India Nuclear Update – 2003

Nuclear weapon overview

Since its nuclear weapon tests in May 1998, India has been gradually working to improve its nuclear weapon stockpile and its missile delivery systems. In the years immediately after the tests, it was estimated that India had roughly 300 kilograms of weapon-grade plutonium. This amount is enough to make approximately 60 nuclear bombs. By July 2003, the Congressional Research Service estimated that India “is believed to have enough fissile material for 75-100 nuclear weapons.”

Rajagopala Chidambaram, former chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, claimed in August 1999 that Indian scientists can make nuclear weapons of “any type of size,” including a neutron bomb, based on information obtained from the 1998 tests. He also reiterated the claim that India detonated a thermonuclear device during the tests. However, in February 2000, P.K. Iyengar, retired chief of the Indian Department of Atomic Energy, stated that the thermonuclear test was a failure.

In addition to accumulating nuclear material, India is taking steps to formalize control of its nuclear weapons. In January 2003, the country announced a formal nuclear command structure while reiterating elements (such as an air, land and sea-based “triad” of forces) established in its draft nuclear doctrine of 1999. That document included the goals of maintaining a “credible minimum deterrent” and policy of “no first use.”

India is also working on the means to deliver its arsenal. India has deployed the 150 km-range Prithvi I short range ballistic missile and successfully flight-tested the medium-range Agni II in April 1999. It also continues to develop sea-launched ballistic missiles and the Brahmos cruise missile.

After the tests

In the wake of the May 1998 nuclear tests, U.S. diplomatic efforts focused on obtaining India’s commitment to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), but India has still not become a member. In his speech to the UN General Assembly in September 1998, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said, “[the May 1998 tests]…do not signal a dilution of India’s commitment to the pursuit of global nuclear disarmament…In announcing a moratorium [on further tests], India has already accepted the basic obligation of the CTBT.” Earlier that month, Vajpayee spelled out India’s position on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: “It is a discriminatory treaty…[that] has given the right to five countries to proliferate vertically in disregard of universal opinion against the very existence of nuclear weapons.”

Of the three weapon tests conducted by India on May 11, 1998, the so-called thermonuclear explosion and its subsequent yield remain a subject of debate. In a joint statement released shortly after the tests, the Indian Department of Atomic Energy and the Defense Research and Development Organization claimed that India tested “a thermonuclear device with a yield of about 43 kilotons.” India also claimed that a fission device yielding 12 kilotons and a sub-kiloton device were tested. According to news reports, U.S. analysts for the Department of Energy said the thermonuclear test had not fully succeeded, based on geophysical data and other classified information. They believed the blast’s actual yield was much lower than 43 kT and may have taken place in a boosted fission device or, more likely, in a two-stage thermonuclear weapon, where the fusion energy stage did not completely ignite. Officially, the U.S. Departments of State and Energy and nuclear weapon laboratories have neither confirmed nor denied this position, perhaps because a public disparagement of India’s data may encourage the country to test again.

In August 1999, Rajagopala Chidambaram, then chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, insisted that rock samples from the test site established that the thermonuclear device did explode per design. But in February 2000, P.K. Iyengar, retired chief of the Department of Atomic Energy, said the test was a failure, saying “the secondary (fusion) device [of the two-stage thermonuclear weapon] burnt only partially, perhaps less than 10 percent.” He characterized India as being “at the beginning of a weaponization program” and opposed the signing of the CTBT. He also argued for further testing, which he said could not be replaced by computer simulations.

In 2002, all three organizations responsible for India’s nuclear weapons program-the Department of Atomic Energy, the Bhabha Atomic Research Center and the Defense Research and Development Organization-reportedly asked the Indian government to carry out another round of nuclear tests. According to a report in Nuclear Fuel, Indian sources claimed the request was spurred by the organizations’ desire to confirm the reliability of their thermonuclear bomb design.

U.S. response

By late 1998, the Clinton administration waived most of the sanctions that it put in place after India’s nuclear tests, and President George W. Bush removed the remaining sanctions in September 2001. In October 2001, the U.S. Department of Commerce pared down the “Entity List,” a list of approximately 200 institutions to which U.S. companies were prohibited from exporting after the nuclear tests, to only 16 Indian entities. All private and public sector companies except Bharat Dynamics Limited were removed, and only entities associated with the Defense Research and Development Organization (4 entities), Department of Atomic Energy (3 entities, plus those related to reactors) and Indian Space Research Organization (8 entities) remain on the list.

In addition, in July 2003, Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal told reporters that “the US is no longer asking India to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or Fullscope Safeguards.” He expects the United States to liberalize its exports of high-tech, dual-use goods by the next meeting of the Indo-U.S. High Technology Cooperation Group, probably in November 2003. But India’s refusal later in July to join the U.S. led coalition in Iraq may impede high-tech sales from the United States and Israel.

Nuclear facilities

In October 2002, India completed the refurbishment of the 40-year-old Cirus 40 MW heavy water reactor. This step appears to have been taken instead of going forward with a plan, announced in June 1999, to build a new research reactor inside the BARC campus in Mumbai to increase India’s annual production of weapon-grade plutonium. Acccording to a March 2003 report in Nuclear Fuel, Anil Kakodkar, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, said that India chose to refurbish the Cirus reactor between 2000 and 2002 because “that cost less than building a new reactor to replace it.”

India has also continued to develop its civilian nuclear energy program. India’s Atomic Energy Commission now overseas 14 nuclear reactor units at 6 sites with a combined generating capacity of 2,720 MWe. The government-owned Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL) would like to boost output to 20,000 MWe, achieving 7-10% of India’s total electricity generating capacity, by 2020. India plans to have eight new reactors in operation by 2008, including two Russian-designed 1,000 MWe VVER units.

In a 2002 statement, Kakodkar spoke of the development of advanced heavy water reactors as part of India’s efforts to “evolve an innovative reactor system” as well as exploit “thorium for energy production,” given India’s resources of thorium. He also described a new facility that has been designed by BARC to separate and purify Uranium-233 from irradiated thorium.

Nuclear weapon policy

In January 2003, India announced a formal command structure for its nuclear arsenal, placing ultimate authority with the Prime Minister. The announcement included elements established in India’s draft nuclear doctrine of 1999, including its goals of maintaining a “credible minimum deterrent” and “no first use,” but added a new caveat that India “will retain the option” of using nuclear weapons in retaliation for a major attack by biological or chemical weapons.

India’s nuclear deterrent as laid out in its August 1999 draft nuclear doctrine is based on a strategic triad of “aircraft, mobile land-based missiles and sea-based assets.” India’s most likely delivery platforms are still fighter-bomber aircraft, although the country is developing a range of ballistic missiles and is negotiating to obtain a nuclear submarine from Russia.

Outside contributions

In May 2000, Russian President Vladimir Putin amended Russia’s presidential decree on nuclear exports to allow Russia in “exceptional cases” to export nuclear materials, technology and equipment to countries that do not have full-scope IAEA safeguards. This cleared the way for Russia to provide material for India’s civilian nuclear program and to agree to sell India two 1000 MWe VVER reactors. Russia has also become a main source of arms for the country. Russia is working with India to develop the Brahmos cruise missile and is negotiating the transfer to India of nuclear submarines and an aircraft carrier. Russia has also supplied India with advanced conventional weapons, such as AWACS aircraft, SU-30 fighters and MiG-21-93 aircraft, and has agreed to provide India with 310 T-90S main battle tanks as well as KA-31 helicopters.

Israel has sold India the Barak-I missile defense system and Green Pine radar. Negotiations are underway for the sale of three Israeli Phalcon early warning aircraft to India, but in July 2003, Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes was reported to have told the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) that India and Israel had not finalized the Phalcon deal. He also announced plans to revitalize the Trishul surface-to-air missile program to develop India’s first anti-missile system.

U.S. officials continue to block India’s purchase of the Israeli Arrow missile defense system, the only operational anti-ballistic missile system, built jointly by Israel and the Boeing Co. Because the United States was at the fore of the system’s development, it has veto power over Israeli exports of the Arrow. Although several Defense Department officials are believed to support the sale, State Department officials reportedly oppose the deal because it sends out the wrong message at a time when the United States is seeking to discourage proliferation.