Monday, June 23, 2008

India was saved by Pokhran nuclear tests

The United Progressive Alliance government did not celebrate the 10th anniversary of India’s Pokhran II nuclear tests. May I on behalf of the people of the country, then, raise two cheers for the occasion in this column? Only two, because testing weapons of mass destruction was a dreadful necessity, rather than an occasion for celebration. Just how necessary it was has become apparent in this past week when it has been revealed that Pakistan had by then — with the help of the Chinese — developed a sophisticated and compact nuclear weapon, based on a proven Chinese design that was tested in 1966.

The subsidence crater at the site of the Taj Mahal shaft where India's tactical fission bomb was tested. The crater appears to be about 80 m across and 15 m deep.

Whether the National Democratic Alliance government had some secret information of this, or whether it was what it inferred from the test of the Ghauri missile on April 8, 1998, it is now clear that we had very little time to lose and fortunately we had a government that acted. Going by the reaction of the Congress and the Left at the time, and their behaviour since, you can be sure that had the UPA government been confronted with the situation today, it would have dithered, and its Left allies would have ensured that India did not become a nuclear weapons state.
Now the deed is done. India’s nuclear arsenal is nothing to write home about, and its missile programme moves at a glacial pace, but as far as deterrence goes, a couple of bombs and missiles are fine, and the political consensus for it is so strong that the Left cannot roll it back.

A.Q. Khan

The news that is of such significance came through a somewhat curious Abdul Qadeer Khan network source. In May, Swiss President Pascale Couchepin had announced that under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency, his government had shredded thousands of documents relating to construction plans for nuclear weapons, for gas ultracentrifuges to enrich weapons-grade uranium as well as for guided missile delivery systems which were linked to the AQ Khan network’s Swiss connection. The network was exposed in 2003 and Khan was put under house arrest in Islamabad in early 2004.
But last month, taking advantage of Musharraf’s eclipse and the ongoing political turmoil in Pakistan, he was released and began speaking to the media about how he had been wrongfully confined and that the western parties were themselves guilty of what he had been charged with. In retaliation, as it were, news leaks in the US alerted us to an even more curious point: The documents shredded contained detailed digitised drawings of sophisticated nuclear weapons which were of the type tested by Pakistan in 1998. In other words, Pakistan was actually selling its nuclear weapons design to third countries.
Pokhran II was therefore important from the Indian point of view because while Pakistan had had access to a tried and tested Chinese nuclear weapon design, all that Indian designers had to go by was a single nuclear explosive test of 1974. The test was also important because it signified that India had taken abundant precautions against the Pakistani and Chinese tendency towards irresponsible, and even reckless, behaviour. China’s use of missiles in the Taiwan straits crisis of 1996 is one case in point. Another is the planning of the 1999 Kargil venture with full knowledge of the fact that it could lead to a nuclear war. But the extent of the recklessness became apparent only after the Khan network was unraveled in 2004.
The network was created in the 1970s to acquire enrichment technology from across the world by its founder A.Q. Khan, who had stolen the design from the company he had worked for in the Netherlands. In the 1980s, Khan began to use this network which had an elaborate chain of suppliers and shipping agents in Europe, South Africa, Dubai, Malaysia and Thailand. It then transpired that even while offering complete drawings and components for gas centrifuges, Khan was also offering the design of a nuclear weapon.
In the early 1980s, US intelligence had got information that China had transferred nuclear materials and a nuclear weapon design to Pakistan. The latter was of a proven Chinese warhead tested in 1966. This information was confirmed after a ship carrying equipment for a centrifuge for Libya was detained in October 2003. As a result of this the country came clean and admitted to its clandestine activities and turned over all the material and documentation to the IAEA. US intelligence which whisked away some of the key documents were in for a shock when they discovered the blueprints of a nuclear bomb in a plastic shop bag of the tailor Khan patronised in Islamabad. The bomb was the one tested by the Chinese in 1966 and the documents included detailed, dated handwritten notes in English taken during lectures given by Chinese weapons experts who were named by the note-takers — obviously Pakistani nuclear scientists — and some of the annotation was in Chinese.


As part of the investigations in 2004, Swiss investigators seized computer files and documents from three of its nationals — Friedrich Tinner and his two sons Marco and Urs. They contained over 1,000 megabytes of information which were encrypted. After considerable difficulty, the Swiss decrypted the information. Though they realised that it related to nuclear weapons, they lacked the expertise to assess its importance and so called the IAEA and the US for help. The IAEA which had been involved in the investigation of the Khan network soon realised that they were the design of the nuclear weapon that had been tested by Pakistan in 1998. It was a compact version of the 1966 design and far more sophisticated because of the electronics. The 1966 design could fit a DF-2 kind of a missile, much heavier than anything Pakistan has. Since the heaviest Pakistani missile at the time was the Ghauri, acquired from the North Koreans by the Khan network, a new design was necessary. This used less uranium, but had a greater explosive force. This design, according to sources cited by The New York Times, could also fit missiles like the Iranian Shahab. Alarmingly, the bomb data was in digitised form, complete with information coded for manufacturing components on an industrial scale.


This brings us to the ruckus over Mr. L.K. Advani’s participation in a function to release a book on Benazir Bhutto. The book merely repeats well known truths about Pakistan’s nuclear programme. You can question Shyam Bhatia on the need to put out some revelations of Benazir’s personal life, but his revelation that she carried nuclear weapons data in CDs in her pocket fits in well with the fact that the Swiss files were digitised and thus available for storage in such media. Benazir’s autobiography acknowledges that she did play a crucial role in acquiring missile technology from North Korea, though she insists that the deal was against cash.
Perhaps Benazir was trying to prove that she was one of the boys when it came to Pakistan’s security interests. Or that Pakistan’s insecurity with regard to India is so intense that everyone from politician to general is ready to go that extra mile. But it does provide us with the dangerous pathology of a country that is second only to the People’s Republic of China when it comes to proliferating nuclear weapons technology.
Only the future can tell us about the true implications of Khan’s activities for the future security of the country and the region. In the meantime we should be grateful that Pokhran II has at least provided us a shield of sorts.
This article first appeared in Mail Today June 19, 2008

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