Joseph Cirincione
Director, Non-Proliferation Project
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Working Paper submitted to the Conference on the
Nuclearization of South Asia: Problems and Solutions
UNESCO International School of Science for Peace
Como, Italy 20-23 May 1999


Indian officials believe there are many reasons for developing and deploying nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, apart from domestic political considerations. The missiles would provide a deterrent to the use of nuclear weapons by either Pakistan or China; the weapons would symbolize India’s status as a great nation; and, possibly, missiles could become an export commodity that will both generate income and break what India regards as an unfair missile technology monopoly. If India’s deployments proceed as envisioned the fleet may also become the stimulus for a dangerous arms race in the region with global consequences.

Origins of the Indian Missile Programs

India has slowly developed its missile program over the past four decades largely by its own efforts. The program began, however, with the extensive cooperation of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the 1960s. India also benefited from imports and assistance provided by Britain, France, West Germany and the former Soviet Union.

India’s ballistic missile program grew directly from its civilian satellite program. In 1969, the Indian government founded the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). India’s scientists were first introduced to western rocket technology through the launching of more than 350 US, French, Soviet and British sounding rockets from the Thumba Ranges in India. At the same time the U.S.-supplied Scout sounding rockets’ technical reports which gave Indian scientists familiarity with solid-rocket propulsion systems. Intended for launching payloads into sub-orbit or low-orbit configurations, the Scout is easily adaptable as a short-range missile with a limited payload. The Scout was the basis for India’s first space-launch vehicle, the SLV-3, which successfully orbited its first satellite on July 18, 1980.

The Indian space program continued to develop through the decades with the introduction of the Augmented SLV in the late eighties and early nineties. In the nineties the ISRO lifted satellites into orbit using a two stage rocket, the Polar SLV and more recently research is underway on a Geostationary SLV. The PSLV demonstrated the basic technologies needed for an intercontinental ballistic missile and was built from technology and experience gained from the SLV and the ASLV.

Links to the Ballistic Missile Program

As one expert assessment concludes, "the link between space launch activities and ballistic missile developments is clearer in the case of India [than in any other nation]." The Department of Defense notes that "the space program supports New Delhi’s missile efforts through shared research, development and production facilities." The first direct cross over of technology occurred in the design and development of the Agni. Begun in 1979, as India was launching its first SLV-3, the Agni eventually became a two-stage rocket utilizing the SLV-3 as its first stage.

Recent speculation has centered on India’s potential to develop a long range IRBM and possibly an ICBM. Defense Minister George Fernandes on May 11, 1999, denied any government plans to develop the Agni-III, which he termed an ICBM. If a project to develop an IRBM were to exist it would likely rely on the propulsion technology derived from the civilian space program’s Polar SLV. With a range of 3500 km and the capability to carry nuclear warheads it would play a major role in achieving India’s goal of minimum deterrence.

The Indian ICBM (Surya/Agni-IV) program has reportedly been underway since 1994. Using a combination of cryogenic technology developed indigenously at the Trivandrum Center’s laboratories and technology from the, as yet, untested Geostationary SLV, the ICBM’s range would be 8,000 to 12,000 km. The recent delivery of cryogenic boosters from Russia has helped India’s scientists in their efforts to master the technology that helped lift the first American, Russia and Chinese ICBMs.

The development of the shorter-range Prithvi actually began after the Agni. A liquid-fuel, road-mobile missile, the Prithvi program began in 1983 and was first test-fired in 1988. Although it relies on foreign technologies for its propulsion and guidance systems, the Prithvi is purely Indian in design and development. As Aaron Karp notes, "In essence, India has re-invented the Scud." The Prithvi is the only ballistic missile currently deployed by India. The 333rd Regiment with between 20 and 50 Prithvi missiles was originally deployed near the Pakistan border at Jalandhar but has recently been moved to a base in Secundrabad, central India. The Army version, the Prithvi I has a range of about 150 km while the Air Force version, or Prithvi II, extends out to 250 km. Most recently, a new ship-launched, 350 km range version of the missile, called the Dhanush, was to begin flight tests in December 1998, but it has yet to appear.

India’s Prithvi Class Ballistic Missile



First Tested/ Status

Nuclear Warhead Capability


Range (km)/ Payload (kg)

Technological Characteristics





Feb 1988/

Deployed 1995



Single stage, liquid fuel, road mobile, inertial guidance

1994 Army ordered 75 of which 20-50 have been delivered to the 333rd Regiment now in Secundrabad after having been moved from Jalandhar, 80 miles from Lahore.


Prithvi II


Feb 1996/

In Production



Single stage, liquid fuel, road mobile, inertial guidance


1994 Airforce ordered 25


Prithvi III




Development/Deployment by 2001




Untested, sea launched missile








Single stage, liquid fuel, underwater launch capability


India has denied the existence of any such project and Russia has denied helping India develop such a weapon


India’s Agni Class Ballistic Missile



First Tested/ Status

Nuclear Warhead Capability


Range (km)/ Payload (kg)

Technological Characteristics





May 1989/ Ready for production



Two stage, first stage solid fuel second liquid

Described as a ‘technology demonstrator’. Tested to a range of 1400km. Two-stage missile – first stage booster motor from the SLV-3, second stage Prithvi



Agni II

Apr 1999/-


2500-3000 /1000

Two stage, solid fuel, rail mobile, inertial with terminal guidance


Tested to a range of 2000km on 11th April 1999.


Agni III






To be developed using PSLV technology


(Agni IV)


Under development since 1994








Combining recently delivered cryogenic technology and the untested Geostationary SLV


Deployment Plans

The Prithvi was designed specifically for conventional use against Pakistani military formations. However, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the chief of the Indian Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), said after India’s 1998 nuclear tests that the missile could also be used with a nuclear payload. The Air Force has ordered 25 Prithvi IIs, which would be the more likely version for potential nuclear deployments. To date, however, these deliveries have not yet occurred and may be caught up in internal debates over nuclear deployment, command and control issues.

Defence Minister Fernandes has made clear India’s intention to deploy nuclear ballistic missiles. Shortly after the May nuclear tests, he said, "Without weaponization, this question of being a nuclear weapons state does not make any sense. Nuclear weaponization is necessary, and in the ultimate analysis inevitable." One of the Pokhran tests is believed to have been a 45 kiloton explosion, testing a design for an Agni warhead.

On April 11, 1999, India resurrected the Agni test program after a 5-year hiatus with a dramatic 1400 km test of an Agni II missile. Defence Minister Fernandes declared, "We have reached a point where no one, anywhere can threaten us…We as a Government, first through the Pokhran tests and now, by operationalizing Agni, have shown that no one can put pressures on us…" Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee emphasized in his statement that India remains committed to a minimum deterrence posture and the no-first-use of nuclear weapons.

Dr. Kalam said in an April 15, 1999 interview with Brahma Chellaney, that the 2,000-3,000 km range Agni II missile was "operationally ready" for deployment with a nuclear warhead. Kalam said that India had now emerged as an independent missile power, capable of deterring threats from any regional adversary. He believes that Indian technology had progressed so rapidly that it was no longer necessary to conduct multiple tests of the same missile system.

Officials at the state-owned Defence Research and Development Organization recently told Defense News that they are developing an ambitious plan to produce 20 Agni missiles by the end of 2001 and to develop the Surya for a test launch by mid-2001 with an expected range of 5,000 km. In a potentially ominous development for global efforts to slow the proliferation of missile technology, Dr. Kalam said after the April Agni test that he wanted to "neutralize" the "stranglehold" some nations had tried to apply to India’s missile program through the restraints of the Missile Technology Control Regime. "I would like to devalue missiles by selling the technology to many nations and break their stranglehold," he warned.

Consequences of Deployment

Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, director of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, concludes, "India’s nuclear policy since the early 1960s has been driven essentially by the China factor." The government of India details its position in a statement released by the official Press Information Bureau in April noting, "The Pakistani threat is only a marginal factor in New Delhi’s security calculus. Agni is at the heart of deterrence in the larger context of Sino-Indian equation."

The statement elaborates:

"The acquisition of a missile system capable of delivering conventional or nuclear warhead bridges a key gap in the nuclear deterrent profile of the country. The double distinction of being a nuclear-capable and possessor of the means of delivery means that India can hold its head high without fear of being bullied in a hostile security environment. China with its vast nuclear arsenal, Pakistan with its nuclear weapons and delivery system capability, America perching in Diego Garcia and 11 other Asian countries possessing missiles is quite a grim security scenario"

However, the Indian government’s statement, while boasting of the achievement ("it signifies the country’s glorious entry into the select club of the nuclear nations possessing an indigenous capacity to develop a missile system.") also tries to allay fears of imminent deployment ("India has no desire towards Agni II’s production schedule, let alone any deployment designs.")

The various statements will likely be read differently by the two major powers monitoring Indian nuclear developments. The United States will look on the bright side, hoping that its yearlong diplomatic efforts, having failed to convince India to suspend missile tests, may yet convince India not to deploy nuclear weapons. China is not likely to operate under the same illusion. It is highly unlikely that China will stand by while India edges towards deployment of a missile force capable of striking deep into Chinese territory.

China did not react strongly to the Indian nuclear tests in May 1998, but internally debate continues on the proper military response to a nuclearizing South Asia. Analyst Ming Zhang details the contending points of view in a recent monograph from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, China’s Changing Nuclear Posture: Reactions to the South Asian Nuclear Tests.

Zhang believes experts in the various civilian institutes, such as the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, argue for a moderate response to India’s nuclear and missile tests. Many of these analysts do not believe that India’s tests, in and of themselves, pose a serious threat to China’s national security. By most military measures, China enjoys superiority over India, they say, and it will take years for India to develop its nuclear devices into usable weapons.

By contrast, says Zhang, representatives of the military institutes such as the China Institute for International Strategic Studies and the China Defense Science and Technology Information Center argue for at least a moderate buildup of its nuclear forces. China’s deployment along the border with India has traditionally been insufficient and the nuclear tests signal that India intends to create a significant new nuclear threat to China. If India deploys weapons aimed at China, they conclude, China must respond with new deployments aimed at India.

If India does not deploy its Agni missiles and if the U.S. and Japanese interest in deploying national or theater missile defenses along China’s eastern shores remains just talk, China will likely continue with its current, relatively modest plans to modernize its nuclear forces.

China’s Modernization Plans

China is slowly modernizing its strategic nuclear forces. Chinese doctrine is centered around the maintenance of a "limited nuclear deterrent" capable of launching a retaliatory strike after an adversary’s nuclear attack.

Missile Forces

China currently has the capability to strike U.S. cities with its force of approximately 20 long-range Dong Feng-5 missiles, each armed with a 4- to 5-megaton thermonuclear warhead. However, the preparation time for these liquid fueled ICBMs, the lack of hardened missile silos, and a lack of mobility have raised some concern in the Chinese leadership of the ability of these forces to survive a first strike. Additionally, its sea-based force (currently only one Xia submarine armed with 12 medium-range ballistic missiles) does not pose a credible threat to either Moscow or Washington. The Xia has never sailed outside China’s territorial waters and is considered vulnerable to modern anti-submarine warfare techniques. By comparison, the United States maintains 5,500 strategic warheads on its land- and sea-based missiles.

China has a range of nuclear-capable missiles with sufficient range to reach most of India. These include:



Range (km)

Number Deployed


DF-3 and -3A



3.3 MT




3.3 MT

DF-21 and 21A



300 KT


Missiles launched from the Xia submarine could also strike Indian targets. China’s fleet of H-6 bombers also carries 120 air-dropped nuclear bombs with yields ranging from 10 kilotons to 3 megatons. With a range of 3,100 km, these planes are technically capable of reaching all targets in India.

Probable Results of Chinese Force Modernization

By 2010, China hopes to have completed an upgrade of its forces. The planned improvements seem to be designed with the United States in mind, assuring the survivability of a second-strike force with sufficient range to reach targets in the continental United States. Only the DF-25 and possibly the planned submarine fleet would impact India directly.

These plans include:


The replacement of the aging force of DF-5's (and potentially the DF-4's) with two new missiles:

DF-31: a solid-fuel, road-mobile missile with an 8,000-km range. Though the missile has yet to be flight tested, the engine has been tested several times since the 1980s and could be fielded as early as 2000 to 2002.

DF-41: a solid-fuel, road-mobile missile with a 12,000-km range. This missile is expected to be deployed near 2010, as the DF-5 leaves service. Some of the newer DF-5's may remain in service past this date. (Reports indicate that 6 DF-5's were produced at Wanyuan in 1998 and that 2 more are expected before the closure of the production facility.)

Exact deployment numbers are unknown, but some experts estimate that China could field between 50-70 MIRVed, solid-fueled ICBMs (DF-31s and DF-41s) by 2010, both mobile and in hardened silos, equipped with various penetration aids to defeat missile defenses.

China may also be planning a DF-25 solid-fueled, road-mobile missile with an estimated 1700-km range and a 2,000-kg payload. Reports on this program are sketchy and it may have been abandoned.


While China plans to deploy 4-6 of its second-generation submarines (the 09-4) it is likely that no more than three will actually be deployed by 2010. Each submarine could be armed with 12 JL-2 SLBMs, with a range of 8,000 km and potential MIRV capability. The JL-2 is based on the DF-31 missile and has been under development since the 1980s. China has experienced severe engineering problems with both its ballistic missile submarines and the submarine-based missiles. It is quite possible that no new submarines will be successfully deployed over the next ten years.

Strategic Bombers

The H-6 is China's current medium-range bomber. Based on the Soviet Tu-16 Badger of 1950s vintage, it has a range of 3,000 km. While the Chinese air force flight-tested a more modern bomber, the H-7, in 1988, most experts believe that it will not have a nuclear role and that only 20 will be built. It is unlikely that China will invest substantial resources in it's airborne nuclear capability unless it is able to purchase the T-22M Backfire from Russia (although China is reportedly developing an air launched cruise missile).

China also purchased 26 Soviet-built Su-27 Flanker fighters from Russia in 1992, basing them at the Wuhu airfield west of Shanghai. Although the Su-27 does have an air-to-ground capability there are no confirmed reports of Chinese modifications to give these planes a nuclear role.

Accelerated Chinese Deployments

Should Chinese concerns about their security situation substantially increase, and if military modernization were given preference over economic modernization, China would likely increase the number of deployed systems and warheads rather than embark on a crash program to produce new, more advanced systems than those cited above.

While the exact size of China's fissile material stockpile is unknown, analysts estimate that China currently has between 1 and 2 tons of weapons-grade plutonium and between 9 and 13.5 tons of highly enriched uranium in its nuclear weapons. There may be an additional 2 to 6 tons of weapons-grade plutonium and between 15 and 25 tons of highly enriched uranium available to produce between 300 and 1,000 additional warheads.

China could take a number of steps, including increasing deployments at existing sites, establishing new deployments, producing new tactical nuclear weapons and possibly developing missile defenses.

China also has the option of expanding its force by establishing new missile bases. Several Indian officials and experts claim, as Minister of Defence George Fernandes did in May 1998, that, "China has its nuclear weapons stockpiled in Tibet along India’s borders." This has never been corroborated by independent analysis and China denies it. Some experts now believe that after the Indian nuclear tests, "it seems more likely that China will deploy nuclear weapons in Tibet to strengthen its defense against India. At 4,000 meters above sea level and facing down on India, the Tibetan plateau is ideal for weapons deployment." However, this would entail substantial new expenditures and the creation of a new brigade in the Second Artillery to man the base. China has been decreasing the size of its armed forces over the past two decades and its six missile bases and the brigades assigned to each have been relatively stable for the past 15-20 years. Creating a new base would seem to be the least attractive option for China, and the debatable geographic advantage seems small consolation for the expense involved.

Conclusions: A Slow Motion Arms Race

A year after the test, says analyst Brahma Chellaney, "India is still unable to frame a clear political and defense strategy based on nuclear weapons." He is right. This has served India’s short-term political strategy as the slow pace of the weapons programs, especially in contrast to the hectic May test series, and the ambiguous statements from Indian leaders have reduced the global opprobrium. Other world crises have distracted attention from South Asian nuclear and missile developments. The United States and other nations have been forced to drop sanctions and abandon efforts to punish India for breaking international non-proliferation norms. But the lack of clear strategy and planning has left India’s nuclear strategy subject to the pulls and pressures of domestic politics, program timelines, and decisions made in Islamabad and Beijing. India drifts towards nuclear deployment.

India’s deployments will not take place in a vacuum. Pakistan and China will react. Pakistan’s tests of the Ghauri missile indicate that nation’s willingness to match India test-for-test. Of more global importance, China will react with its own missile tests and deployments, increasing tensions not just in South Asia but throughout the continent and across the Pacific to the shores of the United States. If the United States reacts to increased deployments of intermediate-range nuclear missiles with the deployment of theater and/or national missile defense systems, as is likely, other nations may well conclude that the non-proliferation regime no longer serves their interests. Nuclear options will be re-examined with new interest. Even the possibility that Japan might exercise its missile or nuclear options could be sufficient to escalate tensions, rhetoric and programs to new heights.

While merely pursuing what it considers its national security interests, India’s deployment of nuclear ballistic missiles may well light a fuse too hot to extinguish