On August 25, India's Defense Minister authorized production of 300 short-range, nuclear-capable Prithvi missiles. The decision was taken in response to a reported August 15 test by Pakistan of the Ghauri III, an intermediate-range, nuclear-capable ballistic missile. The Project asked Dr. P.R. Chari, Director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi, to provide the following analysis on India's nuclear weaponization plans.

A few weeks ago, Dr. Chidambaram, Chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, revealed that, "The 15-kiloton device [one of the five exploded at Pokharan during the nuclear tests in May 1998] was a weapon. Others were weaponizable configurations." By "weaponizable configurations" he probably meant that nuclear weapons could be fashioned out of the design of the other devices exploded. It can be inferred that India is still some distance away from deploying nuclear weapons of the sub-kiloton and thermonuclear category.

On the other hand, claims were made as far back as mid-1994 [George Perkovich: India's Nuclear Bomb, University of California Press, 1999] that India had finished designing air and missile-deliverable fission weapons and had extensively tested their various components. A recent journalistic account [Raj Chengappa: Weapons of Peace, Harper Collins, 2000] based on interviews with Indian defense and nuclear scientists indicated that a Mirage-2000 aircraft was used in May 1994 to flight-test and explode the core assembly of a gravity nuclear bomb with a dummy assembly. Then, in April 1999, the Agni-II missile was flight-tested using a nuclear weapon assembly without the plutonium core. This test established that all systems worked, including the safety locks. If these contentions are accurate India must be presumed to be technologically capable of weaponizing its nuclear arsenal.

More Tests?

This question gains salience because it frames another: must India conduct more field tests before deploying its nuclear arsenal? The jury is out on this question. Several defense and nuclear scientists have asserted that no more field tests are required; others have argued that they are imperative, especially if India wishes to establish the nuclear triad envisaged in its draft nuclear doctrine.

Clearly, the crucial leg of the triad, a nuclear submarine force, cannot be deployed without sub-surface testing of warheads and missiles. Thermonuclear devices would also need more testing, since the single ambiguous test conducted in May 1998 does not sufficiently prove India has the capacity to build these advanced nuclear weapons. Development of the Agni-II and longer-range missiles to establish a deterrent capability against China would also require extensive testing before deployment.

In brief, field-testing of missiles and, probably, nuclear warheads, is required to convert them into militarily usable nuclear weapons. This would have to be conducted against the tide of international opposition and reproach, with the certainty of additional sanctions being imposed on India. Further steps are required to deploy these nuclear weapons which, in the Indian system, implies having them incorporated into the armed forces' tactical doctrine and familiarization drills.

The fighter-bombers and short-range Prithvi missiles currently identified as delivery systems are available with the armed forces. The nuclear devices remain in the possession of the scientists, suggesting that their mating with delivery vehicles would only be effected when deemed essential. Whether this is desirable in peacetime or feasible in an emergency or during an actual conflict is an aspect of the weaponization and deployment option that has never been seriously addressed.

The Empty Nuclear Promise

In view of the uncertainties involved, India could pause at this stage of its nuclear capabilities. Weaponization and deployment of nuclear weapons will degrade rather than enhance its national security. Pakistan would be driven to weaponize and deploy its nuclear assets to emphasize its own prowess; China would target India with its nuclear missiles; and the Sino-Pak linkages in the nuclear and missiles areas would be further consolidated. Along with Pakistan, India would also be isolated within the international system.

Furthermore, weaponizing and deploying its nuclear capabilities will not enable India to halt the proxy war or cross-border terrorism in Kashmir, or prevent future Kargils from occurring, or counter the ethno-nationalism-based insurgencies that bedevil Northeast India, or mitigate the growing non-military threats to the country's security. These threats are far more real and imminent than the hyped nuclear threat, which has largely been promoted by the compulsions of well-recognized groups with a vested interest.

Domestically, their unrelenting pressure, combined with the need to divert attention from intractable internal problems or to garner public support before the next elections, could drive New Delhi into weaponizing and deploying India's nuclear capabilities.

NMD Would Trigger Reactions

The external circumstance that could influence India's decision to weaponize and deploy its nuclear capabilities would be a U.S. decision to deploy a national missile defense system. This would raise the possibility of China and Russia enlarging their nuclear capabilities; Japan, Taiwan and the two Koreas contemplating their nuclear option, which could, in time, strengthen India's bomb lobby to press for demonstrating its nuclear capabilities as strategic insurance in an uncertain security environment.

Currently, however, the issue of weaponizing and deploying India's nuclear capabilities lies recessed in the Indian public's consciousness; the greater likelihood is that India will creep along the road to full nuclear-weapon status in the fullness of time.


Dr. Chari directs the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi.