibilities becomes longer.

A second military officer reportedly told the Indian Express:

It is a precision weapon meant to hit specific targets but without any collateral damage. … This time the target was Balakot. If the target was Muzaffarabad instead, which is heavily inhabited and where no collateral damage would be acceptable, we would need to take out the people staying in a particular room without causing any damage to the adjacent room. We have the capacity to do that with this weapon.

Why the IAF wanted to use expensive ordnance that minimised the damage to buildings that were located far away from any population is not clear.

That said, one option that fits the bill is a fuel-air explosive (FAE), which – according to the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) – is “highly effective against soft targets like light vehicles, drop tank, trenches, bunkers and antitank mines”. They use fuels to consume oxygen from the air and burn at over 1,500º C for a long time. They are effective against targets enclosed in inaccessible niches like caves and tunnels.

As a result, the dark smudges in the images could be burn marks from the use of an FAE flown with a SPICE 250 kit – which means the total weight of the weapon was only 113 kg (250 lbs). This mass is close to an FAE developed by the DRDO that can carry 38 kg of propylene oxide and deal damage in a circle of radius 8 metres. If an NEQ of 70 kg of TNT was used, then each FAE could have carried 18-19 kg of propylene oxide, adjusted for the amount of physical damage dealt at 7-9 metres.

This is sufficient to have killed people inside a madrasa-sized structure, and the multiple dark smudges on the roof of the main structure could simply be signs of fire damage. However, there is the overpressure to deal with.

Herbert explained to The Wire that FAEs have a reaction detonation pressure determined by the materials used and how they mix with the air. This is called the Chapman-Jouget detonation pressure (PCJ). And if the FAE is detonated inside a structure, the fuel “tends to fill” large parts of the structure and pressurise it from the inside.

For a typical FAE, the PCJ can be hundreds of pound-force per sq. inch (PSI). A hundred PSI is equal to 6.8-times the atmospheric pressure (atm). This kind of pressure, Herbert said, “tends to break every wall apart very effectively” but does not throw the walls “very hard or throw fragments very far.”

For its part, the DRDO has estimated that the blast pressure of a rocket-delivered FAE is 0.8 kg-force/cm2 at 16 metres. This is a little less than the atmospheric pressure that regular buildings can withstand. Extrapolating the findings of one DRDO study, 18.5 kg of propylene oxide has a blast peak overpressure of 2.1-3.4 atm at about 8 metres from the canister. Even if multiple units were not fired, structural damage seems likely.

The satellite images also show burn marks of varying sizes, as well as a few craters. Col. Vinayak Bhat (retd.) reasoned in The Print that the smaller burn marks, found on the landscape surrounding the building, could have been human-made whereas the larger ones could have been the result of FAEs. Assuming they are contemporary, this suggests FAEs with a larger impact range could also have been used.

One possible way out, as Col. Bhat suggested, is that there were two waves of IAF fighters. The first carried FAEs used on the madrasa and against fleeing people. Then, a second wave carried high-explosive weapons to bomb the surroundings.

But while this seems to be able to explain some of the features of the satellite images, the theory does not square with the detailed briefings that reputed defence reporters like Indian Express‘s Sushant Singh received from the government, which spoke of only one group of four Mirage-2000s firing their precision-guided munitions from the Indian side of the Line of Control.

Angad Singh also told The Wire that he does not think an FAE was used – “certainly not the DRDO one, which as far as I am aware, is not in wide service yet.” He added that “the attack direction and profile seems to suggest SPICE 2000, not 1000 or 250.”

An FAE mated to a SPICE 2000 seems excessive: while it could explain the burn marks on the ground, it doesn’t explain what appears to be an erect, intact structure. If the kit had been mated with a high-explosive, then the unnamed military officer’s comment implies that the casing on the weapon was really heavy.

This in turn could mean one of two things. First, that the madrasa had a roof full of holes/smudges to begin with, and that they are not signs of damage.

Second, the madrasa was – or presumed to be – very heavily fortified. If the madrasa wasn’t fortified, it wouldn’t be standing. But if it was, there is no way to confirm.

So there we have it: multiple intersecting theories, led by a SPICE kit and low-mass warheads that may or may not have been FAEs, Mk 84s or something else – something the Government of India is keeping mum about. At the centre of all this stands the Ship of Theseus: a madrasa that journalists are being kept away from, a building that may or may not be fortified, which even may or may not be the same building it was before.

The Wire
March 10, 2019

What will Ashok Khemka find next?

Ashok Khemka, the senior IAS officer famous for having exposed numerous instances of government corruption, perhaps most prominently the DLF land-grab scam, has been transferred again. This time, he had voiced concerns over the Haryana government’s plans to ‘develop’ the Aravalli hills through what it called ‘consolidation projects’. That is just a sanitised way to say “destroy the local ecosystem and build things”.

According to the Indian Express, the government had his transfer order ready in a few hours. It was his sixth since 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) assumed power at the Centre, and 52nd in his 27 years of service. It is clear that the multiple transfers haven’t fazed him and that he has remained true to his beliefs at every station (although one can’t claim to know or fully understand the effect of these transfers on his personal life).

It is unadvisable – perhaps even unwise – to make demands of someone in trying circumstances that are likely to exact a bigger and bigger toll. You give them brownie points if they fight the fight you’d like them to. At the same time, you don’t penalise them if and when they choose not to.

I say this because Khemka’s latest transfer brings him to Haryana’s science and technology department, where the fight could be of a different kind.

It is not clear if this is supposed to be some kind of ‘punishment posting’. It is also not clear what the department itself is up to. Then again, Raman Malik, the Haryana BJP spokesperson, calling Khemka a “good man” and hoping he brings “new dimensions to science and technology in the state” suggests the move is intended to be some kind of snub.

However, if Khemka intends to continue exposing irregularities, we should be interested to know what he might find next.

Science under the BJP government – both at the Centre and in various states, including Haryana – has too often been pressed into manufacturing reasons excuses for the state or, of course, to serve “national priorities”, many of which have turned out to be bogus pursuits. It has also frequently disfavoured research, cutting funds for exploratory work and mooting support programmes that place blue-sky endeavours at a disadvantage (examples herehereand here).

For all his promises of ‘clean’ governance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered a government that simply didn’t do enough to deliver on the anti-corruption and anti-cronyism wave it rode to power in 2014. However, anyone you ask is likelier than not to provide examples centred on financial gains – overlooking Modi-and-party’s moral abdication of the scientific enterprise.

Perhaps there is no money exchanging hands when it comes to science. However, that doesn’t have to mean there is no problem just because the gains are intangible. In fact, such failures are even harder to hold and retain in the imagination, and by that measure are also more harmful in the longer term.

It is to this mix that Khemka has now been added. And should he be able to condense just one physical dollop of misgivings out of it, he might just be transferred again and it might just be another problem to deal with on a long list of them. But it will also serve to uncover what remains to many an invisible – perhaps even nonexistent – illness.

The Wire
March 5, 2019

6.35 pm

The world was a bowl
A container of things
With cities at the bottom
Like the abyss turned upside down
Stars blinked back from below
When ancient volcanoes erupted
Orange lava assembled on the rim
Stilled on the cusp, afraid to fall
Down the black wall of the world

5.47 pm

But from somewhere, a blue curtain had descended over the flat terminator. It hung further down into a gentler, paler azure, then a hurried, dirty transformation to brown. Why the rush I wanted to ask. As the crescent watched, the brown became ochre, ochre became salmon pink, salmon pink became orange, and orange became fire.

As the moon rose higher, I was afraid to look outside and see something I couldn’t believe I was seeing, and wallow in the madness later as I tried to recall in words the splendour of the sight. What if I couldn’t capture it? I am sure I would have gone insane — twilight on my mind, twilight of my words.

6.18 pm

Ah, my luck! The horizon looks scruffy now – nothing worth writing home about. The world has risen to meet the heavens and, in the endless darkness in the distance, there is no beauty left to pine over.

6.34 pm