Parmanu, the true story of Pokhran: How India 'fooled' CIA with historic nuclear test
On May 13, 1998, shortly after the detonation of all five warheads, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee declared India a full-fledged nuclear state.
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On May 13, 1998, at 15:45 hours, India secretly conducted a series of underground nuclear tests with five bombs in Pokhran, Rajasthan. Although this was not the first time the country was testing its nuclear weapons (the first successful test took place in 1974 under the codename “Smiling Buddha”), this one was certainly the most memorable if one takes into consideration the sheer effect it had on its states and neighbouring countries.
Pokhran-II (AKA Operation Shakti-98) was the name assigned to the series of tests that comprised one fusion bomb and four fission bombs. On May 13, 1998, shortly after the detonation of all five warheads, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee declared India a full-fledged nuclear state.
This statement resulted in consequences. Numerous sanctions were placed on India by countries such as the United Sates and Japan.
Thousands of miles away, in an interview, US senator Richard Shelby articulated that the CIA’s failure to identify that these tests were going to take place was "the biggest failure of our intelligence gathering agencies in the past ten years or more”.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, George Fernandes, APJ Abdul Kalam, R Chidambaram, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and Pramod Mahajan in Pokhran after the nuclear tests on May 11 and 13, 1998. Photo: Pramod Pushkarna
Although foreign countries viewed India’s nuclear programme as a threat, Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) chief APJ Abdul Kalam, in a press conference, clearly mentioned that the nuclear weapons were for “national security”.
In a sense, Kalam was right. As he stated, in the last 2,500 years, not once had India invaded outside territory, but numerous foreign invaders had laid siege to parts of the subcontinent. On national television, the then Prime Minister of India stated that India would never be the first one to initiate nuclear weapons and would also refrain from using warheads against countries that had not acquired any of their own.
Amid these events, a very important question that most people miss is, how did the United States fail to identify in advance that Pokhran-II was going to take place? It is a well-documented fact that satellites worth billions were used to spy on Pokhran at all times. In fact, hovering over Pokhran were four satellites that were so technologically advanced they could supposedly even be used to count the number of green patches the Indian Army soldiers had on their fatigues. They were called “Billion Dollar Spies”. And all India had against them were the “Regiment 58 Engineers” from the Indian Army.
So how exactly did India successfully “fool” the CIA?
Chidambaram and Kalam in army fatigues in Pokhran, 1998. Photo: India Today
A lesser-known fact is that these men had a year and a half to rehearse what they were supposed to do. Every move was planned and took time to formulate. The forces had thought through every aspect of the mission.
India’s access to state-of-the-art satellites gave it pivotal intel on what could and could not be seen from space. Scientists only worked on test sites during the night, when satellites would be unable to capture clear images due to the absence of light. As dawn approached, everything was placed just as it had been the previous day. When the analysts at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) downloaded images from the satellites the next day, it would seem as if not a single strand had been moved. Additionally, in locations where holes were dug, sand was aligned towards the direction of the wind. This prevented suspicion since unaligned sand could have signalled activity.
But satellites were not the only thing that could compromise the secrecy of the mission. The CIA spying on communication was no news. To counter this, code words were used for shafts. One shaft was named “White House” or even “whisky”, while the other was called “Taj Mahal”.
When scientists of the DRDO and Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) would come to visit Pokhran, they went undercover and wore army fatigues. False names were provided to scientists. APJ Abdul Kalam’s name was switched with Major General Prithvi Raj and Rajagopala Chidambaram’s codename was “Natraj”. The surplus use of codewords was so efficient that it is said that one senior scientist was known to be complaining, expressing that he found the codewords to be more complicated than physics calculations.
In the dark
At times, to protect the secrecy of the mission and avoid leakages, India had to keep its own officials in the dark, including George Fernandes, the then defence minister who was not told about a confidential meeting which took place between Vajpayee, Kalam and Rajagopala Chidambaram (then atomic energy chief) to discuss the nuclear weapon tests.
It is also important to keep in mind what India achieved in those three days. Photo: PTI
It is, however, believed by many that India, in return, created history. If secrecy was the cost, so be it. Before the detonation, only a few ministers knew about the tests. The list included Lal Krishna Advani, George Fernandes, Pramod Mahajan, Jaswant Singh, and Yashwant Sinha.
As for the CIA, they were unaware that the tests had taken place until Vajpayee, the then Prime Minister, declared the feat India had accomplished on television. US officials blamed The New York Times, stating that the daily had released an article that declared the CIA was spying on India’s nuclear test sites and leaked intel on the existence of US spy satellites above Pokhran. These leaks, apparently, gave India a heads-up. I believe that, in all of this, if there is one thing the US should learn about India, it should be that India is very good at keeping secrets.
The nuclear tests might have been carried out a little more than 17 years ago, but it is imperative to consider that Pokhran-II would not be known as the success it is if not for the scientists and the government who performed in synergy.
It is also important to keep in mind what India achieved in those three days. Yet, we should not forget that India’s name is on the same list as North Korea when it comes to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.