India Exacerbates Nuclear Woes

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India Exacerbates Nuclear Woes

While international attention has focused on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, India’s build-up is just as risky for the region.

On May 18, 1974 India conducted its first ‘peaceful’ nuclear test explosion, dubbing the operation ‘Smiling Buddha.’ But Buddha himself would at best have smiled sardonically at seeing his name tied to such an experiment.

After the test, India vowed never to weaponize its nuclear assets, a pledge that seems to have gone unheeded. A decade later, the country again set out to test its nuclear capabilities in the Operation Shakti tests — five nuclear tests conducted over three days. Pakistan soon followed suit.

It has long been clear that India intended to go back on its non-nuclear weapon pledge. Indeed, an early indication was the commencement of the construction of a nuclear submarine after the 1974 nuclear test. Nuclear drills, meanwhile, were reportedly being taught to every Indian naval officer as early as the 1950s by officials from the Bharat Atomic Energy Centre (BARC) in Mumbai, where India converts fissile material into nuclear weapon cores.

In 1976, Dr. Homi Nusserwanji Sethna, the chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission at the time, created the Diesel Propulsion Research Team (DPRT), an apparent subterfuge for designing a nuclear propulsion plant for India’s first nuclear submarine. A team of four naval officers led by Indian Navy Capt. PN Agarwala and Capt. Bharat Bhusan were inducted into the DPRT.

Many Indian Naval officers at the time were also trained in nuclear engineering at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and subsequently transferred to the Defence Research and Development Organisation’s classified nuclear submarine project, which was called the Advance Technology Vehicle (ATV).

More recently, during a nuclear discussion session at the India International Centre New Delhi, former Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral shared an anecdote with the audience highlighting the Indian Navy’s desire to induct nuclear submarines with a long-range nuclear missile launch capability. This was the same Gujral who, while ambassador in Moscow in 1979 – and on the instructions of Indian Defence Minister C. Subramaniam, Indian Defence Secretary K. Subrahmanyam and BARC Director Raja Ramanna – reportedly met Adm. Sergei Gorshkov and sought assistance with India’s quest for nuclear submarines and long-range, submarine-launched nuclear missiles. 

Gujral’s efforts at the time led to the birth of the ATV and later the lease of Russian nuclear submarine INS Chakra to India. The nuclear reactor in INS Chakra was operated and maintained by Russians. All activities, including the top-secret ATV project, were said to have been kept from other Indian service chiefs and senior officers of the Indian Navy, a fact revealed years later by the then Indian Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov in Moscow. In a similar instance of cooperation between India and Russia, the latter has also agreed to lease India Akula nuclear submarines, but with the catch that they do so while maintaining ‘full control’ over them. With Akula, India will be in a position to launch submarine-borne long-range nuclear tipped ballistic missiles, which are also being developed with Russian assistance.

How does all this fit into India’s broader military strategy? Recently, in a seminar titled ‘Terrorism is a Derivative of Nuclear Deterrence’ held at India’s National Defence College, Indian National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon justified India’s use of force in statecraft, citing recent changes in global strategic affairs. Such discussions are being conducted at various forums across the country in what seems like an attempt to prepare the Indian public (and send a veiled warning to friends and foes alike) for the idea that India could use force—including its nuclear capability—in pursuit of its geo-political objectives.

Meanwhile, India is spending billions of dollars on other modern defence acquisitions, and will eventually be in a position to acquire an anti-ballistic missile capability with foreign support. This is without doubt a significant threat to Pakistan and the region as a whole.

Still, India’s build-up has been overshadowed in the Western media by stories of how Pakistan has doubled its nuclear arsenal over the last few years. But are there any real surprises in the news?

In October 2001, the US Defence Threat Reduction Agency published a report titled Minimum Nuclear deterrent postures in South Asia: An Overview, which highlighted Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons capacity from dedicated facilities.

A key conclusion of the study indicated that if fissile material production rates remained constant, by 2010 Pakistan's nuclear weapon equivalent quotient could grow to about 110, a number that seems to have been confirmed by the recent reports. India's stockpile (from dedicated facilities only) was estimated likely to number about 200. This would make sense as the Indian nuclear programme was initiated far earlier than Pakistan’s, so it would have accumulated much more fissile material.

With this in mind, why has all the focus been on Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities? The sense among some Pakistanis is that external entities are attempting to break-up Pakistan. And, considering the level of unrest and political conflict here, it’s easy to understand why they might think that. Either way, Pakistan will have to grapple with an increasingly nuclear future.

Khan A. Sufyan is a Lahore-based defence analyst.