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Operation Shakti : Indian Nuclear Tests

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee basks in the glory of Operation Shakti

Coming 24 years after India's last nuclear tests in 1974, Operation Shakti was a potent reminder to the world of India's nuclear prowess. It also sent a strong message to Pakistan and China - that India was fully capable of defending its territorial integrity and not to mess about with us.

India's pursuit of nuclear weapons was first spurred by the short, but bloody 1962 border clash with China and by Beijing's 1964 nuclear test. The United States initially wanted to transfer low yield nukes to India to deter the Chinese. However due to strong opposition in the US Senate, they decided instead to provide training to a few Indian scientists in the field of nuclear science.

On May 18, 1974, India conducted its first "peaceful nuclear explosion" at the Khetolai military range, Rajasthan Desert. According to a Bhabha Atomic Research Center(BARC) report, the plutonium device was placed at the bottom of a 107 meter shaft and detonated at 08:05 hrs IST generating a nuclear yield of approximately 12kt TNT. It is reported that Western intelligence estimated the probable yield at 4-6 kilotons. Subsequently, India made significant progress in refining its weapons design and fabrication capabilities, including reducing the size of weapons and increasing their efficiency and yield through boosted fission using tritium.

Photo of the crater taken from a helicopter on May 18, 1974

At a formal level, Indian officials and strategists denied that India possessed nuclear weapons and refered to India's position as an "options strategy," which essentially meant maintaining the nuclear weapons option and exercising it should regional and international conditions so warrant. In pursuit of this end, India refused to sign the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Indian officials argued that India's refusal to sign the treaty stemmed from its fundamentally discriminatory character; the treaty places restrictions on the non-nuclear weapons states but does little to curb the modernization and expansion of the nuclear arsenals of the nuclear weapons states.

India probably began work on a thermonuclear weapon prior to 1980. By 1989 it was publicly known that India was making efforts to isolate and purify the lithium-6 isotope, a key requirement in the production of a thermonuclear device.

The nuclearisation of India has been an article of faith for the BJP. One of the few concrete steps taken by BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpayee in his brief 13-day term as Prime Minister in May 1996 was approval for DRDO and DAE to begin preparations for a nuclear test. However, the Government fell two days before the tests could begin, and the succeeding United Front government of H.D. Deve Gowda declined to proceed. A statement to the press by Prime Minister Deve Gowda in September 1996 noted that India had no plans to build nuclear weapons or to test. Senior Indian officials reaffirmed statements of restraint concerning nuclear testing, while preserving the option to test if New Delhi's security situation changed significantly. In late October 1996, one of India's prominent nuclear scientists said publicly that India's present nuclear capability was sufficient and there was no need to conduct further nuclear tests.

Despite promoting a test ban treaty for decades, India voted against the UN General Assembly resolution endorsing the CTBT, which was adopted on September 10, 1996, by an overwhelming margin(158-3, with 5 abstentions). Not prepared to take steps that it feared will constrain its "nuclear option," India objected to the lack of provision for universal nuclear disarmament "within a time-bound framework." India also demanded that the treaty ban laboratory simulations. In addition, India opposed the provision in Article XIV of the CTBT that requires its ratification for the treaty to enter into force, which it argued was a violation of its sovereign right to choose whether it would sign the treaty.

In early February 1997, Foreign Minister Gujral reiterated India's opposition to the treaty, saying that "India favors any step aimed at destroying nuclear weapons, but considers that the treaty in its current form is not comprehensive and bans only certain types of tests." Nevertheless, India's poor showing in the vote in October 1996 for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, coming so closely on the heels of its isolation on the CTBT, caused some in India to question the wisdom of New Delhi's hard-line tactics in trying to block the CTBT.

Operation Shakti was reportedly authorised two days after the Ghauri missile test-firing in Pakistan. On April 8, 1998, Prime Minister Vajpayee met with Department of Atomic Energy(DAE) chief Dr R. Chidambaram and head of the Defence Research and Development Organisation(DRDO) Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and gave the go-ahead for nuclear weapons tests. On the morning of May 8, 1998, scientists from DRDO and DAE arrived at Pokhran, and soon thereafter, the devices were emplaced.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee's announcement of India's three underground nuclear tests on May 11, 1998.

On May 11, 1998, as part of Operation Shakti, India carried out three underground nuclear tests at the Pokhran range, Rajasthan Desert. The first blast had a yield of 12 kilotons, the second was a thermonuclear device with a yield of 43 kilotons and the third was a low yield device. All the 3 devices were detonated simultaneously. On May 13, India conducted two further tests, both low yield devices in the range of 0.2 to 0.6 KT.

Although there were strong rumours that preparation was underway for a very large thermonuclear test - in the megaton range, these were never substantiated. In any case, India never went ahead with it and the Government announced the completion of the planned series of tests and a self imposed monatorium on any further tests. The Shakti nuclear tests provided critical data for the validation of India's capability to design nuclear weapons of different yields for different applications and different delivery systems.

Pictures of the Indian underground nuclear tests

Vajpayee with the nuclear team and later visiting the test site.

On 28th May 1998, Pakistan responded to India's tests by exploding 5 nuclear devices at Chagai Hills in the southwestern part of Pakistan. These tests were followed by another test on May 30.

Mountain during test
Enlarged view of mountain
Sharif and Musharraf

In the days following the Shakti nuclear tests, there were some doubts expressed on the yields obtained. Based on seismic data, US government sources and independent experts estimated the yield of the so-called thermonuclear test in the range of 15-25 kilotons(versus the 43-60 kiloton yield claimed by India). Observers initially suggested that the test could have been a boosted fission device, rather than a true multi-stage thermonuclear device. By late 1998 analysts at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory had concluded that the second stage of a two-stage Indian hydrogen bomb device failed to ignite as planned.

However Dr Abdul Kalam disagreed. In a candid chat with journalists on November 11, 2001, shortly after quitting as principal scientific advisor to the government, he said ''The Prime Minister has already said in May 1998 that India had a hydrogen bomb. India has both fusion and fission bombs.'' "Scientists and technicians who conducted the Pokhran II tests in 1998 are all satisfied with the results and we have a thermonuclear device." ''There are both believers and non-believers. The world can say anything. US or Russia or Canada would dispute India's claim on the Pokhran tests but we have carried out the required tests at Pokhran and are are satisfied with that,'' he added.

Asked about the safety of nuclear assets, Kalam said "safety standards are in-built in our country. We possibily have much better safety standards than many others". He said the nuclear command and control structure were in place and there were no grounds to worry. On whether India should develop missiles with strike ranges longer than 'Agni-II', which can reach a target at a distance of over 2,200 kms, he said "It depends on what kind of enemy the country faces and its strategy for the next 10 or more years. India is capable of manufacturing(a longer range missile) if the necessity arises".

India is generally estimated as having approximately 60 nuclear weapons. In May 1998 G. Balachandran, an Indian nuclear researcher, estimated India had fewer than 10 weapons ready to be assembled and mounted on warplanes or missiles. The Institute for Science and International Security estimated in March 1998 that India had stockpiled enough weapons-grade plutonium for perhaps 78 bombs. Some estimates as high as 200 nuclear devices are based on estimates of plutonium that could be extracted from India's six unsafeguarded heavy-water nuclear power plants.

Citizens protest against the tests in New Delhi

In 1994, a noted defence analyst Shri K. Subrahmanyam suggested that a force of 60 warheads carried on 20 Agnis, 20 Prithvis and the rest on aircraft would cost about Rs 1,000 crore over 10 years. In 1996, Gen. Sundarji suggested a cost of some Rs 2,760 crore -- Rs 600 crore for 150 warheads, Rs 360 crore for 45 Prithvis and Rs 1,800 crore for 90 Agni missiles.

Whatever the costs involved, there is no doubt that India needs a nuclear deterrent to keep Pakistan and China at bay. Dr Abdul Kalam, who spoke at the press conference on May 17, 1998, agreed that the Shakti nuclear tests conferred on the country "a capability to vacate nuclear threats".

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