As India-US military ties soar, a trove of newly-released documents reveal that Washington may have turned a blind eye to India’s nuclear-capable missiles. Some of the documents reveal that the NSA may have known about India’s nuclear-capable Sagarika and Dhanush missiles as early as 2004. The revelations published by The Intercept suggest that U.S. spies possessed “significant intelligence” about the bombs India had in service before its missile tests in 2008 and 2016.
The news comes as India-US relations soar to unprecedented levels following their Yudh Abhyas series of joint military exercises and the U.S. Senate’s approval of a nearly $700 billion defense spending bill that seeks closer India-US military cooperation.
The batch of 294 articles published by The Intercept is said to have been obtained by Edward Snowden, a controversial whistleblower, in 2013. Snowden, whose leave to remain in Russia has been extended for three years, has been called it all: hero, traitor and patriot.
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The trove of documents has reportedly been traced back to the National Security Agency’s internal newsletter, the Signal Intelligence Directorate or SIDtoday. The files revealed an NSA facility in Australia code-named RAINFALL which “had successfully geolocated signals of a suspected Indian nuclear weapons storage facility” in October 2004.
U.S. spies then reportedly handed the signals over to a Thailand-based Foreign Satellite collection facility code-named LEMONWOOD. That facility collaborated with the NSA’s Unidentified Signal and Protocol Analysis Branch to “isolate these signals.” The “isolation” process allowed U.S. spies to confirm that the signals were coming from India’s nuclear weaponry. This eventually enabled U.S. spies to obtain data about the nuclear-capable Sagarika and Dhanush missiles years before they were tested in 2008 and 2016, respectively, according to the documents.
The Sagarika, which is believed to have been under development by the Indian military since the 1990s, can be launched from both ground launchers and underwater. The Dhanush is capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear warheads with a capacity of up to 1,000 kg, and it can be sea-launched and go up to a distance of 350 km (~220 miles). Snowden’s revelations suggest that the NSA knew about the Dhanush’s destructive power more than a decade before the first successful launch.
U.S. Senate passes legislation to seek closer India-US military ties
The documents were made public as India-US military ties reach new heights. Last week, the Indian and U.S. armies launched joint military drills dubbed Yudh Abhyas. The thirteenth installation of the exercises are taking place at Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington and will run through September 27.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly approved a sizable defense spending bill for 2018, which contains provisions for stronger military ties with India. Senator Mark Warner, co-chair of the Senate India Caucus, praised India for playing “a critical role” in America’s “long-term national security interests,” not just in its own region, but also all around the world.
The Senate passed the legislation as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) 2018, which is co-sponsored by Senators Ted Cruz and John Corning. The defense bill calls on the Pentagon to develop a deeper India-US military cooperation and also adopted a tougher approach to Pakistan when it comes to the fight against terrorism.
Growing India-US military relations come amid aggravating tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan, India’s traditional rival in South Asia. Last month, U.S. President Donald Trump unveiled his Afghan strategy, in which he called for a tougher stance against Pakistan. As part of the strategy, Trump alleged that Islamabad had “much to lose” by continuing to harbor “agents of chaos” on its territory.
India and Pakistan’s expanding nuclear arsenal
The Senate’s overwhelming approval of the pro-India bill comes despite a recent report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). In it, the Swedish arms watchdog revealed that both India and Pakistan were actively expanding the size of their nuclear arsenals. The SIPRI report also noted that the global number of nuclear warheads has dropped by 460 since 2016, though there are indications that India, Pakistan, China and North Korea may still be building more.
Earlier this month, the Indian Economic Times claimed that the Indian Navy was poised to launch its second homegrown nuclear-powered submarine within the next month. Citing government sources, the publication said the nuclear submarine dubbed the INS Aridhaman will be transferred to water either in late September or early October.
India’s second domestically-built nuclear-powered submarine is expected to go through sea tests for two years before the Indian Navy will use it sometime in 2019. Last year, India’s first domestically-built nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), the IHS Arihant, was integrated into the India Navy. The submarine made the South Asian nation the sixth country in the world – after the U.S., Russia, China, France and the U.K. – to construct such a submarine.
Two recent reports by the Belfer Center and India’s Strategic Nuclear and Missile Program have further raised concerns about India’s continued expansion of nuclear capabilities. The reports’ writers estimated that New Delhi had accumulated nuclear material to produce over 2,600 nuclear weapons. Raising concerns about India’s stockpiling of nuclear weapons, the reports indicate that India was working on five or six ballistic-missile nuclear submarines.
If India built six SSBN submarines, it would have a force larger than those of the U.K. or French naval strategic forces. The reports also claimed that the nuclear-armed nation was developing K-4 and K-15 nuclear-capable submarine-launched missiles to arm its planned fleet of formidable submarines.
How extensive is India’s nuclear might?
Nuclear experts estimated that India had 22 nuclear reactors in operation at eight nuclear power plants as of 2016.
India’s Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR), being constructed at the Madras Atomic Power Station in Kalpakkam, is expected to open the door for unsafeguarded plutonium in India. The 500 MWe fast breeder nuclear reactor, which entered the final preparation stage to go critical in July, has not been placed under safeguards. This allows New Delhi to not only produce electricity but also plutonium.
India’s PFBR and commitment to a long-term program to construct nuclear reactors using three fissionable materials – uranium-235, plutonium and uranium-233 (U-233) – was developed largely during India’s almost 30-year-long isolation from international nuclear trade.
Despite not being a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), India has stepped up its efforts to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a 48-nation bloc whose members are allowed to trade in and export nuclear technology. Nuclear experts around the world and particularly in China, which has been blocking India’s bid to join the NSG, raise concerns that India’s efforts to join the group are based on its desire to seek more plutonium and enriched uranium for its nuclear arsenal.