Chapter three - Nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles on the subcontinent
‘Show our strength and silence our
Background - Long Term Rivalry
This chapter traces the development of India’s
and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. It looks at the
escalating tension and the intense arms competition between the two countries
during the period prior to the nuclear blasts in May 1998.
Military rivalry has dominated the relationship between India and Pakistan
since partition in 1947. From that time and against a backdrop of brooding
hostility and deep-seated distrust, India and Pakistan have fought three wars -
in Kashmir during 1947-48; in the Punjab area in 1965; and in former East
Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in 1971.
Created in the shadow of a much larger and
powerful India, and unable to claim victory in its three wars with this
unfriendly neighbour, Pakistan measures its security status against India’s
military strength. But it was the war in 1971 in which Pakistan lost nearly a
fifth of its territory, former East Pakistan, that has left deep and lasting
scars and clearly shapes Pakistan’s security concerns. This humiliating loss
exposed Pakistan’s vulnerability to India’s military might and steeled
Pakistan’s resolve to protect its territorial integrity. The tension between
the two countries is aggravated by their dispute over Kashmir. Since the 1980s,
India and Pakistan have been fighting on the Siachen Glacier in north-eastern
Greater Kashmir and since 1989, a violent anti-Indian insurgency has been
simmering with each side accusing the other of inciting conflict.
These two traditional foes, with a common border
and engaged in a long running and bitter feud over Kashmir, are trapped in a
‘reactive cycle’ in arms development and production. Each carefully tracks the
activities of the other and although India possesses far superior conventional
military strength, Pakistan endeavours to keep up with developments in India’s
military technology. Even though both countries may wish to reduce their
defence burden, the weight of history and the fear of aggression fuelled by
mutual suspicion determine their security planning.
China complicates the geo-political situation in
this region. India and China see themselves as rival regional leaders and their
relationship is uneasy. In 1962, China and India fought a brief but bloody
border war; a war regarded by India as a major and ignominious defeat and which
shattered its sense of military security.
Two years later, in October 1964, China further asserted its standing in the
region as a powerful and potentially dangerous adversary when it tested its
first atom bomb. The border issue between the two countries remains unresolved.
The relationship between India and China is
further strained by the close links that China has developed with Pakistan,
particularly the assistance it is believed to have given Pakistan in developing
its nuclear and missile technology. India views this Sino-Pakistan
collaboration as a serious and direct threat to its security interests.
Bombs for Peace
Pakistan assesses its security situation against
India’s position; India, in turn, defines its security situation in light of
China’s military force. When China exploded its nuclear bomb in 1964 and
embarked on a program to modernise its military technology, India was spurred
to develop its own nuclear program.
It took India almost ten years, but in May 1974,
at the Pokhran site in the Rajasthan desert, it detonated its own atomic bomb -
a ‘peaceful’ 12 KT fission nuclear device. Since that time, the Indian
scientific community has kept abreast of developments in global nuclear theory
and technology and has continued its own research and development program into
nuclear weaponry. India has maintained and expanded its complex of laboratory
and industrial support activities necessary to support a nuclear weapons
program but, until 1998, had refrained from conducting further tests.
The strength of Pakistan’s determination to keep
pace with India’s nuclear developments was signalled as early as 1965 when
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto told the National Assembly of Pakistan that ‘If India
builds the bomb, we will eat grass and leaves, even go hungry. But we will get
one of our own, we have no alternative’.
India’s nuclear explosion in 1974 tested Pakistan’s resolve to follow India
down the nuclear weapons path. It forced Pakistan to consider seriously its
options in regard to developing its own nuclear weapons program.
Pakistan’s leading missile and nuclear
scientist, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, maintained that India’s military activities
drove Pakistan to make nuclear weapons. He explained that the separation of
East Pakistan in 1971 weakened Pakistan but the Indian nuclear explosion in
1974 brought a qualitative change. For Pakistan, the need to neutralise India’s
superior nuclear weaponry by establishing a degree of symmetry in their nuclear
arsenals became clear.
Despite pressure from foreign powers, especially
the United States, to forgo the development of a nuclear weapons program,
Pakistan determinedly and clandestinely set about developing its nuclear
capability. According to Dr Khan, Pakistan attained the capability to explode a
nuclear device in 1984 but kept this quiet because there was no provocation to
declare its status.
Thus, over the years there has been a gradual
maturing of India’s and Pakistan’s missile and nuclear programs. Both countries
have followed a policy of nuclear ambiguity; that is, they have built up their
nuclear capability but without going openly nuclear.
Although secrecy surrounds India’s and
Pakistan’s nuclear programs, strategic analysts have, especially since the end
of the Cold War, predicted that India would be compelled to declare its nuclear
weapon status. The end of the Cold War brought about a realignment of alliances
and caused nations to reassess their security interests. India lost its
superpower friend and strategic ally, the Soviet Union, and with it a loss of
global prestige and a weakening of its military standing in the region. India
stood alone and as its influence waned, its rival, China, was gaining greater
prominence and recognition as a world and regional power. Strategic affairs
analyst Dr C. Raja Mohan explained:
The strong relationship that New Delhi had built up with Moscow
during the Cold War and the belief that the central balance between the U.S.
and USSR was immutable allowed India the luxury of keeping its nuclear option
open. But the collapse of the Soviet Union, the emergence of China - once
India’s peer - as the second most important power in the world, the consequent
disorientation of India’s foreign policy and the fear that India will forever
be marginalised in the Asian and global geopolitics forced New Delhi to
reconsider its nuclear policy in the 1990s.
Speculation about India’s readiness to go
nuclear firmed in December 1995, when American newspaper reports, based on
leaked United States intelligence, suggested that India was preparing a test
site at Pokhran to conduct a nuclear explosion. India did not categorically
deny the allegation but rather dismissed the reports as ‘highly speculative’.
The changing geopolitical situation in Asia
together with the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995 and the successful
conclusion of negotiations on a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996 placed
even greater domestic pressure on India to clarify its nuclear weapon status.
In September 1996, strategic analyst Brahma Chellaney asserted that India’s
refusal to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was strongly supported by
political parties and public opinion in India. He wrote:
Now the government faces mounting domestic pressure to end the
unilateral test moratorium it has observed since conducting its sole nuclear
detonation in 1974. A spate of recent articles in the national press urge the
government to go overtly nuclear.
Wedged between nuclear armed China and nuclear-capable Pakistan,
India sees its interests as demanding either a global drive to delegitimize and
eliminate nuclear weapons or to weaponize its own nuclear option.
Jasjit Singh, Director of the Institute for
Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, clearly spelt out and reflected the
thinking of some influential analysts in India at this time. He maintained:
China is the biggest military power in Asia, and its power is
growing. There are many strategic uncertainties that India will have to contend
with in the coming years and decades. But it is clear that China does not pose
a threat in a way that India cannot adequately deal with. The issue thus is not
a question of a threat from China, but the fact that if India has to maintain
its independency of policy and action, it must have adequate means of
self-defence, whether conventional or nuclear. The challenge is in ensuring the
autonomy and strength to deal with future coercion or military pressure. It is
in this context that India will require a nuclear deterrent. China and India
have signed agreements in recent years to maintain peace and tranquillity based
on the principle of mutual and equal security. The concept of equal security
could become meaningless, or worse, a mirage, if nuclear asymmetry is
He could see three possible ways for India to
resolve the challenges of this asymmetry in order to safeguard its
security—obtain extended deterrence linked to an alliance with a nuclear
weapons state; global nuclear disarmament; or acquire an independent nuclear
deterrent. The first option he argued worked against the very principles of an
independent India; the second option, the most desirable one, offered no short
or medium-term guarantees because actual progress in disarmament could take
decades. He concluded, therefore, that India was faced with hardly any choice
‘but to look seriously at acquiring a nuclear deterrent at least until
disarmament becomes an established reality’.
Ballistic Missile Program
A nuclear deterrent does not depend solely on a
nuclear device but also on the ability to deliver the weapon. Thus: ‘A true nuclear deterrent embraces a
proven warhead mated with a proven delivery system...delivery systems are the
other half of the deterrence equation. They must be tested and deployed before
a deterrent force is complete.’
India and Pakistan did not neglect the second part of the nuclear deterrent
equation. In line with advances in their respective nuclear weapons program,
India and Pakistan have pushed ahead with the development of their own missile
India’s Ballistic Missile System
The beginnings of India’s indigenous ballistic
missile program go back to the establishment of the Integrated Guided Missile
Development Programme (IGMDP) in 1983. The IGMDP now comprises five major
missile systems—the short-range surface-to-surface missile Prithvi (Earth); the
intermediate-range ballistic missile Agni (Fire); the short-range surface to
air missile Trishul (Tridend); the medium-range surface-to-air missile Akash
(Sky); and the smokeless high-energy anti-tank guided missile Nag (Cobra).
The two largest missiles, the Prithvi and Agni,
are of direct relevance to India’s production of an effective delivery system
for nuclear warheads. They were developed in close association with India’s
space industry. India first tested the short range Prithvi in 1988 and has
tested this system on a number of subsequent occasions. On 27 January 1996,
India successfully launched a 250km ‘extended range’ version of the Prithvi. Thirteen months later, the
missile was launched from a mobile launcher for the first time. The Prithvi is
capable of hitting a target deep within Pakistan; its range covers all of
Bangladesh, parts of China and Burma.
Wary of advances in Indian missile technology,
Pakistan monitored carefully the development of the Prithvi. In June 1997, the
Indian Prime Minister I. K. Gujral denied reports that his country had deployed
the missile near the border with Pakistan. He stated ‘India has the capability
of manufacturing the Prithvi and it has not, I repeat not, deployed Prithvi in
any part of India, more so near the border.’
However, in August 1997, the Indian Government announced it had decided to ‘accord
high priority to the next phase of the Agni program’.
The longer range Agni was first tested in May
1989 and has been tested several times since. During its last trial in February
1994, the Agni successfully hit its designated target after travelling 1,400km,
approximately 1,100km short of its projected range of 2,500km. In December
1996, Indian officials, acknowledging developments, described it as a ‘re-entry
technology demonstration’ but have over time sent confusing messages about its
In September 1996, there were indications from
official sources that the Agni program was to be revived. But in the following
December, the Indian Government announced that it would not put its Agni
Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile into production unless its national
security was under threat.
The following March, however, the Indian Prime Minister told Parliament that
India had not halted development of the Agni. Four months later the Government
announced that it had given high priority to the next phase of its Agni
This next stage in development is likely to involve further tests to convert
the missile from a ‘re-entry technology demonstration’ into a deployable weapon
Pakistan’s Ballistic Missile
During the 1980s the growing demand for, and use
of, ballistic missiles was clearly demonstrated during the Iran–Iraq war of
1980–88 and during 1988–89 war in Afghanistan. Aware of India’s ballistic
missile program and of the use of missiles in modern day warfare, Pakistan
embarked on its own ballistic missile program. Under the leadership of Dr Abdul
Khan and, reportedly, with co-operation from the Government of the People’s
Republic of China, Pakistan gradually moved ahead with the development of the
Haft-I, with a range of 80km, and Haft-II, with a range of 300km. Haft II is a
battlefield weapon and not capable of strategic intimidation or deterrence.
The launch of the Indian Prithvi in 1988 gave
impetus to Pakistan’s missile program.
Pakistan tested the two short-range missile systems Haft-I and Haft-II in early
1989. Since the launch of the Agni intermediate-range ballistic missile in
1989, Pakistan has accelerated its efforts to develop its own missile system. In mid 1991, the US imposed
sanctions against Chinese and Pakistani companies and the government agencies
allegedly involved in the transfer of some missile technology from China to
Pakistan. In August 1993, the United States Administration determined that
China had again transferred M-11 missile related equipment to Pakistan and
imposed sanctions on missile-related trade with Chinese and Pakistani aerospace
In November 1992, China reportedly transferred 24 M-11 missiles to Pakistan.
Allegations and reports of Chinese assistance to
Pakistan have persisted. In March 1996, Senator Nunn referred to a clear
statement given by the Director of Central Intelligence that China actively
assisted Pakistan in providing missiles and nuclear technology to Pakistan. He
told the US Senate:
Mr Chairman, the intelligence community continues to get
accurate and timely information on Chinese activities that involve
inappropriate weapons technology assistance to other countries, nuclear
technology to Pakistan, M-II missiles to Pakistan, cruise missiles to Iran.
During 1997, competition in the missile race
between India and Pakistan intensified. Pakistan’s test of the Haft-3 in July
1997, which reputedly reached a range of 800km, probably moved India to assert
that it would place a high priority on the next phase of its 2,500km range Agni
missile program. This in turn provoked Pakistan into suggesting that its
engineers had recently developed a 1,500km missile referred to as the ‘Ghauri’
which was intended to counter the resumption of the Agni’s program.
Ballistic Missile and Nuclear
As 1997 drew to a close, fears about the
proliferation of missile development and production heightened as an
action-reaction pattern between the two South Asian countries fuelled
suspicions about each other’s intentions.
At this time Pakistan’s concerns about escalation in the ballistic missile
programs combined with speculation about India going overtly nuclear.
India’s nuclear ambitions and its hegemonic
designs was a dominant theme running through Pakistan’s foreign policy polemics. On 20 November 1997, in an
address on ‘Arms Control and Disarmament’, the Permanent Representative of
Pakistan at the Chemical and Biological Weapons Institute in Washington stated:
...there is always the possibility that India may be tempted to
conduct a nuclear test, as it has in the past. Others may even acquiesce in and
grant India the status of a nuclear weapon state. Pakistan cannot accept this
situation in the light of its own security concerns, nor can it abandon its
fundamental doctrine of ‘ambiguity’.
In relation to ballistic missiles, the Permanent
Representative went on to say, ‘Pakistan is deeply concerned about the
production and deployment of Indian ballistic missiles against Pakistan. We
will be obliged to take appropriate steps to respond to this new and
qualitatively enhanced threat to our national security’.
The increasing popularity of the Bharatiya
Janata Party (BJP) and its menacing rumblings about inducting nuclear weapons
further worried Pakistan. The BJP had publicly committed itself on numerous
occasions to bring India’s nuclear weapons out of the closet. In their party manifesto of
1998 the BJP pledged ‘To re-evaluate the country’s nuclear policy and exercise
the option to induct nuclear weapons’.
The BJP made plain that it:
...shall not compromise on national sovereignty and security. The
current situation and regional war politics demand us to have a nuclear weapons
program in India and the BJP party will take India to be a nuclear power. We do
not wish to see India blown apart by Pakistan or China because we did not
possess the deterrent nuclear power.
The election of the BJP in March 1998 deepened
Pakistan’s fears. Pakistan again drew attention to the situation developing on
the subcontinent and the severe provocation it was experiencing. On 2 April
1998, the Pakistani Prime Minister sent a letter to the Heads of State of the
United States, Russia, China, Japan, Italy, Belgium, Spain and Germany. In part
The recent policy pronouncement by the new Indian Government to
‘exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons’ has qualitatively altered the
security environment in our region besides dealing a serious blow to efforts at
promoting non-proliferation at the global and regional levels.
We have every reason to believe that the Indian policy
pronouncement connotes a giant step towards fully operationalizing Indian
Unfortunately, the international community has continued to
disregard the series of escalatory steps taken by India during the recent years
on the nuclear and ballistic ladder.
Pakistan will be obliged to take cognizance of these alarming
developments and it cannot but exercise its sovereign right to adopt
appropriate measures to safeguard its security.
Within the week, on 6 April, Pakistan tested its
new ballistic missile called the Ghauri with a maximum range of 1,500
kilometres. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif explained that the test
flight was part of his country’s integrated missile Research and Development
(R&D) Programme and conferred on Pakistan a credible indigenous missile
capability. A Pakistani Foreign Affairs spokesman stated that the Ghauri
missile ‘primarily relates to our security needs which is of fundamental
importance to us. Our sovereignty, territorial integrity and national interest
Given Pakistan’s lack of advanced technical infrastructure and a defence
industrial base, some analysts believed that Pakistan did not possess the
indigenous capability to develop a medium range ballistic missile and questioned
Pakistan’s claim that the Ghauri was indigenously developed. They strongly
suspected that North Korea and China might have provided assistance.
The newly unveiled Ghauri missile, with the
capability of striking deep into Indian territory and named after a
twelfth-century Muslim raider who defeated a Hindu ruler, Prithvi Raj Chauhan,
held important symbolic significance for Pakistan. The successful launch of this
missile demonstrated that it could now keep in step with India’s growing
The Ghauri may have been Pakistan’s answer to India’s Prithvi but it also
prompted India to push further ahead with its missile program.
The launch of the Ghauri together with the
announcement by Pakistan that it was in the process of developing a
longer-range ballistic missile, the ‘Ghaznavi’, marked a significant escalation
in the expanding South Asian nuclear and missiles competition. Statements at
the time, such as Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan’s assertion that India was ready to
carry out a nuclear explosion at any time
and a headline in the Hindustan Times which carried the warning
‘“Ghauri” can carry N-Warhead’,
only inflamed an already tense situation.
Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes
responded to Pakistan’s show of strength by stating that Pakistan’s missile
test came as no surprise. He added that ‘China has been supplying missile
technology to Pakistan despite having given an undertaking to the United States
to do no such thing’. In a statement he described China as the mother of the
Ghauri and asserted ‘we are aware of constant outside assistance to Pakistan in
this field despite the existence of multilateral export control regimes,
unilateral declarations of restraint and supply restrictions on producer
He drew attention to India’s Prithvi short-range ballistic missile, which he
maintained was capable of hitting any target in Pakistan. He emphasised ‘we are
capable of dealing with the situation in Pakistan. There is no part of Pakistan
that is outside the range of Prithvi.’
The Indian Prime Minister reinforced Fernandes’
message. He asserted that India would not be ‘a silent spectator to arms
building exercise started by the neighbouring Pakistan’. He insisted that
‘India is prepared to face any challenge and if necessary steps will be taken
to counter new challenges’.
India raised the stakes by announcing plans to launch a low-orbit
remote-sensing surveillance satellite over the subcontinent to monitor all
missile testing activity early in 1999.
As May 1998 approached, the political rhetoric
became increasingly bellicose with India turning on China as a major threat to
its security. Early in May, Fernandes declared China as the ‘potential threat
number one’ with its military and naval involvement beginning to ‘encircle’ India
along the border with Pakistan, Myanmar and Tibet. He pointed to the transfer of
missile technology and nuclear know-how to Islamabad by Beijing; the nuclear
weapons stockpiled in Tibet along the borders with India; the extension of
military air fields in Tibet; China’s involvement in training and equipping the
Myanmar army; the conversion of Coco islands near Andaman and Nicobar into a
surveillance post for monitoring India’s activities; China’s plans to transform
the island into a major naval base; and China’s fast expanding navy ‘which will
be getting into the Indian Ocean fairly soon’.
One newspaper quoted Fernandes as saying ‘the predecessor regimes had not ruled
out the nuclear weapons but the new Government has ruled them in’.
The extent to which such statements were an
attempt to galvanise public opinion against China and in favour of nuclear
testing or a genuine reflection of India’s fears is difficult to assess.
Nevertheless, within days the Indian Prime Minister authorised the detonation
of five nuclear weapons.
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