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Thursday, February 15, 2024

Indo-US strategic ties: Nuclear brinkmanship in the Himalayas

Saleem Akhtar Malik |

Pakistanis keep complaining about America’s totally indifferent stance towards Pakistan during the ’65 and ’71 wars. Pakistan joined the US sponsored Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) in 1955. Pakistan’s membership of the American-sponsored military pacts is well known. That India was also aligned during the Cold War period is generally ignored.

Indo- US strategic cooperation started in 1956 (before China formally annexed Tibet in 1959) when the CIA established a base camp at Kalimpong, near India’s border with Tibet, to recruit Tibetan guerrillas to fight Chinese troops. Soon thereafter the CIA trained militias in the eastern Kham region started fighting the Chinese. Similarly, after the 1962 Sino-Indian border war, when Non-Aligned India was caught in the no man’s land, the United States and Britain provided India $120 million worth of military aid. The program included a variety of military equipment, but its central feature was the raising of six Indian mountain divisions (Bhutto, 1969).

In October 1965, with logistics support from India’s Intelligence Bureau, planted a nuclear powered remote sensing device atop the 25,645-foot mountain feature Nanda Devi, located in India’s Uttarakhand state.

The 1962 Sino-Indian War provided the United States an opportunity to increase American influence over India without coercing the latter into a formal and declared pact. The United States was not supporting India because of any moral reason.

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After WW2 the United States, a novice in the great game, needed new enemies, even as it needed new friends. It rightly perceived the Soviet Union as the greatest threat to its interests though the magnitude of the threat was gradually blown out of proportion. Initially, the United States wanted Nationalist China and India as its policemen in Asia and the Pacific.

When China was “lost” to the communists, the United States pinned its hopes on India, but India under Nehru was intent on enjoying the best of both the worlds by sitting on the fence under the anachronistic concept of non-alignment. In fact, non-alignment was the bogey the Soviet Union used throughout the Cold War to counter the United States. Hence the US sponsored military pacts which were aimed at encircling the Soviet Union and China. Speaking in New Delhi in January 1962, Henry Kissinger remarked that the United States conjured up these pacts because “at that time America was suffering from a disease called ‘Pactitis’ (Bhutto, 1969).

It is worthwhile to mention here that in October 1965, a few days after the cease-fire between India and Pakistan, the CIA, with logistics support from India’s Intelligence Bureau, planted a nuclear powered remote sensing device atop the 25,645-foot mountain feature Nanda Devi, located in India’s Uttarakhand state. Soon thereafter, another device was planted by the Americans on Nanda Kot, a nearby feature. Both the devices lie abandoned in Uttarakhand’s Garhwal Himalayas and keep ticking, each with its deadly stock of plutonium about half the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima (Bag,2015). Such was the extent of the US-India strategic relationship during the period Pakistan had been mentioned as America’s “most allied ally”.

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Intruding the mountains

According to Beckhausen (2013), after China exploded its first nuclear device in 1964, the Pentagon and CIA were worried about how to monitor Chinese missile tests which were being conducted at a top secret facility a few hundred kilometers north of the Himalayan mountains. They desperately needed to find out the performance parameters of the Chinese missiles and compatibility with nuclear warheads. The mountain range blocked ground-based sensors which could have picked up the missiles’ radio telemetry signals. Worse, Pakistan had just kicked out America’s spy planes and, back in the 1960s, precision satellite imagery was still primitive.

In 1963, USAF General Curtis LeMay, along with a small team of Sherpa guides, had led an expedition to the summit of Mount Everest. The General was tasked by the CIA to head the second expedition in October 1965, this time in a clandestine operation to carry a plutonium-powered generator — known as a SNAP Unit— and a sensor device to a Himalayan peak high enough to secure a direct line of sight to the Chinese missile test site. Once at a suitable summit, the team would assemble the device and aim it towards China.

Fears have been expressed in the Indian and American media about large-scale plutonium contamination of the Rishi Ganga, the river that drains the Nanda Devi glaciers into the Ganga.

With the cooperation of India’s Intelligence Bureau, Nanda Devi, a 25,645 ft (7815M) mountain within Indian territory was picked for planting the surveillance equipment. Installing the device, however, meant carrying up equipment weighing around 56kg, including an 8-10ft-high antenna, two transceiver sets, and the most vital component, a system for nuclear auxiliary power (SNAP) generator. The generator’s nuclear fuel, consisting of seven plutonium capsules, came in a special container (Beckhausen, 2013).

However, due to heavy snowfall and declining oxygen levels, the expedition was forced to abandon a summit attempt. The nuclear-fuelled generator, nicknamed Guru Rinpoche by the climbing Sherpas, after the Buddhist god, was already emitting heat, and those who knew about its radioactive dangers were apprehensive. Unable to take the generator with them, the team, therefore, secured it near their camp and returned to safety (Bag, 2015; Coburn, 2013).

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A follow-up Indian expedition which was sent to retrieve the device told the Americans later that it had gone missing, apparently having slid down the mountain in a landslide, carrying its plutonium with it. Another American expedition, sent in spring 1966 to retrieve the device, flew into the area in helicopters and scanned Nanda Devi for many months with neutron detectors, but failed to pick up any signals. The Americans suspected that Indian intelligence had secretly hiked up there before that spring mission, program retrieved the device, and whisked it away, presumably in order to study it and gather scientific and technical information for their own nuclear program.

In 1967, the CIA eventually did get another SNAP unit and signal device planted below the summit of Nanda Kot, a 22,510 ft mountain nearby. It was buried in snow three months later and stopped working, although having gleaned enough data from Chinese tests to indicate — at the time — that Beijing did not yet have a long-range nuclear warhead. The plutonium capsules, which have a longevity of over five hundred years, could still be buried somewhere in the snow. The area has been virtually closed for decades. Barring a few exceptions, such as army or Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) sponsored expeditions, nobody is allowed to climb or explore Nanda Devi, purportedly for environmental reasons (Beckhausen,2013).

Fears have been expressed in the Indian and American media about large-scale plutonium contamination of the Rishi Ganga, the river that drains the Nanda Devi glaciers into the Ganga. According to Manmohan Singh Kohli, the Indian team leader, the “lives of millions of Indians would be affected, especially those living along the Ganga, right up to Kolkata”. Water sources and rocks were tested for hints of radiation, but the real results were always doctored by the GOI (Bag, 2015).

Forty years after leading the expedition which, in 1965, hid the first SNAP generator in a crevice atop Nanda Devi, Kohli (2005) makes a startling revelation by expressing the scare when, in the summer of 1968, an Indian team went to retrieve the second SNAP generator from Nanda Kot.

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“When the team reached the Dome (the Nanda Kot Dome where the device was installed), they were shocked to see no sign of the entire equipment. They dug a couple of feet and saw an amazing sight. There was a perfectly sound cave formed with the hot generator at the center. With the continuous heat emitted from the generator, the snow had melted up to 8ft in all directions, creating the spherical cave!”
– Manmohan Singh K

Saleem Akhtar Malik was a Lt Colonel in the Pakistan Army. He holds an honors degree in War Studies, an MBA and an M.Phil in Management Sciences. He is the author of the book Borrowed Power. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.