An IDC Analysis 

(Courtesy Asian Military Review)


New Delhi, 30 May 2003  

Defence analyst Raja Menon delivered the prestigious Lt General Samir Sinha Memorial Lecture entitled “Reflections on India’s Nuclear Command and Control” at the United Services Institute of India recently in Delhi. It turned out to be a treasure trove on India’s secret nuclear status. For the first time, the rationale of India’s five nuclear blasts in 1998 termed Shakti, and India’s present nuclear posture, were spelt out in public. Raja Menon citing examples of Western nuclear ‘weaponisation models’, lamented that the Armed Forces were never allowed “into the nuclear loop”, or taken into confidence by the scientists for the 1998 tests, despite Army engineers being employed to carry out the tests. “The entire process of achieving a minimum deterrent has been completed,” PM Vajpayee had declared following the tests, but the Armed Forces grudge is that they were still not in the “operational loop,” and their voices remained muted. India is considered a reluctant and reticent nuclear power with its nebulous “no first use” doctrine, though George Fernandes India’s Defence Minister has confirmed India is nuclear ready, to preempt any one who proposes to use WMDs, against India. This invariably raises doubts in knowledgeable circles about the currency and control of India’s nuclear strike capabilities.

K Santhanam a former Intelligence officer in RAW, India’s CIA, studied nuclear physics and served long as Adviser to India’s Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO), which has co-steered India’s nuclear programme from the mid 80s with Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC). He is now head of IDSA –– the Government’s ‘think tank ‘and was present for India’s1998 nuclear tests with Dr APJ Kalam (now President), the Department of Atomic Energy head, Dr. R Chidambaram (now Scientific Adviser to the Government) and the BARC Director, Anil Kakodkar (presently Chairman AEC). Santanam happened to be in the audience for the lecture and defended the scientists’ role to be the guardians of India’s nuclear arsenal. During the question and answer session Santanam stoutly outlined India’s nuclear military “modus operandi” and touched on the current nuclear operational status. The bombs, he said, were ready to be handed over by the scientists for deployment when ordered. To put all doubts at rest he also confirmed that trials for delivery had been successfully proved.

In the light of India and Pakistan being viewed as nuclear flash points, President Musharraf recently challenged India to agree to a nuclear free South Asia, and enter into a no war pact, if the problem of Kashmir was resolved. PM Vajpayee immediately rejected the proposal outright, indicating that India’s nuclear arsenal is not Pakistan-centric, while Pakistan’s is India-centric. There is no doubt that there had been global concern since Pakistan keeps brandishing its first strike capability and India claims military deterrence is in place with its second strike capability. Following its successes in Iraq, USA has now focused to bring about CBMs between the two warring neighbors and hence the subject deserves introspection.

India’s scientific community deserves the major credit for India’s achievements in atomic and space arenas. The policies for both were articulated and put into place by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first PM and atomic scientist Dr. Homi Bhabha in the 60s. The nuclear policy was to keep open the option of making atom bombs. When the US task force 74 led by USS Enterprise, entered the Bay of Bengal in 1971, Mrs. Gandhi verbally sanctioned what resulted in the May 1974 Pokhran peaceful nuclear explosion PNE of 12 kilotons. The Defence Minister Jagjivan Ram, the Service Chiefs and the Defence Secretary KB Lall were informed only 48 hours prior to the test. China took India’s nuclear foray in its stride, but it was a jolt to Pakistan,, which was still smarting from the 1971 defeat, and Pakistan beefed up its nuclear program under military leadership. In India, the scientific community took on the responsibilities of military deployment, and this remains so today.

The next 15 years till 1990 saw the close confidantes of successive Prime Ministers take all executive decisions on India’s nuclear program and the scientists received adequate funding. The 100-megawatt Dhurva research reactor at BARC lies at the heart of India’s fissile material program. Commissioned in 1985 it began producing 25 kgs. of plutonium every year, adequate for six bombs. India also imported 100 kg of beryllium from West Germany to coat the plutonium core, thereby increasing the yield and succeeded in producing tritium, essentially needed for boosted fission weapons. By 1986 Indian scientists had managed to produce lithium –– 6-deuteride, a material essential for thermo-nuclear weapons. The scientists were given the freedom to pursue programs in secret, with denials in public so no thought was given to doctrine, nor could the military be involved.

Meanwhile the ISRO rocket scientists were moving ahead with India’s space program, and Defence Minster Venkataraman, later President inducted selected scientists into the DRDO and funded an Integrated Missile Development Program to develop missiles simultaneously. Dr APJ Kalam moved from his civilian ISRO post to DRDO and joined hands with BARC for the nuclear program, though many feel DRDO had taken the major credit that should have gone to BARC scientists. The separation between the civilian and military was maintained. President Bush Snr tried to pressurize India to freeze its nuclear programs and proposed a three (US, China and Russia) plus two (India, Pakistan) meeting just when India’s foreign exchange reserves stood at $ 1 billion in 1991. It is to the credit of PM Narasimha Rao that he engaged US in dialogue for over two years and pressed BARC scientists to hasten the bomb program. By 1994 the scientists were ready to deploy and test the fusion and fission devices, but it was only in May 1998 that the BJP government under PM Vajpayee displayed the will to test for military use.

Five years later all indigenous knowledge and expertise on nuclear technology begins and ends with the specialists at the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). They also stake claim to have the wisdom on India’s deterrence policy, termed as ‘ramshackle’ by many in the West, by their experiences of Mutually Assured Deterrence and graduated response theory. The DRDO had provided the chemical explosion technology and the bomb casing and deployment trials, and is the closest to the operations. The other details of D-T Neutron Beam Generators, explosive lenses, lithium 6 Deuteride, PU 239, U-235 and gas spark plugs have never been shared. Raja Menon in his lecture was critical of Indian scientists for not bringing the military into the loop for the test outputs and questioned the basis used to arrive at the yields of the five nuclear tests in 1998, which were 45, 15, 0.2, 0.3 and 0.5 kilotons. No military personnel were positioned in the control center, 5 km away from the blasts where data was transmitted by fiber optic cables, to witness and gain military experience. Menon argued that yields dictated doctrine and fixed the arsenals and costs for which the military had not been consulted.

K Santanam defended the Government policy and explained lucidly that the specially cemented shafts at Pokhran happened to be 17 years old and there was no way they could have been increased beyond the 150 – 200 metres without India’s intentions to test being compromised. For this reason the maximum calculated yield of 45 kilo tonnes, though feasible could not be exceeded without de populating several villages as also fearing a nuclear fall out towards Pakistan. The three smaller fission tests were totally devoted to producing thermo nuclear warheads and these were scientific in nature and likelihood of getting another chance to repeat the tests, were remote. The military, he concluded had no role to play in the tests but confirmed that the arsenal remains ready and the scientists were in a position to hand over the nukes to the nominated agency when required, in keeping with the no first use policy.

In Retrospect

India's nuclear policy has always had ambiguity at its core, which in retrospect has served it well. India vociferously championed a policy of global nuclear disarmament since the 70s, and its leaders did not want to be caught building bombs in their own backyard. Indian atomic scientists at the BARC and later DRDO were funded and mandated to engage in India's ‘nuclearisation’ program very secretly, and were implicitly trusted to design the yields, shapes and sizes and delivery systems without consulting any military minds. The military, especially the Army, were never encouraged to study nuclear tactics in any of their institutions with respect to Indian conditions. When the late General K Sundarji, as the Army Chief, tabled a paper on India's nuclear needs in 1997, the Government persuaded him to keep his views to himself and put his paper in cold storage.

It is also documented that the DRDO scientists had pursued an active chemical weapons stocking program, without involving or informing the military, but such weapons of mass destruction were destroyed when India acceded to the Ban On Use Of Chemical Weapons Treaty. Indian Air Force test pilots were deputed from time to time to fly Mirage 2000s and Jaguars for the scientific, nuclear and DRDO community to carry out bomb drop tests in secrecy under the guise of making improvements to the already existing bombing systems. The then Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal S K Mehra, claims that he was the only one who was once taken into confidence by Mrs. Indira Gandhi, and confirms the other Chiefs were kept in the dark. Dummy bomb drop tests were also successfully carried out at the Chandipur Proof Test Range near Balasore on the East Coast, where India's DRDO also tests the Prithvi, PJ 10 Brahmos and Agni series of missiles. The pressures exerted by USA from time to time on successive Indian governments to derail India's nuclear program are also now documented, and hence it has to be accepted that Indian leaders did the right thing, given the constraints of a democratic form of government when even a weak opposition, has been known to put spanners in any national endeavor.

India's Defence Minister George Fernandes had recently in May, stated in Parliament, that the 800 km Agni I and the 2000 km Agni II ballisitic missiles would be deployed in 2003 itself, and confirmed both were capable of carrying nuclear war heads. They also have proven Inertial and GPS based accurate delivery systems. The IAF Mirage 2000 is known to have been qualified as a nuclear delivery platform, and the Jaguar, it is understood, had been abandoned for nuclear weapons delivery, due to technical problems. Thus it may be that the Mirage 2000 remains the sole air breathing nuclear weapon delivery system and the missile force would be in place soon. India seems to have done right, and it is up to the recently appointed Strategic Force Commander and the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee to study all aspects to bring the military into the nuclear loop to ensure stability.

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