When, exactly, did India get a nuclear weapon? Part II

A few years ago, I summarised an International Security article by Gaurav Kampani that described India’s process of acquiring nuclear weapons. “The author’s interviews with several senior retired Indian air force officers at the highest levels”, concluded Kampani, “suggest that India achieved an air-deliverable capability sometime in 1995”.

In a new piece by Vipin Narang in the same journal, which looks at why different states pursue nuclear weapons in different ways, we find new details on this period of Indian history. The sentences in bold are attributed to interviews with Naresh Chandra, then the defense secretary (“secretary” refers to a senior civil servant, not a minister).

In March 1989, nine months after [Prime Minister] Rajiv [Gandhi]’s failed UN speech, Rajiv discreetly ordered Naresh Chandra, his newly appointed defense secretary, to take India’s nuclear program over the finish line; the result was “a dramatic change of pace in India’s nuclear weapons plans.”Cabinet Secretary Deshmukh indicated that the steps were now clearly laid out: “when the trigger would be ready, what type of platform would carry the bomb, how the bomb was to be mated to a delivery vehicle, the type of electronic checks and the command and control system needed. A carte blanche was given for expenses but every time a milestone was crossed, the prime minister was to clear the next step.” Chandra indicates that Rajiv’s directive was informal, but clear—“[G]et things ready in case we want to test” a nuclear weapon—and that the goal was to get India in a position to test within seventy-two hours of a decision to do so, down from “more than t-minus-100 days,” which is where India’s preparations were in 1989. This was a concerted effort, with Chandra, a permanent bureaucrat who would survive the churn of ministers and governments, directing the effort personally. He and Rajiv (and subsequent prime ministers, particularly Narasimha Rao) were perhaps the only ones with a complete picture of India’s weaponization activities.

[Footnote] Chandra says he initially preferred a goal of t-30 days, but accepted Rajiv’s directive of t-3 days, even though this target required visible signatures such as cables, digging, and instrumentation at the test site that could be detected by the international community. This indicates that hiding the nuclear weapons program from U.S. intelligence was not the paramount consideration.


The sprinting strategy involved reprocessing and machining weapons-grade plutonium for weapons cores and doing all the necessary work for the production, management, and delivery of nuclear weapons. Chandra indicates that India’s scientists had largely completed the weaponization of its nuclear capabilities sometime in 1993 or 1994, putting India in a position to test its fission weapons; higher yield boosted fission designs would be completed several years later … As Kampani shows, India certainly paid a price for its stovepiping, because the scientists who designed India’s initial gravity bombs were unfamiliar with the rotation problems their designs might cause during takeoff, leading to some “acceptable delays” in reliable delivery. India had compressed its time frame to retaliate with nuclear weapons from many days in 1989, which would have “been a highly improvised affair,” to less than twenty-four hours by this point. It therefore took India about five years to complete the process—not much longer than other nuclear weapons states … Although India did not formally test until May 1998, it was in a position to do so much earlier, and definitely at the point at which Prime Minister Narasimha Rao allegedly aborted a nuclear test in 1995.

And, finally, the conclusion:

My theory identified the reasons for India’s proliferation strategies and why they shifted over time. Although India had faced a nuclear and conventionally superior China for decades, which forced it to select a hard hedging strategy, it was the prospect of Pakistani weaponization coupled with the recognition that universal disarmament was a nonstarter that ultimately killed Rajiv’s, and thus domestic political, opposition to weaponizing India’s nuclear program. It was only at this point that India undertook a sprinting strategy. Although it was perturbations in India’s security environment that triggered its final sprint to nuclear weapons, India’s security pressures were strongly refracted through a domestic political prism. Given India’s power and size, its leaders did not have to fear their country becoming the target of counterproliferation efforts. The result was a relatively open weaponization of India’s nuclear capabilities over the next five years, including regular and public tests of explicitly nuclear-capable missiles beginning in May 1989.



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