India Reignites Atomic Debate
Alarm bells were set off in the US government toward the end of 1995, when American spy satellites detected a surge of activity at the Pokhran nuclear test facility in northwestern India.Skip to next paragraph
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Workers at the site deep in the Thar Desert were observed clearing debris from a 328-foot underground shaft, prompting US officials to suspect that India was readying its first nuclear test blast since 1974.
But when India's new Hindu nationalist government stunned the world this week by testing not one, but three atomic devices, nowhere was the surprise greater than in the US intelligence community.
"We did not know," concedes a US intelligence official. "They took measures to avoid detection. This is something we were monitoring. But if countermeasures are taken, this becomes problematic."
The blasts, which ended 24 years of uncertainty over India's atomic intentions and could fuel a destabilizing regional arms race, re-arranged the global power balance by adding the world's largest democracy to the elite nuclear-weapons club of the US, Britain, China, Russia, and France.
India's success in concealing the test and the sophistication of the devices - one was a thermonuclear bomb - serve as a stark reminder that nations bent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction can hide their programs from even the most advanced surveillance.
Accordingly, many experts worry that India's action may encourage other nations bent on acquiring nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons to follow its lead in pursuing clandestine development programs.
"It is going to make it easier for other countries in due course to say this is acceptable," warns Spurgeon Keany, president of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based policy institute.
The concern over the ease with which nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs may be concealed was last driven home after the 1991 Gulf War. International inspectors sent into Iraq discovered a nuclear weapons program far larger and more advanced than the Central Intelligence Agency or other intelligence services had previously determined.
It was this concern that almost triggered a war between the US and Iraq this year after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein blocked United Nations efforts to root out his chemical and biological warfare programs.
And, the same concerns are fueling US apprehensions that Iran, despite its membership in international nuclear, chemical, and biological arms control treaties, is aggressively pursuing the secret development of all three types of weapons systems. Iran denies the charges.
Even when US intelligence detects breaches of nonproliferation regimes (China has allegedly provided technology and knowhow to Pakistan's secret nuclear weapons and missile programs for years) the disclosures can fail to trigger actions that halt the efforts.
That point may be tested soon enough if Pakistan, which has fought India three times since it won independence in 1947, makes good on threats to respond to India's blasts by conducting its first-ever nuclear test explosion. China, which fought a 1962 war with India over a yet-to-be-resolved border feud, might also reconsider its membership in the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Signers of the treaty agree to ban atomic tests for all time.
Critics of multilateral nonproliferation pacts argue that the difficulty of detecting and preempting secret weapons of mass destruction programs render such treaties inoperable. They say the US must take steps to ensure its own security, such as developing new nuclear arms, continuing underground tests to ensure the reliability of the current arsenal, and building a national missile defense system.
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