ISSF Article Review 28- "New Delhi’s Long Nuclear Journey: How Secrecy and Institutional Roadblocks Delayed India’s Weaponization"

George Fujii's picture

H-Diplo | ISSF Partnership

A production of H-Diplo and the journals Security Studies, International Security, Journal of Strategic Studies, and the International Studies Association's Security Studies Section (ISSS).

H-Diplo/ISSF Article Review Editors:  James McAllister and Diane Labrosse
H-Diplo/ISSF Web and Production Editor:  George Fujii

H-Diplo | ISSF Article Review 28

Gaurav Kampani.  “New Delhi’s Long Nuclear Journey:  How Secrecy and Institutional Roadblocks Delayed India’s Weaponization.”  International Security 38:4 (Spring 2014): 79-114.  DOI: 10.1162/ISEC_a_00158.

Reviewed by Jayita Sarkar, Harvard University

Published on 9 April 2014

Gaurav Kampani investigates a crucial research puzzle in nuclear proliferation literature, namely, the possible underpinnings of India’s slow weaponization process. Addressing the period 1989-1999, he argues that despite acquiring nuclear weapons in 1989-1990, New Delhi lacked the capability to “deliver them reliably or safely until 1994-95 or possibly 1996” (81). According to Kampani, it was internal secrecy that prevented India’s swift acquisition of operational nuclear capability. He underlines that the “hoarding and compartmentalization of information not only prevented India from coordinating the weapons development and weaponization programs efficiently, but also encouraged sequential decisionmaking” (82).

Kampani’s article, which is based on meticulous attention to secondary sources, some Indian primary sources, and extensive interviews of Indian policy planners and decisionmakers— both civil and military— builds upon his doctoral dissertation, which he completed in 2013 at Cornell University. In a field that celebrates large-N studies and quantitative research, Kampani’s work stands out as an impressive single case study accomplished through qualitative data analysis.[1] The article is divided into four main sections: the first studies the “alarmist assumptions” in the context of South Asia; the second examines what he calls the “sequential and haphazard unfolding” of New Delhi’s weaponization program from 1989 until 1990; the third investigates how internal secrecy in India decelerated the pace of weaponization; and the fourth offers an evaluation of six alternative explanations to the secrecy argument. The article concludes byunderlining policy implications that are relevant to the research findings.

One of the key strengths of Kampani’s article is his astute attempt to define a nuclear device as opposed to a weapon, and the process of weaponization as distinct from the operationalization of weapons (80-81). The development of a nuclear device does not mean that the country has attained the level of weaponisation, which Kampani defines as “the process of integrating the weapon with delivery systems” (80). Nor does it mean that the country in question has also mastered the “soft institutional and organizational routines” like command and control mechanisms, coordination between scientific and military establishments, and training of military personnel for deployment and explosion of the nuclear weapons. By drawing these sharp distinctions, Kampani develops a strong critique of the alarmist tendencies witnessed especially in the context of 1990s nuclear South Asia, and more recently with respect to Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs. He argues that while such tendencies often predominate among U.S. proliferation scholars, senior bureaucrats, policymakers, and think tank experts, one must focus more on the “process of proliferation” instead of paying excessive attention to “proliferation outcomes” and their “imagined consequences” (114).

Scholars have previously studied internal secrecy and its consequences in India, notably M.V. Ramana and Itty Abraham.[2] Ramana examines the nature of the secrecy that is pervasive in India’s nuclear establishment, particularly the civil nuclear program, while Itty Abraham investigates this phenomenon with respect to military/defense science in India predominated by civilian scientists. Gaurav Kampani is the first to demonstrate how this secrecy hampered efficiency and contributed to organizational mismanagement during India’s weaponization phase, thus retarding it in the process. His research therefore adds substantial value to the prevailing literature on India’s nuclear program.[3]

Kampani’s work can be criticized, however, on the following grounds. First, his research is overly based on interviews, a large part of which are non-attributable given the conditions of anonymity that the interviewees requested. While his research strategy is understandable owing to the paucity of Indian archival data on a rather recent time period, non-attributable interviews make data excessively hard to verify. When conducting archival research, for instance, as historians we tend to cross-reference our primary source data, i.e. we try to find references to phenomenon X in archives A, B, C, D, etc, preferably in countries in Q, R, S. That way the research findings canbe traced back to multiple sources of data, which generate the same results on the phenomenon that is being studied. As is well known, no research method is foolproof, but future scholars may find it challenging to trace back data in the case of Kampani’s research.

Second, while the article explores aspects like the “weakly institutionalized nuclear social network” (89) and the distancing of the military from India’s nuclear program (93), Kampani emphasizes that secrecy is the core reason behind New Delhi’s slow weaponization process. This monocausal explanation of a complex process in a large country is counterintuitive and probably incomplete. This is because at least two significant explanatory rationales are missing from his article: first, India is a developing country with high resource constraints, which may have retarded progress in the weaponization process, and second,  India’s technological capacity, especially in the context of the sanctions imposed after New Delhi’s 1974 test, could have a role to play in the slow process of weaponization.

Third, national nuclear programs are not insulated from foreign assistance. External nuclear suppliers can both increase and decrease the pace of a country’s nuclear program, and hence constitute an important factor.[4] However, when Kampani compares India with all the other nuclear weapon states with the exception of North Korea (Figure 1, 87), he does not underline that most of these countries received foreign assistance with respect nuclear weapons development, e.g. South Africa received Israeli assistance, Israel received French assistance, Pakistan received Chinese assistance, and China received Soviet assistance until the Sino-Soviet split. While India received civil nuclear assistance from countries like Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, and France, there is no knowledge of New Delhi benefiting from foreign help with respect to its development of nuclear weapons. Moreover, with the exception of France, none of these countries dedicated economic and technological resources to their civil nuclear programs prior to weapons development. Like France, civil and military facilities were not separated in India until the 2008 U.S.–India civil nuclear agreement, thus making it hard to ascertain when investments were made solely for military purposes.

Fourth, while the article pays considerable attention to the Indian Air Force, as the key transporter for the delivery of nuclear weapons, it ignores India’s space program that enabled New Delhi to build its missiles. The close relationship between missiles as delivery systems for nuclear weapons characterized the superpower arms race during the Cold War, and remains relevant to this day. The time period under Kampani’s study witnessed progress in India’s space program, which he only briefly alludes to in footnote 73, without conferring much weight on it. Greater attention to the space program could have enabled Kampani to have presented a more complete picture of the weaponization process on the one hand, and also to have explored the international character of technological cooperation relevant to India’s nuclear program on the other.[5]

Finally, he makes an allusion to a possible role of the United States without explaining it fully. He underlines that the “difficulties of persuading the United States to accept its de facto nuclear status” also played a role in retarding New Delhi’s nuclear weaponization process (111). Is he referring to the Washington-led technological controls that were imposed on New Delhi after the latter’s 1974 nuclear test that may have had a delaying impact? Or is he hinting at a possible Indian strategy to evade detection of its weaponization by U.S. intelligence, and therefore ‘going slow’? Since he follows up this section with references to U.S. nonproliferation efforts, it is possible that he intended to mean the restraining efforts of the United States, without underlining exactly how they may have worked (or not) in the Indian case.

Nevertheless, Kampani’s criticism of the linearity of expectations with respect to nuclear proliferation (i.e. device to weapon to delivery systems to operationalization) while censuring the ‘nuclear alarmists’ is an apposite one. Indeed, the ability of uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing by a country does not automatically translate into its capability to deliver nuclear weapons. In order to attain that stage of efficient management and use of its nuclear arsenal, the country must go through a series of steps, thus providing ample opportunity to Western nonproliferation efforts to monitor and prevent progress. On the whole, Gaurav Kampani’s article is a commendable piece of work given that it tackles a relevant and complex issue where data is indeed very scarce.

Jayita Sarkar is a Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and a visiting scholar at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. She is currently completing a book manuscript on Franco-Indian and Soviet-Indian nuclear relations and U.S. nonproliferation efforts during the Cold War. Jay holds a Ph.D. in International History and Politics from the Graduate Institute Geneva.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 444 Castro Street, Suite 900, Mountain View, California, 94041, USA.

[1] See for instance Matthew Kroenig, Exporting the Bomb: Technology Transfer and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons (Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 2010); Matthew Fuhrmann, Atomic Assistance : How "Atoms for Peace" Programs Cause Nuclear Insecurity, Cornell Studies in Security Affairs (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012); Nuno Monteiro and Alexandre Debs, "The Strategic Logic of Nuclear Proliferation," in Nuclear Studies Research Initiative Launch Conference (Austin, TXOctober 2013).

[2] M.V. Ramana, The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India (New Delhi: Viking, 2013). M. V. Ramana and C. Rammanohar Reddy, Prisoners of the Nuclear Dream (Hyderabad, A.P.: Orient Longman, 2003); Itty Abraham, "India's 'Strategic Enclave': Civilian Scientists and Military Technologies," Armed Forces & Society 18, no. 2 (1992).

[3] For key readings in the literature see for instance George Perkovich, India's Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1999); Raj Chengappa, Weapons of Peace: The Secret Story of India's Quest to Be a Nuclear Power (New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2000); Itty Abraham, The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb : Science, Secrecy and the Postcolonial State, Postcolonial Encounters (London and New York, NY: Zed Books, 1998); Jahnavi Phalkhey, Atomic State: Big Science in Twentieth-Century India (New Delhi and Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2013); Stephen P. Cohen, Nuclear Proliferation in South Asia : The Prospects for Arms Control (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991); G. G. Mirchandani, India's Nuclear Dilemma (New Delhi,: Popular Book Services, 1968); Sumit Ganguly and S. Paul Kapur, India, Pakistan and the Bomb: Debating Nuclear Stability in South Asia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010); Vipin Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era : Regional Powers and International Conflict, Princeton Studies in International History and Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

[4] See Alexander H.  Montgomery, "Stop Helping Me: When Nuclear Assistance Impedes Nuclear Programs," in Nuclear Renaissance and International Security Workshop (Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA, 2010).

[5] See Ashok Maharaj, "An Overview of Nasa-India Relations," in Nasa in the World: Fifty Years of International Collaboration in Space, ed. John Krige, Angelina Long Callahan and Ashok Maharaj, Palgrave Studies in the History of Science and Technology (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).


Categories: ISSF, article review

H-Diplo | ISSF Partnership

A production of H-Diplo and the journals Security Studies, International Security, Journal of Strategic Studies, and the International Studies Association's Security Studies Section (ISSS).

H-Diplo/ISSF Article Review Editors:  James McAllister and Diane Labrosse
H-Diplo/ISSF Web and Production Editor:  George Fujii

Author’s Response to H-Diplo | ISSF Article Review 28

Gaurav Kampani.  “New Delhi’s Long Nuclear Journey:  How Secrecy and Institutional Roadblocks Delayed India’s Weaponization.”  International Security 38:4 (Spring 2014): 79-114.  DOI: 10.1162/ISEC_a_00158.

Reviewed by Jayita Sarkar, Harvard University on 7 October 2014


Reponse by Gaurav Kampani, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Tulsa

Published by H-Diplo | ISSF on 14 October 2014


Jayita Sarkar’s generous though critical review of my article flags several aspects concerning its methodology and substance. These criticisms demand answers and I am happy to provide them. 

Sarkar is critical of the elite interview method used to suss the core claims made in the article, which because of the sensitivity of the data and the anonymity of several interviewees ,leaves its findings generally unverifiable. By contrast, the archival method that Sarkar uses and favors avoids the above pitfalls and constitutes the gold standard for in-depth case analysis of the kind represented in my research.

On issues of substance as well, Sarkar is skeptical about my thesis. She thinks the complex phenomenon of the slow pace of Indian weaponization must have multiple causes that transcend secrecy, which I identify as the principal stumbling block. She suggests resource constraints and U.S.-led international technology denials to India’s nuclear sector from the time of its first nuclear test in 1974 as alternative explanations for this very same outcome.  Arguing that my research overlooks the ballistic missile component of India’s weaponization effort and that my explanation does not specify with precision the instrumental nature of U.S. pressure that was the cause behind Indian secrecy, she concludes her critique by pointing out that no nuclear proliferation program exists in isolation. Rather, the degree of external assistance plays a critical role in determining the pace and success of a country’s nuclear weapon acquisition efforts.

Sarkar’s methodological concern, although serious, misses the point of data scarcity. Her substantive concerns are similarly misplaced.

Archival data pertaining to recent nuclear developments in India are simply unavailable.  This pertains to both western and Indian archives. In the West, laws and rules exist to declassify many but the most sensitive records after a mandatory 20-30 year hold. Not so in India, where the government stopped declassifying even nominal defense records from the late-1950s onward. Hence the cross-referencing that Sarkar suggests perforce cannot happen without recourse to elite interviews in India. More significantly, information pertaining to my research findings is of yet unavailable in western archives. The only method of obtaining it, absent access to national technical means, is elite interviews.

In India, the small social network of scientists and officials who executed the weaponization program in the 1990s adopted a deliberate strategy of verbal communications. They avoided committing sensitive policy plans and decision-making flows to paper lest documents leak to foreign intelligence agencies. In some instances principals drew up policy plans in pencil to avoid attention from their staff and then destroyed those documents soon after a particular meeting.  This process of secrecy left the institutional memory of the state in that period a blank slate, a condition that pertains until today. Knowledge of many sensitive decisions and policy plans remains in the memory of this small but dwindling network of former state officials, many of whom vow to carry ‘India’s most precious secrets’ to the grave.

A government- or quasi government- sponsored oral history project could still save the day. But to best of my knowledge there is no such project is in the works. Some members of this network have indicated that they may yet write memoirs. No memoirs containing sensitive information pertaining to the nuclear weaponization program, however, have appeared to date. Given all these challenges, elite interviews are the only method of obtaining such sensitive information. Proposed alternative methods are just theory.

Of course archival research constitutes a superior method. The challenge before qualitative researchers, however, is to institutionalize a set of best practices that narrow the gap between archival and elite interview methods. For example, should non-attributable interview data be subject to mandatory release similar to declassification rules that pertain to government records after a certain time period? Should journals that publish such data become repositories for them and allow other researchers varying degrees of access subject to a set of pre-determined criteria? Can we institute professional norms that allow individual researchers to approach their peers for access to non-attributable published data? If yes, then what ‘use rules’ ought to obtain? How might we protect the identities of non-attributable sources while devising means to crosscheck the veracity of their claims? When sensitive and unique data often constitute the argument in proliferation studies, a sub-field largely dominated by desktop research, how might researchers who exhibit entrepreneurship in obtaining new data protect their competitive advantage while ensuring progress of a broader research agenda? We need answers to these questions and not iterations attesting to the superiority of one method over another irrespective of context.

All this said, proliferation research that draws on elite interview methods does not constitute the last word on its subject. Its objective often is to boldly go where other researchers do not dare to because of the perceived impossibility of obtaining data. Its attempt is to lay down markers for others to follow. The researcher hopes to provoke reactions from an information-denying establishment as means to developing a mature conversation in a hitherto forbidden domain. Eventually and over time, the researcher believes that more cascades of information will vet established and claimed truths and grow a body of research. This is public goods creation through the development of information and knowledge markets. Unlike archival research, which is the equivalent of feeding off a dead carcass in the jungle, the elite interview method is fresh kill that feeds a current hunger for data. It constitutes intellectual entrepreneurialism of an acutely daring variety.

Sarkar’s substantive concerns and proposed alternative explanations of resource constraints and technology denials, also fail to pass muster. Scholars generally agree that the Indian state is generous in funding its nuclear, space, and defense research and development sectors, collectively known as the ‘strategic enclave.’ In fact, the state’s generosity has never been found wanting in the last three decades. The evidence from the most authoritative histories on India’s nuclear weaponization program as well as from my interviews makes clear that money was never the problem. The consensus in the available histories and among my interlocutors is that India’s problems are institutional and organizational. What scholars generally debate are the causes for this institutional and organizational dysfunction. 

Similarly, U.S.-led technology denials had little impact on the weaponization program. In fact, the U.S. government’s own declassified documents from the 1980s attest [1]to the Indian nuclear sector’s successes in circumventing U.S. technology controls. The more specific hurdle in India’s weaponization path was that of integrating the weapon with the Mirage 2000. Technology denials did not stand in the way of India acquiring two squadrons of Mirages from France in the mid-1980. Problems arose because the Indian Air Force (IAF) was never tasked with evaluating the aircraft for nuclear missions or mastering skills (computer source codes for example) essential for transforming the aircraft into a nuclear vector. For example, the IAF successfully rewrote the source codes for the Anglo-French Jaguar’s computer system that India acquired in the late-1970s. That process took about five years to accomplish. The process in the Mirage turned out far more complicated because of its fly-by-wire technology. Senior IAF officials who participated and observed the weaponization program from the sidelines are convinced that better coordination and information sharing could have prevented delays. The problem in the Indian case is once again institutional and organizational.

My article deliberately sidesteps the subject of India’s ballistic missile program and weaponization in this period. This is not an oversight, as Sarkar suggests. Rather, weaponization in the early 1990s focused on combat aircraft because of their sophistication, reliability, and flexibility. Missiles developed until then did not fit the bill as nuclear vectors because of their short-range and unreliability. Once again the problem was not one of resources or technology. Secrecy concerns stemming from the fear of U.S. sanctions were the principal reason why the Indian government maintained firewalls between India’s sophisticated civilian space agency with its advanced rocketry program and its military missile programs. And although Sarkar maintains that my research does not specify the precise sources of U.S. nonproliferation pressures that triggered such excruciating demands for secrecy within the Indian state, I do specify the threat of U.S. economic sanctions, particularly the threat to withhold IMF support for India’s fragile and liberalizing economy in the early and mid-1990s.

Finally, Sarkar is correct in observing that horizontal and vertical proliferation between established nuclear weapon states and nuclear wannabe states can obviate many retarding effects of secrecy.  Observe, however, how internal coordination problems disrupted nuclear weapon aspirations in Iraq and Iran. Observe South Africa and Pakistan’s long time-lines for nuclear weapons development. To be sure, India’s case is an outlier. But that is also because it is representative of the sort of isolating pressures and coordination difficulties that proliferating states currently face. That said, I address the problem of secrecy and clandestine proliferation in the concluding chapter of my dissertation, which I hope to publish as a book.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 444 Castro Street, Suite 900, Mountain View, California, 94041, USA.

[1] “India’s Nuclear Procurement Strategy: Implications for the United States,” Directorate of Intelligence, CIA-RDPS00854R00020012000-0 (Approved for Release: July 1, 2011), p. iii.6, 12.


Gaurav Kampani’s commendable response to my review of his article has touched upon the continuing debate on research methodologies between historians and political scientists working on international security issues related to nuclear weapons. We witnessed such a debate on H-Diplo this summer, which followed on The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage. Most of us who know the nature of this debate are aware of its various elements, namely, quantitative vs. qualitative method, large N-analysis vs. small N-analysis, selection bias in political science studies, the detail-oriented nature of historical inquiry, academia vs. policymaking, etc. Historians and political scientists have their methodological preferences and quite rightly so. What is necessary for scholars who immerse themselves in these issues is to search for the right balance of interdisciplinarity for research innovation. As we know, interdisciplinarity is expensive because it involves shifting costs. It requires learning new skills and unlearning (or at least revisiting) certain disciplinary biases, which not everyone is willing to do. 

This unwillingness to revisit resonates in Kampani’s comparison of elite interviewing method as “fresh kill that feeds a current hunger for data” as opposed to archival research that is “the equivalent of feeding off a dead carcass in the jungle.” In my review, I had given ample credit to Kampani for the non-attributable interviews he had conducted on a data-scarce topic but pointed out the problem of data-retraceability for future researchers. Archival method itself is not foolproof because no research method in the social sciences and humanities is. Scholars of international history therefore are increasingly engaging in multi-archival research in multi-national and multi-lingual settings in order to overcome national biases in historical data. Had Kampani recognized the international nature of national nuclear programs, he may have complemented his elite interviews conducted in India with interviews in key countries that had nuclear cooperation agreements with New Delhi. Furthermore, some countries have more lax rules on data classification, notably, the United Kingdom (which adopted a 20 year rule in 2012), and could be a useful source of information on recent years. Since nuclear weapons comprise a source of international insecurity, they tend to constitute an important component of diplomatic telegrams and other correspondence. However, Kampani’s ‘black-boxed’ view of India’s nuclear program determines his preference for a particular research method, which he dogmatically defends. 

Additionally, he points out that money was never a problem for India’s nuclear program, which is a fair argument to make given that it was and continues to be an elite-driven enterprise. However, the question is of relative national wealth. What is high resource allocation for a developing country, is not quite so for a developed country. In the absence of official figures, it is important to keep in mind these differences. 

Finally, Kampani offers the example of the French Mirage deal of the mid-1980s to demonstrate that U.S. technology denials did not pose a problem for India. That he does not seem to distinguish between the French and the Americans is worrisome. He also seems to ignore the fact that France was the only Western country that did not criticize India’s 1974 test, and the French atomic energy commission even sent a congratulatory telegram to its Indian counterpart. Furthermore, the Reagan administration’s more relaxed approach towards nonproliferation allowed France to replace the United States as the fuel supplier to India’s Tarapur reactors by 1983. Hence, could the example of the Mirage deal of the mid-1980s appropriately demonstrate the lack of impact of technology denials to India during the Ford and Carter administrations?

To conclude, Kampani raises a series of valid concerns regarding poor archival practices in India, which is a source of concern for anyone studying India’s post-1947 foreign policymaking. In this backdrop, as he mentions, research endeavors constitute an attempt to generate responses from a closed “information-denying establishment”. However, while doing so, they should not stop looking for innovative ways to access difficult data.