Safety and Security of India's N-Weapons

Gurmeet Kanwal. Research Fellow


Ever since its inception, India's nuclear research and development programme has remained shrouded in secrecy and the armed forces remained out of the nuclear decision-making loop. Besides posing practical difficulties, the virtual non-involvement of the armed forces in the country's nuclear weapons programme has undermined the credibility of India's nuclear deterrent and raised doubts about the safety and security of nuclear weapons. This shortcoming needs to be corrected through an institutionalised consultative planning process, the working of which is characterised by open debate on all but the most sensitive aspects of policy making and military strategy.

Qualified military personnel of the (tri-Services) Strategic Forces Command must handle all functional aspects of nuclear weapons in the field. The basic idea of modern safety design, called enhanced nuclear detonation safety system (ENDS), should be followed. Combined with electronic permissive action links (PALs), these measures ensure an exceedingly high standard of safety and prevention of unauthorised use.

There is no compelling reason for India to maintain fully assembled nuclear warheads, mated with the delivery systems, with all the attendant risks of accidental or inadvertent and unauthorised launch. Nuclear theft and smuggling are also emerging threats. Security needs to be arranged for rail-and road-mobile ballistic missiles as well. Nuclear and missile security involves an intricate inter-relationship between personnel, instructions for access, data and information, management and organisation, communications arrangements and safety and security equipment.

Crashes have occurred involving aircraft carrying nuclear weapons. In January 1966, a B-52 carrying 4 x B-28 hydrogen bombs crashed at Palomares, Spain. Two of the weapons were recovered intact (though one had to be retrieved from the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea). The other two weapons did not undergo nuclear detonation but the accident did cause the high explosive in the weapons to explode - scattering the plutonium in their cores over a considerable area. A similar accident occurred in Greenland in 1968. Ballistic missiles have also had such accidents. In September 1980, a maintenance accident caused a Titan II missile to explode in its silo. Its nine-megaton warhead was blown 600 feet into the air and landed about 1,500 feet away from the silo. Fortunately, the warhead remained intact.

- Gregory S. Jones

There are undoubtedly numerous hazards in building and operating a nuclear arsenal. The "dynamics of confrontational situations" generates its own additional risks. A decision to deploy nuclear warheads and delivery systems would add further to the risks due to a greater likelihood of either accidental or inadvertent and unauthorised use of nuclear weapons. The need for ensuring the highest standards of safety and foolproof security of nuclear weapons makes it imperative for the leadership of nuclear weapons states to institute comprehensive checks and balances and control measures for these weapons. At the same time, operational efficiency cannot be completely compromised in the interest of ensuring failsafe and foolproof safety and security, and a workable via media has to be found. Key decisions need to be made regarding the custody, storage, handling and transportation of nuclear warheads during both peace and war.

However, with nuclear weapons, it is not enough to merely keep one's own house in order. The "ugly stability"1 or "violent peace"2 prevailing in Southern Asia requires that viable bilateral and multilateral nuclear confidence building measures (CBMs) and nuclear risk reduction measures (NRRMs) be agreed upon and instituted to keep the spectre of a nuclear war at bay. It would be appropriate to discuss concepts and doctrines with India's nuclear-armed adversaries and evolve a methodology for the advance notification of ballistic missile tests and related events that may be subject to misinterpretation. A well-structured restraint regime would minimise the risks of nuclear accidents and prevent an unfettered arms race from breaking out. An atmosphere of mutual trust and confidence is a prerequisite for nuclear stability and peace.

Civil-Military Interface of India's Nuclear Weapons Programme

Ever since its inception during Jawaharlal Nehru's early years as prime minister after independence, India's nuclear research and development programme remained shrouded in secrecy. In fact, for many decades the general public was quite unaware that India was pursuing a nuclear weapons research and development programme alongside the better known one for the peaceful uses of atomic energy. Within the government too knowledge about the nuclear weapons programme was shared strictly on a need to know basis. The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) was always under the prime minister's personal charge and there was little parliamentary overseeing of its functioning. Even after the "peaceful nuclear explosion" (PNE) of 1974, very little changed and it was left to the scientists to continue their work.3 There was little parliamentary discussion or public debate about whether India needed nuclear weapons or not. The armed forces remained out of the nuclear decision-making loop; the Services chiefs were rarely consulted, if at all. Only one engineer regiment of the army was involved in digging shafts at Pokhran for the nuclear tests and in providing logistics support. However, it must be stated in all fairness that the messianic zeal with which secrecy about the nuclear weapons programme was maintained was not limited to India alone; the situation has been virtually the same among all the nuclear powers. Robert Dahl has written: "No decisions can be more fateful for Americans, and for the world, than decisions about nuclear weapons. Yet these decisions have largely escaped the control of the democratic process."4

The Kargil Review Committee has reported that there is general agreement that Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons capability in 1987 and that India's weaponisation took place between 1992 and 1994.5 It has been claimed that one of the nuclear tests on May 11, 1998, was that of an actual 15 kt (kiloton) fission warhead. Hence, it can be presumed that the warhead tested on May 11, 1998, came from stockpiled nuclear weapons. Yet, till India declared itself a nuclear weapons state (NWS) in 1998, the armed forces had generally not been kept informed about the developments. The only recorded consultation with a Service chief is the information provided by Air Chief Marshal S. K. Mehra, former chief of Air Staff that he "was inducted into work on the weapons delivery aspects of the nuclear programme some time in 1986."6 Some other former chiefs of Staff have said on many occasions that they had neither been told about India's nuclear weapons programme nor consulted about the size and shape of the nuclear deterrent or the contours of India's nuclear doctrine.

The aspect of 'need to know' is entirely understandable and perhaps even justified in a covert project, but the obvious disadvantages of such a policy do not appear to have been thought through completely. The armed forces could not have been expected to prepare for a phantom threat that had not physically manifested itself. In view of Pakistan's declared policy of employing a nuclear strike on Indian forces to ward off imminent military defeat, the Indian Army has to review not only its overall military strategy for a war under the shadow of nuclear weapons with Pakistan, but also revise its tactics, techniques and procedures for prosecuting such a war. For example, large quantities of nuclear protective suits would be necessary for frontline troops. The allocation of air defence assets to various vulnerable areas (VAs) and vulnerable points (VPs) would need to be reconsidered and the overall air defence resources considerably enhanced for a nuclear environment. Medical facilities would need to be considerably beefed up to cater for thousands of radiation and burns casualties. The navy and air force would also have similar requirements. Such revamping requires time for planning, inter-Service coordination and necessary approvals before implementation can be effected. Even more importantly, additional budgetary allocations would be necessary. Mental reorientation and psychological preparation would be required and the troops would need to be trained to operate and function in a nuclear environment. The Indian Navy and Indian Air Force would also need to carry out similar reviews of their tactics, techniques and procedures.

Besides posing practical difficulties, the virtual non-involvement of the armed forces in the country's nuclear weapons programme has undermined the credibility of India's nuclear deterrent and many analysts have been critical of this policy. Well known columnist Prem Shankar Jha has stated that India is now a nuclear power with no nuclear strike force worth the name. He has written:7

India still has no nuclear doctrine. Because it cannot bring itself to acknowledge who its principal enemy is, and where its most urgent threat is coming from, it is unable to define the purpose of its nuclear weapons and, therefore, the number and types of weapons and missiles it needs to develop. Due to the lack of a doctrine, it has not been able to give the armed forces any indication on how nuclear forces should be factored into their tactical planning. It has no nuclear weapons directorate, and the power hungry bureaucratic and scientific establishment has kept the armed forces out of the decision-making loop...

Pakistan, in contrast, has a fully focussed doctrine governing the use of nuclear weapons that the Americans understand. It has a defined enemy and a clear statement of the circumstances in which it will use nuclear weapons... It has created a nuclear strategic command to coordinate the development of weapons and delivery systems. And far from keeping the armed forces out of the decision-making and weapons development loops, the only contentious issue the government faces today is whether the army should continue to maintain its monopoly on decision-making or bring in the navy and the air force too.

K. Subrahmanyam has commented on the need to involve the armed forces to project a credible deterrent. He has stated, "It is not only inescapable that the armed forces would be involved but to project deterrence they should also be seen to be involved... India has proclaimed a no first use policy and that makes it all the more important that it should be in a position to project deterrence in a credible manner... A minimum deterrent should demonstrate its credibility through the command and control system and the overt and publicised involvement of the armed forces... Unfortunately, in India, a large section of our political class does not understand issues like long lead times in defence preparedness..."8 However, it would not be fair to assume that the pre-1998 situation has continued unchanged post-Pokhran II. The real cause for concern is that there is still no overtly visible sign of the direct involvement of the armed forces in the planning and force structure of India's nuclear deterrent. General S. Padmanabhan, on assuming the office of the chief of Army Staff on October 31, 2000, commented, "India has to be prepared to fight a nuclear war even if it was unlikely to do so... if we have a capability, we should be prepared with our doctrines, tactics and plans... though a certain amount of work had been done, further fine tuning is required."9 This shortcoming needs to be corrected through an institutionalised consultative planning process the working of which is characterised by open debate on all but the most sensitive aspects of policy making and military strategy.

Raj Chengappa, who has done pioneering work in compiling an authoritative account of India's nuclear discourse, has written that some rudimentary form of control over the nuclear warheads was in place even during the early 1990s and has quoted former Prime Minister V. P. Singh as having then said:10 "This is scary. This matter cannot be just between the Prime Minister and the Scientific Adviser. Supposing someone attacks Delhi, there is no formal procedure as to who then decides what to do. We have to institutionalise it." V. P. Singh appointed Arun Singh, a former minister of state for defence to recommend a viable system. Arun Singh was "dismayed that the Chiefs of Staff were still not briefed about India's capability" and said:11

It was clear we had to end the wink and nudge approach. When it is crunch time you just can't ring up a Chief of Staff and say press the button. The army will not take the scientists' word that it will work. They will want to know if they do have a usable credible deterrent. Otherwise they are likely to say buzz off. It is a significant disadvantage if you don't have an established command and control structure... I thought it was crazy that BARC (Bhabba Atomic Research Centre) did not know where DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) stood or vice versa. Nothing had been worked out as to who was to control the weapons and under what circumstances and time-frame we would strike back. It was an unacceptable situation. There was just no institutionalised way of doing things.

Consequently, the Arun Singh Committee recommended that the Services chiefs be brought into the nuclear decision-making loop and that the task of warhead assembly should be distributed to many different agencies so that safeguards against misuse could be built in. Unfortunately, the committee's report was delivered to the caretaker government of Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar and caretaker governments are not entitled by convention to take major decisions in India's parliamentary democracy.

A clear distinction needs to be made between a nuclear weapons research and development programme and stockpiled nuclear weapons that may have to be actually delivered against enemy targets if deterrence fails. India's nuclear weapons programme has so far been a joint DAE-DRDO responsibility. Both the organisations have some of the most gifted scientific and technological talent in the country. Their scientists have accomplished wonders in the face of daunting odds such as the technology control regimes in operation against India since its PNE in 1974. The five nuclear tests carried out in May 1998 were state-of-the-art and after initial scepticism and attempts to denigrate the achievements, the international scientific community has recognised them as such. However, it can be nobody's case that it should be the responsibility of India's nuclear and defence scientists to manage a nuclear stockpile (storage, handling, transportation, maintenance, testing, safety and security), prepare the warheads for delivery (including mating of the warhead with ballistic missiles before launch and performing pre-launch technical tests at the launch platform) all by themselves. While some of these tasks need to be shared with trained technical experts, others fall entirely in the domain of professional military personnel.

Qualified military personnel of the (proposed) Strategic Forces Command12 need to be specially trained to handle all functional aspects of nuclear weapons in the field. Agni missile regiment commanders, battery commanders, troop commanders and launcher detachments, as well as fighter-bomber pilots, their crews and technicians must know (on a need to know basis at each level) where the warheads will come from, how they are to be mated and prepared for launch, what checks and tests are to be carried out and what the firing sequence is, among a host of other such details. While the logistics chain has to rehearse the delivery of warheads without accidents to the launch platforms, the personnel manning the launchers have to be rigorously trained in correctly following all laid down drills to ensure a smooth and hassle free pre-launch sequence. Since actual live firings cannot be practised for obvious reasons, it is even more critical to attain excellence in training standards through repeated drills using simulators, dummies and mock-ups. Non-performers need to be weeded out ruthlessly and replaced by more capable volunteers. As far as nuclear powered submarines (SSBNs) armed with submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) are concerned, since they would be on patrol stations for weeks and months together, there is no option but to have all components on board at all times with the naval personnel fully trained to handle their deadly armaments independently of all civilians.

Familiarity may breed contempt in social relationships, but in the case of weapon systems it breeds efficiency and a sense of pride among soldiers. When the chips are down, the country always expects its armed forces personnel to deliver. They can do so only if they have developed confidence in the capability of the weapon systems entrusted to them and in their own capacity to successfully handle these weapon systems during peacetime training. Since the purpose of nuclear weapons is deterrence and not warfighting, the soldiers' proficiency would contribute immensely towards projecting credible deterrence. When some of these purely military training activities are witnessed by senior commanders and ministers and widely reported and covered by the media, the credibility of India's nuclear deterrent will go up several notches.

Storage of India's N-Weapons

The custody of nuclear weapons usually refers to the physical possession of the weapon or one or more of its components. In the early days after World War II, when only the US possessed nuclear weapons, the warheads were in the custody of the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). They were to be delivered to the user only when necessary. This form of assertive control continued during the Truman Administration as long as the atomic arsenal remained relatively small and simple and the nuclear doctrine was premised around the late use of nuclear weapons. Subsequently, the doctrine went through a period of flux and gradually shifted to the early use of nuclear weapons in war when massive retaliation became the accepted strategy during the Eisenhower years. Around this time, the custody of nuclear weapons was gradually transferred to the military through a process of delegative control. The introduction of a rudimentary form of permissive action links (PALs) and the Bay of Pigs and Berlin crises spurred the Kennedy Administration to seek more assertive civilian control over American nuclear weapons even though physical possession remained with the military. Thereafter, progressive growth in the American arsenal, particularly the introduction of battlefield or tactical nuclear weapons, resulted in the erosion of assertive control. However, in 1967, it was decided to incorporate PALs on Strategic Air Command warheads; during the late 1960s, on weapons in the Far East; and in the mid-1970s, on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Thus, while the warheads were in military possession, control over their arming and launch was exercised by civilian decision-makers.13

In the erstwhile USSR, control over the nuclear warheads has been known to be in the hands of the KGB. In China's totalitarian system, the nuclear weapons have been under the People's Liberation Army (PLA) though specific details are not known. In France and the United Kingdom, dual-key control systems have been in operation. Israel's nuclear secrets are tightly guarded and not much is known of its command and control system. However, considering that Israel is a vibrant democracy, it may be surmised that a suitable system of checks and balances would have been instituted and even though the nuclear weapons may be in military custody, the civilian leadership is likely to retain adequate control over their employment. In Pakistan, soon after the inception of the nuclear weapons programme, that is from the time that General Zia-ul Haq overthrew Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and installed an autocratic government, nuclear weapons have been firmly under the army's control. Even if the present military government eventually hands over political power to an elected civilian administration, it can be safely predicted that the military will continue to exercise complete control over Pakistan's nuclear weapons. In fact, such a stipulation would be a prerequisite for handing over power to civilians.

The US and British experience in this regard is instructive. It is known that the nuclear warheads carried by bomber aircraft of the US Strategic Air Command were not armed finally till the aircraft got airborne. In-flight insertion of the nuclear core into the bomb casing by a method called "tube insertion" had the following advantages:14

l It increased safety and operational flexibility.

l It enabled fissile material to be returned to the base in the event of an abortive mission when operational circumstances demanded jettisoning of the bomb casing.

l It eliminated the risk of a fissile explosion during take-off.

l The possibility of a nuclear explosion over friendly territory was eliminated.

Another advantage of keeping the nuclear core separate from the remaining bomb casing is that the core can be stored separately under different custodial arrangements. In the case of the US, the AEC held the nuclear cores of US Air Force warheads for many years till this responsibility was also given to the US armed forces during the Eisenhower Administration. Only after receiving explicit orders from the president could the two elements of the weapon be brought together. In the United Kingdom (UK), from 1951 onwards, the "RAF (Royal Air Force) became solely responsible for the custody and storage of all atomic bombs after production, including responsibility for the fissile cores and all component parts. The policy was adopted to provide the RAF with the necessary handling experience of atomic weapons (to) ensure that Bomber Command could adopt an optimum state of readiness at all times."15 In the UK, the nuclear warhead casings (without the core) were regarded as comparable to other modern weapons such as missiles and were stored and secured accordingly. The storage of the fissile cores was the "responsibility of a separate security system established outside the framework of existing supply channels."

With the experience gained over the half century that nuclear weapons have been in existence, it is now standard practice to incorporate the principal safety features in the design of the warhead itself. "The basic idea of modern safety design, called enhanced nuclear detonation safety system (ENDS), is to protect electrical systems involved in the detonation of the warhead from any unintended sources of energy, primarily heat or electrical current. Two key engineering concepts implement the ENDS approach: strong link-weak link design and environmental sensing devices (ESDs). In simple terms, strong link-weak link means that the internal electronic connections inhibiting detonation are made stronger than those used to detonate the weapon. In an abnormal environment, such as fire or a highly charged atmosphere, the weak links needed to detonate the weapon will fail before the strong links inhibiting the detonation do."16 ESDs compare the environment obtaining with that which is to be expected for an intended launch and are sturdy links that prevent the final arming of the warhead before they detect expected parameters like acceleration and proper spin resembling the intended firing sequences.

These safety features are combined with specially developed insensitive high explosives (IHE) that have high tolerances and are less likely to detonate in an accident. Feaver writes that in the US, the nuclear warheads are designed to achieve what has been called "one-point safety" -that is, the probability that an accidental conventional explosion would produce a nuclear yield exceeding four pounds of TNT is less than one in a million. Combined with electronic PALs, these measures ensure an exceedingly high standard of safety and prevention of unauthorised use. The following "positive" measures were introduced in the US as part of an effort to ensure that minimum safety standards were maintained:17

l Preventing weapons involved in accidents or incidents or jettisoned weapons from producing a nuclear yield.

l Preventing deliberate arming, launching, firing or releasing except upon execution of emergency war orders or when directed by the competent authority.

l Preventing inadvertent arming, launching, firing or releasing of nuclear weapons.

l Ensuring adequate security.

With the introduction of electronic PALs, "custody" no longer means "physical" possession. It also does not mean that nuclear warheads should be deemed to be under civilian control only if civilian officials (or scientists) are physically present at the storage sites with administrative control over the warheads. Electronic PALs ensure that a nuclear warhead cannot be used without the highest custodian's approval. Hence, nuclear weapons would be in civilian custody even if they were stored in military storage sites spread all over the country. In fact, electronic PALs give civil authorities much greater control than they would exercise if the warheads were merely in their physical possession. Warheads made safe by way of PAL technology are "locked" weapons and can be conceivably projected in a wide variety of operational configurations, including higher states of readiness without the risk of dangerous incidents. The physical custody of nuclear warheads governed by PALs can be safely entrusted to the armed forces without risk of loss of civilian control.

Several models could be evaluated for the custody and storage of India's nuclear warheads. First use doctrines and 'launch on warning' and 'launch through attack' strategies require high levels of alerts to be maintained and almost continuous launch site readiness of a selected number of warheads and delivery systems. Such readiness has the disadvantage of increasing deterrence instability as well as the risks of accidents and inadvertent or unauthorised launch. Since India's nuclear doctrine is one of retaliatory use only, with no particular requirement of immediate retaliation, there is no compelling reason for India to maintain fully assembled nuclear warheads, mated with the delivery systems, with all the attendant risks of accidental or inadvertent and unauthorised launch and heavy maintenance requirements. For reasons of safety, the delivery systems that would be manned by the military units of the (proposed) Strategic Forces Command, must be kept apart from their nuclear warheads at all times till a high level of alert becomes necessary. Even then, final mating of the warhead with the delivery system can and should be withheld till just before the launch.

A nuclear warhead comprises the nuclear core and the conventional high explosive (HE) trigger assembly. These two major parts should be stored separately to ensure against nuclear accidents and to prevent an occurrence of the "mad major" scenario made popular by the Stanley Kubrick film "Dr. Strangelove." Even with electronic PALs and other additional locks and safety features built in, it would be prudent to make the safety arrangement failsafe by keeping the core and the trigger assembly separate. If technical sophistication so permits, the trigger assembly (that forms the bulk of the warhead in weight as well as volume) should be stored close to the launch platforms under the joint custody of the armed forces and the DRDO scientists who would also have the responsibility to maintain it. This will reduce transportation problems and the chances of accidents. It will also increase redundancy - both the trigger assembly and the nuclear core will not be lost together in the case of unforeseen eventualities or mishaps during transportation. The nuclear core should be stored well dispersed at many locations, as discussed above, in the joint custody of DAE scientists and the armed forces. The transportation of the core to the launch platform should be the responsibility of the armed forces. The final assembly of the core with the HE trigger and the mating of the composite warhead with the launch vehicle or aircraft should be done under the supervision of DRDO and DAE scientists by trained personnel of the (proposed) Strategic Forces Command either after release orders have been received or when orders have been received to upgrade preparedness to a higher alert status.

Raj Chengappa has noted that former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao had asked Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, then scientific advisor to the defence minister and the chairman of the DRDO to establish a command and control system on the following lines:18

l The nuclear core should be stored at several strategic sites across the country and not just at BARC, Trombay.

l An arrangement should be worked out for mating the core with its assembly in the shortest possible time when the need arises.

l It should be ensured that the command to trigger the bomb remains strictly under civilian control.

l The overall system should be so designed that at least three agencies have to combine their efforts if the bomb has to be prepared for a launch.

While the above guidelines have substantial merit, the storage of nuclear warheads in India's nuclear establishments and DRDO laboratories is not the best possible arrangement as it is the obvious thing to do. If deterrence fails, India's adversaries can be expected to launch a counter-force strike that will naturally include all known nuclear storage sites.19 If all the nuclear eggs are placed in easily predictable baskets, India may lose most of its nuclear warheads even before retaliatory strikes can be planned. Also, even if the adversary employs low yield nuclear warheads in a disarming first strike, there will be colossal collateral damage in the civilian areas adjoining the nuclear laboratories and DRDO establishments. Hence, it would be prudent to disperse India's nuclear stockpile over many locations, particularly in central and southern India.

Weapon Assembly Team

The first prototype British atomic weapon (known as Blue Danube) designed in 1950 had an assembly team of 14 men and took seven hours to assemble. The fissile material was inserted during the third hour of assembly. Hence, for a period of four hours there was a risk of fission or of partial fission in the event of an accident or an enemy attack.

The Blue Danube assembly team comprised two officers, a warrant officer, three senior non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and eight corporals under the command of a flight lieutenant. To ensure the safety of the assembly team, the nuclear weapon storage areas were equipped with radiation monitors and provided with a ventilation system to reduce the risk of inhaling toxic particles. Respirators were also used during the handling of these components and personal monitoring badges (which measured each individual's explosure to radiation) were worn at all times within the storage and assembly buildings.

Stephen Twigge and Len Scott, "Learning to Love the Bomb: The Command and Control of British Nuclear Forces," The Journal of Stratetgic Studies, vol. 22, no. 1, March 1999.

These locations will need to be carefully selected to ensure that these are well away from large population centres and that there are good communications hubs nearby for the transportation of the warheads to the launch platforms quickly. They should be secure and secluded so that they are well away from prying eyes. The storage pens should be able to withstand aerial attacks with conventional HE bombs. Making all of them proof against nuclear blasts would be ideal but unaffordable. Suitable locations offering a modicum of camouflage and concealment could be found in some army cantonments and at air force airfields. A few new locations would also need to be specially developed for redundancy and the periodic rotation of warheads to keep the adversaries guessing about which of the locations are actually in use at any point for warhead storage. Some realistic dummy locations will be inescapable for deception purposes.

Safety and Security

The aspect of the safety of nuclear weapons during storage, handling, transportation, assembly, launch and final arming for release cannot be overemphasised. During the Cold War, there were false alerts on 20,000 occasions and over 200 accidental, unintentional and unauthorised incidents or accidents when nuclear weapons came close to being triggered.20 According to Raj Chengappa, "a series of half a dozen safety locks" ensure that Indian nuclear warheads can explode only when desired.21 Half a dozen safety locks may be good enough but what matters is how advanced the technology is and whether, like the warheads, it is state-of-the-art. It could be assumed that these safety locks are based on PAL technologies. One example often given is that of a routine Pakistan Air Force flight over densely populated Karachi in May 1977 when a Mirage III fighter accidentally dropped two fuselage tanks that exploded and killed 10 people. If the aircraft had been carrying a nuclear warhead and it had dropped that without failsafe safety devices, the results may have been catastrophic.

K. Subrahmanyam has pointed out that "American concerns and anxiety about South Asia's nuclear situation (are) not reflected in the American denial of technology cooperation with India and Pakistan on safety and security measures-especially those that involve interaction among scientists and sale of equipment related to nuclear safety."22 Many Western scholars have also been arguing on similar lines. Todd Sechser, a research analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, has for long been urging the US government to face the new era of proliferation squarely and expand nuclear safety cooperation with India and Pakistan.23 He has recommended that the US "should declassify basic nuclear safety technologies and permit the sale of electronic locks and early warning systems to nascent nuclear powers... India and Pakistan have neither the financial resources nor the technological base to develop the electronic locks and protective arming devices employed by US nuclear forces." The only objection the US has to such a proposal is that its acceptance would tacitly condone nuclear proliferation. However, the US must consider whether it would be better to dramatically reduce the risk of accidental nuclear war or worry about encouraging other proliferation efforts. Stringent technology control regimes (in force since 1974 in India's case) have in any case failed to stop India and Pakistan from developing nuclear weapons-their utility is limited to delaying the development process. In the case of nuclear weapons safety, time penalties may prove to be prohibitively expensive.

The physical security of nuclear weapons during storage and transportation requires detailed planning and error-free execution. The Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) and the Defence Security Corps (DSC) provide security at India's nuclear laboratories and DRDO establishments, respectively. The CISF is a purely civilian central government security force and though the DSC is a Ministry of Defence (MoD) force, it comprises mainly superannuated soldiers who are re-employed for a few years. The security of nuclear weapons requires a systematic evaluation of the threats, intelligence inputs about external sources of potential danger and counter-intelligence watchfulness regarding attempts at sabotage from within through subversive activities. In the modern arms bazaar there is a ready market for nuclear warheads. Terrorist groups would love to lay their hands on a tennis ball size well-machined nuclear core for their nefarious purposes-blackmail or actual use to kill through nuclear radiation by poisoning water sources and the like.

Nuclear theft and smuggling are also emerging threats. These threats can originate from both internal or external sources. Dissident groups and disgruntled individuals internally and enemy agents or international terrorists could be the cause of such a threat besides those who are motivated purely by greed. Explaining why the world had not witnessed a serious incident as a result of threats from real and potential illicit transactions in weapons-grade nuclear materials, John Deutsch, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), had stated in a US Senate hearing in 1996, "We've just been lucky so far."24 Weapons-grade nuclear materials are of value for making nuclear fission weapons as well as for use in commercial power reactors run by private companies some of whose executives do not burden their conscience with the legality of the source from which their raw material emanates. Nor are they overly concerned with the moral dimensions of their actions-their only concern is with increasing the bottom line of their companies and their own bonus cheques. Luck cannot be expected to hold out forever. Concerted measures need to be adopted to guard against such threats and to ensure that the security personnel are not prone to subversion.

Besides the nuclear core and the remaining bomb casing, security needs to be arranged for rail- and road-mobile ballistic missiles as well. The missiles could be garrisoned in various army and air force cantonments close to their designated launch pads and moved from one to the other at random in an unpredictable manner. The movements can be infrequent during peacetime and can be increased when strategic warning is received and a decision is made to enhance the alert status to a higher degree. The selected cantonments would need to be well connected with the national rail and road network. Security cover against sabotage, theft of parts and terrorist threats would be necessary while the missiles and their TELs (transporter-erector-launchers) are stationary and on the move. The road space will need to be coordinated with the civil administration and rail space with the railway authorities. Army engineers are specialised in these functions and this task could be entrusted to them. Maintenance support personnel will need to accompany each missile convoy for repair and recovery tasks. A missile TEL breaking down on a national highway would pose a major security hazard. Since most movement would take place at night to avoid detection by prying enemy satellites, the security challenges and risks of untoward incidents will be further enhanced.

The safety and security organisation also has to be trained and equipped for conventional fire fighting and nuclear hazards such as accidental radiation leaks. While the probability of a direct ground attack on nuclear storage sites would be slim due to their locations deep in the interior, enemy commando actions to blow up a storage site during war can never be completely ruled out, particularly in respect of those sites that are relatively closer to the front. Nuclear and missile security involves an intricate inter-relationship between personnel (security personnel and the workers manning the AEC or DRDO establishment, or the maintenance staff), instructions for access, data and information, management and organisation, communications arrangements, and safety and security equipment. This complex interplay would be best managed by specially trained armed forces personnel who are hand-picked for the job after rigorous scrutiny. Since nuclear and missile security is a manpower intensive function, particularly during the transportation of the fissile material and ballistic missiles, it is best handed over to the army. The army also provides the logistics support necessary during transportation, as it did when the six nuclear cores were moved from the BARC complex at Trombay to Pokhran in May 1998.25 The two functions, security and logistics support, would then be handled by a single agency, leading to better coordination and a reduction in the level of risk.

The proliferation of short range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) and intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) in India's neighbourhood has spurred a new sense of urgency regarding air defence and anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defences. India's retaliatory strike nuclear force must survive a disarming first strike in sufficient numbers to be able to deliver punitive counter-value retaliation to an adversary who chooses to cross the Lakshman Rekha and does the unthinkable. Besides the nuclear force units and storage sites, India's leadership that comprises the National Command Authority must also survive a decapitating first strike to be able to assess the situation and make the necessary decision to retaliate. Hence, not only must New Delhi, the capital city, be defended against nuclear attack, but also the National Command Post (NCP) and other command and control centres. The enhanced role of air defences and ABM defences in a nuclear environment emerges quite clearly.

In his famous fictional account, The Third World War: August 1985,26 that described the course of a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)-Warsaw Pact war, General Sir John Hacket of the UK had assessed the damage that Birmingham may suffer in a Soviet nuclear attack. General K. Sundarji, former Indian chief of Army Staff extrapolated that assessment to a (hypothetical) nuclear attack on Delhi in his book Blind Men of Hindoostan.27 The box entitled "20 kt Nuclear Bomb Over Delhi" has been derived from that account and other sources.

The debate between increasing the effectiveness of air defences and instituting viable ABM defences, on the one hand, and enhancing the effectiveness of the nuclear deterrent, on the other, is a perennial one. An ABM system for the defence of Delhi has been estimated to cost approximately between US$1 billion28 (Rs 4,600 crore) and $2 billion.29 Though it has been reported that a sum of Rs 2,000 crore has been allotted to the DRDO to develop an indigenous ABM system,30 the only low-to-high altitude air defence-cum-ABM system that may possibly be available to India is the Russian S-300V. Because of the high cost of ABM systems, some defence analysts and editorial writers argue that it would be better to increase the size of India's nuclear forces in terms of additional nuclear warheads and better, more modern ballistic missiles with longer ranges rather than expend limited funds on dubious air defences. It is well known that an ABM system can be saturated with simultaneous attacks from a large number of ballistic missiles, some of which may even carry conventional warheads while some others may be decoys. Lieutenant General Harwant Singh (Retd.) has written: "An adversary's missile launch pads can be fairly close to Delhi (in missile distance terms) and given the advancements in multi-targeting, multi-warhead, jamming technology and techniques and low level flight profile, interception will be almost impossible."31 Others have been equally sceptical and have suggested alternative measures: "An ABM system to protect Delhi will cost one billion dollars plus... there will (then) be a clamour to protect Bombay (Mumbai)... which has two reactors, and then other places... (an ABM system) can never provide assured defences... For less than one quarter of the price, we can develop Prithvi and Agni versions which will provide absolute deterrence against the USA, China and Pakistan..."32 Whether or not to opt for ABM defences is indeed a dilemma. However, it would be prudent to purchase equipment for at least one or two batteries off the shelf and then commence indigenous development efforts by reverse engineering or undertake licensed production.

20 kt Nuclear Bomb Over Delhi

The world is still to get over the horror of the 15 kt atom bomb exploded over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. If one or more bombs with similar destructive potential were to be dropped over Delhi, the resulting carnage would be even more catastrophic.

As Delhi's population is over 10 million and the density per square kilometre is much more than it was in Hiroshima, it has been estimated that up to one million people may die. If the 'ground zero' of one 20 kt warhead is somewhere between Connaught Place and Rajpath, the 'vaporisation point' will extend up to Rashtrapati Bhavan and will include South and North Blocks, Parliament House, Sena Bhavan and almost all the ministries around Rajpath in Lutyens' Delhi. The wind velocity of between 500 and 900 kilometres per hour (kmph) would knock down all the buildings in the area and turn them into rubble. The fire-storm would cause over 95 per cent fatal casualties.

The 'total destruction' zone, the next circle of death and devastation, will in all likelihood extend up to Chandni Chowk and Karol Bagh in the north and Defence Colony and South Extension in the south. Though the wind velocity here would drop to a few hundred kmph, fatalities would still range above 90 per cent. Almost nothing would remain standing in Mughal Delhi. Shah Jehan's Red Fort would crumble like a house of cards.

In the 'severe blast and heat damage' circle, casualties would vary between 45 to 65 per cent. All the jhuggi-jhopri (slums and shanties) colonies would be flattened completely. Terrible fires would break out everywhere. The medical services, or whatever survives of them, would be unable to cope with the blast, burns, and radiation casualties pouring in and those that result subsequently from radioactive fallout.

The 'Day After' would see survivors start streaming out of Delhi by the hundreds of thousands-refugees in their own land; in tattered clothes, without food, shelter and even water. It would take decades to rebuild Delhi.


1. Ashley J. Tellis, Stability in South Asia, RAND Documented Briefing (Santa Monica, California: RAND Corporation, 1997), p. 5.

2. W.P.S. Sidhu, "India's Security and Nuclear Risk-Reduction Measures", Nuclear Risk-Reduction Measures in Southern Asia (Washington, D.C.: The Henry L. Stimson Centre, November 1998).

3. Raj Chengappa has written: "For a garrulous nation, the nuclear weapons programme is one secret that India, surprisingly, keeps well. Full knowledge of the programme is restricted to a chosen handful at any given time... Key cabinet ministers like defence, finance and home, senior bureaucrats like the Cabinet Secretary, the Accountant General of India, and the armed forces Chiefs knew only some aspects of the nuclear weapons programme... Despite the Indian Army providing all the logistics support, much to its frustration, it was rarely privy to India's nuclear secrets... All this was part of a deliberate design by successive governments to rein in the armed forces..." Weapons of Peace: The Secret Story of India's Quest to be a Nuclear Power (New Delhi: Harper Collins Publishers India, 2000), pp. xv-14.

4. Robert Dahl, Controlling Nuclear Weapons (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1985), cited by Bruce G. Blair, John E. Pike and Stephen I. Schwartz in Targeting and Controlling the Bomb.

5. "Nuclear Backdrop", From Surprise to Reckoning: The Kargil Review Committee Report (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2000), pp. 183-213.

6. Ibid.

7. Prem Shankar Jha, "From Euphoria to Distrust", The Hindustan Times, August 6, 2000.

8. K. Subrahmanyam, "Underestimating India: Project a Credible Nuclear Deterrent", The Times of India, May 15, 2000.

9. Rahul Bedi, "Indian Army Chief to 'Fine Tune' Nuclear Strategy", Jane's Defence Weekly, October 11, 2000.

10. Chengappa, n. 3, p. 355.

11. Ibid., pp. 355-356.

12. A Strategic Forces Command needs to be established under a chief of Defence Staff (CDS). For details, see Gurmeet Kanwal, "Command and Control of Nuclear Weapons in India," Strategic Analysis, vol. XXIII, no. 10, January 2000.

13. For a more detailed discussion of the various aspects of assertive and delegative control and the custody of nuclear warheads in the US, see Peter D. Feaver, Guarding the Guardians (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992), Chapters 4 to 9.

14. Stephen Twigge and Len Scott, "Learning to Love the Bomb: The Command and Control of British Nuclear Forces, 1953-64", The Journal of Strategic Studies, vol. 22, no. 1, March 1999, pp. 29-53.

15. Ibid.

16. Feaver, n. 13, pp. 14-15.

17. Ibid.

18. Chengappa, n. 3, p. 391.

19. India and Pakistan have signed an agreement not to attack each other's nuclear installations. The "Agreement on the Non-Attack of Nuclear Facilities Between India and Pakistan" was signed in 1988 and ratified in 1991. However, if either country declares war, the efficacy of such an agreement will be doubtful.

20. Praful Bidwai, "Sign the Test Ban Treaty: But Say No to N-Deterrence", The Times of India, July 14, 1998.

21. Chengappa, n. 3, pp. 383 and 429.

22. K. Subrahmanyam, "Dialogue With Pakistan: India Must Take the Initiative", The Times of India, August 21, 2000.

23. T. V. Parasuram, "Give N-Safety Locks to India, Pak", The Observer of Business and Politics, September 3, 1998.

24. James L. Ford and C. Richard Schuller, Controlling Threats to Nuclear Security (Washington, D. C.: National Defence University Press, 1997), p. 73.

25. Raj Chengappa has written: "Four army trucks rolled quietly into the BARC complex, each manned by five to six heavily armed personnel. The trucks themselves were armour plated to withstand a bomb attack of some intensity. Two of the black crates were loaded into one of the trucks along with some other equipment..." n. 3, p. 420.

26. General Sir John Hacket and others, The Third World War: August 1985 (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1978).

27. General K. Sundarji, Blind Men of Hindoostan (New Delhi: UBS Publishers' Distributors Limited, 1993).

28. Rahul Bedi, "India and Russia to Sign Pact", Jane's Defence Weekly, October 14, 1998.

29. Vivek Raghuvanshi, "Russia Will Continue Defence Ties With India", Defense News, September 14-20, 1998.

30. Lieutenant General Harwant Singh (Retd.), "Costly Missile Shield for Delhi!" The Tribune, November 11, 1998.

31. Ibid.

32. "Minimal Nuclear Deterrence and the Systems it Renders Obsolete", editorial in the Chanakya Aerospace Defence and Maritime Review, July 1998.