Pokhran II – How India Fooled CIA and Tested its Nuclear Bombs

Before the release of John Abraham’s ‘Parmanu’, let’s revisit the story of India’s first underground nuclear tests.

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(This article was first published on 11 May 2018, it has been reposted from The Quints archives to mark 13 May – the day two nuclear bombs were detonated from Pokhran in 1998.)

Twenty years ago, on 11 May, 1998, India created history by conducting its second set of nuclear tests – Operation Shakti – in the Indian Army’s Pokhran Test Range. India test fired three nuclear bombs — Shakti I, Shakti II, Shakti III on that day. Two days later, on 13 May, 1998 two other nuclear bombs — Shakti IV and Shakti V were detonated.

The entire series of tests were kept a secret, as the Atal Bihari Vajpeyee government received massive international pressure to not conduct them in the first place. This is the operation that John Abraham, in his upcoming movie ParmanuThe Story Of Pokhran is presenting on the big screen.

The film is based on true events, with John Abraham playing the character of the Chief Officer, reports Hindustan Times, and is scheduled to release on Friday, 25 May.

Today at 15.45 hours, India conducted three underground nuclear tests from the Pokhran range. These tests conducted today were with a fission device, a low-yield device and a thermo-nuclear device. The major yields are in line with an expected value. Measurements have also confirmed that there was no radioactive material released into the atmosphere. These were contained explosions like the experiments conducted in May 1974. I warmly congratulate the scientists and engineers who have carried out these successful tests.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Prime minister of India in 1998

The first set of nuclear tests, Operation Smiling Buddha, was conducted on 18 May 1974 under Indira Gandhi’s prime ministership, making India the sixth nation to join the nuclear club.

Here’s a quick recap of the beginning of India’s nuclear journey.

  • 1962: India lost more than 4,000 soldiers in the Indo-China War
  • 1964: After China conducted its first nuclear test, Atal Bihari Vajpayee said in the Parliament, “An answer to an atom bomb is an atom bomb.”
  • 1974: Under Indira Gandhi, India became the 6th country to join the nuclear club
  • Since 1974: Rajiv Gandhi and then VP Singh continued secret plannings for more nuclear tests
  • 1995: Narasimha Rao gave a go-ahead to nuclear tests but CIA spy satellites detected nuclear activities and warned India of sanctions
  • 1996: After a second go-ahead, US officials personally came over and provided evidence of detection of India’s test preparations
  • 1996: Atal Bihari Vajpayee ordered for tests to go through after coming to power but his government collapsed two days later
  • 19 March 1998: Vajpayee took oath as the 13th Prime Minister of India
  • 20 March 1998: Vajpayee secretely met Dr APJ Abdul Kalam (the then DRDO chief), Dr R Chidambaram (the then Atomic Energy Chief), Dr Anil Kakodkar (the then BARC Chief), Brajesh Mishra (the then NSA) and LK Advani (the then Home Minister) at South Bloc
  • 8 April 1998: After a second secret meet, Vajpayee gave a go-ahead for the tests
  • 27 April 1998: The date decided for the Nuclear Tests. Later the date was changed because of Dr Chidambaram’s daughter’s wedding. This was done to avoid suspicion of his absence from the wedding
  • 7 May 1998: The equipment was flown from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre to Jaisalmer Airport. The equipment was later moved in four Army trucks under the command of Col Umang Kapur
  • 11 May 1998: Three nuclear bombs were test fired
  • 13 May 1998: Two additional bombs were detonated

What made the nuclear tests stand out were the ways in which the engineers and scientists succeeded in deceiving the CIA spy satellites. In all occasions, the tests went undetected right under the CIA’s nose.

The DRDO officials examined the timing of the satellite positions over India and worked only at night when chances of detection were very low. The scientists worked in army uniforms by the day. The preparations were so thorough that pot-bellied scientists were not included in the team to be able to mix with the physically fit soldiers. All scientists has code names. Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, for instance, was called Major General Prithviraj. Instead of an elaborate convoy, only four army trucks were used to transport the equipment.

After the successful tests the CIA admitted their failure to detect India’s guile.

We have been following the Indian nuclear programme for several years but there’s no getting around the fact that in this instance we missed and did not predict the particular tests in place. Simply stated, we did not get it right. It is my responsibility to stand up and tell the American people that we did not get it right.
George Tenet, Director, CIA (1996 - 2004)  

To mark India’s historic achievement 11 May came to be to celebrated as National Technology Day.

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