Last changed 30 March 2001
A long hiatus in overt nuclear weapons development followed the 1974 test. The driving force behind the development of the Peaceful Nuclear Explosive (or PNE), as it was officially called, had always been the scientists at BARC rather than any initiative from the military, the Prime Minister, of any other part of the Indian government. They had required no encouragement and had worked toward such a test whenever they had not been actually prevented from doing so. This shared mission, of proving that India as a country and they as scientists were equal to such a task, had given the BARC leadership a unity of purpose that overcame any tensions among them. After the test, this unity was lost and the teamwork that had developed the PNE collapsed.
The disintegration unfolded during the remainder of 1974. Initially the test was well received by the Indian public and the Lok Sabha. PM Gandhi's poll rating jumped - from very low to above average; the opposition Jana Sangh party was enthusiastic. But by September, Gandhi's popularity had fallen to the lowest level ever.
International reaction was negative, but varied. Henry Kissinger (operating in a leadership vacuum in the wake of Pres. Nixon's resignation) atoned for his policy blunders toward India in 1971 by declining to take a critical stance, and actively working to improve U.S.-Indian ties. On the other hand the U.S. also boosted aid to the increasingly beleaguered Pakistan, including restarting military aid. The test sharply escalated international attention to proliferation, and support for India's nuclear program from abroad disappeared. Canada cut off virtually all nuclear assistance four days after the test, bringing two nuclear power projects - Rajasthan II reactor and the Kota heavy water plant - to a halt. Indeed the nuclear non-proliferation regime that exists today came about as a direct result of this test.
Pakistani PM Ali Bhutto increased funding for his own nuclear program, which had been started in January 1972 , but found itself hamstrung by the nuclear technology restrictions imposed abroad after the Indian test.
The impact of the test on India's civilian nuclear program was severe. The civilian nuclear power program had struggled for years to gain credibility, its progress crippled by the lack of indigenous resources and almost wholly dependent on imported technology and technical assistance. No effort had gone into analyzing the likely international reaction to the PNE, or in preparing the nuclear power program for the effects of an embargo. The cut-off of supplies of heavy water, and of technical assistance in building its own heavy water plants hit India particularly hard as its reactor designs were all dependent upon it. Even worse, the group that had triggered these handicaps was treated with accolades while the engineers that bore their consequence struggled on in anonymity.
The adverse international reaction, and its effect on aid and access to technology came as a surprise since foreign policy experts had not been consulted for an assessment prior to the test. The luster of the test wore off in other ways - it soon became clear that the test had produced no information of scientific value for peaceful uses or otherwise, beyond the simple demonstration that the device actually worked. Once the popularity boost of the 1974 test had swiftly faded Gandhi came to feel that her decision to break with Nehru's policies had been for no gain, and she lost interest in the program. Her visit to Pokhran on 22 December was perfunctory.
Although Gandhi declared that India was not pursuing the nuclear option, she did authorize preliminary work on developing a fusion boosted fission design. At BARC efforts were begun to organize projects in fusion boosting, levitated pit design for greater implosion compression, and improved neutron initiators. Sethna and Ramanna had begun feuding however, as differences in style and approach came to the surface, aided by bad blood that had built up over various disagreements through the years, and the pressures and temptations of sudden fame. The visit by Indira Gandhi to Pokhran in December was the breaking point, Sethna and Ramanna rarely spoke after that. The Indian nuclear program was left with a vacuum of leadership and even basic management. The effects of the feud trickled down through the organization, with those closely associated with Ramanna (like PK Iyengar) feeling persecuted. Early in 1975 a group had been set up to work on the fusion boosted design headed by M. Srinivasan, but progress was slow.
In June 1975 Indira Gandhi was convicted of election law violations; her response was to declare martial law on 25 June - suspending democracy for the only time in the history of Indian independence. Twenty six political organizations were banned and over 100,000 Indian citizens were arrested. During her next two years as dictator the nuclear programs languished, and then she was defeated in the general election in early 1977
Morarji Desai had been an opponent of pursuing the nuclear option for years before becoming Prime Minister in March 1977, and vocally opposed nuclear tests peaceful or otherwise, and the nuclear option, throughout his term in office. The feud between Sethna and Ramanna continued to fester, paralyzing BARC. Finally in June 1978, in an effort to defuse the situation Desai had Ramanna removed from his position as director of BARC. In compensation the famed Ramanna was made secretary of defense research, scientific advisor to the Ministry of Defense, and later also Director General of DRDO (Defense Research and Development Organization), positioning that would later give Ramanna considerably increased influence. This didn't improve the situation at BARC though since Sethna continued to harass Ramanna's allies, keeping the nuclear program demoralized. Worse still, Ramanna's supporters successfully thwarted Sethna's efforts to replace Ramanna - leaving BARC without a director.
Despite Desai's opposition to nuclear explosives, and the chaotic state of BARC, the Desai era was not entirely without progress in nuclear weapon development. Shortly after taking office PM Desai gave verbal authorization for efforts to improve the 1974 device design, to make it more compact so that it could actually be delivered [Chengappa 2000; p. 219]. In 1978 he approved the purchase of four squadrons of Jaguar aircraft, the first aircraft acquired by India that were suitable for nuclear weapons delivery. Also in 1977 work began on a new larger 100 MW plutonium production reactor at Trombay named R-5, but usually called "Dhruva" (other accounts place the start of the Dhruva project in 1973 - possibly indicating a preliminary phase of planning). Efforts to rectify the severe shortage of heavy water had mixed success. In 1976 and 1977 assurances of 200 tonnes were obtained from the Soviets, the first 50 tonnes without safeguards, but for the rest India was forced to accept safeguard monitoring. In late 1977 the Baroda heavy water plant went on-line but in December it suffered an explosion and had to be shut down. India's civilian nuclear power program, already more than a decade behind schedule, fell even further behind.
Disturbing developments occurred in Pakistan during 1977 and 1978. As had happened in 1971, an attempt to conduct national elections led to chaos and military action. PM Zulfikar Bhutto held elections in March, which his party (the Pakistan Peoples Party) won, leading to charges of fraud; in April Bhutto declared martial law in three major cities; in June this order was declared illegal by the supreme court and was rescinded, new elections were scheduled for October; on 5 July Army General Zia-ul-Haq launched a coup that took over the government. The military quickly took control of the nuclear weapons program, control it is maintained to this day - placing Pakistan's nuclear arms outside of the authority of the civilian government (when it has had one). It was during 1977-78 that India, and other nations, became aware of the scope of Pakistan's nuclear program. It soon became apparent that unlike many abortive nuclear projects initiated in other nations, Pakistan's program was huge, lavishly funded, well organized, and likely to succeed. The creation of a vast militarized nuclear weapons program in a neighboring enemy state seems to have provided little immediate impetus to India's own program however.
The Desai government was fairly short lived. Internal dissension led to the collapse of the governing coalition in early-mid 1979. First Desai was replaced as head of the Janata government by Charan Singh, and then when elections were held in August Indira Gandhi was re-elected with 65% of the seats in the Lok Sabha.
1979 witnessed additional events that adversely shifted the Pakistani situation in the eyes of India. In March U.S. intelligence announced that the Kahuta uranium enrichment plant in Pakistan had been commissioned. On 4 April the hard line nature of Zia-ul-Haq's regime was emphasized when former prime minister Bhutto was hanged. Finally on 25 December the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, ensuring that despite its nuclear weapons program Pakistan would be the beneficiary of a massive infusion of U.S. weaponry, as well as U.S. economic and diplomatic support. The possibility that the U.S. would impose sanctions of any kind on Pakistan to undermine its nuclear program became slim, then nil when the aggressively anti-Soviet Reagan administration came to power. By this time concern over China had faded from view, and relations between India and China were becoming warmer.
Gandhi returned to power with a renewed interest in the nuclear weapons program. Now stationed in New Delhi, Raja Ramanna had much greater opportunity to influence the Prime Minister. In January 1981 she reappointed Ramanna as Director of BARC, in addition to his other positions. That month he proposed to her that India begin work on constructing and testing the two weapon designs that had been developed in the intervening 6 years - the fusion boosted device, and the compact pure fission device. The weight of the fission device had been shrunk from 1400 kg to 170-200 kg, along with many other improvements in its components. Gandhi agreed, and in February two new test shafts work began on sinking two new shafts at Pokhran. Construction work continued on the test shafts into May 1982; these shafts would remain idle for 17 years, until the 1998 Pokhran II (Operation Shakti) test series when these shafts would be code named "White House" and "Taj Mahal".
This work was quickly detected by U.S. satellites, and this activity was made public by Sen Alan Cranston in April (he also revealed that Pakistan was constructing a test shaft in Baluchistan). In August 1981 Mumbai journalist Yogi Aggarwal reported that since the end of 1980 work had accelerated at BARC in manufacturing bomb components, including the preparation of 12 kilograms of plutonium metal. He also revealed that plutonium from the CIRUS reactor was now being separated at the Tarapur processing plant which began operation in 1977. He specifically claimed that plutonium had been diverted from Tarapur for weapons use in March and April of 1981 [Perkovich 1999; p. 228-229]
In May 1982 (according to Chengappa), the time had arrived to decide whether to conduct the new nuclear tests. For the first time a leader of the Indian armed forces, Army Gen. K.V. Krishna Rao, was pushing for the nuclear option. On the other hand both Gandhi and the Reagan administration were working on a rapprochement to improve Indian-U.S. relations, and this time PM Gandhi was very much aware of India's vulnerability to likely international repercussions. Gandhi had also introduced a new element into the nuclear decision making process. Up until them Gandhi had held the portfolio of Defense Minister herself, now she transferred it to Ramaswami Venkataraman, a highly experienced, highly respected, and politically savvy senior official. Now a powerful and independent source of counsel, well aware of political and foreign policy implications, had been added to the nuclear decision making process. Unfortunately this was not the shape of things to come, while nuclear decisions in the future tended to have a broader institutional base than they had up through Smiling Buddha and afterward, up at least until the 1998 Shakti tests a formal policy making apparatus never became established and decisions (including the 1998 decision to test) remained ad hoc.
Gandhi held a meeting with Ramanna and Venkataraman as well as her new science adviser V.S. Arunachalam, and her top advisers Principal Secretary P.C. Alexander and Cabinet Secretary K. Rao Sahib, to decide on whether the test would be conducted. Chengappa and Perkovich offer somewhat different accounts of this meeting. Chengappa places it in May, and asserts that no decision was made at the meeting; but that Gandhi approved the test (or tests) after the meeting ended. Perkovich says that it was late in the year, even in early 1983, and that Gandhi did approve the test at the meeting. Both agree that within hours of her decision to test, she reversed herself and decided against it.
The Kargil Review Committee Report [Kargil 2000] states that "Former President Venkataraman and the then Scientific Adviser, Dr. V.S. Arunachalam, both said that Indira Gandhi agreed to a nuclear weapons test in 1983 but called if off under US pressure." Chengappa offers a interesting (and somewhat dubious) account.
In advance of a planned visit to Washingon by PM Gandhi, India's Foreign Secretary Maharaja Krishna Rasgotra made a trip to resolve outstanding disagreements over the deliver of nuclear fuel for the Tarapur reactor. A compromise was reached (with the U.S. agreeing not to object if France supplied the fuel). Chengappa relates that afterward Rasgotra was confronted by US Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs, Lawrence Eagleburger. Rasgotra was shown classified satellite photographs of Pokhran, and Eagleburger demanded an explanation for the shaft construction that US intelligence had detected. Rasgotra was surprised, knowing nothing of the test preparations. Furious at being blind sided, upon returning to India Rasgotra briefed the Prime Minister about his experience and warned her of a severe reaction if a test were held. This meeting with Gandhi occurred only hours after she had approved a new nuclear test series, and minutes later she rescinded her approval. Chengappa add that later on Gandhi indicated in conversations to Gen. Rao and others that concern about economic reprisals certain to follow such a test was the key reason for postponement.
A problem with Chengappa's account is that the site preparation work at Pokhran was scarcely a secret by May 1982, having been discussed in the Indian (and international) press for over a year at that point. While Rasgotra may well have counseled her not to test, and concern regarding international reprisal very likely was the reason that the tests were suspended, the dramatic account Chengappa provides of Rasgotra being surprised, shocked, and outraged by U.S. revelations is difficult to credit. Nonetheless it would appear that Rasgotra was the conduit of pressure from the U.S. leading Indira Gandhi to cancel the test.
The key role of the threat of international sanctions is borne out by the fact that Indira Gandhi never revisited her decision after her rejection, refusing to permit even a rehearing of the matter even as the security situation with Pakistan grew more serious over the next three years and the growing interest within the military for exercising the nuclear option. This last trend found its greatest expression in a 30 page letter to the Defense Minister drafted by the joint chiefs of staff in June 1983, the first time the Indian military went on record supporting the acquisition of nuclear weapons [Chengappa 2000, pp. 286-287].
Despite Gandhi's rejection of testing, India's nuclear infrastructure continued to advance. One of the most notable achievements of the new leadership provided by Venkataraman and Arunachalam was the establishment of an ambitious ballistic missile program in 1983 that would lead to the successful development of the short range Prithvi missile, and the long range Agni missile series that are a key element of India's nuclear arsenal today. India had developed a significant level of missile related technology as a result of the Department of Space's solid fuel SLV-3 (Satellite Launch Vehicle), begun in 1973 and first successful test launched in July 1980; and as a result of "Project Devil", an attempt to reverse engineer the Soviet SA-2 liquid fuel surface-to-air missile by the Defense Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL) at Hyderabad. This latter project, initiated under the leadership of Dr. Dr. Basanti Dulal Nag Chaudhuri (who had supported the development of the device for "Smiling Buddha", the 1974 nuclear test at Pokhran), was failure and was cancelled in 1978; nonetheless significant experience and technical skill was obtained which provided the basis for additional work on liquid fueled missiles.
The new missile effort was based at DRDL and was led by Dr. Avil Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, and extremely talented engineer and project manager who had been instrumental in the success of the SLV-3 program. Kalam had been transferred to DRDL in 1982 at the instigation of Raja Ramanna, and in 1983 had put together an ambitious development program for five missiles based on a family of related technologies. Venkatarman not only endorsed the program, he encouraged Kalam to be even more aggressive and develop all of the missiles in parallel rather than one at a time. In August 1983 the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) was born with a budget of 38.8 billion rupees ($370 million). One of the reasons for the ambitious nature of the program was that the Indians correctly anticipated the tightening of international restrictions on the export of missile technology, which was realized as the Missile Technology Control Regime that was signed in 1987.
Both the Prithvi and the Agni were intended to carry nuclear warheads. The Prithvi was a 150 km liquid fueled missile derived from "Project Devil", and the Agni was a long range (1500+ km) two stage solid fuel (first stage)/liquid fuel (upper stage) design derived both from the SLV-3 and "Project Devil".
Even without approving the testing the new lightweight fission bomb, Gandhi authorized India's first attempt to weaponize a nuclear weapon - that is, package it so that it could be delivered by the military in wartime, and develop the necessary support systems so that it would be integrated into military operations. It is not enough to have a nuclear explosive device, or even to install it in a bomb casing with suitable fuzing and safety systems. Aircraft have to modified to carry it, and techniques for everything from delivery, to routine maintenance, to security must be developed. In late 1982 Arunachalam began a project to develop these capabilities. Dr. Nagapattinam Sambasiva Venkatesan, who had previously directed the laboratory which developed the bomb's high explosive implosion system, had now moved to the Armament Research and Development Establishment (ARDE) in Pune and was given the task of developing the ballistic case for the bomb. Arunachalam also contacted Air Marshal Chandrakant Gole, the deputy chief of air staff, to arrange for the adaptation and testing of a Jaguar combat aircraft for the role of nuclear bomb delivery. Unfortunately the Indian Air Force was not informed about the project (the purpose for which the test Jaguar had been allocated was not disclosed) although they had little trouble in guessing. The modified aircraft thus remained entirely outside the regular military system [Chengappa 2000, pp. 284-285].
This initial attempt to develop a usable nuclear weapon capability was stillborn. A more professional weaponization effort made several years later that eventually incorporated the full participation of the Air Force showed the importance of consulting with the Air Force from the outset to develop a viable weapon system. This later effort had several false starts, took over four years to complete, and found the Jaguar to be an unsuitable delivery aircraft. This smaller armament lab run project clearly produced nothing usable.
After returning to BARC Ramanna pushed forward efforts in other areas. The work on Dhruva had been languishing but Ramanna made its completion a top priority in 1981, making Anil Kakodkar a principal engineer on the project (later to play an important role an the 1998 test series). Perhaps stimulated by Pakistan's evident success with uranium enrichment, Ramanna initiated an Indian uranium enrichment program in the early 1980s. Approved by Indira Gandh and run by BARC, this highly classified project was located at Mysore, Karnataka. Reminiscent of the "tube alloy" code name used by the Manhattan Project's uranium enrichment program, this project was deemed the "Rare Minerals Plant".
The cut-off of legal external supplies of heavy water, and the failure of Indian domestic production efforts, created a serious problem for India's reactor projects in the 1980s. This affected not only Dhruva, but a number of civilian reactors such as Madras I (also called MAPS I). India resolved the problem through covert means, importing over 180 tonnes of heavy water from China (60 tonnes), Norway (15 tonnes), and the Soviet Union (at least 4.7 tonnes) through a German middleman, Alfred Hempel by the end of 1983. None of the supplier nations knew of the destination of these shipments, and the revelation that India was receiving Hempel's shipments probably caused the cessation of supply from China and Norway.
In the early 1980s it was clear that none of India's principal problems - economic development and internal stability - could be aided with nuclear weapons, a fact that diverted interest in testing or deployment. The internal stability problem arose from separatist movements in north eastern and north western India. By far the most serious was the Sikh movement in Punjab to create a new state of Khalistan.
Inevitably any part of the Indian national territory would be deemed essential by the Indian state, but Punjab was more essential than most. The most productive agricultural region in an agricultural economy struggling to feed itself, it was also adjacent to Kashmir - the fortified, restive, and contested region bordering Pakistan. In the early 1980s an armed insurrection took hold in Punjab led by Sant Bhindranwale, who made the Sikh's sacred Golden Temple of Amritsar his headquarters and fortress in 1982. Efforts to stabilize the situation failed, and on 5 June 1984 "Operation Blue Star" was carried out by the Indian Army under the command of Gen K. Sundarji - the assault on the Golden Temple. At least 493 Sikhs were killed in the attack (the Indian government official count, though outside observers estimate hundreds more died) including Bhindranwale, as well as 83 soldiers. Although it inflamed Sikh anger, and thus did nothing to reconcile Punjab, the attack accomplished its objective in breaking the back of organized armed opposition to Indian rule. In a sense though the Sikhs had the last word. India arranged a formal settlement with the principal political party in Punjab - the Akali Dal - in 1985, giving Punjab sovereignty over the Sikh-majority city of Chandigarh, which became the capital of Punjab. But it was not Indira Gandhi who made this settlement, it was her son Rajiv. Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards on 31 October 1984.
Rajiv Gandhi, an airline pilot by profession, became Prime Minister less than 9 hours after Indira Gandhi's death, but ratified his position with the largest landslide in India's history, taking 415 out of 542 seats in the Lok Sabha in late December. Rajiv Gandhi's general orientation was toward technology and modern technological culture, thus he took great interest in the technical aspects of issues and actively promoted technological advance. He had a strong antipathy to nuclear weapons and did not support testing or deploy, and the refinement of weapon designs, and laboratory research required to support further advances in nuclear arms. His policies toward nuclear weapons thus were basically a continuation of the approach of his mother during her second term in office. Also like Indira Gandhi in her later years he had an ambivalent relationship with the scientific leadership at BARC - supporting their work but treating their advice skeptically, leaning perhaps even farther toward skepticism than Indira. In large part his opposition to proceeding with testing or deployment was because of his technology orientation. Rajiv recognized that India needed access to the advanced technology of the United States and that detectable progress toward acquiring nuclear weapons would slam many of those doors shut. In addition there seems to have been significant antipathy by Gandhi toward Ramanna, the leading figure in the nuclear establishment.
The mid-eighties saw indications of the growing nuclear capability of Pakistan pile up. Drawn to the limelight, the leader of Pakistan's uranium enrichment program Dr. Abdul Qader Khan held periodic interviews boasting about Pakistans nuclear prowess. It was in such an interview in February 1984 that he first made the claim that Pakistan had achieved nuclear weapons capability. Periodic revelations confirming the successful advance of the Pakistani program turned up with some regularity. In July 1984 the New York Times reported that US intelligence had learned that the previous year that China had supplied Pakistan with the design of an actual tested nuclear device. In March 1985 a West German court convicted a German businessman of smuggling a complete uranium hexafluoride manufacturing plant to Pakistan. Also in March the US concluded that Pakistan had made such progress in uranium enrichment capability that the Reagan administration sought an assurance from President Zia that Pakistan would refrain from enriching uranium above the level of 5%. In July 1985 it was reported by ABC that Pakistan had successfully conducted a "cold" implosion test - firing a complete implosion system with an inert natural uranium core. Taken together these indicators pointed to Pakistan acquiring the ability of conducting a nuclear test if it chose to do so within the next year. One factor helping to dampen Indian reaction to these developments is a distinct Indian tendency to discount Pakistani capabilities and accomplishments, even in the face of evidence.
Dhruva went critical on 8 August 1985, but soon after start-up serious problems arose requiring a shut-down. Radioactive contamination developed in the coolant system, indicating a severe fuel leak. The problem was traced to vibrations induced by the cooling system which coincided with the natural resonance frequency of the core. The strong vibrations caused stress on the fuel elements, leading to failure of the aluminum cladding. The problem was solved by attaching spring clips to each of the 192 fuel elements thereby damping the oscillations. It was restarted in December 1986 and operated at one-quarter power from then until spring of 1987. Dhruva finally achieved full power on 17 January 1988, becoming the workhorse of the Indian nuclear weapons production program [Albright et al 1997; p. 226].
During Rajiv Gandhi's term in office infrastructure was developed to support the manufacture of more sophisticated lightweight fission weapons. In 1984 India had imported 100 kg of high purity beryllium from West Germany, enough to provide the neutron reflecting tampers for a dozen or more weapons, but now India commissioned its own beryllium production plant in Mumbai, drawing on indigenous ores from Kerala. Around this time India also acquired a vacuum hot pressing machine, suitable for forming large high-quality beryllium forgings. Work also began at BARC to lay the foundation from thermonuclear weapon development and the manufacture of boosted fission weapons. The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) announced that it would develop an inertial confinement fusion facility, a research tool that produces on a small scale physical conditions similar to those found in thermonuclear weapons. BARC also began manufacturing tritium by irradiating lithium in nuclear reactors, useful for neutron initiators and boosting fuel for fission weapons; and developing the capability of isotope enrichment of lithium - useful for tritium production and as fusion fuel for thermonuclear weapons. Throughout Rajiv Gandhi's term in office the BARC and DRDO establishments continued to develop and refine weapon designs and related technologies in the laboratory and the testing ground, much as they had since the early 60s. This was standard operating procedure within the nuclear establishment, they felt within their authority to proceed with weapon development without specific direction from the administration as long as they didn't proceed with the final assembly of a device.
India's first effort to formulate a nuclear policy and the determine the means needed to implement it was an informal but authoritative study group that was set up in November 1985 to answer queries by Rajiv Gandhi regarding defense planning. It encompassed the three services (Navy Chief of Staff Adm. Tahliani, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. K. Sundarji, Deputy Cheif of Air Staff John Greene), leaders of BARC (Ramanna), the DRDO (Abdul Kalam), and the AEC (Chidambaram), and India's most prominent strategic analyst K. Subrahmanyam. The outcome of the group's deliberations was to recommend building a minimum deterrent force with a strict no first use policy. The arsenal envisioned was 70 to 100 warheads, and would require a 9% boost to the defense budget for 10 years to finance (about $5.6 billion).
No formal action was taken on this report, but it appears to have inspired Rajiv Gandhi to take additional preparedness measures. In 1986 Gandhi instructed Arunachalam to develop a properly engineered aircraft delivery system, with suitable control and security measures and improved reliability to replace the stopgap system developed two years earlier. Arunachalam recruited K. Santhanam as technology adviser on the project. The development effort of the improved bomb system was code named "New Armament Breaking Ammunition and Projectile", or NABAP, and was headed by Muthuswamy Balakrishnan at the Terminal Ballistics Research Laboratory (TBRL) in Chadigarh. Venkatesan, Director of ARDE, was given the task of developing a superior aerodynamic case for the weapon and associated carriage and release mechanisms and to manufacture a certain number of units. This time the Air Force was involved in the development activities from the beginning, with Deputy Chief of Air Staff Surinder Kumar Mehra heading the Air Force team participating in the project. Problems with the existing bomb design and integration plan quickly surfaced. The bombs developed by the DRDO and ARDE turned out to weigh to much for the Jaguar and had ground clearance of only two inches. By late 1986 the Air Force rejected the Jaguar as unsuitable, and efforts switched to integrating the bomb with the recently acquired Mirage 2000 [Chengappa 2000, p. 327]. Considerable integration difficulties continued to be encountered and final qualification of deployed delivery system was not complete until May 1994 [Chengappa 2000; p. 382]. Dr. Badri-Maharaj, author of The Armageddon Factor, has stated that a rudimentary delivery system was in place from 1986-88, presumably referring to the developmental Mirage 2000 delivery system [Indian Express, 18 June 2000]. This effort provided India with it first genuinely usable nuclear weapons capability. By the end of the 80s the Indian Air Force, now equipped with nuclear capable Mig-27 as well, began routinely practicing loft bombing techniques for nuclear bomb delivery.
There some significant ups and downs in the Indo-Pakistani relationship from late 1985 through early 1987. The rapidly developing Pakistani nuclear capability provided motivation to establish a modus vivendi between the two nations. In December 1985 Zia and Gandhi met in New Delhi and agreed to a pact not to engage in attacks on each others nuclear facilities (a situation that would left India rather the worse off due to the proximity of its production reactors to urbanized areas). It would not be signed until 31 December 1988, or fully implemented (through an exchange of data about their facilities) until 1993. In the year following this promising development, an ambitious but poorly managed military exercise by India lead to an unexpected crisis.
This crisis was precipitated by Exercise Brasstacks, the largest military exercise in Indian history conducted to test and demonstrate India's ability to deal with a major war with Pakistan. This exercise was planned by Gen. K. Sundarji, now Army Chief of Staff and began in July 1986. It reached its crisis stage in December when India had a total of nine divisions deployed in Rajasthan adjacent to the Pakistani province of Sindh. India had not undertaken any measures to alleviate Pakistan's concerns about having such a massive armed force so close to its border, such as inviting observers, or sending advance notice of maneuvers. Pakistan accordingly mobilized its own forces - sending Army Reserve North and Army Reserve South to locations close to India's border where they could strike at Punjab or Kashmir. Pakistan's concern was not unwarranted, military maneuvers have been used to mask planned attacks before - notably Operation Badr, the stunningly successful Egyptian and Syrian surprise attack that opened the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Poor intelligence and communications, and a disengaged and voltaile Rajiv Gandhi made a bad situation worse in January, leading to an atmosphere of real crisis on 18 January 1987. Gandhi's decision to begin airlifting troops to Punjab on 20 January threatened to escalate the crisis out of control. But both governments soon after tried to bring the situation under control. A hotline was activated between India and Pakistan on 23 January, and a systematic plan for standing down agreed to on 4 February. A curious footnote to the exercise were threatening remarks by A.Q. Khan to Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar on 28 January, near the height of the crisis. Nayar however shopped the story around for a few weeks, and it was not published until 1 March, after the matter had been resolved. Nonetheless it left a lingering sense of nuclear threat associated with the Brasstacks affair. The potential for even non-hostile actions to create dangerous situations has unfortunately not been a lesson well learned, judging from crises that have followed in 1990, 1998 and 1999.
Crippled by international sanctions imposed after the 1974 nuclear test, India's civilian nuclear power program fell further behind objectives throughout the 80s. One possible avenue for bolstering the program was to import nuclear reactors from supplier countries (like Russia) which were available on the condition that India operate them under IAEA safeguards. The weapons establishment, maintaining their obsession with nuclear technology as a symbol of national pride, vigorously opposed taking this step. This obstructionist attitude displeased Rajiv Gandhi, and upon the expiration of Ramanna's term as AEC chairman in 1987 resulted in an occasion of considerable controversy (and horse trading) within the government. Ramanna and his allies insisted that P.K. Iyengar then head of BARC be appointed to the position, and Iyengar threatened to resign from BARC if he was passed over. Iyengar was, like Ramanna, a physicist that had had a leading role in the 1974 nuclear test. Rajiv Gandhi preferred M.R. Srinivasan, a nuclear engineer who was in charge of the nuclear power program and thus disposed to place the priorities of that program first. In the end a deal was struck in which Srinivasan was appointed to the position, but Iyengar was promised that he would be Srinivasan's successor.
Ever since China's first nuclear test, the position it held as a threat in the Indian psyche had been on the decline as Pakistan's position had risen. A brief resurgence in the border dispute with China coincided with the Brasstacks debacle, but with a more favorable outcome for India. In late 1986 India's Parliament amended the Indian constitution to make the Northeast Frontier Agency (Arunachal Pradesh) a full state of the Indian union. Since a large parcel of territory claimed by China lies in Arunachal Pradesh, China protested and on 17 December demanded territorial concessions. This led to large deployments of armed forces on both sides of the border over the next several months, reaching 200,000 on each side by May 1987. At the same time Gen. Sundarji began another exercise, "Chequerboard", this time on the Chinese border in the northeast Himalayan region. Sundarji appears to have learned lessons from the just concluded Brasstacks and went to some pains to reassure the Chinese that the operation would not infringe on disputed territory. The vigorous and well executed movements of forces by India appears to have impressed China sufficiently once the deployments wound down, it was willing to resume talks on the border that had been suspended. The contrast of this denouement with that of Khan's bellicose talk at the close of Brasstacks served to further elevate India's apprehension of threat from Pakistan over China.
Two dramatic changes altered the strategic environment for India in 1988. The first was the Soviet decision in February 1988 to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, a move that removed the geopolitical rationale for the U.S. support for the military regime, and the reluctance to pressure Pakistan on account of its nuclear weapons program. The second change was on 17 August 1988, when President Zia Ul-Haq, the architect of the militarization of the nuclear program, was killed along with thirty other people, when the aircraft in which he was travelling crashed in what is suspected to be an assassination.
In the aftermath of Zia's death, the military stepped aside and permitted the return of Pakistan to democracy three months later. In November 1988 Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who had been overthrown and executed by Zia, became Prime Minister herself. The nuclear weapons complex remained in the hands of the military, who formed an independent center of power not under the control of the civilian government. PM Bhutto was in fact unaware of the status of the nuclear program, and when Pakistan passed the milestone of manufacturing fissile cores for weapons she first learned of it from the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan.