Events That Changed Destiny of Nation: XII

When India Launched Operation Shakti in 1998

Continued from "Implementation of Mandal Commission Report in 1990"

It has been over two decades now whence India created history with a surprise and sensation world over by carrying the test explosion of five nuclear devices code-named Operation Shakti–98 from 11 to 13 May 1998. The test site was the Indian Army's Pokhran Test Range in the Jaisalmer district of the Indian state of Rajasthan. This is located in the Thar desert and the same site was also used for India’s first underground nuclear test code-named Smiling Buddha May 1974. The test created an unprecedented furore with several powerful and prominent nations severely criticizing and reprimanding India and sanctions imposed over numerous R&D and manufacturing organizations. Needless to mention, India was able to successfully cop up and tide over with the adversity and sanctions from the countries like US, Canada, Japan and Australia etc. over a period of time with its patient handling and explaining friendly countries about the obtaining security scenario and threat perceptions in the South and East Asia.

These tests were the outcome of a long Indian nuclear programme which was neither directed against any particular country nor it was only weapon specific, instead it enshrined the country’s vision of a great power commensurate with the strategic location, size and population, and security doctrine. However, the fact cannot be ignored that India’s debacle and loss of territory to China during the brief war in October 1962 too provided impetus for developing nuclear weapon capability as deterrence for any future conflict. So far as India’s nuclear policy or aspirations are concerned, the same is envisioned in one of the early statements of the country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru when he said, “As long as the world is constituted as it is, every country will have to devise and use the latest devices for its protection. I have no doubt India will develop her scientific researches and I hope Indian scientists will use the atomic force for constructive purposes. But if India is threatened, she will inevitably try to defend herself by all means at her disposal.”

India’s Nuclear Programme

Indian nuclear physicist Homi Jehangir Bhabha (1909 – 1966), founding director and professor of physics in the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, is appropriately credited as father of the Indian nuclear programme well before independence in 1944-45. Later he also founded Atomic Energy Establishment Trombay (AEET), now renamed as Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BHRC) in acknowledgment of his contribution to the nations’ nuclear energy programme. Just before and after the independence, Bhabha received lukewarm response from the Congress under Jawaharlal Nehru and the nuclear programme did not make any significant headway for many years. In late 1950s, reportedly a humble beginning with preliminary work was carried out to produce plutonium and bomb components without any serious thought or considerations at the government level.

However, 1962 Sino-Indian War and humiliation at the hands of Chinese both at the northern and eastern borders compelled Indian establishment to contemplate seriously on various options available including the nuclear deterrence to counter any future Chinese threat. The process was further expedited with the fresh threats after the Chinese carried out their first nuclear test in 1964. The programme towards nuclear militarization remained steady without much progress during Vikram Sarabhai’s stewardship mainly due to little interest shown by the then political Congress leadership. The programme was consolidated and accelerated under Dr Raja Ramanna after Indira Gandhi became prime minister in 1966, more so because by that time India also had a full-fledged yet inconclusive war with Pakistan in 1965 and China had detonated more nuclear devices while they already had significant edge over India in the event of any further conventional war.

Under the bold regime of Indira Gandhi, India carried out its first nuclear test code-named Smiling Buddha at Pokhran on 18 May 1974 citing it a peaceful test not aimed at militarization. However, key and powerful nations in the Nuclear Suppliers Group didn’t take it in the same spirit and severely criticized India’s nuclear programme. Consequently, technological embargo was imposed upon India by many countries severely hindering its ongoing programme. Similar restrictions were imposed on Pakistan too which was believed to be clandestinely engaged in developing nuclear weapons to achieve parity with India. Following sanctions, India’s nuclear programme suffered setback as it was significantly relying on the imported technology due to in adequate indigenous resources.

Also following the emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in May 1975 that lasted for over twenty months, she lost General Elections held in 1977 and the next Janta Dal government headed by Morarji Desai did not accord same priority but the nuclear development programme continued at slow progress rate. By next decade, sanctions were largely relaxed and by early 1990s, slowly but resolutely, the nuclear programme had assumed more and more indigenous character and capability. The stature and strength of the BJP was growing phenomenally and party had made its intentions clear to opt for nuclear option as a deterrence for the national security and garner due respect and recognition for the nation globally. After coming in power, it is widely believed that Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee closely reviewed the programme in consultation with key scientists and officials in March 1998 and directed them to prepare for carrying out comprehensive nuclear tests in the shortest possible timeframe.

Operation Shakti aka Pokhran-II

The Pokhran Test Range was developed by the Corps of Engineers of the Indian Army around 1974 when India had detonated its first nuclear device under the Operation Smiling Buddha; the event was formally designated as Pokhran-I and India then reiterated that it has now capability but no intention to develop nuclear weapons. According to information now available in public domain, the site is located some 45 kilometre north-west of Pokhran town near Khetoli village in Jaisalmer district of Rajasthan. The same site was selected for nuclear testing in 1998 under the Operation Shakti and the event formally designated as Pokhran-II. After almost twenty-four years of Pokhran-I, the political will and resolve enabled the Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to conduct five comprehensive nuclear tests, four fission based nuclear devices and one fusion based thermonuclear (Hydrogen bomb) device, and simultaneously declaring moratorium on any further future testing.

The tests were carried out in the presence of the political leadership represented by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Defence Minister George Fernandez. The core team of scientists and engineers included Rajagopala Chidambaram, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, Raja Ramanna, PK Iyengar, Nagapattinam Sambasiva Venkatesan and Waman Dattatreya Patwardhan. Complete secrecy was maintained by the political leadership and scientific community right from the preparation to the stage of actual detonation of devices for the safety, security and success of the programme.

Operation Shakti comprised of Pokhran-II of five detonations, the first was a thermonuclear device (fusion bomb) while the remaining four were fission based nuclear devices. The first three explosions were carried out on 11 May 1998, comprised of one fusion and two fission bombs while two more fission bombs were detonated on 13 May 1998. The five atomic bombs were designated as Shakti-I to Shakti-V respectively. Immediately thereafter, Prime Minister Vajpayee convened a press conference declaring India a full-fledged nuclear state with a complete moratorium on any further nuclear testing.

The existing fission based nuclear weapons are commonly referred to as atomic bomb or atom bomb. In such weapons, a mass of fissile material usually comprised of enriched uranium or plutonium supercritically produces an exponential growth of nuclear chain reactions releasing high heat and energy. This is achieved by employing gun-method through shooting one piece of sub-critical material into another or by compression of a sub-critical sphere or cylinder of fissile material using chemically-fueled explosive lenses.

On the other hand, a thermonuclear bomb or Hydrogen bomb produces large proportion of heat and energy through nuclear fusion reactions. They are commonly referred to as Hydrogen bomb because they rely on fusion reactions between deuterium and tritium isotopes of Hydrogen. In these weapons, a fissile material (Uranium-235 0r Plutonium-239) is used to initiate fission reactions which are then used to trigger fusion reaction (heavy Hydrogen isotopes) producing phenomenal heat energy with much greater destructive power.

While the event was generally welcomed and hailed by almost every section of the Indian people, these tests invited for more sharp reaction and criticism worldwide. This also led to variety severe sanctions imposed by the powerful countries like the United States and Japan in related scientific and technological fields. So for only five countries - United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France and China – had conducted nuclear tests including the thermonuclear device, India became sixth country to have formally tested both fission and fusion devices, and claimed proven military nuclear capability.

Reaction and Response of International Community

The United States strongly condemned India and imposed comprehensive sanctions in many economic and technological areas. As such they had tough foreign policy and anti-proliferation law under which severe economic sanctions were imposed that included stopping and cutting off all assistance barring humanitarian aid, export of defence technology and equipment, banning of certain Indian R&D and manufacturing organizations, annulment of credit and credit guarantee and their reiterating US resolve to oppose lending to India by international financial institutions like IMF and WB. The American intelligence agencies were particularly embarrassed having completely failed in getting any inkling or detection of Indian preparation for the subject nuclear tests which was quoted by many as a serious intelligence failure of the decade.

Following the nuclear tests, the US also held many bilateral talks with India to persuade the latter to become to join the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT). They also attempted to hold negotiations with India to for the rollback of latter's nuclear program which was outrightly turned down by India. India also reiterated its consistent stand on the CTBT by refusing to be a signatory on the grounds that it was discriminatory and not consistent with India’s national security interests despite tremendous persuasion and pressure personally exercised by the then US President Bill Clinton.

Canada, Japan, Australia and some other countries too deplored and strongly criticized Indian nuclear test refusing any future nuclear cooperation and support even for the peaceful purposes. Japan also joined US sanctions against India and stopped all new loans and assistance except the humanitarian aid. Some other countries too imposed sanctions against India by suspending the foreign aid and all government-to-government credit. However, other powerful nuclear nations like Russia, United Kingdom and France avoided condemnation or severe economic sanctions against India.

The key adversaries of India in the East and South Asian region China and Pakistan immediately reacted on the anticipated lines. Befitting to its usual double standards and norms, China expressed its shock and strong condemnation giving a call to the international community to adopt a unified stand to stop India in development of nuclear weapons. They declared that these tests ran counter to the prevailing international trend and were not conducive to the peace and stability in South Asia. China even tried to question and counter the Indian rationale of needing nuclear capabilities in view of the Chinese threat as totally unreasonable and unacceptable citing that more than 140 countries had already signed CTBT. The most strong and vehement reaction came from Pakistan which declared that it had capability and was ready to match India, and just after fifteen days it conducted nuclear tests code-named Chagai-I on 28 May and Chagai-II on 30 May 1998.

India’s Nuclear Doctrine

Though India was largely compelled to pursue its nuclear weapons development programme after Sino-Indian 1962 War and China’s continued edge in the conventional war equipment and manpower, it officially adopted and formally declared nuclear no-first use doctrine. It can be reasonably held that India took lead in developing and testing nuclear devices but it was never directed towards Pakistan. It’s so because India has traditionally maintained an effective and convincing edge over Pakistan in conventional war as is also evident from the outcome of 1971 Indo-Pak War and Kargil Conflict in 1999. However, Pakistan with the repeated aggression and enemy action along the Line of Control over the years and continued support to insurgency and terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir, India’s nuclear weapons have gained importance as a deterrent towards Pakistan too.

India openly professed nuclear no-first-use policy and pursued a nuclear doctrine based on "credible minimum deterrence." The Indian government had released a draft of the doctrine in August 1999 which asserted that nuclear weapons are solely for deterrence and that India will pursue a policy of "retaliation only". The document also provides that India shall not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike, but will respond with punitive retaliation should the deterrence fail. India has developed an effective nuclear delivery system through land, sea and air. It is also in the process of building necessary defence from any future possible enemy nuclear-missile attacks. The decision to authorize the use of nuclear weapons in contingencies rests with the Prime Minister or his 'designated successor.

Current Nuclear Capabilities

As the nuclear programme of the countries is usually shrouded under utmost secrecy, it is difficult to make exact count or estimates of the nuclear arsenal, and in that context even India is no exception. As per the recent (1918) Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) revealed annual nuclear forces data, India possesses 130-140 nuclear weapons compared to Pakistan’s 140-150 nuclear warheads. They maintain that both India and Pakistan are expanding their nuclear stockpile and delivery system. In the context of nuclear delivery capabilities, India is believed to have developed and deployed effective delivery systems through land, sea and air. India has already deployed/tested effective and reliable low range Prithvi missiles to high range Agni variants up to the range of about 8,000 Km, while eyeing for the development of ICBMs capable of targeting more than 10,000 Km in future.

India also has multiple nuclear capable aircrafts, including the Sukhoi SU-30MKI, Mikoyan MiG-29, and Dassault Mirage 2000 capable of airborne nuclear strikes. In addition, 36 Rafale fighters aircrafts being acquisitioned under Indo-French Agreement signed in September 2016 are also capable of effective nuclear delivery. India currently operates Russian leased attack submarine INS Chakra and recently inducted indigenous ballistic missile submarine INS Arihant; both of these nuclear submarines are capable of nuclear attack through sea. Thus it has credible land-based short and long distance missiles, air borne capable aircrafts and sea based nuclear submarines in operation. India formally announced in November 2018 that it has accomplished its retaliatory nuclear deterrence triad comprising of land-based, aerial, and maritime platforms capable of delivering nuclear weapons as part of its minimum credible deterrence doctrine.

While currently there are remote chances or risk with China of any accidental nuclear war but same cannot be held true in case of Pakistan for its obsession with Kashmir, constant export of terrorism and open threats of the use of nuclear weapons against India on so many occasions. India is indeed ahead of Pakistan in terms of the effectiveness of its weapons and reliability of its delivery systems, but it is programmed in global perspective, particularly keeping an eye on the nuclear threat of China. As for Pakistan, their programme is India centric, so it does not matter whether they lack long range missiles or ICBMs or even the fast and accurate weapon systems like BrahMos, Nuclear Submarine or Apache helicopters. In a nuclear war, all one needs is means to carry and deliver, which Pakistan possesses with its easy access of Indian territories through land and air. They need missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons say up to the range of about 1000 to 1500 Km to inflict damage on India and they are believed to have perfected it.

In the given scenario and the fact that India is committed to no first use, the only option left for its own defence is to rely more on creating anti-missile umbrella counter incoming nuclear missiles. India’s Advanced Air Defence (AAD) programme is precisely aimed at it which may not be hundred per cent foolproof yet can minimize risk. Besides, India is also investing heavily in AWACS and radar systems to detect missiles/aircrafts launched from the enemy lines. Recent agreement with Russia for the acquisition of S-400 missile defence system would provide credible means to destroy incoming targets including enemy ballistic and cruise missiles carrying nuclear or conventional loads. Once these systems are put in place, the threat of a nuclear attack could be considerably minimized. Ultimately, when hostilities break out, the number of nuclear weapons won’t really matter, instead edge would lie with a better anti-missile system and technology to detect and destroy nuclear weapons even before they are launched, followed by a punitive retaliation.

Missiles and Delivery Systems

India had started an Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) for the different range of missiles way back in 1982–83 with a sound scientific and technological base. However, it took almost three decades with its own taste of success(es) and failure(s) before the DRDO formally announced its successful completion in January 2008. The last major missile system fully developed and deployed under the programme was the intermediate range ballistic missile Agni-III capable of carrying nuclear weapons with a range of 5,000 Km. Currently, ICBM programmes under the nomenclature Agni-IV, Agni-V and Agni-VI are at various stages of testing, development and deployment with varying ranges of 500 Km and above.

Rocket and missile technology is one area which India can boast of having mastered to a level of self-reliance. India is gradually emerging on the world map as an economic giant and regional superpower, and accordingly its defence preparation too should be seen in global perspective, rather than merely keeping it Pakistan or China centric. Accordingly, after achieving success in developing ballistic missiles of short, medium and intermediate range in the Prithvi and Agni series, India is also working on ICBMs of 8000 to 12000 Km range. The country is also working in joint collaboration with Russia on supersonic cruise missile systems in BrahMos series which is currently rated as world’s fastest cruise missile. Besides, they are also developing/deploying several battlefield range conventional missiles with their land, air and sea variants. The biggest challenge today is how to shield against the incoming enemy ballistic missiles carrying conventional or nuclear warheads. India is attempting indigenously to address this concern through the Prithvi Air Defence (PAD) for the high altitude interception and Advanced Air Defence (AAD) for low altitude interception under development of the in-coming enemy missiles.


Pokhran-II was a historic event which on one had led to severe criticism and sanctions against India but on the other hand it significantly enhanced country’s image, awe and acceptability in the world community. Ever since, most of the sanctions have been lifted and the United States, quietly accepting India’s nuclear programme, has signed the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement, more popularly known as Indo-US nuclear deal of 2005. Under the agreement, India has agreed to separate its civil and military nuclear facilities and place all its civil nuclear facilities under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. In exchange, the United States agreed to work toward full civil nuclear cooperation with India. At the same time, US and other major developed countries continue to treat Pakistan’s nuclear programme as dubious and opaque raising periodical concerns towards the safety and security of nuclear weapons in their possession. The treaty also underlines the strategic importance and credibility of India and its commitment for peace and stability in the global perspective.

Perhaps China is the only other major power that continues to treat India’s nuclear programme at par with Pakistan as opposes India at various global forums. India has not yet signed NPT and CTBT but it is a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and has opened its civil reactors to IAEA safeguards. India continues to refuse to be a signatory of these treaties on the grounds that some of its provisions are discriminatory and the treaties do not provide a roadmap for the universal nuclear disarmament in a time-bound framework. Notwithstanding above, major powers (China excluded) appreciate India’s unblemished record of non-proliferation and reputation of a responsible and reliable nuclear country internationally. Following US-India Nuclear Treaty in 2005, perhaps mainly for these reasons the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) granted India a waiver allowing it to access civilian nuclear technology and fuel from other countries. This is a unique distinction as so far no other country which is not a signatory of NPT has been allowed to do nuclear commerce with other countries in the world.


More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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