Robert Oppenheimer famously quoted the Indian Scripture Bhagavad-Gita upon witnessing the first nuclear detonation by the U.S. in 1945 when he said “Now I am become Death the destroyer of worlds”. In the Bhagavad-Gita these words were spoken by Lord Krishna, who was an incarnation of the Indian deity Vishnu, the god of creation, as well as dissolution. Lately it seems to be the mindset of the Indian leadership as they embark upon various nuclear and space based advancements.The scale of recent Indian developments in these domains is magnifying exponentially as their ambitions sour not only beyond the region but beyond the earth’s atmosphere.
The Indian Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test of March 2019 is one manifestation of the above mentioned Indian aspiration as India became one of the only four powers in the world with this capability. While the ASAT test can be considered a display of Indian prowess beyond worlds, as enshrined in their policies of Hindutva, it is also a manifestation of Indian belligerent designs much closer to home. Like the so called ‘peaceful’ nuclear explosion of 1974, Modi termed this test as one done for peaceful purposes as well. This too is likely to change if the past Indian precedents are to be kept in mind. Not only will this ASAT test support Indian efforts towards a working Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system, it may also increase India’s quest for pre-emption. This is not an isolated development. This test is the only one in a series of developments undertaken by India in the last decade which truly gives credence to the Indian thinking being inspired from Vishnu, the destroyer of worlds.
In the last decade, Indian missile development and testing has soured to new heights. India is focusing on development of short range missiles, such as the 150 km range Prahaar to longer range ones, such as the Agni VI with an estimated range of 8000-12000 km. It is also developing both ballistic and cruise missiles. Development of such a variety of missiles will not only enhance the overall quality of the Indian nuclear and conventional delivery means, it will also enable India to have counter-force as well as counter-value target plans.
Keeping with this theme, another major development undertaken by India was in 2012, with the building of a ‘secret nuclear city’ in Challakere, Karnataka. The world came to know more comprehensively about this development in 2015 when Adrian Levy wrote an article for Foreign Policy Magazine which gave intricate details about the project. If reports are to be believed, this Indian facility is South Asia’s largest military-run compound which hosts nuclear centrifuges, research labs amid other facilities aimed towards advancement of the Indian nuclear program. Little is known about this complex since Indian authorities as well as leadership remain tight-lipped about it. Since this facility has been dubbed a military one, it is not open to international inspectors either. Even the Indian parliament seems to have little knowledge on this issue.
One of the major developments, speculated to be associated with this nuclear city, is that of thermonuclear weapons, given the amount of security at the site as well as the taciturn connected to it. While India did claim to have detonated a thermonuclear device on May 11, 1998 as part of its Shakti-I Operation, many experts, even Indian ones, believe that it ‘fizzled’ out and was a failure at the fusion stage. Many cite this to be one of the reasons behind the Indian reluctance to enter into the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). They want to retain the ability to continue testing in order to test a thermonuclear device in the future.
A thermonuclear weapon or hydrogen bomb as it is more commonly called, uses fusion for the reaction in the bomb. Its destructive power is many times that of a fission bomb.Many Indian scholars are of the view that these weapons are a requirement for India if it is to keep its deterrence intact.
There have also been speculations that India already has these weapons. Indian scholars have used statements by Indian officials as proof of this claim. For instance, the former Indian Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee Admiral Arun Prakash wrote in 2009 that, “In the midst of the current brouhaha, we need to retain clarity on one issue; given that deuterium tritium boosted-fission weapons can generate yields of 200-500 kt, the credibility of India’s nuclear deterrent is not in the slightest doubt.”
Whether India already has these weapons or not remains to be seen, however, there is no denying that India does desire this capability. Possession of thermonuclear weapons will give India a number of benefits. Since these weapons use less fissile material and pack a bigger punch, India can utilize its indigenous uranium reserves for more weapons. Following the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) waiver, the Indian indigenous reserves are already freed up exclusively for military uses. According to one study in 2016 the total estimated uranium reserves in India amount to 199,428 tons. All of these have been freed up for use in the military domain. Keeping this is mind, it is likely that development of thermonuclear devices will only add to an even larger and more destructive Indian nuclear arsenal.
Thermonuclear weapons also allow for variable yield weapons. This flexibility can reduce the necessity for India to maintain a larger inventory of lower yield as well as larger fission-boosted weapons. The development of a thermonuclear device fits perfectly into the Indian leadership mindset of becoming death, the destroyer of worlds.
Looking at all these Indian developments in conjunction with changes in the Indian nuclear doctrine as well as fiery political statements, one can quite easily ascertain that Indian aspirations, when combined, go much beyond the region. These aspirations also gearing for capabilities with more wide-spread destructive power, without any regard for what it would entail in terms of losses. Thus, when Robert Oppenheimer chose to exclaim a Hindu scripture to describe the development of nuclear weapons, perhaps he was foreshadowing how the Indian leadership will come to live by those exact words.
Nidaa Shahid is a former Research Fellow of King’s College London, UK.