August 10, 2001
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Tellis's book tells India's N-tale

Aziz Haniffa in Washington

After the US state department and the Central Intelligence Agency were caught napping by India's May 1998 Pokhran nuclear tests and became the butt of jokes by late-night talk show hosts like Jay Leno, the Pentagon decided it was never going to allow anything like that happen to it.

So it commissioned one of the foremost strategic experts in the country, Ashley Tellis -- then a senior policy analyst with the Rand Corporation -- to dig into everything about India's nuclear programme.

They were particularly keen to have an idea of India's possible postures, so that the United States could be better prepared on how to react at each stage of the game in New Delhi's strategic agenda.

Tellis last week resigned from Rand to take up appointment as senior policy adviser to the US ambassador to India, Professor Robert Blackwill.

His report for the Pentagon, titled 'India's Emerging Nuclear Posture. Between Recessed Deterrent & Ready Arsenal', released in May, is considered a seminal work on the subject.

Tellis said his mandate was to look ahead at India's nuclear posture ten to 15 years down the road vis-a-vis "detailed technical assessments in terms of fissile material output; what kinds of weapons designs they have; how far they've moved in the area of command and control, and so on."

The Pentagon was "not interested in how the Indians got to where they are. What they were interested in is where they are likely to go, and what is the impact of that going to be, first, on the region, but then, more importantly, on US security interests."

"So what they asked me to do was," he said, "in a sense, just assume the history of India's nuclear programme as a given and go into the factors that have gone into the making of the Indian programme, what are the factors that affect their strategic choices, what are their choices in terms of nuclear architecture, what are the things that face the Indian government as it sets out to choose."

Asked why the study was commissioned only on India and not Pakistan, or both simultaneously, a senior Pentagon source replied: "because the general assessment was that India matters in a way that Pakistan does not. That was the first thing.

"The second thing is that over the next 10-15 years, there is going to be a much deeper strategic relationship with India than there will be with Pakistan.

"So it is very important for the US government to appreciate what were the motivations that led India to do the things that it did and where it is likely to go, because you can't make judgements about whether it threatens our interests unless we know what they are doing and what their outer boundaries and their ambitions are.

"This study's mandate was to sketch out for us what India's ambitions and capabilities are so that we get a fair sense of what is likely to happen."

Tellis said he had been working on the study for over two years and that the project was commissioned immediately following India and Pakistan's tit-for-tat nuclear tests in May 1998.

He said the Pentagon was also specifically interested in the technical aspects "because that in a sense will define the nature of the strategic dialogue that we have with India.

"Because what we understood are the principles. Where the uncertainties are is essentially what they are trying to do in practice."

As a result, "the technical assessments were actually critical to establishing credibility in some sense".

He acknowledged that he had carte blanche in funding for research and travelling and said, "It was a very high-priority project because what we've been doing for the last 2-3 years at Rand is really this massive review of Asia for DOD (department of defence)."

Tellis predicted that "you will see this actually in the decisions that the new administration is going to make with respect to Asia".

Asked how he was able to gather so much technical information on India's nuclear programme, he replied, "The thing that people don't realise is that there is an enormous amount of material on India -- even technical material -- but you have to know where to look, and you have to be very careful about how you piece it together.

"So the trick was to gather together what is out there and then make reasoned judgements."

"The other thing that helped me very greatly," he added, "was that the Indian government gave me quite unprecedented access to talk to people in the DRDO [Defence Research and Development Organisation], in the military and in the civil service."

He said he believed why he was granted such tremendous access was because "they apparently thought here is someone who is seriously interested in understanding what we [in India] are trying to do and therefore it is in our interests to help think through the story".

"So a great deal I think," Tellis said, "was coloured by the fact that they saw me as a kind of serious scholar. I mean that I was not out to do a hatchet job, one way or the other.

"Not only were they extremely supportive, they were extremely candid too."

India doesn't have ready nuclear arsenal: Pentagon
Indian nukes may lead to stability: US expert

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