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The Rediff Special/ Gaurav Kampani

Behind India's Veil of Nuclear Ambiguity

Pokhran tests site From the early 1990s, analysts perceived India's nuclear option through the lens of two competing frames. The first was "recessed deterrence." It meant that whereas India had the capability to build nuclear weapons, it did not necessarily have a nuclear weapons programme. The recessed capability, of course, need never have surfaced, because any power contemplating nuclear coercion against New Delhi would have to factor India's nuclear weapons capability into its strategic calculus.

The second and more enduring expression that described India's nuclear posture was "non-weaponised deterrence." It characterised Indian and Pakistani capabilities as a virtual nuclear capability. Both countries were believed to have all the components and the necessary scientific and engineering expertise to assemble first-generation nuclear weapons. These weapons could be assembled at short notice. The actual gap between a virtual and real capability was never clear. It could vary from a few days, to weeks or even months. But there existed the assumption that neither India nor Pakistan had assembled nuclear weapons or deployed nuclear delivery systems in the field

However a wealth of details released after the May 1998 tests reveal that India's nuclear posture fit neither of the above models. These details, which for the first time have allowed researchers and analysts to assess the true depth and scale of India's secret nuclear weapons programme, suggest that India's nuclear posture could best be described as one of "nuclear opacity." This, in India's case, was characterised as a low degree of weaponisation, insulation of the nuclear bureaucracy from the other branches within the government, non-articulation of a formal doctrine, non-integration of nuclear weapons into the armed services, and no overt deployment of nuclear forces.

The information released after the "Shakti" tests may be part of an orchestrated campaign on the part of the BJP to suggest continuity in India's policy. However, the multiplicity of sources, accumulating evidence in open-source literature, and intelligence leaks suggest a more comprehensive picture. The evidence, although not conclusive, strongly suggests that India had a weaponised nuclear capability before the 1998 tests.

We now know that the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre began producing plutonium cores for nuclear devices soon after the 1974 Pokhran test. The cores were manufactured on direct orders from the Prime Minister's Office, and were identical that were used in the 1974-implosion device. According to former BARC director, Dr P K Iyengar, the only gap in India's nuclear weapons programme occurred during the 1975-76 Emergency and for a short time afterwards (probably during the Janata interregnum). Once Raja Ramanna, leader of the team that carried out the 1974 test, was shifted to the defence ministry, the nuclear weapons programme was resumed with full vigour.

Dr R Chidambaram, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, recently told a television audience that India's nuclear weapons programme was constantly upgraded in areas of "explosive ballistics, high-pressure physics, neutron kinetics, and physics of 'secondaries' or thermonuclear explosions." BARC worked on three types of weapon design: fission, boosted-fission, and thermonuclear. A well-known 1985 West German intelligence report cited one agent's unconfirmed report that the brief from the Rajiv Gandhi government to BARC was to "continue working on the development of a nuclear fusion weapon (hydrogen bomb)." BARC was to ensure that "within two months of a Pakistani test, the second Indian test should be carried out. Such an Indian test should simultaneously be used for the development of a fusion explosion."

During the 1980s, India established an inertial confinement fusion programme to study high-density physics associated with thermonuclear weapons. In 1989, then CIA director, William H Webster, told the US Senate that several other indicators pointed to India's interest in acquiring a thermonuclear weapons capability, including the purification of lithium, production of tritium, and the separation of lithium isotopes.

Although several experts in the US nonproliferation community believed that India had the scientific expertise to build a hydrogen bomb, the critical breakthrough in a thermonuclear weapon design came in the mid-1990s. According to Indian scientists, if India had tested in 1982-83 as planned originally, it would have involved the validation of miniaturised fission and boosted-fission designs.

In the early 1980s, however, India's nuclear capability had several gaps. It wasn't as if the scientists did not have the expertise to build nuclear bombs; the devices designed in the lab were not weaponised or had not been built to military specifications. Furthermore, India did not possess delivery vehicles -- modified combat aircraft or ballistic missiles -- to conduct nuclear missions.

The nuclear device tested in 1974 was not an operational design for a weapon. It took about two years to assemble, and was large, unwieldy, and could only be delivered using a transport aircraft. Hence, Indian nuclear scientists referred to it as a "device." It was Rajiv Gandhi, according to the famous Indian defence analyst, K Subrahmanyam, who finally authorised weaponisation in 1988. Shortly afterwards, in 1990, a secret Indian nuclear arsenal came into existence -- eight years before the current series of tests.

Weaponisation, according to India Today, involved four steps. Nuclear devices were miniaturised to facilitate delivery from aircraft. Weapon designs were ruggedised for field deployment and transport. Mechanical and electronic arming and safing systems were installed in weapon systems to prevent unauthorised or accidental detonations. And by 1989, the Indian air force modified combat aircraft and perfected techniques for the aerial delivery of nuclear munitions.

A P J Abdul Kalam According to new information released by the Indian government, the process of weaponisation was divided between BARC and the Defence Research and Development Organisation. BARC worked out concepts related to the "long shelf life of the nuclear components" and the "optimisation of the weight-to-yield ratio." It was also responsible for the fabrication of fissile material into suitable shapes. DRDO labs worked to weaponise the nuclear devices to military specifications. This involved the design and development of the high-explosive lenses to be used in the implosion device, "high-volt trigger systems, interface engineering, and systems integration to military specifications." Three other labs, according to the science advisor to the defence minister, A P J Abdul Kalam, contributed to the "arming, fusing, safety interlocks and flight-trials."

Weaponisation was also accompanied by the establishment of a rudimentary command, control, and communications structure to manage contingencies arising from nuclear war planning. In the winter of 1990, the former director of DRDO, V S Arunachalam, apparently told Harvard academic Stephen P Rosen, that the civilian leadership in New Delhi fought a difficult struggle with the military over custody of nuclear weapons. That struggle was finally resolved in favour of civilians. Apparently, the military was told neither of the exact number of nuclear weapons that India might have, nor how they would be employed in a nuclear war. But the civilians drew up detailed instructions to deal with problems in the absence of a formally articulated nuclear doctrine. These instructions were given to a certain theatre military commander with instructions to open them in the event of a nuclear war.

In his book, Societies and Military Power: India and Its Armies, Rosen quoted Arunachalam as saying, "If New Delhi goes up in a mushroom cloud, a certain theatre commander will go to a safe, open his book, and begin reading at page one, paragraph one, and will act step by step on the basis of what he reads...." Arunachalam later denied making that statement. However, Abdul Kalam recently affirmed that India had indeed instituted measures to manage its incipient nuclear weapons capability. Kalam told a press conference on May 17, 1998 that "the [nuclear] command and control structure which had been existing in various forms is now being consolidated."

Prithvi Missile Besides building air-deliverable fission weapons, BARC also focussed attention on the design of light and compact warheads for ballistic missiles. In the late 1980s, an Indian scientist told a Western observer that BARC had designed a light fission warhead with a mass of 200kg. In this context, it should be noted that analysts had long doubted DRDO's assertion that the Prithvi and Agni would deliver conventional munitions. Cost-benefit analysis of the range, payload, and accuracy indicated that ballistic missiles of that class only made strategic sense if deployed in a nuclear mode.

In July 1989, the Washington Post reported that concerns about BARC's interest in ballistic missile warheads had caused the Bush administration to deny the sale to India of a $ 1.2 million Combined Combined Acceleration Vibration Climatic Test System with a force-level capability of 545 kg. Also known as the "shake and bake" system, a CAVCTS can be used to test re-entry vehicle components for their ability to withstand the heat and stress during missile flight.

Nevertheless, India persisted in its quest to develop re-entry vehicle technology. Between 1989 and 1994, India conducted three Agni flight-tests. Two of these were successful and validated the re-entry vehicle technology. According to DRDO sources, results showed that the missile's composite carbon-carbon nose cone had ablated as designed. While outside temperatures during re-entry reached 3,000C, temperature inside the re-entry vehicle did not exceed 40C. Even more importantly, the payload comprising the autopilot, dummy warhead, its arming and fusing systems and the inertial navigation system survived the stress of re-entering the Earth's atmosphere.

Writing in the November 1996 issue of Jane's International Defence Review, Pravin Sawhney, a former artillery officer in the Indian army, described in precise detail as to how DRDO proposed to simulate flight-tests for nuclear warheads over land to ensure that their subsystems functioned in accordance with design parameters. In the absence of permission to conduct "dynamic" tests, Indian scientists proposed that a non-fissionable core be used to replace the fissile material inside the dummy warhead that would be dropped from a helicopter over a test-range.

By examining telemetry data generated during flight and recovering the warhead debris, scientists would be able to determine whether the safety and arming systems unfolded in the designated sequence, whether the fuse functioned at the desired height of burst, and whether the non-fissionable core imploded uniformly.

Whether DRDO actually conducted such tests is still unclear. However, referring to weaponisation of ballistic missile warheads, Abdul Kalam admitted recently that India had "tested the size, weight, performance, and vibrations [of missile warheads]." He further acknowledged that "we have been doing this for quite some time."

This evidence indicates that the May 1998 tests marked the "culmination" of the weaponisation process. Cognisant of India's nuclear neighbourhood, successive governments sought to provide insurance against nuclear blackmail. India's "option" strategy was not a policy of bluff. If current reports attributing the weaponisation decision to the Rajiv Gandhi government are true, then India actually exercised its "option" as early as 1988.

Vajpayee at Pokhran By authorising the tests, the BJP has brought India's secret nuclear weapons programme out of the closet. Earlier governments invested in a policy of existential deterrence. The BJP has taken that policy a major step further authorising the validation of a series of weapon designs. Simultaneously, it has declared its intention to operationalise deterrence by integrating weapons into the armed forces, formally articulating a nuclear doctrine, and institutionalising a command, control, and communications structure. These constitute the first steps on the road to a strategy of nuclear war fighting.

The author is a Research Associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey CA. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies or the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

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