This photograph released by the Indian government 17 May shows a crater and debris at the Shakti-4KS nuclear site after a nuclear device was detonated underground 13 May. In response to India's tests, it was announced that Pakistan would conduct nuclear tests of its own in the near future. / AFP PHOTO / HO

Samson Simon Sharaf

1996-97 was a politically unstable time for India. BJP despite emerging as the single largest party could not muster a majority in thirteen days. A consensus candidate from the United Front supported by Congress lasted only eleven months. The next government formed by IK Gujral was dismissed in Dec 1998 for lack of majority. BJP had posed serious challenges to the INC coalition on charges of corruption and was poised to electioneer on issues that were most endearing to the philosophy of BHARAT VERSHA. Opinion polls indicated that BJP was most likely to emerge as the single largest party, a dark horse in the run up to elections in 1998. Their election campaign reflected the jingoist anti Pakistan Hindu Right. This made Pakistan suspicious of Indian nuclear intentions. Pakistan’s only option was to have a closer look. The most challenging question for Pakistan’s security planners was, would BJP follow its rhetoric of nuclear testing if it came to power? The task fell on my shoulders.

In November 1997, I was assigned by the then COAS General Jehanghir Karamat to determine if India would go nuclear. The study had to be completed by March 1998. This was a challenging assignment meaning that if BJP was to win the election, it would not be before March 1998 that it could come to power. Therefore, the research had to be primarily based on assumptions. BJP’s rhetoric in the run up to the elections was providing some clues but then it could be dismissed as an electioneering gobbledygook.

Because no physical preparations were underway, we had to get into the mind of Sang Parivar and make suitable hypotheses. Information was available on India’s technical advancements and lack of experimentation due to the nuclear moratorium since 1974. A generation had gone by which meant that many of the original scientist would not be around. With these technical gaps determined, the study began as an in depth appraisal of known Indian nuclear capabilities and developmental gaps. The first step in the study was to pin point the deficiencies in India’s technical nuclear capabilities and what was India most likely to address if and when it went nuclear. The following critical issues were determined for analysis:

  • We determined that the 1974 explosion was a conventional 1950 design not fit for weaponisation. More testing was needed to confirm designs of warheads.
  • We determined that based on decay rates, India needed further data not only to confirm its previous testing but also to calculate the life of the warheads and miniaturized designs.
  • We determined that India was following the plutonium route, something that had not been test fired in the past. Series of tests on plutonium were needed to design smaller and sleeker warheads.
  • We determined that India was already at an advanced stage of producing delivery systems. War head designs had to fit these systems, be sufficiently compact so as not to alter the payload and avionic designs of delivery systems.
  • Tests for boosted weapons crucial to miniaturisation were an absolute necessity.
  • The thought process in Sang Parivar and BJP rhetoric indicated that Bharat Versha would be incomplete without boasting thermo nuclear devices. Hence a fusion test could not be ruled out.

The study was being conducted on an assumption of ‘if BJP came to power’. Whatever India would do, would be in a hurry, therefore Pakistan too must be ready to respond.  Correct focus on technical issues was important.

Most information on India’s nuclear programme was of journalistic and academic nature. Indian scientists and governments had been tight lipped. Apart from plutonium production reactors, there was no information available on Inertial Confinement Fusion Tests (cold testing). Therefore it was decided to study the Israeli nuclear developments to get clues about how a country could have nuclear weapons without testing. We suspected that India and Israel were  sharing technical data.

The information gathered from the libraries in Rawalpindi and Islamabad was not enough. So my quest for latest books and journals led me to Ameena Saiyid of Oxford University Press. With the help of Dr. Zafar Iqbal Cheema, I was able to short list a few. But Ameena had a surprise. She took me to the basement where there was a complete shelf on Nuclear Strategy. It was a trove and just what the doctor ordered. By mid-December 1997, we had gone through all the books and had a fairly good idea how India would proceed if it decided to go nuclear.

Due to India’s limited capability in enriching uranium and relying on plutonium, we had reached the conclusion that India will conduct the following explosions.

  • A repeat of 1974 Fission design for confirmation.
  • A boosted weapon system based on a plutonium design.
  • A two stage thermo nuclear testing with the first stage based on a conventional design or a boosted weapon to produce the heat necessary for fusion.
  • Cognisant of depleting fissile material stockpiles, India would not carry out more than three tests but at the same time test warhead designs without the fissile material for collection of technical data.
  • Lastly Indian testing would be provocative and if Pakistan followed, international sanctions against Pakistan could be tightened.

By early February, diplomatic chatter intensified and there were reports that India was contemplating going nuclear. The argument by some members of the BJP particularly the prime minister in waiting, Mr. Atal  Bihari Vajpayee was that explosions by India would provoke Pakistan into testing. Reports on Indian nuclear test sites at Pokhran were not conclusive. Though our analysis was reaching its conclusions, we needed evidence to substantiate our hypotheses and formulate options for Pakistan.

A special high speed broad band internet connection was secured to monitor all nuclear information on India. A breakthrough came in satellite photography that focused on Pokhran every 24 hours. Initially there was no activity but by end February 1998, we began noticing track marks covered by fresh earth. Areas in vicinity showed vehicles and heavy equipment. By mid-March 1998, superimposition of images began revealing a typical pattern. These movements had begun even before BJP came into power. 15 March 1998 onwards activities accelerated. We estimated two months before India could resume nuclear testing.

We continued receiving inputs from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, diplomatic chatter and the intelligence agencies of Pakistan. These bits and pieces were accurately fitting into our hypotheses fast becoming a reality.  By end March, final analysis was ready and subjected to an in house discussion, followed by presentation to the COAS, General Jehanghir Karamat. Be prepared mission was issued to our scientists. Pakistan was ready to respond if India went nuclear.

On 11 May 1998, India went nuclear. We worked continuously for next 48 hours on deliberating Pakistan’s response which was ready and had to be fine-tuned with logistics and operation orders.

On 13th May 1998, we received a document from Mohatrama Benazir Bhutto’s emissary. She was in a self-exile and had made statements in USA that Pakistan should not go nuclear. The letter was double enveloped. I was the first to open it and read it aloud for everyone in the planning room. Written in her hand in turquoise ink on five cards, it was her recommendation that Pakistan must go nuclear. The technical details in the letter reflected her deep knowledge on nuclear strategy; in fact it was almost identical to our plan. She made suggestions only a deeply patriotic Pakistani could. That day, she won her spurs.

In the next two days, the accuracy of our study was proved to the minutest detail. The graphs of our monitoring stations indicated three major bangs, the last one flattening out. The first was a fission reaction of considerable yield. The second indicated a smaller yield confirming it was plutonium based boosted weapon. But the flattening out of the third explosion indicated that the second phase of the thermo nuclear device had fizzled out. India had failed to go thermo nuclear. The other tests that India claimed were tests without fissile materials.

International pressure on Pakistan was intense. There was a real threat of joint Indo-Israel strikes on our nuclear installations. Pakistan’s air defence and ground forces went on high alert. Preparations went into full swing.

For my team, it was a moment of extreme satisfaction, pride and humility.  Based on technical research, conclusions drawn through empiricism, intelligence gathering and trove of information revealed by satellite photography, we had ensured that Pakistan was ahead of time and not caught napping. We had also prepared Pakistan’s response that went exactly as suggested. As a result, our scientists and logisticians had enough lead time to prepare and conduct a series of nuclear testing as a credible and befitting response demonstrated with better technical capability than India. This would never have been possible without the confidence reposed in us by the COAS General Jehanghir Karamat, CGS Lt General Ali Kuli Khan and DGMO Major General Tauqeer Zia. Credit also goes to my team comprising Major General Ausaf Ali and Brigadier Wajahat Nazir.

Three factors kept us on course: guidance by Dr. Zafar Iqbal Cheema, the Chairman of the Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, Qaid-i-Azam University Islamabad, excellent books delivered by Ameena Saiyid and the French satellite imagery confirming our hypotheses to reality. Indian tests were a facsimile of our assessments.

With technical issues left to our scientists, engineers and logisticians, we refocused on in depth appraisal of the international reaction and budgetary consequences for Pakistan. It was also time to lay the foundations of a Nuclear Policy and Doctrine that would ensure durable peace in the region and foresee a negotiated settlement of all disputes with India. The central idea of the policy was Defensive Deterrence in other words a right to ‘first use’ under aggression. Cognisant of the nuclear strategy in the European theatre, Pakistan’s policy was designed to be dynamic, credible and fail-safe.

One of the most important conclusions of our study was that the post nuclear Pakistan had to be more responsible and self-reliant. Conventional forces had to get leaner with more firepower and mobility. The conventional forward defensive posture had to be supported with a network of lateral communications and electronic surveillance. Economically, Pakistan had to put its house in order. An imaginative and practical plan for the role of armed forces in national development was made. It included irrigation, building of dams, reclaiming waste lands, education, health, technical training schools and energy. These plans would see Pakistan through if more sanctions were imposed.

In a joint study with the finance advisor, we concluded that Pakistan would run a deficit of 5 Billion US$ for the first year. Aggravated by more sanctions, this deficit could have an exponential effect. One view was that the high state of morale in the country could be boosted by the government to stimulate growth and ride out the crises. The contrarian view was that there would be run on the banks, particularly foreign currency accounts.

With Gen. Musharraf as the new COAS, Pakistan soon changed course. Some plans to give a stimulus to the economy were implemented. The growth was positive. In hindsight, Kargil was a manifestation of the fact that two nuclear powers could fight a limited conflict. It laid the groundwork for Indian violations across the Line of Control and generated ideas like the Cold Start about limited conflict under a nuclear shadow. 9/11 further plunged Pakistan into its deepest crises. Pakistan’s brief economic recovery from 2000 to 2004 was converted into a windfall and wasted.

I am still of the view that Pakistan’s national power potential on a time continuum is realisable determined by the sole factors of national resolve and political will. Inherently Pakistan is blessed by mineral resources, rivers, skilled manpower and a national character of rising to the occasion. It needs a very short period to make Pakistan self-reliant and economically stable.

Brigadier Samson Sharaf SI (M) (Retired) is a political economist and a geostrategic analyst.