When Narasimha Rao, the Indian National Congress Prime Minister called for snap elections in 1996, it was time for Pakistan to brace itself for the events particularly if BJP came to power. 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. Pre election opinion polls indicated that BJP was most likely to emerge as the single largest party. The most challenging question for Pakistan’s security planners was; would BJP follow its rhetoric of nuclear testing if it came to power?
As destiny would have it, I was the only officer in the General Staff with sound academic credentials in Nuclear Proliferation and Strategy. Though the study was simultaneously being carried out by many concerned branches, the ultimate responsibility of carrying out the final analysis for the General Staff in GHQ fell on my shoulders. Destiny placed me in the footsteps of a great Pakistani diplomat, Mr. S M Burke, who had been most instrumental in procuring Pakistan’s first nuclear reactor from Canada.
To carry out an accurate study, it was time for an in depth appraisal of known Indian nuclear capabilities and development. The first step in the study was to pin point the deficiencies in India’s technical nuclear capabilities and what were they most likely to do to address them. Within a week, my team had read through and sifted extremely important findings about the Indian Nuclear and Space Development Program.
1. We knew that the explosion in 1974 was a conventional 1950 design and needed to be fine tuned for confirmation and miniaturisation.
2. We knew that based on decay rates, India needed further data not only to confirm its previous testing but also calculate the life of the war heads.
3. We knew that though India was already refining plutonium, the fissile material had never been tested in an explosion and the subsequent data crucial to war head designs.
4. We knew that the war head designs had to be compact so as to be placed in the tips of the delivery systems. Boosted weapons and miniaturisation were therefore a necessity.
5. We understood that the quest for Bharat Versha would be incomplete without India boasting thermo nuclear devices.
Simultaneously, through the recently introduced internet, we got a special connection and hooked on to a satellite that transmitted pictures of Pokhran with a 48 hours delay. Initially there was no activity but by February 1998, we began noticing track marks and considerable activity. We estimated three months before India could resume nuclear testing.
At the same time 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 knowledge base and the photography. By mid February, the analysis was ready and subjected to an in house discussion in the General Staff Branch after which it was put before the COAS, General Jehanghir Karamat. The preparations in Pakistan began.
Due to India’s limited capability in enriching uranium and processing plutonium, we had reached the conclusion that India will conduct the following explosions.
1. A repeat of 1974 design for confirmation.
2. A boosted weapon system based on a plutonium design.
3. 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 a nuclear fusion.
4. We were of the opinion that 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.
I was on a physical workout on 12Th May 1998 when Director General Military Operations Major General Tauqir Zia called me to inform that India had carried out some nuclear explosions. Glued to the ZEE News, we saw the breaking news. There was no surprise and we worked for the next 48 hours. These 48 hours in the planning room were the best I had amongst senior officers. There was indeed urgency but no air of typical military seniority. We were all one, taking turns and handing out refreshments to each other irrespective of our ranks.
In days to come, the accuracy of our study was vindicated. 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.
For my team, it was a moment of extreme satisfaction, pride and humility. Based on research, conclusions drawn through empiricism and important intelligence gathering, we had ensured that Pakistan was not caught napping. We had given enough lead time to our scientists to prepare and conduct a series of nuclear testing as a credible and befitting response. All this would never have been possible without the confidence that senior officers reposed in us and the guidance of Dr. Zafar Iqbal Cheema, the Chairman of the Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, Qaid e Azam University Islamabad.
With technical issues left to our scientists, engineers and logisticians, it was now time to carry out an 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 a durable peace in the region and foresee a negotiated settlement of all disputes with India.
One of the most important conclusions of our study was that the post nuclear Pakistan had to be more responsible. The message went unnoticed by the political establishment. General Jehanghir Karamat had proposed a Committee of Defence and National Security (CDNS) as the single competent forum to pull Pakistan out of its political and economic crises. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif saw it as an affront to the political establishment and a precursor to praetorianism. Being a gentleman that he was, General Karamat resigned and with him the vision of a peaceful, self reliant and strong Pakistan.
With the new COAS, Pakistan soon changed course and the coterie plunged Pakistan into its deepest crises one after the other. I wonder if it would ever be possible to put back the clock.
Brigadier Samson Simon Sharaf is a retired officer of Pakistan Army and a Political Economist.