Pokhran - The Intelligence Failure
Why were America's intelligence agencies, with satellites, communications intercepts, agents and analysts, unable to detect India's preparations to test nuclear weapons? Underground nuclear tests would normally be detected by satellite imagery, since activity picks up at the site as heavy equipment is used to insert the warhead down a subterranean shaft, and to "stem" the shaft to prevent radiation leakage.
The Indian tests came at a time when there were tensions in many areas of the world. All were clamoring for attention from US satellites and the people who interpret the information they collect.
"When the BJP party came to power, we could have looked harder at our intelligence systems, to make sure that we got as much coverage as we possibly could, even at the expense perhaps of coverage in other areas.... there was activity and it was a question of identifying the degree to which it was unusual in the last few days before the test." Jeremiah News Conference
While Indian denial and deception activities may have complicated the task of monitoring test preparations, evidently there was little if any indication from the intelligence community of a heightened probability of Indian nuclear weapons testing. Among the failures was the fact that both administration policy makers and intelligence analysts accepted an 'underlying mind-set' that India would not test its nuclear weapons. They did not take seriously the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party's [BJP] campaign promises to deploy nuclear weapons. On 03 February 1999 the Bharatiya Janata Party released its manifesto for the February-March Indian elections. In the manifesto, the party pledges to "exercise the nuclear option" and "declare India a nuclear weapon state" after coming to power. However, American analysts assumed that Indian politicians, like their American counterparts, would ignore their campaign promises once elected. According to Congressional testimony by Assistant Secretary of State Inderfurth, "We were told privately and publicly that India would continue to show restraint in the non-proliferation field, and would do nothing to surprise us." On 19 March 1998 the US State Department said it saw no new threat in the vow by India's just elected Hindu nationalist government to "exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons." On 21 March 1998 Defence minister George Fernandes announced that the decision to induct nuclear weapons would depend upon a thorough strategic review to be undertaken by India's National Security Council, leading observers to conclude that nuclear tests were unlikely in the near term.
This view was not universally shared. When the BJP-led Government declared its aim of "inducting" nuclear weapons, a warning was conveyed officially by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to the major powers, and Pakistan's Foreign Minister expressed further concern on 19 March 1998 to the Conference on Disarmament. On 02 April 1998, the government of Pakistan warned the five nuclear states and other friendly countries that India was making preparations for the nuclear tests. Four days before the tests, a non-governmental group circulated a paper in Washington [based on Charhdi Kala International, a small newsletter published on 07 May 1998 by Sikh separatists in Canada] which reported that:
"Preparations for an Indian nuclear test has been further confirmed by our sources in India (who so far have never been wrong having millions of pairs of eyes and ears fixed to the ground) who report all kinds of feverish nighttime activities in the vicinity of Pokharan in Rajasthan state 60 miles from the Pakistan border."
Initial reports suggested that US intelligence agencies failed to detect any signs that India was preparing to conduct underground nuclear tests, and that India was able to very 'quickly and subtly' make preparations for the tests. By December 1995 Indian test preparations may have advanced to the point that India had acquired the capability to test very quickly without detection by US intelligence -- as happened in May 1998. According to former Indian President Venkataraman: "All preparations for an underground nuclear test at Pokhran had been completed in 1983 when I was the Defense Minister. It was shelved because of international pressure, and the same thing happened in 1995."
It is reported that on 08 May 1998, three days before the tests, a satellite recorded evidence of renewed activity, when bulldozers were seen near India's nuclear test site. Sometime between midnight and 0300 hours on the morning of 11 May 1998 an analyst examined satellite imagery showing fences being removed. This "clear-cut" evidence of nuclear test preparations was only revealed in satellite imagery just six hours before the tests. However, no CIA warning was issued because American intelligence analysts responsible for India's nuclear program had not expected the tests and were not on alert. It was not until around 0800 hours, nearly five hours later, that experienced officers arrived to review the evidence.
Other reports suggested that India had placed its nuclear testing equipment "underground" following the 1995-1996 episode that revealed details about US intelligence satellite monitoring of the test site. More generally, it was suggested that the diplay of American satellite imagery by US Ambassador Wisner in 1996 had compromised American intelligence "sources and methods" -- giving India a direct appreciation of the details of American monitoring activities and suggesting possible avenues for cover, concealment and deception. US officials, in discouraging the 1995-96 test, might have inadvertently shown India to evade detection of its pre-test activities in 1998. India may have been able to estimate the times that satellites passed over the site by analyzing the series of pictures presented by Wisner. It was also suggested that India tracked the orbits of American satellites and moved equipment only when they believed nothing was overhead. According to one report satellites were collecting imagery of Pokhran at intervals ranging from six to 24 hours. [SOURCE: J. Ransom Clark]
The failure to detect the preparations for the May 1998 series of tests may also have been due to an organised denial program. According to a 22 May 1998 news release Embassy of India in Washington, the Ambassador of India, Mr. Naresh Chandra, met senior US Congressmen and "rebutted strongly the allegations that have been made in some quarters about India having indulged in deception and having misled the US." Reportedly, for several years prior to the 1998 tests, India deliberately conducted activities at Pokhran, digging a new shaft or cleaning out an older one, to provide cover for actual testing activity. And published reports suggested that India had fooled the US intelligence community by creating a diversion with preparations at Balasore for missile tests that it really wasn't planning to do - diverting US attention. Indian nuclear researcher G. Balachandran reportedly quipped that "It's not a failure of the CIA. It's a matter of their intelligence being good, our deception being better." It has been suggested that Indian denial activities extended to measures such as the use of smoke to obscure test preparation, and the disposal of spoil from vertical shaft excavations along existing sand-dune contours. Reportedly the new book Weapons of Peace by Raj Chengappa contains additional details concerning Indian denial efforts.
The full extent of Indian cover, concealment and deception [CCD] is not known, and is probably not knowable. It is not in the interest of Indian operational security planners to disclose the entire scope of their activities. Nor it is in the interest of the US intelligence community to fully reveal the sources and methods that were applied against the Indian nuclear test program, nor to disclose those Indian CCD methods, if any, that complicated US intelligence operations. American analysts and collection managers may have been looking for the expected. Standard procedures would encompass generating templates of target signatures and matching data collected with these templates. This can help in interpreting imagery and signals intelligence, and defeating cover, concealment, and deception. But such templates can also contribute to failures to recognize or even search for unanticipated developments, and create the possibility of successful deception by an adversary.
The conventional interpretation of the failure of American intelligence failure to detect India's nuclear weapons test preparations is a microscopic structural analog to the macroscopic interpretation of India's overall nuclear program. It is generally held that India's nuclear weapons development program was a multi-decade effort that patiently and incrementally accumulated capabilities with the consent, if not active encouragement, of a succession of governments. All that remained in May 1998 was the permission of the government to conduct nuclear tests. Similarly, it is generally held that India's nuclear weapons test infrastructure incrementally developed over nearly two decades, and was substantially complete by the mid-1990s, if not by the early 1980s. According to this interpretation, all that was required in May 1998 was the rather modest activity required to actually emplace a handful of nuclear devices into pre-existing test shafts [presumably at Khetolai]. Given the modest scope of the activity required to complete preparations for actual testing, rather modest denial or deception activities by India coupled with modest inattentiveness on the part of American intelligence could predictably combine to produce a "failure" to detect test preparations.
According to one variant of this conventional explanation, the American demarches of 1996 facilitated Indian denial activities by disclosing "sources and methods" information, relating to specific interpretation keys that the United States was using to conclude that nuclear test preparations were in progress. Having learned of the signatures that had attracted the attention of American imagery analysts, the Indians could take precautions to avoid creating these signatures in the days leading up to the tests.
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