Pokharan II: How?

21 May, 1998    ·   91

In a series of four articles below, P. R. Chari tries to answer the entire gamut of questions that have been raised since the 11 May nuclear tests in Pokharan.

What do India ’s five nuclear tests signify in technological terms? Before discussing this question a more pressing one arises: why did US reconnaissance satellites not discover these tests. The Atomic Energy Commission and the Defence Research and Development Organisation are quite adept in concealing these activities. This occurred in 1974. They tried again 1995-96. So these precedents should have informed any intelligence agency that India might test. Two reasons make this failure of US intelligence altogether mystifying.



·                     The BJP’s avowed agenda to exercise India ’s nuclear option required a nuclear test series to prove its nuclear devices. Pokharan was the only test site available to India on geological (soft sand), security (within the Army’s field firing range) and general (sparse population) considerations. The excuse that India’s heightened activities at its Balasore missile test range on the eastern coast deflected attention from Pokharan, and that it undertook test-related activities in Pokharan during the intervals between satellite-passes sound thin, given the time and work involved.


·                     Steps to manufacture the nuclear devices could not, obviously, have occurred overnight. These activities involved large numbers—hundreds, if not thousands—of individuals over a number of years. How did they remain totally undetected by the huge satellite, human and electronic intelligence resources of the United States ?


This has sparked off a conspiracy theory that the Indian and US governments had struck a deal. This envisaged the BJP government conducting nuclear tests to gain domestic political mileage, after which it would steer India into the CTBT. This would eminently serve the American non-proliferation and general foreign policy interests. The opposition of Pakistan and China would need to be contained. But, the mildness of the American reproof, its advice to Pakistan to reconcile itself to these tests, unwillingness of UK to impose sanctions on India and discord within the G-8 support this theory. But more evidence is needed to substantiate it.



What is the technological meaning of these five nuclear tests. The first three tests (May 11), according to the Prime Minister’s statement, comprised a fission device, a low yield nuclear device, and a thermonuclear device. The next two (May 13) were "sub-kiloton" tests to "generate additional data for improved computer simulation of designs and for attaining the capability to carry out subcritical experiments". The yield of the thermonuclear test has officially been declared to be 45 KT; fission device 12 KT; and the low-yield devices 0.2, 0.5 and 0.3 KT. The first three devices were detonated simultaneously to avoid their seismic waves affecting the devices. But they succeeded in confusing seismological stations that believed the signals received were caused by an earthquake. These tests have established that India now possesses panoply of nuclear capabilities ranging from fusion to fission devices. They could be deployed for deterrent purposes. And laboratory-scale devices that could be studied for designing new weapons.



No information is currently available regarding the weight of these devices. This may never be disclosed on grounds of security. But it has been officially stated that India has reduced the weight of its devices, and the Prithvi/Agni missiles are configured to carry nuclear warheads. Significantly, the Agni missile is to be developed for achieving longer ranges and with a new solid fuel variant. These are of obvious importance to establish a deterrent capability against China . India also possesses nuclear weapons delivery capable aircraft like Jaguars, MiG-27s, Mirage-2000sand Su-30s, provided they have been configured to carry nuclear weapons.



Air-deliverable atomic bombs and/or nuclear-armed Prithvis could establish a deterrent pattern vis-à-vis Pakistan . Air-deliverable atomic bombs could also be employed against China . But the long distances that aircraft would need to travel to reach lucrative targets present the danger of their interdiction en route. India would need to equip itself, therefore, with nuclear-armed intermediate-range (1500-mile) ballistic missiles of the Agni and extended-range Agni genre. For more certain deterrent patterns to emerge the Agni’s range would need being extended to at least 3000 miles. India may also need to deploy these ballistic missiles in an airborne, land mobile and, perhaps, a submarine-mounted mode to ensure their survival against counter-attack. These missiles--mounted on different platforms—would definitely need to be tested before they could be deployed with confidence The mounting costs involved in this nuclear programme would need to be accepted.



The short point needs emphasis that the five nuclear tests have undoubtedly moved India ahead of its traditional "keeping the nuclear option open" position to one of expressing its dormant capability to weaponize that option. But India cannot yet be designated a nuclear weapon power despite political statements to that effect. For one, acquiring a nuclear weapons status in military terms would require India to actually deploy its atomic bombs and/or missiles after equipping them with nuclear warheads. For another, it would still not become a nuclear weapons power in terms of the Nonproliferation Treaty, which confers this status only on states that have "manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device prior to January 1, 1967".