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Weapons of Peace: The Secret Story of India’s Quest to be a Nuclear Power
© Raj Chengappa 2000
Chapter 20: Arsenal of the Gods
Page 284 - 285
As Kalam got down to business, Mrs Gandhi, knowing that missiles would take several years to build, in late 1982 cleared a programme to prapre fighter aircraft to deliver India’s nuclear bomb. Arunachalam, the new DRDO chief, told ARDE in Pune, to discreetly begin designing and building the container to hold the bomb. Venkatesan had by then moved from TBRL to ARDE as director and for the next decade was involved in the perfecting the delivery system. Venkatesan began studies on designing models and working out its aerodynamics using high speed wind tunnels at NAL. But he needed to interact with the air force to get more technical details including a few test runs.
Arunachalam then got in touch with Air Marshal Chandrakant Gole, by then Deputy Chief of Air Staff, saying DRDO required the help of a pilot from the Aircraft Systems and Testing Establishment (ASTE) in Bangalore and a Jaguar aircraft for testing a new weapon being developed. Gole was not told of the true purpose of the tests. But the Air Force guessed what was up. In ASTE, a squadron leader who was of the air force’s top notch test pilots, was identified. The then commandant of ASTE, Air Commodore P.M. Ramachandran was also not briefed about the mission and was only told to spare the Squadron Leader.
Chapter 23: ‘The House is on Fire’
Page 326 - 327
Brasstacks had a nuclear dimension too. At the height of the crisis, Pakistan is believed to have signalled that its nuclear weapons capability was ready and warned India against launching a massive conventional attack. Whether Pakistan was bluffing isn’t clear. But R.K. Khandelwal, then joint intelligence committee chief, thought they weren’t. When he briefed Rajiv, among the evidence he showed him were intelligence reports that Pakistan was modifying their F-16 fighters to possibly carry nuclear bombs.
At that time India was far from ready with a fail-safe delivery system. The air force was having problems with the size and weight of the weapon that BARC had developed. After Arunachalam had briefed him in early 1986, Mehra, then Air Marshal and Deputy Chief of Air Staff, put together a team to help the scientists mate the bomb to a suitable jet fighter and familiarise chosen pilots with the skills needed to deliver them. The Jaguar then was the prime aircraft and most of the tests were done at Ambala, where coincidentally Ramachandran from ASTE in Bangalore had moved as commandant of the air base.
India soon realised the folly of keeping information of its nuclear capability a secret from the forces. An air force officer, who was a member of the team, reveals: “We were groping in the dark. We had no interaction with the scientists who were actually making the bombs. They had never flown an aircraft and were not involved in the bomb’s development. We asked DRDO what the devil is going on. We argued that unless we knew what the left hand was doing how can the right hand bring it together’.
To their consternation the air force found the bomb pods made by ARDE were just too heavy for the Jaguar. At take-off the aircraft’s ground clearance with the bomb slung to its belly was just two inches which made it unsafe. By late 1986, even as the Brasstacks raged, the Jaguar was rejected. The three pilots selected for the job were sent back. Search then began for new aircraft. The team homed in on the Mirage 2000 purchased from France a few years earlier and work began on preparing the aircraft as India’s prime delivery system.
Chapter 27: ‘Tell Your President, I keep my Word’
Page 382 – 384
Everyone regards 1998 as the year that India became a nuclear weapons state after conducting five underground explosions at Pokhran. Everyone except the bomb team. For them the defining year is 1994. The month May – exactly twenty years after India’s first nuclear test. That year many team members missed the anniversary get-together at BARC on 18 May. They were at Balasore to test the newly developed aircraft delivery system for India’s nuclear bombs.
In early May, TBRL scientists in Chandigarh loaded the core assembly minus the plutonium into an air force An-32 aircraft that took off for Kalaikunda about hundred kilometres from Calcutta. Meanwhile, in Pune the ARDE had readied the container to be slung under the belly of the Mirage-2000 fighters. It also perfected a bomb release mechanism with half a dozen safety interlocks. All the ground tests including the one to see if the container could withstand the severe vibrations that occur during take-off and landing had been done. A set of four containers were then air lifted to Kalaikunda where the core assembly had just arrived.
From the air force, an Air Vice Marshal, who was specially assigned to co-ordinate with DRDO, flew a Mirage fighter stationed at Gwalior to Kalaikunda. Two other pilots, who had been trained for the task, flew in with two more fighters. The core assembly made by TBRL fitted snugly into the container which was then slung under the belly of a Mirage. The bomb, including its explosives, was slightly longer than two adult arms stretched out. Its diameter was as large as a wheel of a min-van. When the container was mated to the aircraft there was nothing to differentiate it from a regular conventional bomb.
The specially chosen pilots had practised the toss bombing manoeuvre for years. There was no extraordinary skill required. Just plain caution. The Mirage 200 was ideal for such a mission. Despite being inducted way back into the min-1980s, the fighter remains top of the line. Pilots praise its reliability and the ease of handling. The ergonomics of the cockpit ensure that man and machine work in absolute harmony.
The Air Vice Marshal, who had also been trained for the job, flew the first test himself that summer morning. It looked like a routine sortie. Till he readied himself to deliver his consignment. Far below, at Balasore, which I the test range for India’s missiles, scientists assembled to monitor the progress on an array of sophisticated equipment. The plan was to explode the bomb in the air at a designated spot off the coast off Balasore.
As the Mirage pilot approached the zone a fluid green bar appeared on his head up display in the cockpit that indicated that the target was in his crosshairs. He pushed his fighter into a steep accent, pressed the trigger on his control column and saw the display indicate that the bomb had been released. He then did a sharp U turn and scooted out of harm’s way. The bomb silently homed in to the target at a speed faster than that of sound.
Below, telemetry tracking stations at Balasore recorded its path as well as the progress of a series of half a dozen safety locks that ensured that the bomb went off only when desired. Among them is a rotating vane that indicates to the bomb’s on-board control systems that the container is on its way. An altimeter also helps the bomb judge the required height from the ground and when to explode. The system also has a power lock mechanism. Only when it receives confirmation does it activate the high voltage current needed to trigger the bomb.
To the relief of the bomb team watching it at Balasore, all the vital parameters worked including the explosion of the core assembly loaded with a dummy warhead. The team did two more trials successfully that day and validated the design. For the first time since 1974 India finally had a reliable nuclear weapons delivery system.
The jubilation was subdued. Like most of the other defining moments in India’s nuclear history only a handful were in the know. Also, because Prime Minister Rao preferred discretion to chest-thumping.
Revision History :
[v1.0][26.Nov.2009] - First Upload
India acquired the Mirage-2000H primarily for Air Defence, but soon it took over the additional mantle of precision strike. A select number of airframes like KF104 which were painted in desert camouflage were reportedly designated for nuclear strike. Compared to sky theme of other airframes, this style is favoured for low level flight.
Mirage-2000TH KT201 also sports this unique camouflage. Remainder of an older desert camo is visible on the nose section.
IAF Jaguar-IM carrying a Sea Eagle AShM on the centreline hardpoint. This missile is a medium size munition; a useful reference to estimate the relative size of India’s first generation nuclear gravity bombs.
India’s Second generation free fall nukes were small enough to be fitted to both Jaguar and MiG-27ML aircraft. The latter is seen here equipped with a Kh-29 PGM.
MiG-27 also has a centreline station. It is a ‘wet’ station that is usually mated with a drop-tank.
IAF has inducted nuclear capable Prithvi SRBMs. Presently this is the only ballistic missile in the inventory, with the Indian Army holding the other types in Prithvi and Agni series.
Mirage-2000N is a specialized nuclear strike variant serving in the French air force (AdA). The force retired the AN52 free fall bombs in the 1990s in favour of ASMP cruise missile.
Royal Air Force (RAF) Jaguars were capable of nuclear strike, though it is not published if the squadrons were ever sanctioned nukes in operations. This video grab shows the Jaguar pilot pulling up while releasing a WE177 bomb.
A RAF Canberra bomber test drops a WE177 free fall nuclear bomb.
Unlike in RAF, Canberra in IAF has never been reported in nuclear role. The bomber was capable of carrying large internal and external stores, like this Ulka Air Launched Missile Target.
|The IAF Today||:||Photofeature: Aircraft in Action|
|nuclear-weapons.info/images/deliverymethods.ppt: Toss Bombing techniques for nuclear weapons in the Royal Air Force|
|nuclear-weapons.info/vw.htm#WE.177: British WE.177 nuclear bomb|
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