As Indian scientists watched their new space rocket ascend over the Indian Ocean, they were jubilant. The rocket’s four giant stages lifted a three-quarter ton satellite into a near polar orbit, a tremendous achievement for Indian rocketry.
For the rest of the world, however, last October’s launch was more ominous: India had just proved that it could soon reach any point on the globe with a nuclear warhead.
India tested its first nuclear device in 1974. Since then, according to the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), its researchers have progressed to working on more powerful thermonuclear bombs and the missiles to deliver them. India’s smallest nuclear-capable missile now threatens Pakistan, and its medium-range missile will threaten China’s border regions. If India converts its new space rocket to a missile, it could reach cities as far away as London, Tokyo and New York.
Whether India succeeds will depend on help from abroad. India has long claimed that it has a perfect right to run a space program, and India has never promised not to make nuclear-capable missiles. India is not seen as a “rogue country.” Yet, India has consistently used foreign help to convert its space rockets to nuclear-capable missiles. Imports, some clandestine, some overt, have nourished India’s nuclear and rocket efforts from the start.
India built the medium-range Agni missile by taking a first-stage rocket from a small space launcher and combining it with guidance technology developed by the German space agency. The effort dates from the 1960s. U.S. scientists from NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) launched the first small rocket from Indian soil – an American Nike Apache – in 1963. “We were waiting for the payload to arrive when we saw a guy on a bicycle coming up an unpaved road,” recalls one NASA veteran of the launch. “He had the payload in the basket.”
From this humble beginning, the United States, Britain, France and Russia launched more than 350 small rockets over the next twelve years, all from India’s new Thumba test range, which these countries helped build and equip. It was through this early training that India learned the solid fuel technology that later wound up in the first stage of the Agni missile.
One of India’s ablest students was A. P. J. Abdul Kalam. While training in the United States, he visited the space centers where the U.S. Scout rocket was conceived and was being flown. Kalam returned home to build India’s first space rocket, the Satellite Launch Vehicle – SLV-3, a carbon copy of the Scout. NASA made Kalam’s task easier by supplying unclassified technical reports on the Scout’s design.
France supplied the next technology infusion. In the 1970s, its Societe Europeene de Propulsion gave India the technology for the Viking high-thrust liquid rocket motor, used on the European Space Agency’s Ariane satellite launcher. The Indian version, the “Vikas,” became the second stage of the large rocket India launched in October. Liquid fuel technology also helped India develop the Prithvi missile, which can reach Islamabad. Derived from a Soviet-supplied anti-aircraft missile, the Prithvi became the second stage of the Agni missile.
But aid from America and France was soon dwarfed by aid from Germany. In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, Germany helped India with three indispensable missile technologies: guidance, rocket-testing and composite materials. Earmarked for the space program, all were equally useful for building missiles.
In 1978, Germany installed an interfero-meter on an Indian rocket to measure, from the ground, a rocket’s angle of flight. Four years later, India tested its own version. From 1982 to 1989, Germany helped India build a navigation system for satellites based on a Motorola microprocessor. During the same period, and following the same steps, India developed its own navigation system for missiles and rockets based on the same microprocessor.
Germany also tested India’s first large rocket in a wind tunnel at Cologne-Portz; it helped India build its own rocket test facility; and it trained Indians in glass and carbon fiber composites at Stuttgart and Braunschweig. These lightweight, heat-resistant fibers are ideal for missile nozzles and nose cones. To help India use the fibers, Germany provided the documentation for a precision filament winding machine, a sensitive item now controlled for export by other countries, including the United States.
India’s quest for imports provoked a row with the United States in 1992. The Russian space agency tried to sell India advanced cryogenic engines for India’s most ambitious space rocket, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). The United States opposed the deal, rejecting India’s argument that the engines were only suitable for space launchers. “If you can do space launches, you can do ballistic missiles,” a Commerce Department analyst told the Risk Report. The analyst’s stance is buttressed by a CIA report declassified in 1993. It said that a space launcher “could be converted relatively quickly by technologically advanced countries … to a surface to surface missile.”
In 1993, India’s procurement effort surfaced again. A Massachusetts company was charged with violating U.S. export laws by selling India components for a hot isostatic press. The press, which India obtained through the company’s Scottish subsidiary, can be used to shape advanced composites for missile nose cones.
The question now is what India will do next. If it perfects a lightweight nuclear warhead, which the CIA says it is working on, the Agni missile could carry bombs to Beijing. And if India perfects an accurate long-range guidance system, its new space rocket could become an intercontinental ballistic missile. Success would change the strategic equation in Asia and make India a world nuclear power.
But India still needs crucial help. A recent Pentagon study cites composites, electronics, computers, sensors and navigation equipment as some of the technologies in which India is still weak.