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India Today, May 17, 1999
May 17, 1999



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WEAPONS OF PEACE
How the CIA was Fooled

WEAPONS OF PEACE
BY RAJ CHENGAPPA
HARPER COLLINS
PRICE: Rs 295

Kalam and Chidamabaram with men of 58 EngineersIn the summer of 1998, India stunned the world when it conducted five underground nuclear tests in the space of three days. A year down the line, the government plans to celebrate May 11 as Resurgent India Day. Strategists will assess the gains and losses of Pokhran II. But there is also a human saga behind India's largely secret quest to be a nuclear-weapons power that has never been fully told. Weapons of Peace (Harper Collins, Rs 295) seeks to fill the gap. Written by India Today Deputy Editor Raj Chengappa, the book takes a close look at India's bomb makers: their visions and their limitations, the bonhomie and the intrigue, the triumphs and the goof ups. It is a journalistic effort based on interviews with over 100 key players and traces India's nuclear drama since Independence.

This extract addresses one of the big questions of the 1998 tests that has so far remained unanswered: just how did India keep preparations for the nuclear tests secret, hoodwinking even the redoubtable CIA which had satellites constantly monitoring Pokhran? The subterfuge adopted by the bomb team -- real cloak and dagger stuff -- was considered as big a triumph as the test itself. And the Indian Army had a major role to play in the effort.

It was one of those still winter mornings. No winds rustled through the thorny shrubs. No eddies of dust progressed to minor storms that sprayed grains of sand like raindrops on a windshield. Even the herds of rutting deer that roamed the range had fallen silent.

So the tyres crunching through the sand and the roar of engines sounded like Godzilla on the march as the convoy of bulldozers and trucks made their way slowly through the desert. Till they came upon a fairly deep well marked by sand bags around its circumference.

A few brisk orders and the dozers started pushing huge mounds of sand into the well. Men with shovels joined the activity and within an hour they had not only sealed the well but also built a mini-mountain of sand around it. They then unwound a huge reel of wrist-thick cables till the black wire snaked all over the place. Satisfied they took out smoke canisters, placed a dozen on the mound they had just built and lit them up.

As the giant grey mushroom clouds billowed into the sky, the 20 odd men looked up expectantly. There was nothing visible to the naked eye but the vast blue expanse. One of the men shook his fist and shouted at the invisible adversary, "Catch us if you can." The others doubled up in laughter. They enjoyed the little game of deception they were playing. At the thought of how the next day spooks from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) would download images from the satellite and would scratch their heads or whatever wondering what the hell the Indians were up to in the middle of the desert.

When the convoy returned to base, Colonel Gopal Kaushik, commandant of the 58 Engineer Regiment of the Indian Army, wrote in his daily report: "... Jan 1998, Dummy exercise carried out. More tomorrow." The 58 Engineers were specially chosen for the crucial task of maintaining the shafts in which India's nuclear devices would be tested. They were told to take all measures to ensure total secrecy. So effective were the regiment's tactics that when India carried out five nuclear tests in May 1998, it went down as one of the CIA's biggest intelligence failures.

It wasn't as if the agency was ill-equipped. It had kept the test range under constant surveillance for years using billion-dollar spies in the sky -- four powerful satellites -- that could even snap photographs of the wristwatch of an Indian soldier far below and read out the time. On ground the CIA boasted of "humint" or human intelligence, its array of agents and well-greased moles trained to sift through the countless half-truths that swirled through New Delhi's power corridors.

WAKING KUMBHAKARAN
Unlike Pakistan's nuclear test site at the remote Chagai Hills in Baluchistan, there was little India could do to hide its activity at Pokhran. In the semi-desert like conditions, its gently undulating terrain can support only shoulder-high thorny bushes. The bushes are sparse and like the dunes don't provide much cover from a probing satellite. But the 58 Engineers had a year and a half to rehearse. They also had the wealth of experience handed down to them by the dozen-odd regiments that had maintained the shafts. There were occasional bursts of activity that alerted the US to the possibility of tests -- thrice to be precise. In 1982, 1995 and 1997. Each episode taught the Indians what not to do. General V.P. Malik, chief of army staff, says, "Over the years our boys did an excellent job out there in the desert. But so far we could never speak about it."

The subterfuge employed by the Indian Army included using code names or words, many of which were downright undiplomatic. The shaft used to test India's hydrogen bomb, for instance, was known as the White House. As risque was Taj Mahal -- the code name for the shaft in which the atomic bomb was detonated. Imagine the bomb team telling Delhi after the tests: "The White House has collapsed." Or "The Taj Mahal has blown up." They never had to. So why the names? The team's defence: for God's sake, these are just code words and the crazier they sound the easier their recall.

The name of the third shaft, where a sub-kiloton or low-yield test was conducted, was less controversial. It was called Kumbhakaran, after a mythological figure who when disturbed from his deep slumber would fly into a frightening rage. Since the well in which the shaft was sunk had lain dormant for many years the name was appropriate. There were three other shafts designated Navtala (Hindi for nine wells), a name given to the area because it had old, disused drinking-water wells. The team used three of them to sink shafts for the tests and these were called nt1, 2 and 3.

All the six shafts were to be used for the May 1998 tests, but the bomb team only exploded five devices. The device in NT 3 was pulled out and taken back under orders from R. Chidambaram, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) chairman, because he felt the team had the results they wanted with just five blasts. As he told the team laconically, "Why waste it?"

'IS SIERRA SERVING WHISKY?'
As part of the drive to maintain secrecy the country's two top scientists, Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) chief A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and Chidambaram, donned army greens whenever they visited Pokhran. The 80-odd scientists and technologists from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and DRDO who descended on Pokhran to conduct the tests in May were also given army fatigues and false names. With so many code names or words around, the conversation at times was bewildering even to those who were part of the loop. At least one top scientist told the team that he found it easier to do his physics calculations than decipher the code language. Would they please stick to normal words so that he could get his work done? The team demurred.

So in the run for the tests, an army officer manning the operations room was asked by Delhi: "Is Sierra serving whisky in the canteen yet? Has the store arrived?" Decoded that meant: "Has the nuclear device been lowered in the special chamber (canteen) in the shaft called White House (Whisky was its other name) and have the scientists (Sierra) started working on them?"

A little later Delhi was on line with another query: "Has Charlie gone to the zoo? And is Bravo saying prayers? Mike is on." The decoded version: "Has the DRDO team (codenamed Charlie) gone to the deer park (the zoo or the control room)? And has the BARC team (codenamed Bravo) gone to the bunkers where the nuclear devices are being assembled (prayer hall). The dg, military operations (Mike) wants to know the progress."

In the spring of 1997, K. Santhanam and Lieutenant General Inder Varma paid a secret visit to Pokhran. As drdo's pointsman on the nuclear issue, Santhanam, chief adviser on technology, was closely involved in India's plans to weaponise its capability since 1986. He was brought in by V.S. Arunachalam, Kalam's predecessor who played a key role in India's nuclear weapons quest in the '80s. Santhanam's code name was Lieutenant Colonel Srinivas, a sobriquet he had earlier frequently used to pen articles in the lay press.

Lieutenant General Varma, DG, military operations, code named Mike, was the army's key man for all such nuclear operations. His task was to ensure that shafts and facilities at Pokhran were kept in a state of continuous readiness so a test could be done within 10 days of a decision. And to ensure secrecy. His formula: "Keep it simple."

On that visit, the duo told the 58 Engineers that they had to dig two more shafts of an average depth of 50 metres within the next month. And all efforts must be made to shield it from the prying eyes of satellites. The regiment got cracking. Its officers first looked out for a new area to sink the two new wells.

The nine disused wells at Navtala came in handy. These were fairly deep. That meant the team had less to dig. They had noticed that one way satellites could tell new activity was going on was because engineers usually erected a fence around the shaft to keep away both stray cattle and other units not concerned with the digging operations. This time they dispensed with a fence. To dissuade others a sign was put up: "Danger. Mined Area. Keep Out." That worked.

The army regiment got even bolder. They knew the intelligence agencies were like diplomats: if you told them the truth they would never believe you. So instead of taking attention away from the two shafts they were to dig, they virtually shouted for the satellites to look. They pitched tents around one of the shafts and put up a signboard: "Water Position". At the other site they parked four dozers and put up another giant signboard that said "Dozer Cadre Training". On satellite images they stood out like smoke trails in a clear sky. After a flurry of such subterfuge, the regiment waited for reaction. Indian intelligence agencies reported no undue concern in key countries. The army knew its ploy was working. It also realised that one of the reasons why US satellites had detected fresh activity in Pokhran in 1995 was possibly the movement of huge mounds of sands close to the wells. These were to be used to seal the shafts when the devices were lowered. The army figured that western intelligence agencies knew they had started shifting sands by studying how the winds shaped the mounds. If winds were creating new mounds, they would align them in the direction they were blowing. But if dozers were used to shift sand the new mounds contrasted distinctly with other dunes.

Army planners then came up with a solution. Whenever they moved sand they monitored the wind and ensured that the mounds were aligned according to the direction it was blowing. The technique worked and months before the test several dummy runs were done to see if the CIA was perking up.

SHAKTI STHAL
Up ahead from Pokhran is Khetolai, a lazy stone and sand Rajasthani village (population: 1,200) that put up with much of the discomfort caused by India's nuclear preparedness. In the aftermath of India's 1998 nuclear tests, some zealots had repainted its signboard. Above the word Khetolai in smaller letters was painted, "Shakti Sthal" or Place of Strength.

Sohanram Vishnoi, principal of Khetolai's only school, still remembers how violently the ground shook that May morning in 1974 when India exploded its first nuclear device. Then only 15 years old, he was certain his house would collapse. He recalls the local mendicant's explanation for the quake. The sadhu told him gravely that the world rotated around the horn of a cow. Occasionally the cow, tired of carrying the weight of the world, would shift it from one horn tip to the other. The earth would then shake violently as it did that on that summer's day.

In May 1998, Sohanram saw increased activity at the Pokhran range and knew something serious was going on. On the morning of May 11, Major Mohan Kumar Sharma of the 58 Engineers drove up and requested Sohanram to keep the schoolchildren outdoors for a couple of hours. He wouldn't divulge the reason but Sohanram told the stunned officer, "Don't worry, we know you are going to do another test. We are fully behind you."

Khetolai had long since guessed what the CIA hadn't.

 

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