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India's Nuclear Weapons Program

On to Weapons Development: 1960-1967

Last changed 30 March 2001

With the two projects to necessary to provide the materials for nuclear weapons underway, the Cirus production reactor and the Trombay plutonium plant, Dr. Bhabha then turned his attention to acquiring information about nuclear weapons and initiating preliminary studies of weapon physics.

During the early sixties India's anxieties regarding China greatly increased. Tensions over the border disputes with China rose from 1959 onward, leading to large scale troop deployments by both sides in early 1962. By 1961 India had become aware of China's nuclear program which gave greater impetus to India's efforts. In January 1962 Bhabha set up a formal study group in high pressure physics at TIFR, headed by Prof. A.K. Asundi, to explore equations of state in the megabar range, a necessary step for designing implosion weapons. This group did its work in secret, submitting its papers to Bhabha for review.

A number of public indications show India's increasing interest in nuclear arms. On 9 January 1961 Nehru stated that

We are approaching a stage when it is possible to for us .. to make atomic weapons
. A few weeks later, on 2 February, Bhabha was asked how long this would take and he responded "about two years I suppose". In September 1962, at Bhabha's urging, Nehru passed the revised Atomic Energy Act giving the central government strict control over all decisions on atomic energy and futher tightening secrecy (this act can perhaps be likened to the U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1954). This act explicitly linked atomic energy and its control to national security, scarcely mentioning civilian applications.

Following India's humiliating defeat by China in the Indo-Chinese border war of October-November 1962, the first formal demand for the development of nuclear weapons was made in Parliament, by the Jana Singh party, in December 1962. Bhabha, well aware that a Chinese nuclear test was not far off (his estimate was then 12 to 18 months), also began secretly agitating for a vigorous effort to match China's, going so far as to ask Nehru to authorize a nuclear test in Ladakh on the Chinese border.

Nehru died on 27 May 1964 and was succeeded by Lal Bahadur Shastri who took office on 2 June. That summer and fall expectations of a Chinese nuclear test steadily increased. PM Shastri, a Gandhian, was strongly opposed to pursuing the Indian nuclear option, and Bhabha began making public statements in favor intended to increase public support and political pressure. On 4 October Bhabha repeated his estimate publicly that India could build a bomb within 18 months of the decision to do so. Interestingly, a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate issued on 16 October thought India capable of developing a weapon in one to three years.

India's prime nuclear facilities were having growing pains though. Cirus operated erratically after going critical, and India had problems supplying fuel rods of the required purity. Cirus did not reach full power until 16 October 1963. Likewise the Phoenix plant at Trombay operated unreliably with only a fraction of its rated capacity when it began receiving spent fuel from Cirus in mid-1964 (for example experiencing an explosion during its first several months of operation). It was officially inaugurated 22 January 1965, but produced very little plutonium for years, taking India until circa 1969 to acquire sufficient plutonium for a single device.

The much anticipated Chinese test finally came on 16 October 1964. Shastri's initial reaction was to reiterate his opposition to India following the same path. But on 24 October 1964 Bhabha made a now famous speech on Indian radio. Bhabha argued that "atomic weapons give a State possessing them in adequate numbers a deterrent power against attack from a much stronger State". He further claimed that such weapons were remarkably cheap citing cost estimates provided by the U.S. AEC for projected Plowshare (peaceful nuclear explosive) devices - $350,000 for a 10 kt device, and $600,000 for a 2 Mt device. From this he estimated that "a stockpile of some 50 atomic bombs would cost under $21 million and a stockpile of 50 two-megaton hydrogen bombs something of the order of $31.5 million " [Perkovich 1999; pg. 67]

It seems Bhabha could not have been unaware of how inappropriate such cost estimates were to the circumstances of India. The U.S. Plowshare cost figures were based on the the incremental cost of producing devices by a vast industrial complex costing tens of billions of dollars, which had already manufactured nuclear weapons numbering in the tens of thousands. And even so, it is very questionable that the U.S. Plowshare estimates - made by Plowhare advocates - constituted anything like full cost accounting for the usage of this vast infrastructure. And this also ignored the fact that the delivery systems for nuclear weapons typically cost several times as much as the weapons themselves. The real cost to India for any nuclear weapon program would be orders of magnitude greater than Bhabha's claims (China had spent over $4 billion in then-year dollars up to 1964 for its program).

Nonetheless his claims fueled debate about the desirability of India initiating a weapons program, and undermined support for Shastri and his "no weapon" policy within his own Congress party. With Bhabha continuing to campaign both publicly and behind the scenes, Shastri eventually found himself in an untenable position. The enormous public stature of Bhabha, and the tight control over nuclear information, left no effective scientific voice to act as a counterweight.

A two day debate in the Lok Sabha (Parliament) on 23-24 November 1964 showed that the Congress party was split with a bare majority favoring pursuing a weapons program. On 27 November the most vocal advocate of pursuing nuclear weapons, the Jana Sangh party, introduced a motion in the Lok Sabha calling for the manufacture of nuclear weapons. It was voted down in a voice vote. But in his speech following the vote Shastri made a crucial change in his position. He mentioned that he had just come from a meeting with Bhabha, and stated that Bhabha actually desired that India pursue the development of peaceful nuclear devices for future engineering use. Then he indicated that he and Bhabha were now in full agreement that work should be conducted on such devices -- that is, Shastri authorized the development of nuclear explosives.

There is a saying in the nuclear non-proliferation community: "The difference between a peaceful nuclear explosive and a bomb are the tail fins." Bhabha knew (and in fact had said so publicly in the past) that nuclear explosives for peaceful and weapon use were essentially the same, and he had suceeded in bringing Shastri around to supporting their development. The gain for Shastri was that now that he had Bhabha's support the lobby for an explicit weapon program was neutralized. At that time India was very vulnerable to the sanctions that an acknowledged weapon program would produce, and a "peaceful nuclear explosive" or PNE program was the only feasible way that weapons could be openly pursued. This fiction of a "PNE" would be maintained through India's first nuclear test in 1974 and up until 11 May 1998, after its second round of nuclear testing, when India finally acknowledged the objective of obtaining nuclear arms.

Despite the nationalistic rhetoric emphasizing Indian self-reliance that had characterized the nuclear debate, the first actions of both Shastri and Bhabha after their reconciliation was to seek outside assistance. In December Shastri publicly appealed vaguely to the existing nuclear powers for some sort of nuclear security umbrella for non-nuclear nation, a proposal that India never clearly defined or marshalled support for, and which slowly faded away over the next several months.

In February Bhabha visited Washington and implied to Undersecretary of State George Ball that he was interested in obtaining U.S. assistance in building nuclear explosives. Ball reported that "Dr. Bhabha explained that if India went all out, it could produce a device in 18 months; with a U.S. blueprint it could do the job in six months." [Perkovich 1999; pg. 95]. U.S. reports written in March indicate a request was received for an actual Plowshare device. In April Glenn Seaborg, chairman of the U.S. AEC, indicated that Bhabha had inquired "whether we would be prepared to make a moderate amount of plutonium available for research and development." [Perkovich 1999; pg. 97]

Curiously a number of U.S. officials and agencies also became interested after the Chinese test in providimg Plowshare devices, technology, and even (under some conditions) nuclear weapons to India. The U.S. AEC discussed undertaking a cooperative Plowshare program with India in November 1964. And Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs John McNaughton prepared a proposal to initiate a program to train and equip Indian forces to use nuclear weapons, and create a stockpile to disperse to India in times of crisis.

This caught the U.S. at a turning point in the evolution of U.S. policy. Up until the mid 1960s, although non-proliferation had been a U.S. interest, it had been distinctly secondary to efforts to promote the peaceful use of nuclear power (e.g. "Atoms for Peace" and Plowshare) and to strengthen the defenses of non-communist nations (e.g. the Multi-Lateral Force proposal to share nuclear weapons with other NATO nations). But a landmark event occurred on 21 January 1965 with the Gilpatric Committee on Nuclear Proliferation delivered its report to Pres. Johnson. This report took an uncompromising stand on non-proliferation, establishing the trend for non-proliferation concerns to dominate all others which continues to the present day.

In April Shastri gave Bhabha formal approval to move ahead with nuclear explosive development. On 5 April 1965 bBhabha initiated the effort by setting up the nuclear esplosive design group Study of Nuclear Explosions for Peaceful Purposes (SNEPP). Bhabha selected Raja Ramanna - Director of Physics at AEET - to lead the effort.

That spring Bhabha met with T.S. Murthy, bright student then undergoing training at the French nuclear laboratory at Saclay, in Paris. Bhabha confided that Shastri had approved of conducting a nuclear test, and that he was prospecting for a test site. Then Bhabha suggested he scout out the French for useful information, especially regarding polonium technology used for first generation neutron initiators for weapons. By mid year test were conducted with large amounts of high explosives to calibrate seismographs used for nuclear test monitoring.

Evidence suggests that India's new interest in the nuclear option was of great concern to Pakistan. Reports from from the fall of 1964 into mid 1965 indicate considerable concern by President Ayub Khan, and his Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (later President). In March both men met with Chou En-lai in Beijing, a meeting both felt had very positive results and developed Chinese support for Pakistan. It was in mid-1965 that Bhutto made his famous remark that is India acquired nuclear weapons: "then we should have to eat grass and get one, or buy one, of our own." Under Bhutto's later presidency the foundations of Pakistan's nuclear program would be laid. Thus in 1965, the seeds of the Indo-Pakistani nuclear confrontation of three decades later had been sown.

George Perkovich suggests that it was fear of the changes in the balance of power that Idia's nuclear weapon program would bring that motivated Pakistan to initiate the Second Indo-Pakistani War that summer [Perkovich 1999; pg. 108].

This war, the second major war in three years involving India, was fought in three phases. First Pakistani forces moved in to the Indian marshland of the Rann of Kutch in April. India attempted to repulse the incursion, but the rainy season threatened isolation of Indian troops, and they withdrew. Thus emboldened by this first probe Pakistan attacked an Indian outpost in Kargil, Kashmir. India counterattacked and seized territory that had been held by Pakistan. Shastri agreed to a ceasefire and withdrew from Pakistani territory, and adopted a conciliatory stance regarding the Rann of Kutch - a stance widely regarded in India as weak. It was apparently similarly regarded in Pakistan, because on 1 September Pakistan launched a massive armored assault on Kashmir. This attack pushed into Indian held Kashmir and threatened Srinagar but then ground to a halt. Then on 6 September India counterattacked south of Kashmir driving 15 miles into Pakistan, threatening Lahore.

Despite superior U.S. supplied arms in Pakistani hands (especially armor), India maintained a strong position on the battlefield. Then on 17 September China, which had supported Pakistan throughout the conflict - even alleging Indian aggression in the face of a Pakistani assault, attempted to involve itself directly by threatening Indian positions on the Tibetan border. India firmly resisted Chinese pressure, supported by both the U.S. and the USSR.

The outcome of the war did a great deal to strengthen India's long-term resolve to acquire nuclear weapons. The alliance between U.S. armed Pakistan and nuclear-armed China presented India with a security threat that they could not ignore. Although India did find some support from the Superpowers with repect to Chinese pressure, India found that when faced with unprovoked attack - foreign "even handedness" cut off supplies and aid to both, indicating that India could not expect outside aid if threatened in the future.

It seems clear that at this point Bhabha felt he had authority to go ahead with developing and perhaps even testing an actual nuclear device, since in the wake of the war he seemed satisfied with the program then authorized. Homi Sethna, then head of the IAEC, has stated that Shastri told Bhabha during the war to go ahead with development but to hold off testing unless he had clearance from the cabinet [Chengappa 2000; pg. 102].

This initial effort to develop a "peaceful nuclear explosive" (PNE) existed almost entirely as an unwritten personal understanding between Dr. Bhabha and PM Shastri.

On 11 January 1966, just hours after he had signed the Tashkent Declaration formalizing the end of hostilities in the war with Pakistan, PM Shastri died of a heart attack. Just two weeks later on January 24, and the very day Shastri's successor Indira Gandhi was sworn in as Prime Minister, Dr. Homi Bhabha was killed while on a trip to Europe when the plane in which he was flying collided with Mount Blanc. India's impressively large nuclear establishment was suddenly left without any official plan or policy, to give it direction.

But Bhabha had by now shaped India's nuclear establishment and policy making environment to such an extent that the patterns he established would persist for decades after this death. Under Bhabha, the drive toward building the infrastructure for nuclear explosives, and the advocacy for developing such explosives had come from the nuclear scientists themselves - not the civilian government, and certainly not from the Indian military which virtually no role in the planning or decision making. The advance of the nuclear explosives program would also be conducted without any serious public debate over the decisions taken, and without consultation of parliament. The desire of weapons developers to continual advance the program would be offset though by the fact that the support for the program was not based on a broad consensus among key decision makers. Thus the program's fortunes were hostage to the personal preferences of the Chairman of the IAEC, and the mood and attention of the Prime Minister.

Some of the numerous positions held by Bhabha were distributed among his top scientists working on SNEPP, like Ramanna and Sethna, but the principal successor to Bhabha was Vikram Sarabhai personally chosen by Indira Gandhi to be Chairman of the IAEC, and Secretary of the Department of Atomic Energy. Sarabhai was a follower of Mohandas Gandhi and a pacifist who opposed nuclear arms. His selection was probably politically motivated as Sarabhai hailed from a rich and politically powerful family.

At the beginning of June 1966 Sarabhai ordered a halt to SNEPP, and the confiscation of the papers that had been generated on the project. It appears that this was Sarabhai's personal decision, rather than a reflection of PM Gandhi's policies at this time, and he may not have even consulted with her on it. That this was possible illustrates the vulnerability of a program not based on a broad consensus among key decision makers. It did not altogether mean the end of Indian progress toward acquiring nuclear weapons however. The development of the necessary infrastructure proceeded apace, and the cadre of scientists that Bhabha personally recruited did not forget their objective (as they would demonstrate less than 18 months later). And the logic of India's strategic situation continued to push India toward exercising this option.

In 1966 India's diplomatic policy towards nuclear weapons made a fateful shift. While international interest in non-proliferation, focusing on restricting the spread of nuclear weapons to any additional states, India's Nehruvian policy of broadly opposing nuclear arms developed a pointed new emphasis. Indian negotiator V.C. Trivedi adopted the stance advocating non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament as long as it was universal - that no club of permanent nuclear powers should be permitted. As long as existing nuclear powers resisted disarmament, they left other nations no choice but to pursue the same option as they saw necessary. The quid pro quo was clear - India would not eschew nuclear arms unless the existing nuclear states did also. This fundamental logic led to India refusing to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and voting against it on 12 June 1968, and has informed Indian nuclear diplomacy ever since.

The new and inexperienced prime minister's views on the nuclear option were unfocused and tentative, but she tended to follow along with Sarabhai's view that nuclear weapons were useless unless part of a comprehensive and hugely expensive defense system, far beyond India's means. Over the next few years, as she grew more saavy and confident, her views on the PNE program shifted. Whether or not it was due to an explicit change in government policy, late in 1967 the new effort to develop nuclear explosives got underway at BARC, an effort that would continue uninterrupted until it culminated in a successful nuclear test less than seven years later.

Footnote: The Jana Sangh would remain the most vocal and consistent advocate of developing nuclear weapons of any Indian political party. In the Lok Sabha debate in 1964 one rising leader of the party who captured attention was Atal Behari Vajpayee. Years later the Jana Sangh would develop into the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It was the BJP which, upon taking office in 1998 with Vajpayee as Prime Minister, would conduct the 1998 Shakti test series and bring India into the open as a nuclear armed state.

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