"Walking between Rain Drops": Russian and Indian Nuclear Arms


India’ Cold War Experience

The recent news of India commissioning two Akula-II submarines as well as four TU-22 M3 backfire bombers from Russia were left over decisions from the cold war era and demonstrates that the institutional memory of India and Russian strategic entanglement is likely to continue to become stronger while India will attempt to seek sophisticated weapon systems from Western countries and US in particular. This model was part of the ‘Indira Doctrine’ as it evolved in the 1980s wherein she agreed to lease nuclear submarine fleet from Soviet Union while delegation level discussions took place on TOW missiles and Howitzers with the US.

India and Russia have shared ‘Deep State’ bonds especially in the post détente transition of the first cold war. India is currently revisiting its heterostructural pattern of engagement in relation to the principal nuclear powers and thus decision making cultures of the Indian ‘Deep State’ in so far as they relate to Russia, bear imprint of cold war dynamics to the point of being muscle memory and can only be assessed for valences of history. History not as poetics of nostalgia but as civilizational streams of geo-consciousness self assembling within decision making parameters, perhaps even to use the term ‘historicometrics’. Traditionally the ‘Indian subcontinent’ has integrated into other civilizational channels whether Greek based in Ashoka /Maurya times or the West Asian Central Asian streams in medieval history or Indo-China Buddhist stream, remaing mostly a land based apparatus with selective capacity for sea based incisions in the coastal peripheries. The British naval based colonial entrapment of trade choke points has been the first instance of India’s integration into sea based geographic assemblies. Ironically, Russia which has been mostly a land based power and was late in the cold war to turn its navy into a global nuclear strike force and has been the main provocateour of India’s naval build up ever since 1964 when Admiral Gorshkov raised the idea of a broader Soviet support for Indian naval build up. Minutes of the discussion between Rear Adm. Samson and Admiral Gorshkov where the Russian Navy C-in-C “expressed surprise that India was not buying up to date Soviet naval equipment”. (Division, 1964) Gorshkov felt that India “would need at least 20 submarines to start with and 2 brigades of torpedo and rocket boats consisting of 12 crafts each” and these would be available on long term credit basis. (Division, 1964) The cooperation began with Foxtrots but the strategic dialog first surfaced in the aftermath of India’s first nuclear test in May 1974. 1979 onwards, escalation in Afghanistan further led to upgrading in Indo-Russian startegic dialog with nuclear delivery platforms being offered for the first time. The recently declassified Indian cold war documents and oral hsitory records taken as part of the book ‘The Nation Declassified’, reveal the vector of Russian imprint in emergence of the Indian nuclear triad and the foundational nuclear industrial capacity through Kudankulam agreement, reactor cores for Indian ATV project, covert cryogenic engines for ISRO Ballistic program and maraging steel for the centrifuges for enriched uranium.  

Breaking Steel with Admiral Gorshkov

The strategic doctrine dialog between the Indian and Soviet navy began almost immediately after the 1974 PNE. A former Chief of Naval Staff recalls that Admiral SN Kohli particularly applied himself to ideas of strategic purpose and nuclear force architecture. (CNS) Admiral SN Kohli was C-in-C Western Naval Command before being appointed as Chief of Naval Staff. Admiral SN Kohli went for an official visit to Soviet Union in July 1974; former CNS recalls that the Admiral Kohli and Admiral Gorshkov got along very well despite the age difference between the two. Admiral Gorshkov was a towering figure for Indian naval officials given his experience as commander of the Soviet Navy since 1956 with two books ‘Navies in War and Peace’ and ‘Sea Power of the State’. Both Adm. Gorshkov and Adm. Kohli went off itinerary to Black Sea resort where they had one to one conversation over ‘more than a day’. There were no delegation members accompanying them. The Indian Ocean was a topic that Adm. Gorshkov held very close to his heart and his constructive attention to the Indian naval role there. On return, Admiral Kohli made out a note on this conversation to the Defense Minister through Defense Secretary. Somebody in the Cabinet had raised objection to CNS deviating from the itinerary and this was leaked to the media which reported that CNS was pulled up by GOI. Another objection rasied was about the mandate of Adm. Kohli to discuss the nuclear subject with Soviet Naval Chief. Prime Minister called for Adm. Kohli and assured him that ‘don’t worry about. It’s your right to discuss these matters, if you don’t then who will’. In this dialog, Adm. Gorshkov mentioned that, to begin with, ‘Indian navy needs at least two (nuclear) submarines’. (CNS) 

Waters around India are tropical i.e. the physical charachteristics of the Indian Ocean waters are such that anytime a sound wave is emitted, it will be totally internally reflected at a particular depth. In summer, this depth of internal reflection is as low as 30-50 metres onwards. In winter, this goes up to about 80-120 metres. Submarine detection by tracking sound sonar emissions is not of the same nature as in Atlantic, Black Sea, Pacific, etc where submarine detection is easier through long range channels of sound emmiting. Even conventional submarines are practically immune to electronic sound detection and certainly immune to surveillance from satellites. In naval exercises in Indian Ocean, for instance, conventional submarines get as close as 6-8 kms of aircraft carriers to fire torpedoes at them and go away. 

At around the same time, related to the outcome of the discussions between Adm. Kohli and Adm. Gorshkov, another handwritten note of about two short paragraphs was made out for the Prime Minister which was handed to G Parthasarthi. The author of the note was assured that ‘leave it to me you will hear from me’ which meant that he would surely bring the note before the Prime Minister in all earnestness. The note mentioned the diea of introducing a factor of uncertainty in the Indian Ocean into the calculations of the extra regional great powers (read United States). There was mention of aircraft carrier centered fleet. This note was an outcome of discussions between Naval Chief, certain officers with PN Haksar group. The momentum of discussions led to formal initiation of the Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) Project by the Prime Minister in the same year as the PNE. PM also gave direction for ‘highest priority’ to Dr Dhawan’s program. (CNS) This is confirmed through S Dhawan writes for approval of PM for fixed optical tracking station for satellite in collaboration with USSR Academy of Sciences. It encloses the draft note from DOS for the Indo-Soviet space collaboration on the fixed photographic satellite and space probes. Ministry of Defense had approved of the project. Also enclosed, copy of agreement between ISRO and AS-USSR. (PMO, ISRO, 1975)

Seeking Yellow Pastures

By 1976, GOI sought alternate sources for its nuclear material requirements. France and Soviet Union were being prospected as new nuclear suppliers. Dr MR Srinivasan explains that if some equipment was required for instance, for the nuclear fuel complex for which the Western countries were not willing to offer any components but the Soviets were agreeable to supply them. As an example, for NFC Hyderabad a huge machine called ‘piercing press’ which is a hydraulic press works on a raw ingot of zirconium alloy to make a pipe then that pipe is processed into smaller dimensions and this press came from Soviet Union. Some other equipment for making tubes also came from them and other such specialized machines and components that other countries were not willing to provide. At that time, AEC was not discussing reactors with Soviet Union because the focus in India was on Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWR) which was not within the interest range of Russian atomic specialists. However, on fundamental physics Dubna High Temperature Institute was an important place and it also had a huge accelerator so people from BARC would have gone there. In area of fast reactors, the Russians were talking to Indian AEC in general terms. 

Dr MR Srinivasan had gone to Moscow for seismic studies on how to make reactor stable for seismically sensitive sites when he had also seen BN300 reactor in Shevchenko which is on the Caspian Sea in now Kazakhstan. At some stage after that group of Soviets came to India to discuss FBR designs and performance in Kalpakkam but the issue of thermal reactors was not discussed with the Russians. The reactor cooperation with Russians only took place in the 1980s which had culminated in the 1988 ‘Kudankulam agreement’ between Gorbachev and Rajiv Gandhi. So the beginning in Indo-Soviet nuclear cooperation was not terribly strategic to begin with but was important in bits and pieces. DN Chatterjee’s letter as Ambassador in Paris, informs that French had agreed to supply enriched uranium to India for life of FBTR from their military stock in spite of the reluctance and reservations of the Defense Ministry. This was related to the agreement between India and France for FBTR. 

Nuclear relations with Soviet Union went back to the meeting between Bhabha-Krassin in 1957 and Bhabha-Emelyanov in 1958. In the seventies, nuclear cooperation with Soviet Union included Chairman AEC’s visit to Soviet Union in May 1970 when he met Dr. Petrosyants whom he met again at Vienna during the 14th General Conference of the IAEA. MA Vellodi (JS, DAE), Prof. BM Udgaonkar (TIFR) and Dr. PK Iyengar (BARC) visited USSR in May 1971 in context of the annual working plans for 1971-73. Collaboration took place on fast reactors, computational methods for reactor design, desalination, neutron diffraction, nuclear physics, isotopes and plasma. In 1971 July, Prof. N Sodom (Deputy Director, DUBNA) visited Bombay regarding training for Indian scientists in Dubna. Indo-Soviet Joint seminar on fast reactors was conducted in December 1972 at Kalpakkam. HN Sethna (Chairman, AEC) accompanied by PN Arumughan (Head, PPED) and MR Srinivasan (Scientific Officer, BARC) visited USSR in January 1973. Yet, the political investment of Soviet Union into Indian atomic program and remained limited to technical level. Soviet Union was not encouraging Indian nuclear program in the same way as it had done the conventional military relations between the two. Homi Sethna left for Moscow in June 1976 for deal on heavy water. Ramanna commented to PN Haksar that “it would have been ten times more effective had he gone earlier”. (Haksar, Ramanna-Haksar, 1976)

PM Desai’s visit to Soviet Union

In his meeting with LI Brezhnev at the Kremlin on 12th June 1979, PM Desai began with China,  criticized PM Nehru as having “made a mistake of recognizing in 1950 Chinese suzerainty over Tibet”. (Record of Discussions, 1979) Brezhnev thought that India must be prepared defensively as “there may be an unpleasant surprise in store”. (Record of Discussions, 1979) Brezhnev conveyed to M Desai that he had discussed India’s defense requirements with Ustinov (Soviet Minister of Defense) and recommended that 2 billion rouble worth equipment would be transferred to India. PM Desai brought up the issue of Pakistan “trying to make nuclear weapons and carry out nuclear explosions” and he had raised this matter with Pakistan President who for his part denied any such plan. (Record of Discussions, 1979) At this point, Mr. Samoteikin spoke of USSR having “unconfirmed reports that they (Pakistan) are trying to build a uranium enrichment plant but we have no report to say that they are attempting to have any bomb”. (Record of Discussions, 1979) In response to Indian PM talking about troubles in Iran and fanatical elements in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Brezhnev said “the devil alone knows”. (Record of Discussions, 1979) 

The same day M Desai held talks with Prime Minister AN Kosygin at the Hall of Receptions. M Desai placed the request for 200 tons of heavy water for RAPP. Kosygin replied that “I can immediately say yes….we will satisfy your request”. (Record of Discussions, 1979) Kosygin remarked that these 200 tons requirement were in addition to the 205 tons already supplied to India by the Soviet Union. Kosygin told that Soviet Union could supply 80 tons in 1980 and 50-60 tons every year thereafter. Kosygin informed that he had accepted Indian request for Soviet assistance in uranium exploration and a Soviet team was had already been selected for visiting India. Mention was also made of the Soviet rocket that had been used to launch Indian satellite in June 1979. 

Strategic Dialog Upgrade in 1980s

The new tilt of Indian strategic program towards Soviet Union had consolidated by end of 1981 when, firstly, GOI was convinced that US would not fulfill its contractual commitments in regard to Tarapur. GOI was prepared to publicly announce termination of Indo-US nuclear cooperation but in the interest of bilateral relations they agreed to discuss the termination process with US officials. AMS (Americas) Division/MEA brief by then Under Secretary and current Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar described the upgraded security arrangement between Reagan and Zia which had given Zia $3bn in arms aid. According to S Jaishankar, “GOI must assess Reagan’s policy on South Asia as part of its policy of containing Soviet Union from Pacific to the Atlantic”. (MEA, Visit of General Haig, secretary of State, 1981) TN Kaul meeting with Misha Kapitsa on 3.8.81 where Kapitsa considered scenario on attack on India from Pakistan; use of nuclear bomb by Pakistan was not a likelihood immediately but “once they acquired F-16s or exploded a nuclear bomb, it was quite probable”. (Kaul, 1982) Kapitsa’s assessment was in line with the pattern of cold war transition drawn out by S. Jaishankar. Kapitsa concluded in a more direct manner that Reagan Administration was pursuing policy of “encircling India and Soviet Union”. (Kaul, 1982)

The new strategic dialog between India and Soviet Union is captured by TN Kaul’s notes on the meeting between Indian Ambassador in Moscow VK Ahuja and Mr. Pegov (former Soviet Ambassador to India) on 31.7.81 where he was present. Pegov told VK Ahuja that Pakistan was “likely to have a nuclear blast within the next six months or so” (Kaul, 1981).

On defense matters, Pegov informed Indian envoy VK Ahuja, “everything that we have is at your disposal including nuclear and other submarines, MIG-23, MIG-25 and MIG-27” (Kaul, 1981). VK Ahuja had also mentioned India requiring ‘more advanced missiles’. This was the first such instance wherein Strategic military equipment was being put up for Indian military in unequivocal terms. The documentation suggests a shift in Soviet policy on nuclear matters in South Asia from diplomatic support to Indian nuclear program along with contracts on supply of heavy water, were also going to offer strategic delivery systems to India. Pegov was informed that India was also looking for more advanced missiles than had been offered thus far in order to counter PAF’s F-16 threat. In turn, Pegov reassured Indian Ambassador that besides what was already in Soviet service “everything that is operational and tried by us and everything that we may develop in the future is at your disposal”. (Kaul, 1981)

Indira 2.0: Nuclear Re-Awakening

In 1981, Admiral Gorshkov revived the nuclear submarine discussions once PM Indira Gandhi returned to power.. He visited Delhi and in an unprecedented gesture, Adm. Gorshkov stayed as a guest at Rashtrapati Bhavan. No naval chief of any country had stayed at Rashtrapati Bhavan. It was a sign of personal respect that influential elements in the Government nd even the Prime Minister had for the Soviet Admiral. In this visit, Admiral Gorshkov along with Marshal Ustinov repeated the nuclear submarine offer. As a side note on Marshal Ustinov; although he did not look like a soldier and he was not a soldier but he held rank of Marshal. He was People’s Commisar for Armamanets during WW-II. Tank artillery gun sites were being made on trains of Urals, Ustinov watched over production of armaments on the move because everything West of Moscow had been detsroyed. In talks between Brezhnev and Indira Gandhi, there was agreement in principle in 1982. Admiral RL Pereira wrote a long note in red ink marked ‘PM as RM’ (Raksha Mantri) stating that ‘we should learn to walk before we run’. (CNS) This line has been mentioned by Raj Chengappa. PM found the note to be disagreeable, given a green signal to the other side; she had already reached an understanding with Brezhnev. The note by Admiral Pereira was disregarded by the Prime Minister and did not reply to it. The first IN (Indian Navy) training crew left for Vladivostok in January 1983. US State Department sent a note of protest to Soviet Foreign Office stating their objections to this cooperation.  Although officially the leased submarine could not be used as a doomsday machine i.e. for deterrence. Unofficially, however, that was not the case. Indian navy had tested the launchers and could use them if required. US had even delayed the handing over of INS Chakra in 1987 and, according to former CNS, Rajiv Gandhi had to go on a one-day special visit to Moscow to meet Gorbachev and get the deal unblocked and eventually the delivery did take place. It signalled Indian intent to author a nuclear deterrence in the subcontinent and break China’s strategic monopoly in the region. 


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