On the 25th Anniversary of its ‘Shakti’ Nuclear Tests, India Must Do Some Honest Stocktaking

India has not managed to deter China, as the growing transgressions in Ladakh show, but has succeeded in bringing Beijing and Pakistan’s GHQ even closer together.

On the 25th anniversary of India’s series of nuclear tests (Shakti) by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government on May 11 and 13, 1998, it is fitting to assess whether they achieved their stated purpose. 

In a letter to US President Bill Clinton, Prime Minister Vajpayee explained that China’s possession of nuclear weapons and its proliferation of weapons  technology to Pakistan had forced India to conduct its own tests. Hence, through its nuclear tests, India wanted deterrence against China – and Pakistan, which was being illegally supported in acquiring nuclear weapons by China.

In May 2020, as Chinese troops walked into Ladakh, they also brought home the bitter truth: India’s nuclear weapons had failed to deter China. By reportedly occupying 2,000 sq km of Indian territory in Ladakh, China not only walked past India’s conventional military capabilities, but also made it clear that it did not consider India’s nuclear weapons of any consequence. Worse, the nuclear weapons relationship between China and Pakistan has only strengthened further.

India’s nuclear tests did not achieve their stated purpose because what was stated was not the real purpose. 

The real purpose behind the Indian tests can be gleaned from a passage in Strobe Talbott’s book ‘Engaging India.’ 

In 1998, Talbott was the US deputy secretary of state. According to him, weeks before India’s Shakti tests, US energy secretary Bill Richardson, who was close to President Bill Clinton, came to India to check if it was serious about conducting nuclear tests as the BJP’s election manifesto had said it would do if elected to power. When Richardson retired to Roosevelt House (the US ambassador’s residence in Delhi) after a day packed with meetings, the ambassador, Dick Celeste, told him that he had an unexpected visitor. Since the surprise visitor came with Vajpayee’s request, Richardson had no choice but to meet him. The visitor was Jaswant Singh.

Singh, who held no government office, came alone. Alluding to his closeness to the prime minister of India, he told the Americans that if the US president wanted to convey something directly to the Indian prime minister, he, Singh, would be the back-channel. What he implied was that Vajpayee preferred direct access to the US president – through Singh – bypassing the lumbering Indian bureaucracy. The perplexed Americans understood the real purpose of Singh’s late night call a few weeks later when India conducted the Shakti tests. Within hours of the tests, Vajpayee sent a letter to Clinton mentioning China as the reason for the tests and offered to work closely with the US.

Strobe Talbott and Jaswant Singh. Photo: Twitter/@KshatriyaItihas

This was unusual. Any nation that undertakes nuclear tests would strengthen national security by (a) quickly taking nuclear tests to their logical conclusion of nuclear weaponisation and (b) consulting its armed forces since they would be the ultimate users of the big weapon. India, instead, offered itself to the Americans as a counterweight to China. It also hoped that Washington would help end its nuclear apartheid by getting it admitted as an equal member into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) for trade in high end technology. This did not happen.

By 2005, the White House was willing to embrace the idea of using a ‘nuclear India’ as a ‘strategic partner’ against China but in 1998, an incensed administration – which then had good ties with both Russia and China – leaked the missive to the New York Times. Thereafter, Clinton consulted Chinese President Jiang Zemin on how to get India and Pakistan (which, within days, followed with its own nuclear tests to maintain strategic parity with India) to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and to reinvigorate the peace process in Kashmir. China, as the rotational head of the Permanent Five (the US, Russia, China, UK, and France) of the United Nations Security Council drafted and unanimously got Resolution 1172 passed on June 6, 1998. It called for India and Pakistan to immediately stop their nuclear weapons development programmes and join the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty as non-nuclear weapons states.

This development should have spurred India to ensure the credibility of its stated no-first-use nuclear policy – which meant that if nuclear deterrence failed, India would be prepared for an assured and credible second-strike capability after absorbing the enemy’s first strike. This has not happened till date.

A second-strike capability is based on a triad of land, sea, and air vectors. Given the paucity of combat aircraft for conventional war, especially in a scenario of a two-front war, aircraft availability for the nuclear role is mere theory. For example, a reliable and assured delivery will need about 60 aircraft for a nuclear mission: Two aircraft armed with nuclear weapons would require three to four electronic countermeasure escort aircraft, the same number of aircraft in air defence role, and a few aircraft to suppress the enemy’s ground-based air defence, making a total of about 20 aircraft for a single mission. And the mission would also need two or three decoy missions.

A surface to surface Agni V missile is displayed during the Republic Day parade in New Delhi on January 26, 2013. Photo: Reuters

The land vector to be provided by the Agni-5 ballistic missile with a 5,000 km range meant to cover most of China is still not operational. The sea vector of the triad will be India’s indigenous ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) INS Arihant and the follow-on vessels which are to be armed with K-4 submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with a range of 3,500 km to reach China. The K-4 missiles are still under development. Moreover, another SLBM, Sagarika, with codename K-15 and with the range of 750 km, meant for Pakistan, has reportedly been test-fired from a submerged pontoon.

Launching a ballistic missile from a submarine is more difficult than launching one from a static submerged pontoon for two reasons: one, it is mobile rather than a fixed launcher, and it is submerged in the ocean when it fires the missile. A missile guidance computer needs exact latitude, longitude, and altitude (depth of submarine below sea level) of the submarine position, the direction of the local north and the local vertical, and the speed and direction of the submarine at the instant of launch for accurate firing. This cannot be done from a static pontoon. Moreover, instead of a submerged pontoon at 10 to 20 m, the test firing should be done from greater depth. Incidentally, INS Arihant was commissioned in August 2016 and did its only deterrent patrol in November 2018. However, it was not clear what was meant by deterrent patrol since SSBNs should carry nuclear missiles which was not done.

Worse, doubts were cast by India’s scientific community on the outcome of the series of five Shakti tests. This was not unexpected since the tests were done under great secrecy and haste with the two stakeholders – Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) – squabbling over the outcome. No sooner had the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Dr R. Chidambaram, announced that the design and development of various kinds of nuclear explosives, namely, fission, boosted fission, thermonuclear, and low yield, based on twenty years of research and development had been validated, many Indian nuclear scientists and weapons specialists, especially Dr P.K. Iyengar and Dr K. Santhanam contested the claims.

According to them: 

  • The thermonuclear device was tested with a boosted fission device as its primary stage. However, there had been no independent test of either a thermonuclear device or a boosted fission device. 
  • From a purely scientific view, the goal of submarine-based deterrent cannot be achieved without further testing. A submarine-based missile requires careful minimising of weight without loss of yield ratio into smaller and smaller spaces. Weight to yield ratio is the main consideration for a submarine-based missile.
  • It takes many steps to graduate from a nuclear device explosion to a deliverable weapon. These include getting the correct yield to weight ratio, reliability, fusing and arming, and safety features. For example, around 4% of the tests conducted by the US have been safety related.

The consensus amongst technocrats was that only the fission test (of 15 kiloton yield) was a weapon, the others were tests of nuclear devices. If these devices were to be made into weapons without further testing, they would have low reliability, unacceptable to a professional armed force that had the ultimate responsibility to employ nuclear weapons. Despite these grim realities, no one in India bothered to ask how a single series of nuclear tests done with hasty preparation could provide assurance against China’s nuclear weapons capability. China is a nuclear weapon power under the NPT and has conducted a total of 47 nuclear tests of all types. Its first fission test was carried out in 1964, the first fusion test (for the hydrogen bomb) in 1967, and the last in September 1996, days before it signed the CTBT. 

Meanwhile in Pakistan, within minutes of India’s nuclear tests, chief of army staff General Jehangir Karamat took charge. Scientists were ordered to prepare for nuclear tests and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was instructed to remain silent. So, when the US ambassador to Pakistan, Tom Sanders, could not get through to his usual contacts in the prime minister’s office, the call was made to General Headquarters (GHQ) to facilitate Talbott’s visit to Pakistan. Karamat immediately cleared the passage and the two – Talbott and Sanders – reached GHQ. After hearing Talbott’s case for Pakistan to not conduct its tests in reply to India’s, Karamat told Talbott that Pakistan would look out for its own defence.

Former prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif. Photo: PTI

Karamat directed an army study focused on three areas: (1) nuclear diplomacy, (2) nuclear doctrine, and (3) nuclear command and control. With nukes no longer a secret and in control of GHQ, the army chief assumed a larger role, straddling national security and foreign policy. Karamat told Sharif that the army should have a formal role in governance. However, Sharif failed to understand the new reality, forcing Karamat to resign. Sharif appointed General Pervez Musharraf as the new army chief, who eventually deposed Sharif and became the ruler of Pakistan. The first thing Musharraf ordered was the creation of Strategic Plans Division (SPD) within the GHQ, which started functioning by December 1998.

Retired brigadier Feroz Hassan Khan, who had worked in the SPD wrote in his book, Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb, that the first goal of the SPD was to establish operational deterrence. This meant defining minimum deterrence in terms of quality and quantity of nuclear weapons, crafting the development strategy, and ensuring integration of nuclear forces with conventional war plans for seamless transition from one war-fighting level to another.

Unlike India’s nuclear no-first use policy, Pakistan remained quiet on its nuclear declaratory policy. However, in response to Indian army’s Cold Start doctrine enunciated by army chief, Gen. N.C. Vij in 2004, Pakistan lost no time in declaring its full-spectrum deterrence, which suggested the use of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) against Indian army’s Cold Start doctrine. Cold Start implied the capability to cross into enemy territory the moment war was joined. It is another matter that both Cold Start and the use of TNWs are undoable. While India does not have the capability to quickly take the war into Pakistan, the latter will not use tactical nukes for two reasons. One, there is a high density of Pakistani population close to the Line of Control, which will be affected by the bomb; and two, TNWs would imply giving control of the nukes to field commanders, which GHQ would never do.

However, between 1998 and 2004, Musharraf had accomplished the following advantages:

  • With nukes under his command, Pakistan’s chief of army staff gained enormous global stature. In addition to control of Pakistan’s security policy (since the creation of the ceasefire line in Jammu and Kashmir since 1 January 1949), GHQ took full control of Pakistan’s foreign policy too.
  • Pakistan weaponised nuclear devices validated by tests (based on proven ballistic missile nukes design it got from China). 
  • The Pakistan army established operational deterrence which boosted nuclear weapons credibility.
  • Opened twin routes (uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing) for fissile material production to make compact warheads with good weight to yield ratio for ballistic missiles. 
  • Developed and tested numerous ballistic missiles. 
  • Acquired TNWs from China, which eventually led to declaration of full spectrum deterrence, and 
  • Laid the foundation for increased interoperability with the PLA. Pakistan Air Force started annual ‘Shaheen’ exercises with People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) since 2011 and special forces of the two armies commenced ‘Warrior’ exercises since 2012.
  • Consequent to strengthened relations, Musharraf, in 2000, asked the Chinese to consider funding the development of a deep-water port at Gwadar. The Chinese agreed. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor was inspired by the Chinese involvement in Gwadar.

All this might not have been possible had India not conducted its 1998 nuclear tests. Far from creating deterrence, the Shakti tests increased India’s vulnerabilities. Not only have the PLA’s intrusions and transgressions on the LAC increased, the tests bolstered GHQ’s status and brought Pakistan and China closer. Prime Minister Vajpayee succeeded in fulfilling his party’s manifesto promise, but at the cost of India’s security.

Pravin Sawhney’s recent book is The Last War: How AI Will Shape India’s Final Countdown With China. He tweets at @PravinSawhney.