India's Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation

India's Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation

by George Perkovich



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520217720
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/15/1999
Pages: 610
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

George Perkovich is Director of the Secure World Program of the W. Alton Jones Foundation and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the International
Institute for Strategic Studies. His work has appeared in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the Washington Post, and other publications.

Read an Excerpt

India's Nuclear Bomb

The Impact on Global Proliferation
By George Perkovich

University of California

ISBN: 0-520-23210-0


The impish, round-faced physicist wiped sweat from his brow in the 107-degree heat. Sixty-one, he was too old to be wearing army fatigues. They provided less heat relief than light white cotton. Yet, there he was, a South Indian Brahmin in the Rajasthani desert, the chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission pretending to be an army major general. Dr. Rajagopala Chidambaram was about to make his mark on Indian, and perhaps world history. At his side sat Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, a short sixty-six-year-old aeronautical engineer with long white hair, a Muslim with a self-professed fondness for Hindu culture who now bore the alias Major General Prithviraj. The code name betrayed the ironic wits of these men and their colleagues. Prithviraj was New Delhi's twelfth-century Hindu ruler, and Prithvi was the name of India's first nuclear-capable ballistic missile, which Kalam had helped bring into the world.

Chidambaram and Kalam were not playing soldier; they were sitting, disguised, in a small control room listening to a fateful countdown: five, four, three, two, one ... They were leaders of the strategic weapons establishment, an enclave of scientists and engineers in India's defense research and atomic energy institutions who for five decades had been pushing India to join the exclusive club of nuclear weapon states. Now, on May 11, 1998, they were on the verge of crossing the threshold unambiguously.

Almost exactly twenty-four years earlier, in May 1974, Chidambaram and a couple of dozen fellow scientists and engineers had encamped at this same desert site 150 kilometers from the Pakistani border, near the village of Pokhran. During the nights as they lay on cots in the hot air they looked to the skies and searched for the light of a passing American satellite, wondering whether they would be detected as they prepared to conduct India's first nuclear explosion. They went unnoticed, and on May 18, 1974, the team detonated what India's leader, Indira Gandhi, insisted was a "peaceful nuclear explosive." But the ambivalence of this peaceful nomenclature meant trouble for the strategic weaponeers. Indira Gandhi and successive prime ministers resisted the scientists' and engineers' desires to conduct additional tests and develop an overt nuclear weapon program. Moral doubt, political turmoil, and the censure of the United States and the international community put the brakes on their plans. For twenty-four years the scientists and engineers pushed against the Indian government's self-restraint.

Now, in the hot May of 1998, veterans like Chidambaram and newer additions to the enclave like Kalam and K. Santhanam were on the verge of manifesting decades of theoretical and experimental work. The team in Pokhran had learned lessons from previous frustrated testing attempts, most recently in 1995, when U.S. satellites had spotted them. Washington then exerted considerable pressure on India's prime minister to desist, which he did. This time, more than two years later, the scientists, engineers, and laborers employed elaborate camouflage-including the fatigues on their backs to make them look like army men, not bomb builders and testers. They worked in the open desert only when they knew spy satellites were not overhead. And this time they had the firm blessing of a new government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which unlike all previous ruling parties rejected India's normative aversion to nuclear weapons. The BJP wanted the bomb, and the strategic enclave wanted to give it to them. Together they were going to show themselves and the world that they had mastered the ultimate in human power over nature, the hydrogen bomb.

At 3:45 p.m. local time, the countdown ended and the desert rumbled. Three nuclear devices exploded simultaneously. The scientists, engineers, and army laborers cheered. It was possible that India, and perhaps the world, would never be the same. Whether for good or ill remained to be learned.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, a soft-spoken seventy-one-year-old bachelor who had built his Hindu revivalist party into a formidable political presence, declared that India was now a nuclear weapon power. Its exact capabilities-quantitatively and qualitatively-remained uncertain to the Indian public and the outside world. Yet India certainly possessed now-proven designs for compact fission weapons of destructive power akin to the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and probably for more powerful boosted-fission weapons. With subsequent refinement, thermonuclear weapons, or H-bombs, were also now within India's grasp. In 1998, analysts believed India possessed roughly twenty-five ready-to-assemble fission weapons, with enough weapon-grade plutonium for perhaps an additional twenty-five, depending on assumptions regarding warhead designs. India also operated a pilot plant for extracting tritium from heavy water, a key isotope for boosted-fission and thermonuclear weapons. Several means existed for delivering these weapons. Dozens of imported Jaguar, MiG-27, and Mirage-2000 fighter-bomber aircraft were capable of performing this role, and some unknown number of these aircraft had been modified to conduct nuclear missions. India also possessed a few dozen Prithvi ballistic missiles with ranges from 150 to 250 kilometers. These conceivably could carry nuclear weapons to targets in Pakistan. The longer-range Agni missile was still under development. A first-generation design of the Agni system had been tested three times, to ranges of approximately 1,000 kilometers, and in 1998 the Defence Research and Development Organisation was preparing to flight-test an improved version intended to range up to 2,500 kilometers. The Agni was now slated to be the nuclear weapon delivery system against China. Indian strategic analysts suggested that the state should advance its ballistic missile capabilities to the point where targets 5,000 kilometers away could be reached.

However, India still lacked a national security and defense strategy to determine the role of nuclear weapons. Since 1974, India had pursued a "nuclear option" strategy. This entailed the capability to assemble nuclear weapons quickly-within hours or a few days-paired with the expressed intention not to do so until a grave threat to its security arose. The nuclear option reflected India's normative aversion to nuclear weapons, its emphasis on global nuclear disarmament, and political leaders' preferences to concentrate resources and energy on economic development. Indian leaders and some strategic analysts believed that nuclear deterrence could be effected without prior deployment of nuclear weapons mated to their delivery systems. They categorically rejected the doctrines and arms racing of the cold war superpowers. They tended to view preparations for fighting a nuclear war as excessively dangerous, costly, and immoral. In South Asia, especially, the proximity of India and Pakistan to each other made the risks of radiation fallout great even if an aggressor could execute an early strike. Instead of building redundant nuclear arsenals on hair-trigger alert in the name of certain mutual destruction, the few Indians who attended to these issues believed that it was adequate to make an adversary uncertain that nuclear threats or attacks on India would not be met with nuclear reprisals. Nuclear weapons pose such horrifying threats, they argued, that this approach was adequate to deter a rational adversary. No greater capability would deter an irrational adversary.

Nonetheless, in the 1990s, Indian strategists and a few politicians began seriously to question the adequacy of the "option" strategy and nonweaponized deterrence. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was extended indefinitely in 1995, perpetuating the possession of nuclear weapons by the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China for the indefinite future while denying the rest of the world these weapons. This outraged Indian specialists and the attentive public, prompting rethinking of India's own nuclear policy. Some Indian military and nongovernmental strategists had long ago decided that the country should deploy nuclear weapons. For them, the developments in the mid-1990s offered another political opportunity to make their case. True believers in nuclear disarmament had been driven from effective power by 1998 or had been disillusioned by the failure of the major powers to pursue nuclear disarmament even after the cold war's end. Cynics who had used complaints about inadequate progress in nuclear disarmament to cover India's own ongoing nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs wanted to lift the veil. The strategic enclave had run out of patience. After twenty-four years of self-restraint, the May 1998 nuclear tests reflected all of these changes.

Still, no new doctrine guided the tests, only vague imperatives to show national will and status. Nor did a consensus emerge after the tests on what India's nuclear doctrine should be. Several developments seemed likely. India might or might not decide to deploy nuclear weapons on aircraft or ballistic missiles in an overt, readily usable posture. Deployment or not, the state would develop formal command and control arrangements to demonstrate clearly that India could and would respond to nuclear threats against it. India would also maintain its traditional insistence that it would not use nuclear weapons first. That is, India would launch nuclear weapons only in retaliation to a nuclear attack. India also would eschew nuclear-war-fighting doctrines in hopes of limiting the number of nuclear weapons it would possess to a minimum necessary to cause politically unacceptable damage to an aggressor. However, it remained unclear whether partisan political pressures within India and Pakistan would thrust the two states into an arms race despite their professed desires to minimize their arsenals. Even settling on and implementing these basic doctrinal principles would require overcoming inertia, interservice rivalries, political fractiousness, and preoccupation with more pressing domestic issues.

Objectives, Themes, and Summary Findings

India's Nuclear Bomb is first and foremost an analytic history of how India's nuclear explosive program evolved from its inception in 1947 through the early aftermath of the May 1998 nuclear tests. Each chapter uncovers actions and decision-making processes generally unreported in the existing literature. The history is divided into three phases. Chapters 1 through 7 chronicle the period from 1947 through 1974, during which Indian scientists developed the technical means to produce nuclear weapons within a polity that had moral doubts and competing priorities. This first phase culminated in 1974 when the scientists finally persuaded the government to authorize the first nuclear explosive test. Chapters 8 through 12 chronicle the second phase, from 1975 through 1995, in which India surprised itself, the United States, and much of the world by not conducting follow-up nuclear tests and not building a nuclear arsenal. Indian scientists and engineers continued, often secretly, to develop nuclear weapon and ballistic missile capabilities during this period, but moral and political doubts, domestic turmoil, and competing national and international priorities caused India's leadership to refrain from evolving nuclear postures and policies like those of the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, and Israel. India's policy of self-restraint began to give way in 1995 due to developments in the international nonproliferation regime and political changes within India. This marked the transition to the 1998 nuclear tests and the third phase of India's nuclear history, as recorded in chapters 13 through 15.

By shedding light on the past, the book seeks also to illuminate how India and other states may move in the future. Leading theories and expectations regarding nuclear "behavior" derive primarily from the U.S. and Soviet experiences as well as from modern European history. Yet, in the future, other states, particularly in Asia, seem likely to play equally important roles in international security. The Indian case can yield useful insights into the dynamics of this larger set of states in the post-cold war world. Thus, history, international relations theory, and nonproliferation policy meet or perhaps collide in this volume, particularly in the concluding chapter, which considers the meaning of India's nuclear policy for global nuclear theory and policy.

Three major questions are answered in this volume.

1) Why did India develop its nuclear weapon capability when it did and the way it did?

Conventional wisdom holds that India has sought and acquired nuclear weapon capability to redress threats to its security. China and Pakistan, separately or together, pose the threat. The U.S. Defense Department's 1996 publication Proliferation: Threat and Response reflected this typical assessment:

The bitter rivalry between India and Pakistan which dates to the partitioning of the subcontinent in 1947, remains the impetus behind the proliferation of NBC [nuclear, biological, and chemical] weapons and missiles in the region. The security dynamics of the region are complicated further by India's perception of China as a threat.... India's pursuit of nuclear weapons was first spurred by a 1962 border clash with China and by Beijing's 1964 nuclear test.

The official U.S. understanding of why India (and Pakistan) possesses nuclear weapon capability echoes the dominant scholarly conception of nuclear proliferation. Structural Realism, arguably the most influential theory in the international relations field, predicts or explains that states in an anarchic international environment will seek to maximize their power for self-preservation or, more neatly, their security. If an adversary or adversaries possess nuclear weapons, or appear likely to in the future, a state would be expected to seek nuclear capability to balance that threat in the absence of alternative means. Applying this theoretical model to India leads to the common conclusion that the "central cause of Indian nuclear proliferation is a realist one, it was to match the capabilities of China.... Only India's nuclear capabilities could elevate India to a position where it could not be subject to Chinese nuclear coercion."

(Structural Realism is an outgrowth of the Realist school of thought in international relations. Each is based on assumptions and axioms about how states behave in the international system, along the lines summarized above. When referring to these schools of thought and their formal assumptions, this text capitalizes "Realism" and "Realist."


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Table of Contents

ONE Developing the Technological Base for the Nuclear Option
TWO The First Compromise Shift toward a "Peaceful Nuclear
Explosive" 196460
THREE The Search for Help Abroad and the Emergence of
Nonproliferation DECEMBER 1964-AUGUST 196586
FOUR War and Leadership Transitions at Home AUGUST 1965-MAY
FIVE The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and Secretly
Renewed Work on a Nuclear Explosive 1966-1968125
SIX Political Tumult and Inattention to the Nuclear Program
SEVEN India Explodes a "Peaceful" Nuclear Device 1971-197416l
EIGHT The Nuclear Program Stalls 1975-1980190
NINE More Robust Nuclear Policy Is Considered 1980-1984226
TEN Nuclear Capabilities Grow and Policy Ambivalence Remains
ELEVEN TheNuclear Threat Grows Amid Political Uncertainty
TWELVE American Nonproliferation Initiatives Flounder
THIRTEEN India Vergeson Nuclear Tests 1995-MAY 1996353
FOURTEEN India Rejects the CTBT JUNE 1996-DECEMBER 1997378
FIFTEEN The Bombs That Roared 1998404
Conclusion: Exploded Illusions of the Nuclear Age444
APPENDIX India's Nuclear Infrastructure469

What People are Saying About This

Frank G. Wisner

Frank G. Wisner, U.S. Ambassador to India, 1994-1997

George Perkovich's India's Nuclear Bomb is an authoritative account in Indian decision-making. I have found no other statement as comprehensive and persuasive. It provides unique insights into Indian politics and is an invaluable contribution to American thinking about nonproliferation.

Robert Jervis

Robert Jervis, Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics, Columbia University

The most likely site for a nuclear war is the Indian subcontinent, but we have little understanding of India's nuclear program. This will change with George Perkovich's fascinating and important study. It is informed, free from bias, and a great read as well.

William J. Perry

William J. Perry, Professor, Stanford University, Former US Secretary of Defense

George Perkovich has written a comprehensive and thoughtful book on one of the most troubling security problems of the day—the introduction of nuclear weapons to the already dangerous confrontation between India and Pakistan.

K. Subrahmanyam

K. Subrahmanyam, Consulting Editor The Times of India and The Economic Times, Chairman, Indian National Security Advisory Board

With a great deal of empathy and understanding of the Indian psyche, George Perkovich leads us through contradictory perceptions of events to give us a sense of the evolution of nuclear decision making in India. What emerges is a highly nuanced and sensitive narration of the complex interaction between domestic and external factors that led to the nuclear tests of May, 1998 and the shattering of a number of Indian and international myths about nuclear weapons and their role in global politics.

Stephen Cohen

Stephen Cohen, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution, Washington, DC

George Perkovich's book is one I wish I had written. India's Nuclear Bomb appears at a critical moment in global nuclear history, and it will have an important impact on the current policy debate in the United States, India, and Pakistan, as well as on the future histories of Indian politics and international security policy.

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