Table of Contents

The Remarkable Persistence of Strategic Conservatism

Unlike China, which moved relatively quickly from dismissing the importance of nuclear weapons to acquiring them, India’s path to nuclearization was long, convoluted, and delayed. Homi Bhabha, the father of the Indian nuclear program, understood the significance of nuclear weaponry very early, even as efforts to develop them were underway in the United Kingdom and the United States during World War II. After the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings confirmed their power, Bhabha became even more convinced that India might one day need such capabilities. Consequently, soon after India became independent in 1947, Bhabha wrote to the country’s then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru—who was also a champion of science and technology—seeking funds to begin an atomic energy program in India.

Arguing that “it [was] reasonable to believe that within the next couple of decades, atomic energy would play an important part in the economy and the industry of countries and that, if India did not wish to fall even further behind industrially advanced countries of the world, it would be necessary to take more energetic measures to develop this branch of science and appropriate larger sums for the purpose,” Bhabha secured the resources to begin the atomic energy program that he headed until his untimely death in 1966.1 This endeavor was intended to provide India with full mastery over the entire nuclear fuel cycle. Because India lacked natural uranium in the quantities required to sustain a large power generation program but possessed an abundance of thorium, Bhabha devised the ambitious and path-breaking “three-stage plan” that guides the Indian civilian nuclear program to this day.2

Simply described, Bhabha’s approach focused on transmuting India’s relatively small holdings of natural uranium to produce plutonium as a byproduct in pressurized heavy water reactors (PHWRs) in the first stage. This plutonium would then be used to breed uranium-233 (U-233)—an excellent fissile material capable of being used as fuel—in fast neutron reactors that incorporated a thorium blanket in the second stage. The U-233 thus produced would finally be combined with thorium in advanced heavy water reactors in the third stage to generate about two-thirds of the reactors’ power output from thorium itself.3 Since India possesses about 25 percent of the world’s thorium reserves, in contrast to its negligible natural uranium holdings, its uranium constraints for electricity production would lose much of their salience over the long term as the second and third stages of Bhabha’s envisaged plan came to maturity.

This remarkable design, which then required many technologies not yet in existence, was intended by Nehru and all his successors until Rajiv Gandhi principally for peaceful purposes.4 Even now, many of the elements required to realize the promise of the three-stage plan remain elusive. For example, the high breeding ratios required to make the fast breeder program attractive are yet to be achieved.5 Furthermore, the challenges of recycling the extremely radiotoxic U-233—essential to accomplish the fully self-sustaining thorium–U-233 cycle associated with India’s third stage—have still not been overcome because, as one analysis points out, “there are [as yet] no technically and economically proven processes and equipment that have been developed and demonstrated for remotely-operated recycle fuel fabrication within a fully shielded and contained facility, especially at the large industrial scale that would be needed,”6 anywhere in the world.

Although these persisting technological challenges remain a subset of the obstacles that India has had to surmount over the years, the political aims of its nuclear program have remained focused largely on advancing economic growth, with the national security benefits relegated to the periphery. The overriding objective in the early decades after India’s independence was accelerating development. Cheap and plentiful electricity, something that the economic theory of the day emphasized as vital for growth, made atomic energy the technology to master.7 By utilizing international cooperation—especially with the United States and its Atoms for Peace program as well as through other partnerships with the United Kingdom, Canada, and France—India secured access to nuclear technology and steadily built up its own domestic expertise sufficiently to develop a national nuclear power program that focused simultaneously on generating electricity and developing a range of new advanced technologies required by the second and third stages of Bhabha’s ambitious plan—and, in time, a nuclear weapon as well.8

Because the first stage of his endeavor produced plutonium as a consequence of irradiating natural uranium fuel in a pressurized heavy water reactor, the Indian nuclear power program embodied a built-in weapons option since the recovered plutonium could be used flexibly either as fuel for its second-stage reactors or as a fissile material in the core of its nuclear weapons. Both Bhabha and Nehru were aware of this potentiality. In fact, as early as 1948, barely a year after India’s independence, Nehru would acknowledge in an address to the Constituent Assembly (which was preparing drafts of the Indian Constitution) that India might one day be forced to contemplate developing nuclear weapons. As he noted,

Of course if we are compelled to use [atomic energy] for other purposes, possibly no pious sentiments of any of us will stop the nation from using it that way. But I do hope that our outlook in regard to this atomic energy is going to be a peaceful one . . . and not one of war and hatred.9

Bhabha, in contrast to Nehru, had fewer inhibitions. In the aftermath of the first Chinese nuclear test in 1964, he became a strong advocate for developing nuclear weapons, but was unable to convince then Indian prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to embark on such a quest. What he got instead was a reluctant permission to begin exploring the technical requirements for “peaceful nuclear explosions,” which were then the object of considerable international attention.10 This exploration would in time lay the foundation for the development of India’s first nuclear device tested in 1974.

Although this nuclear explosion ostensibly marked India’s entry into the nuclear club, it was far from real membership because its 1974 experiment was not a real “nuclear weapon test explosion”—in other words, it did not demonstrate a usable nuclear weapon.11 In fact, India’s moral inhibitions about procuring nuclear weaponry, its fears about the high costs of a nuclear weapons program, and its assessment that China, despite possessing nuclear weapons of its own, constituted more of a conventional than a nuclear threat, all combined to convince New Delhi that it should eschew the development of a nuclear arsenal. Despite the oddity of its one-off nuclear test in 1974, the desire for a peaceful nuclear program would thus survive in India for some forty years, from 1952, when Nehru unveiled the first four-year plan to develop India’s nuclear infrastructure, to 1992, when India, facing the prospect of a nuclear Pakistan, finally began to weaponize the device designs that it had first begun to explore in the aftermath of China’s initial nuclear test.12

This delay would have important consequences. Especially, it meant that China got off to a head start in developing nuclear weapons despite Mao’s initial dismissal of their significance. In contrast, India appreciated the importance of nuclear weapons from the very beginning—in fact, even before the country became independent, if Bhabha’s early activities are any indication. But India’s refusal to develop nuclear weapons prior to 1967 implied that when it finally settled on nuclearization, it did so at a time when it could not be recognized as a legitimate nuclear-weapon state under the terms of the NPT as China was. Even worse, India had to pursue its nuclear weapons program in the face of the growing international opposition to proliferation that intensified in the aftermath of India’s 1974 “peaceful nuclear explosion.”13

Accordingly, India’s nuclear weapons development, which accelerated from 1988 until the second round of nuclear tests a decade later, all occurred largely invisibly, hidden by dense secrecy, as New Delhi sought to develop its deterrent in the face of strong global obstruction and stringent technology controls that constrained not just its nuclear program but all its other strategic endeavors, such as those pertaining to space and other high technology areas as well.14 As a recognized nuclear-weapon state, China faced no comparable pressures and, hence, could persist with improving its nuclear capabilities openly and without any legal constraints.

That the Indian nuclear weapons program spun off from its civilian nuclear power generation efforts highlights a further contrast between India and China. From the very beginning—and to this day—peaceful nuclear science in its myriad applications remains the heart and soul of India’s nuclear activities: it employs the majority of India’s nuclear scientists, receives the bulk of the funding from the Indian Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), and attracts the best minds in the Indian nuclear establishment. The weapons program comes in a poor second on all counts. In contrast, China initiated its nuclear investments fundamentally with an eye to producing weapons and only expanded into nuclear power long after its arsenal had matured; exhibiting exactly the opposite direction, India focused on nuclear power production far before it was reluctantly pushed into developing nuclear weapons. This dissimilarity also explains why the Chinese weapons program initially utilized uranium-based nuclear weapons designs, since Beijing’s early gaseous diffusion technology was intended purely to produce highly enriched uranium for its weapon cores. From the beginning, Indian weapons used—and still use—plutonium as their principal fissile material. The plutonium for India’s weapons program has been produced primarily in its research reactors, first the Canada India Reactor Utility Services (CIRUS) and now the Dhruva, although these reactors also support other research activities associated with the country’s power program and various nuclear science applications.15

India’s nuclear weapons development, which accelerated from 1988 until the second round of nuclear tests a decade later, all occurred largely invisibly, hidden by dense secrecy.

For all the differences in the origins, emphasis, and capabilities of their respective nuclear programs, however, the Chinese and Indian approaches to nuclear deterrence share important similarities. Perhaps most important is their common conviction that nuclear weapons are primarily political instruments useful to deter nuclear attacks and nuclear coercion by other nuclear powers rather than being useable tools of war.16 As such, their efficacy derives mainly from possession rather than from use—in sharp contrast to other military paraphernalia whose significance derives primarily from how they might be employed in operational terms. As discussed in Chapter 1, despite China’s nuclear weapons increasing in numbers and improving in diversity and quality, Beijing still holds on to the notion that nuclear weapons are pure deterrents. India does too, with even greater intensity, thus placing its nuclear doctrine—indeed, even more emphatically than China’s—squarely at the deterrence end of the “deterrence-defense continuum” that Glenn Snyder illuminatingly explored almost sixty years ago.17

The fervency of the Indian belief about nuclear weapons being solely political instruments is grounded in multiple sources. For starters, it is anchored in the perception that even small nuclear weapons of the sort that India possesses are capable of inflicting horrendous damage on an adversary’s core assets, namely its population and industrial centers and some types of military targets—damage that invariably would exceed all the rational ends of politics in the real world. The experience of the Cold War left Indian policymakers convinced that fighting a nuclear war, let alone winning one, is an absurd enterprise; hence, the only sensible purpose of such weapons is to deter either their actual or their threatened use by others.18 This conclusion has been strengthened by the implicit judgment that, both today and for the foreseeable future, India is likely to remain a “subaltern” nuclear state in the realist, not postcolonial, sense: it is unlikely to enjoy the freedom to wage nuclear war as the United States and the Soviet Union imagined they could when both states lay at the apex of the international system. India’s choices are much more constrained both by the interests of the other great powers and the deepening tradition of the non-use of nuclear weapons, thus strengthening its conviction—also shared with China—that the benefits of deterrence will continue to derive more from possession than actual use.19

The constancy of this assessment bestows upon India the further advantage of enabling it to bridge its long-standing opposition to nuclear weaponry, which was manifested in its vociferous Cold War campaign for nuclear disarmament, with its new acceptance of nuclear weapons as essential to its security. If these instruments are more valuable to protect security than to underwrite ambitious political aims—an especially inevitable consequence when both India and its rivals possess nuclear weapons—their possession becomes more easily tolerable because they are ultimately defensive instruments and hence justifiable in a situation where New Delhi has no other choices.20

Finally, treating nuclear weapons as purely political rather than military instruments—a judgment Indian leaders believe accords with reality—enables them to resolve other internal dilemmas that come with their possession. For example, it justifies the maintenance of a relatively modest—and, by implication, cheaper—arsenal if India settles for a strategy of inflicting unacceptable levels of punishment by holding at risk a small number of vital targets at a time when its economic development and conventional military requirements are still far from being satisfied thanks to constrained resources. It also permits New Delhi to preserve its extant system of “assertive” control exemplified by absolute civilian supremacy over the military.21 If nuclear weapons are political rather than military tools, the involvement of the armed services in nuclear operations can be minimized to the extent necessary for effective retaliatory operations, in contrast to the more extensive divestiture of civilian authority that would be required were these weapons to be conceived as flexibly available for nuclear warfighting.

These considerations historically converged to shape India’s nuclear doctrine in distinctive ways at both the declaratory and the operational levels of policy.

India’s Nuclear Doctrine

The Declaratory Level

The declaratory doctrine was articulated in two iterations in the aftermath of 1998 nuclear tests: first in draft form by the National Security Advisory Board in 1999 and, because of controversies involving this document, later in more authoritative but laconic form by the Cabinet Committee on Security in 2003.22 Although the latter modified the former in interesting respects, the logic of the draft nuclear doctrine essentially survived because it comported fundamentally with the Indian state’s core intuition about nuclear weapons being primarily political instruments.

Although neither version of India’s publicly articulated doctrine formally separated the declaratory from the operational component, it is possible to prescind the two analytically into three elements each. The declaratory component encompassed India’s commitment to build and maintain a “credible minimum deterrent,” bind itself to a policy of “No First Use,” and signal that it would respond to any nuclear attacks on itself or its military forces with “massive” retaliation “designed to inflict unacceptable damage” on an aggressor.

A Credible Minimum Deterrent

The doctrinal declaration that India would build and maintain a credible minimum deterrent was intended to convey that New Delhi had no interest in developing a larger nuclear arsenal than was necessary to service the objective of inflicting intolerable costs on any adversary that might employ nuclear weapons against India or its armed forces. Since India’s nuclear weapons in their diverse variants were presumed to be inordinately destructive, they were not needed in enormous numbers for successful deterrence.23 Although India, like China, would not publicly quantify the number of weapons that would constitute “minimum” deterrence, Indian policymakers did indicate what their force levels would not entail: the Indian deterrent would not necessarily be pegged to the size of an opponent’s nuclear force nor would it be large enough to underwrite any concepts of nuclear warfighting as, for example, U.S. and Soviet forces were during the Cold War. Rather, India’s minimum deterrent would only be as large as was necessary to enable its residual fraction—the force components that survive an adversary’s first strike—to hold a sufficient number of the enemy’s key assets at risk.24

Because the most valuable national possessions, such as population and economic centers and perhaps some kinds of military assets, are all relatively large and soft targets, retaliation did not require thousands of nuclear weapons. Thus, Indian policymakers envisaged a small nuclear force, although there was no way to fix its maximum size a priori. Even though the number of targets India sought to interdict would not increase dramatically over time, the survivability of its own weapons could fluctuate depending on the evolution of an adversary’s offensive capabilities and its own targeting strategies.25 Consequently, prudence required keeping the size of the Indian deterrent open—especially when Chinese and Pakistani nuclear forces were also expanding—but without deviating fundamentally from the core objectives of avoiding nuclear arms races and shunning nuclear warfighting strategies.

After their 1998 tests, Indian policymakers envisaged a modest deterrent. Without publicly revealing any desired size, they calculated that the small number of adversary targets that needed to be held at risk for successful deterrence, the small (albeit growing) inventory of weapon-grade fissile materials in their possession, and the prospect of some kind of fissile material cutoff regime coming into effect would combine to permit only the maintenance of a modest but sufficient deterrent. The secrecy over the size of the anticipated force was itself viewed as contributing to successful deterrence because India’s adversaries, unsure about what kind of capabilities they faced, would find it harder to mount splendid first strikes that could denature the Indian nuclear reserve. The Indian strategic community, however, attempted to concretize the meaning of a minimum deterrent. Toward that end, they offered different conceptions that ranged from sixty to some 300 weapons delivered by different kinds of delivery systems.26

Whatever their preferred arsenal involved, however, both the Indian government and its policy elites agreed that their deterrent had to be “credible.” Deterrence credibility is an amorphous concept, and it subsumes different elements, including the technical effectiveness of the nuclear weapons, their survivability and that of the associated command-and-control systems, the character of the retaliatory threats levied, and the perceived willingness of the leadership to actually strike back in the aftermath of absorbing a nuclear attack. All these factors combine in different ways to convince an adversary that its nuclear strike would not go unanswered and, hence, was not worth undertaking in the first place.

India has made various efforts to improve its deterrent over the last two decades. Various aspects of this endeavor will be reviewed in greater detail later, but the key point worth emphasizing is that New Delhi has not been obsessively concerned about credibility as the two superpowers were during the Cold War. Being a late nuclearizer, India has completely internalized the lessons of the nuclear revolution on this count: it believes that nuclear weapons are devastating instruments irrespective of their quality or yield, and that they are fundamentally unusable as normal implements of war.27

Given their expectation that the nonuse of nuclear weapons will only be further entrenched in time, Indian policymakers do not believe that New Delhi needs to make extraordinary efforts to convey credibility.

Given their expectation that the non-use of nuclear weapons will only be further entrenched in time, Indian policymakers do not believe that New Delhi needs to make extraordinary efforts to convey credibility: the fact that India possesses nuclear weapons, has demonstrated that at least some of them do work, expects that its viable weapons can exact a heavy toll on an attacker, and believes that no adversary can be confident about its ability to destroy the entire Indian nuclear force so as to thwart retaliation completely all coalesce to make even a modest Indian nuclear force sufficiently credible to deter nuclear attacks or nuclear coercion directed against the Indian homeland or its armed forces.28 Toward that end, New Delhi has systematically developed an extensive physical and procedural infrastructure to ensure the survival of its second-strike capabilities and the ability to direct their use when required for punitive purposes. India’s approach to the challenge of credibility thus mimics China’s entirely and within the context of regional politics seems reasonable.

Furthermore, because Indian leaders seek no benefits from nuclear weapons beyond the deterrence of homeland attacks (which implicitly subsume threats of nuclear coercion), and because they are committed to employing their nuclear reserves only in retaliation, they view any concerns that may arise about their willingness to retaliate—an important concern during the Cold War—as completely misplaced.29 Given the physical (and reputational) costs that would be imposed on India by any nuclear attack, New Delhi judges that its adversaries would have to recognize that it had no choice but to respond with nuclear use of its own either to avenge the damage suffered, or to punish the adversary for crossing the nuclear threshold, or to enforce speedy war termination. In Indian consciousness, credibility is thus inextricably linked to its decision to maintain a viable nuclear deterrent.

A No-First-Use Policy

The commitment to deploy a credible minimum deterrent is complemented by the second element of India’s declaratory doctrine: the pledge to eschew the first use of nuclear weapons. The draft nuclear doctrine issued by the National Security Advisory Board emphasized this element clearly when it declared that India’s deterrent forces were intended for “retaliation only.” India would never use its nuclear weapons first in any circumstances since their “fundamental purpose . . . is to deter the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons by any State or entity against India and its forces.” Moreover, India would also not use nuclear weapons or threaten their use against any non-nuclear state and against states that are “not aligned with nuclear weapon powers.” This pledge constitutes the essence of India’s no-first-use policy, which, mirroring China’s own declarations, promises that Indian nuclear use will only materialize in the form of “punitive retaliation should [nuclear] deterrence fail.”30

The official Indian doctrine issued some three years after the draft reaffirmed the commitment to no first use by noting that “nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere,” and that nuclear weapons would not be used “against non-nuclear weapon states.”31 But it qualified the unconditional no-first-use pledge articulated in the draft doctrine by noting that “in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons,” meaning that India might use its nuclear weapons first in the case of such contingencies.32 This caveat provoked controversy because it seemed like a dilution of what was previously advertised as evidence of India being a responsible nuclear power. Consequently, the skepticism about India’s no-first-use pledge, which, like all similar declarations elsewhere, suffers from the logical limitation of being unverifiable a priori, received further credence especially in Pakistan, which, thanks to its traditional animosity toward India, is highly suspicious of the latter’s intentions in any case.33

While the official formulation of India’s no-first-use pledge thus arguably permitted nuclear first use under some conditions, further clarifications offered by senior Indian officials at the time to the U.S. government suggested that the practical import of this new caveat was less significant than it appeared at first sight.

In diplomatic consultations in 2003, senior Indian officials involved in the management of nuclear policy noted that any Indian first use to a chemical or biological attack would be contemplated only if the effects of that attack had mass casualties as a consequence.34 In other words, what could provoke a nuclear response was not simply chemical or biological attacks but rather those events that mimicked nuclear weapons in producing catastrophic consequences for the Indian population or its armed forces. Further, the option to use nuclear weapons first in such circumstances obviously applied only to attacks emanating from states and would be irrelevant against non-state actors.

The caveat about possibly using nuclear weapons first—not the commitment to use them first—in response to calamitous chemical and biological attacks was judged to be necessary because India’s acceptance of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) had had the effect of preventing New Delhi from being able to respond symmetrically. By accepting the disarmament obligations associated with the CWC and the BWC, India effectively gave up the possibility of retaliatory attacks in kind, or, at least, would be incapable of doing so after it had given up its chemical and biological weapons stockpiles as required by these agreements. In circumstances where punishment through conventional means was not an adequate option, Indian policymakers felt that nuclear weapons remained their only plausible instruments of retribution were their country to become a victim of chemical or biological attacks by foes that might cheat on their disarmament obligations. Even so, they emphasized that preemptive or preventive nuclear use was emphatically not what was being entertained, only punishment for serious transgressions committed by an adversary.

In adopting this new caveat, India viewed itself as simply emulating the U.S. position of the day as it was articulated in then president George W. Bush’s administration’s 2002 Nuclear Posture Review. This review was followed closely in New Delhi and proved particularly persuasive to India given its own fears about the potential for dishonesty or breakout on the part of countries like Pakistan and China.35 Even in these cases, Indian policymakers emphasized that their effort to invoke nuclear first use as the ultimate sanction against chemical and biological attacks ought to be viewed only as a prudential antidote in admittedly remote contingencies. Indian government officials did not believe then (or now) that chemical and biological attacks were the most pressing strategic problem facing their country and, hence, cautioned against making more of the new caveat in the Cabinet Committee of Security’s statement than was necessary. As one senior Indian official privately phrased it, “the Indian effort to counter mass destruction attacks involving chemical and biological weapons through nuclear threats should be viewed more as a chapeau designed to deal with uncertainty than as an active principle guiding current Indian nuclear strategy.”36

For all these reasons, it is plausible to argue that the Indian commitment to no first use remains meaningful even though it cannot be verified in any tangible way. Obviously, the most fundamental justification for considering this commitment to be credible is not its utterance but because it comports with India’s deepest strategic interests. As former Indian national security advisor Shivshankar Menon has summarized it, because India does not face the problem of “deter[ing] conventional and nuclear aggression against exposed allies confronting local conventional inferiority” and its “geographic and strategic situation [implies] that nuclear weapons [are] not seen as the answer to problems of conventional defense,”37 a no-first-use policy is a sensible response to the principal challenges—avoiding nuclear attacks and nuclear coercion—that India faces today and in the future. Because this solution is “dictated not by passivity or idealism but a deep realism, an understanding of the limited purpose that nuclear weapons can play in the strategy of any nuclear weapon power, but particularly that of one such as India,”38 it should not be dismissed as subterfuge because its underlying logic is still impeccable and, even more importantly as subsequent discussion will elaborate, it continues to inform the management of India’s nuclear posture.

The Threat of Massive Retaliation

The third element of India’s declaratory policy pertains to the nature of the retaliation that New Delhi would unleash were deterrence to fail. The draft doctrine addressed this issue by stating simply that India “will respond with punitive retaliation” in the event of nuclear attacks.39 The official statement issued years later changed the adjective “punitive,” declaring instead that “nuclear retaliation to a first strike [on India] will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.”40

This shift from punitive to massive retaliation was prompted by the desire to strengthen what New Delhi views as the critical firebreak between conventional and nuclear conflict. As far as strategic planning is concerned, India focuses its military investments on warding off threats primarily from China and Pakistan. China’s nuclear capabilities vastly outstrip India’s, while Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities are comparable or marginally superior. India, however, enjoys significant conventional military advantages against both adversaries.41 Consequently, while Indian leaders desire to avoid all wars to the degree possible, they can more comfortably countenance conventional operations when necessary because their leverage is most pronounced in these encounters. Any nuclear exchange, on the other hand, would exact a high and intolerable toll on India, irrespective of the damage inflicted on the adversary.

Not surprisingly then, India seeks to deter all forms of nuclear attack: because even token nuclear employment by an adversary would open the door to more expansive escalation, New Delhi seeks to deter any nuclear use even amid conventional conflicts. In practical terms, this signaling was directed more toward Pakistan than toward China because when India enunciated its official doctrine in early 2003, it assumed that Pakistan was the more reckless and risk-acceptant state as its long history of aggressiveness toward India (only further exemplified by the 1999 conventional conflict at Kargil) had amply confirmed.42 Even the new pugnacity now displayed by China, however, is unlikely to change this element of India’s declaratory doctrine; New Delhi would still seek to avert any kind of Chinese nuclear attacks on India in the context of either a major or a limited conventional conflict—although it is readily acknowledged by Indian security elites that, despite the growing troubles in the Sino-Indian relationship, nuclear interactions between the two Asian great powers have been conspicuously stable.43

In any case, the rhetoric of massive retaliation is also intended to avoid another problematic outcome from India’s perspective: giving the impression that it is willing to consider the possibility of nuclear warfighting in different guises in order to shore up deterrence. Consequently, India has consistently rejected ideas such as demonstration shots, limited nuclear use, or graduated escalation as undermining the goal of preventing any nuclear use. These alternatives are deeply unsettling to India—just as they appear to be in the case of China—because they would undermine its intention to maintain a minimum deterrent, subvert its currently assertive nuclear command-and-control system that institutionalizes civilian supremacy, and threaten its belief that orderly nuclear exchanges are impossible. Just like their Chinese counterparts, Indian policymakers believe that what happens after any nuclear first use is difficult to predict and, hence, all nuclear powers should exert themselves entirely to preventing all kinds of nuclear use to begin with. Even as Pakistan’s efforts to develop tactical nuclear weapons have come to light, India’s belief that the nuclear threshold cannot be crossed without provoking dangerous and unanticipatable consequences has not changed one whit. Consequently, its threat to respond “massively” to any nuclear attack on its territory or its armed forces has also remained unchanged.44 (The ongoing Indian debate about this approach is reviewed later in this chapter.)

The Operational Level

If India’s declaratory doctrine thus encompassed the quest for a credible minimum deterrent, a commitment to no first use of nuclear weapons, and the threat of massive retaliation if India or its armed forces are attacked by nuclear weapons, its nuclear doctrine at the operational level incarnated these convictions through the institutional structure, the deployment practices, and the procedural systems that characterize its evolving deterrent.

Maintaining a Force-in-Being

The first element of India’s traditional nuclear policy at the operational level consisted of maintaining its nuclear deterrent as a force-in-being governed by an assertive command system centered on strict civilian authority. A force-in-being is essentially a de-mated deterrent where the different components—fissile cores, weapons assemblies, and delivery systems—are preserved separately and under the control of different custodians depending on the type of delivery system in question. The Chinese nuclear deterrent to this day is routinely maintained largely as a force-in-being and the Indian nuclear posture since its 1998 nuclear tests has also conformed to this model, albeit with adjustments, despite the transformations that will occur once India’s SSBNs are fully operational.45

The reason for maintaining Indian nuclear capabilities as a force-in-being derived principally from the judgment that New Delhi did not need instantaneous retaliation for purposes of effective deterrence. Rather, like China, India assumed that bolt-out-of-the-blue nuclear attacks—the one contingency that was greatly feared by both the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War—were unlikely in the post–Cold War era and were certainly not plausible in the political interactions of subaltern nuclear powers. Because the threats of nuclear use or coercion were likely to emerge only in the context of serious political crises, sufficient strategic warning would be available to integrate the various components of the separated nuclear force into usable and deliverable weapons when required in a supreme emergency.

Similar to China again, India also sought to preserve strict civilian control through such a posture: civilian organizations like the Department of Atomic Energy and the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) retained control over the fissile cores and the weapon assemblies, while the uniformed military managed and maintained the delivery systems.46 When authorized by India’s national command authority—meaning the prime minister and the Cabinet Committee on Security (or their designated successors in case of any successful decapitating attack)—the various components of India’s nuclear deterrent would be integrated in conformity with a predesigned four-stage alert sequence. Because preserving negative control was imperative, these weapons would be launched only after their use was expressly authorized by the apex authorities which, in accordance with India’s declaratory doctrine, would occur only in the aftermath of an adversary’s first strikes.

At the time of the 1998 nuclear tests, the Indian arsenal consisted principally of gravity bombs to be delivered by aircraft such as the Mirage 2000 and missile warheads that could be delivered primarily by the liquid-fueled Prithvi short-range ballistic missiles. The solid-fueled Agni missiles, which represent a key component of India’s nuclear deterrent today, were then still in development (as some versions still are).47 Although it was unclear at the time, India probably also allotted a few ship-based Prithvi variants, the Dhanush, for nuclear missions in an effort to both improve the survivability of its small nuclear force and to be able to target Pakistan from a seaward axis.48 Although India had enough WGPu for about fifty nuclear weapons in 1998,49 it is unlikely to have had more than two dozen or so machined cores since an arsenal of this size was judged in the preceding decade to be sufficient to deter Pakistan, which was then viewed as India’s most important nuclear adversary.

The small number of Indian nuclear weapons and the short range of both India’s tactical aircraft and its liquid-fueled missile delivery systems around 1998 highlighted the primacy of Pakistan over China in India’s nuclear calculations at the time. To prevent any easy first strikes by Islamabad, India’s unassembled nuclear weapon components were routinely stored at secure sites under civilian control spread deep around the Indian landmass. The Indian air and missile bases, which were located closer to the border, usually had underground shelters where the nuclear components delivered from rearward locations could be received prior to their assembly and checkout, after which they would be mated with the military-controlled delivery systems.50

This model of managing India’s nuclear arsenal, at least where its land-based systems were concerned, was judged sufficient for effective deterrence because it preserved civilian control durably, minimized the possibility of accidents, and, as long as adequate strategic warning was available, enabled New Delhi to constitute its deterrent in an orderly way. Even if India was subjected to surprise nuclear attacks, a possibility that Indian policymakers viewed as highly improbable, this response regimen would arguably have been adequate so long as India’s covert nuclear repositories and its delivery systems survived the first strikes. In such circumstances, India’s nuclear deterrent would have had to be reconstituted in a messier environment. But as long as its leadership, its weapons, and at least some delivery systems survived, its retaliatory response would have been inevitable—and this, Indian policymakers believed, was sufficient for deterrence.

The process of transforming the Indian force-in-being into an employable deterrent is by definition a lengthy one: it involves orchestrating several organizations and marrying potentially widely dispersed assets. Ideally—assuming strategic warning—the entire alerting and integration sequence would be completed prior to the outbreak of war, but, even if not, at least before India absorbed any nuclear attacks. Whenever its nuclear forces were readied, however, India’s no-first-use doctrine implied that some kinds of nuclear operations, such as launch on warning and launch under attack, were axiomatically excluded for technical as well as prudential reasons. Being realistic, Indian decisionmakers recognized that in some situations their deterrent force might come to full readiness only slowly; hence, their early post-1998 thinking encompassed different possibilities that included integration after, during, or before nuclear attacks on India.

In practice, however, and whenever strategic warning has been unavailable—as was demonstrated first during the Kargil crisis—India proceeded to constitute a small number of its nuclear weapons and prepare a few nuclear delivery vehicles for possible retaliatory operations in parallel with the conventional military operations that proceeded autonomously.51 Again, this is not surprising. Even in the midst of the most intense crises that New Delhi has faced since 1998, Indian policymakers did not expect extensive (or even any) nuclear attacks, but sought to be prepared to respond as quickly as possible if their expectations were to prove false.

Accepting Delayed Retaliation

The uncertainties involved in the process of alerting and integrating nuclear forces shaped the second element of India’s traditional nuclear doctrine at the operational level, which consisted of an acceptance that its nuclear retaliation, while assured in response to any attack, might have to be delayed.52 The extent of the delay would obviously depend on a variety of factors such as the availability of strategic warning and the scale of the nuclear attacks upon India, their targets, and their effectiveness. Since these variables could not be assessed with confidence in advance, Indian leaders accepted the possibility that their nuclear riposte might take time to execute but without in any way indicating what the tolerable interval for their retaliatory response might be. The similarity here with China’s historic approach is noteworthy, though it is unlikely that New Delhi would have settled for the lengthy delays that Beijing seemed prepared for during the Cold War—unless it was compelled to by circumstances. In all likelihood, India would have preferred that its retaliation occur within hours to days of suffering an attack rather than weeks to months, as the Chinese strategist quoted earlier had argued would suffice in the case of Beijing.

Since the rapidity of the Indian retaliation would ultimately have been determined by the manner in which a conflict evolved rather than by any a priori leadership preferences—even if India had maintained a ready arsenal as opposed to a force-in-being—Indian decisionmakers emphasized more its inevitability than its timing.53 They judged sensibly that the survivability of the Indian deterrent was far more important than the alacrity of retaliation and, should the two objectives ever come into tension, they would have settled for protecting their deterrent in order to assure retaliation to any attack over increasing the speed of their reprisals.

The Threat of Punishment

The anticipated targets of any Indian retaliation were also left unidentified for obvious reasons. But given the broader Indian understanding of the utility of nuclear weapons, the third prong of India’s nuclear doctrine at the operational level involved securing deterrence through the threat of punishment, which in turn implies holding at risk those targets whose “destruction . . . the aggressor will find unacceptable.”54

This emphasis on punishment, as opposed to denial, derives equally from technical and political considerations. For countries that possess small nuclear arsenals with relatively low-yield weapons, interdicting soft targets such as population and economic centers and perhaps some kinds of critical infrastructure offer maximum bang for the buck: it allows even weaker nuclear states such as India to punish stronger adversaries such as China in horrific ways that ultimately strengthen deterrence. The destruction of any countervalue targets constrains national regeneration after a conflict and enables war retardation far more successfully than attacks on either hardened nuclear weapon sites or military forces, both of which may require either large numbers of or high-yield nuclear weapons and highly accurate delivery systems.55

Consequently, if the political objective is to punish nuclear aggression, attacking countervalue targets is most effective among other things because it inflicts the most pain on an adversary and can be prosecuted even with small nuclear arsenals of the sort that India possessed. What such a targeting strategy consciously excludes, therefore, are counterforce attacks on an adversary’s nuclear weapons, its nuclear storage sites, and its command-and-control network, because successful operations require potentially more nuclear weapons of higher yield and accuracy.56 A countermilitary targeting strategy aimed at interdicting assets such as land, air, and naval bases, logistic facilities, and fielded formations is also undesirable—although it can be executed in token form—because it potentially requires numerous weapons for operational success and cannot match the pain inflicted by a smaller number of countervalue attacks.57

While India’s emphasis on punishment, therefore, has never excluded retaliation on countermilitary targets, especially because punishing the Pakistani armed forces (and in particular the army) must have lain prominently in Indian consciousness if it ever became a victim of nuclear attacks unleashed by Islamabad, inflicting “unacceptable” pain through comprehensive countermilitary targeting would require hundreds to thousands of nuclear weapons and, hence, cannot be an attractive strategy for a small nuclear force. If administering token or proportionate punishment is all that is desired, however, countermilitary targeting offers attractive possibilities because it enables India to punish what may be limited nuclear use by an adversary while still holding the prospect of unleashing more costly countervalue attacks in reserve.

Because such a response inevitably conveys a willingness to engage in a limited nuclear war, it is not surprising that Indian security managers, just like their Chinese counterparts, have never discussed such possibilities publicly. Nor are they ever likely to do so despite the frequent calls for clarity about India’s nuclear strategy issued by academics both in India and in the United States. Given the overarching objective of preventing any nuclear use to begin with, Indian policymakers believe—correctly—that a studied silence about their retaliatory options contributes more toward effective deterrence than engaging in any public discussions about their possible responses to various nuclear emergencies. On this count, they believe that India’s possession of nuclear weapons by itself should induce greater caution on the part of its adversaries, whereas any exhaustive statements about its planned retaliation could increase the prospects of deterrence breakdown if it stimulates rivals to test those commitments.

Recent Doctrinal Debates

The Indian nuclear doctrine at the declaratory and operational levels elaborated above has dominated New Delhi’s thinking since its 1998 tests. The details substantiate its essentially conservative disposition—quite like China’s in many respects—and serve as a baseline to examine whether India is in fact dramatically shifting away as some recent commentary has alleged.58 That the doctrine, which has focused on protecting India from nuclear dangers without making nuclear weapons the all-encompassing centerpiece of its national defense, has episodically come under pressure is understandable. It was developed and articulated when India was making the transition from a covert to an overt nuclear power, when foreign nonproliferation pressures on New Delhi had not abated, and when there were widespread expectations in India that its mere acknowledgement of possessing nuclear weapons would automatically enhance regional stability. While this last hope did not materialize in the manner that India had anticipated, its nuclear doctrine has nonetheless survived with minimal modifications because, despite the changes occurring in the Chinese and Pakistani nuclear programs and behaviors over the last two decades, India’s strategic circumstances do not require a more ambitious nuclear doctrine for enhanced security.59

The larger transformations that have occurred within Southern Asia over the last twenty years—namely, the continuing expansion of the Chinese and Pakistani nuclear arsenals and the persistence, perhaps even the increase, in Pakistani-backed terrorism against India while Islamabad shelters under its own nuclear umbrella—have, however, forced discussions among Indian elites about whether some aspects of their nuclear doctrine should be revised. The two most significant issues in this regard at the level of declaratory policy are Indian deliberations about the viability of its no-first-use commitment and the wisdom of persisting with its strategy of massive retaliation.

Other aspects of the doctrine have also been occasionally questioned, but without meaningful significance. For example, the first element of India’s declaratory doctrine, the commitment to a “credible minimum deterrent,” is sometimes doubted in different ways. One prominent Indian commentator, Brahma Chellaney, for example, has argued that the former Indian government headed by prime minister Manmohan Singh was undermining India’s nuclear deterrent as part of the subversive concessions offered to the United States under the U.S.-India civil nuclear cooperation agreement. Citing the formulation used by the then defense minister Pranab Mukherjee, who labeled India’s arsenal a “minimum credible deterrent” instead of using the official phraseology—a “credible minimum deterrent”—Chellaney argued that the Singh government had engineered a major policy shift surreptitiously to justify weakening India’s nuclear weapons capabilities.60

The speciousness of this claim, which was based solely on Mukherjee’s linguistic infelicity, did not escape more careful observers.61 But it does highlight parenthetically another problem that frequently recurs in nuclear discussions in India: most Indian policymakers who speak on these issues are not well versed in the arcane terminology of nuclear deterrence theory that emerged in the West during the Cold War. Consequently, their more casual use of language often requires careful “hermeneutical” interpretation to assess their true meaning and intentions. Literally appropriating what may sometimes be poor linguistic formulations can be a terribly misleading guide to India’s strategic direction.62

In any event, most allegations of a dramatic shift in India’s nuclear doctrine have emerged from the opposite direction, with several commentators claiming that its evolving nuclear forces are now breaking the bounds of “minimum deterrence.” A good example is provided by Yogesh Joshi and Frank O’Donnell, who have argued that India’s expanding nuclear force suggests that New Delhi now prizes “credible” over “minimum” deterrence as evidenced by “recent development projects—such as multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) warheads, the 700 kilometer-range Shourya nuclear missile, and the potentially nuclear-capable short-range Prahaar, Brahmos and Nirbhay missiles—[which] indicate Indian interest in a war-fighting capacity.”63 Both the facts and the inference are problematic in this instance: some of the missiles referred to are not necessarily intended to carry nuclear weapons. If they do—an issue explored later—they are in some cases intended as replacements for more obsolete systems that will soon exit the Indian inventory. And even if some systems eventually come to have nuclear missions—the Brahmos and the MIRVs being prominent examples—the conclusion that they are designed for nuclear warfighting, as opposed to supporting the traditional mission of nuclear retaliation, is neither obvious nor accurate.64

The discussion about credible versus minimum deterrence thus runs the risk of becoming little other than casuistry because neither concept has precise entailments. As Lieutenant General B. S. Nagal, a former commander of the Strategic Forces Command, has rightly noted, India’s force size and structure will inevitably be “dynamic because the adversaries’ arsenals are increasing by the year.”65 This conclusion only echoes the early judgment offered by Jaswant Singh in the aftermath of the 1998 nuclear tests when, in response to U.S. demands that India quantify in “concrete terms” the size and character of its minimum deterrent, he declared that New Delhi’s force levels were “not a fixity.”66 Since the notion of a minimum deterrent is thus inherently elastic with respect to the number of nuclear weapons, it is not surprising that Indian policymakers have not felt compelled to renege upon or revise their declaratory commitment to a credible minimum deterrent.

As long as India’s nuclear deterrent is sized in ways that permit it to maintain the smallest secure second-strike force capable of inflicting unacceptable punishment on an aggressor, its nuclear deterrent would by definition be both minimum and credible. The likelihood of satisfying this requirement greatly increases if the surviving weapons are of high-enough yield to make successful attacks on the desired number of area targets both easy and unpreventable. Understanding what this encompasses in terms of specific numbers and types of weapons depends on political judgments that incorporate force exchange calculations but ultimately cannot be reduced to them. The strategic environment facing a country and the degree of risk a leadership is willing to accept both have an important bearing on the issue of “how much is enough.” As the experience of the Cold War demonstrates, the number of nuclear weapons judged to be sufficient by all sides varied with circumstances, with the United States and the Soviet Union reaching for weapons in the tens of thousands while the United Kingdom, France, and China ended up with inventory sizes in the low hundreds.67 Where the smaller nuclear powers were concerned, their nuclear arsenals were, at any rate, much larger than the number of targets they sought to hold at risk, which were far fewer in comparison to the number of weapons in their national deterrents.68

At the end of the day, what is most striking about India’s continued adherence to the pursuit of a credible minimum deterrent is not the non-official debates about the term, but rather New Delhi’s disinclination to rapidly expand its arsenal despite the advances demonstrated by its rivals. As the subsequent discussion about force capabilities will suggest, New Delhi has not ramped up the production of nuclear warheads dramatically since its 1998 tests even though it has the capacity to do so. This fact alone suggests the continuing dominance of the minimum deterrence paradigm in the consciousness of India’s security managers: whether this will change because of China’s expanding arsenal or Pakistan’s nuclear diversification, only time will tell. But the evidence thus far suggests that India’s nuclear expansion since its 1998 tests has been slower than that of its rivals and can still be defended as subsisting within the bounds of minimum deterrence.

In contrast to the sophistic disputation about what constitutes a credible minimum deterrent, the episodic Indian controversies about its no-first-use doctrine have potentially more serious consequences. In the aftermath of the Cold War, China was also locked into a similar debate over its no-first-use policy, but with two important differences in comparison to India. The Chinese debate about no first use occurred fundamentally in the context of threats anticipated from more powerful adversaries such as the United States, and the discussion was conducted entirely by strategic elites with no involvement by political leaders. In the Indian case, the doubts about no first use have been precipitated oddly by the actions of a weaker but more risk acceptant adversary, Pakistan, and involves utterances, however uncalculated, by senior government officials in addition to discussions within the wider strategic community.

The driving force underlying the Indian no-first-use debate has been the persistence of Pakistani-supported terrorism against India, which acquired renewed lease of life with Islamabad’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Confounding the early Indian expectation that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons would bring peace because they would mitigate Islamabad’s traditional fears about its security, nuclear weapons instead seem to have had exactly the opposite effect. Protected by their nuclear capabilities against the threat of conquest and major war, the Pakistani military and intelligence services (“Rawalpindi”) have sought to exploit this immunity by supporting insurgencies within India in order to weaken it continuously through costly subconventional warfare. The persistent frustration with Pakistan’s ability to “bleed India through a thousand cuts” under the cover of its nuclear weaponry69—which deters Indian conventional retaliation because of the fear of provoking a nuclear holocaust—has provoked some Indian elites to argue that the no-first-use policy should be reconsidered because this assurance ostensibly “frees Pakistan of the uncertainty and angst that India might contemplate the pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons to deal with terrorist attacks or limited conventional strikes by Pakistan.”70

In the aftermath of any significant terrorist attacks within India, the sentiment for change often intensifies. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) promised in its 2014 election manifesto to “study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times,” an assurance that was viewed as presaging a change in India’s no-first-use policy.71 Leading Indian politicians have sometimes argued for such a shift directly. Thus, for example, India’s then defense minister, Manohar Parrikar, asked in 2016, “Why should I bind myself? I should [only] say [that] I am a responsible nuclear power and [that] I will not use [nuclear weapons] irresponsibly. This is my [personal] thinking.”72 In a similar vein, his successor, Rajnath Singh, more recently stated, “Till today, our nuclear policy is ‘No First Use’. What happens in [the] future depends on the circumstances.”73

Just as in China, such statements have been dismissed by the Indian government as subjective ruminations that signify no change in its official no-first-use policy.74 Thus, as recently as October 2020 and despite the acute crisis with China along the country’s northern borders, India’s permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament reaffirmed India’s commitment “as per its nuclear doctrine, to maintain credible minimum deterrence with the posture of no-first-use and non-use against non-nuclear States.”75 Given the consistent official admissions, including by Parrikar himself, that India’s existing no-first-use policy “has not changed in[side the] government,”76 there is little doubt that the stray invectives against the no-first-use policy have been precipitated fundamentally by the continuing frustration with Pakistan. More problematically, however, they are driven by the belief that altering New Delhi’s no-first-use policy would actually serve to deter Pakistan’s subconventional wars against India.

That senior Indian policymakers now raise doubts about the no-first-use commitment indicates two things beyond their obvious resentment of Pakistan’s behavior: (1) the increased freedom with which various officials in India now speak on nuclear issues, a perceptible change from the previous era prior to the conclusion of the U.S.-India civil nuclear cooperation agreement, when external nonproliferation pressures imposed a high degree of discipline when commenting on nuclear matters; and (2) the unsettling lack of understanding about nuclear deterrence on the part of many senior Indian leaders who, driven more by the imperatives of political messaging and sometimes domestic politics, inadvertently expose their ignorance of the implications for strategic stability. The latter is sometimes also true of Indian military officers who write about nuclear issues.77

The expectation that changing India’s no-first-use policy would deter Pakistan’s campaign of terrorism against India or enable India to more resolutely defeat Pakistan’s subconventional wars is a prime example of the failure to understand what nuclear weapons actually deter, including in India’s specific circumstances. It exemplifies an incomprehension of the “stability-instability” paradox and, by presuming that altering nuclear weapons policy can produce an effective antidote to terrorism, it also misunderstands the limited utility that nuclear weapons have in preserving Indian security.78 As former Indian national security advisor Menon has astutely noted,

It seems to me that rather than seeking answers in our nuclear weapons to all the threats that India does or may face, it is important that we maintain the fundamentals of our doctrine, treating our nuclear weapons as political instruments that deter nuclear attack and attempts at coercion. The clearer and simpler the task of our nuclear weapons, the more credible they are. And the more credible they are, the stronger will be their deterrent effect. As for non-nuclear threats, there are other ways of dealing with them that are not beyond Indian ingenuity and capability to discover.79

Given this sensible judgment, it does not take much to conclude that threatening Indian nuclear first use against Pakistan would not produce the requisite “uncertainty and angst” that would cause it to desist from supporting terrorist attacks against India:80 the destructive power of nuclear weapons is so great that any such threats would be simply astounding and therefore easily dismissed by Rawalpindi. As one scholar assessing the utility of nuclear weapons concluded, their value “as coercive instruments for other than mutual deterrence purposes [is] limited and rather ineffective.”81 Not surprisingly then, the postwar record suggests that both “defenders and challengers rarely have found nuclear threats for limited objectives credible,”82 even when one of the rivals has possessed absolute nuclear superiority. Because nuclear weaponry appears to be most potent not for compellence or coercion but only for deterrence against all-out attacks mounted on the homeland, an Indian renunciation of its no-first-use pledge will do little to stanch Rawalpindi’s low-intensity wars against New Delhi even as it would prove costly for India on many other counts within Southern Asia and beyond.

If abandoning the no-first-use policy buys India little where deterring subconventional conflict is concerned, it also proves to be just as inutile for countering any imminent—even limited—nuclear use by Pakistan. One retired Indian military officer, for example, offered the following scenario to suggest why Indian nuclear first use should be justified: “Let us imagine a scenario of a repeat of [a] 26/11-like attack. Our satellites detect Pakistan moving its F-16s to forward bases and begin arming of its missiles! Are we then to wait for the first nuclear bomb to fall on Delhi before we retaliate?”83 Variations of this contingency animate those Indian commentators who are opposed to the no-first-use doctrine, which then leads them to epigrammatically declaim that “It ought to be made clear to Pakistan that India will not be the first to use nuclear weapons, but also not be second!”84 The benefits of responding preemptively to any looming Pakistani nuclear attacks thus constitutes the second reason in the Indian debate for abandoning the country’s traditional pledge of not using its nuclear weapons first.

In this context, a few sentences in Menon’s book Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy fueled the speculation that India’s no-first-use policy had either changed or was on the cusp of change. In a chapter that otherwise provides an extensive defense of India’s no-first-use doctrine, Menon noted that:

There is a potential grey area as to when India would use nuclear weapons first against another NWS (nuclear weapons state). Circumstances are conceivable in which India might find it useful to strike first, for instance, against an NWS that had declared it would certainly use its weapons, and if India were certain that adversary’s launch was imminent. But India’s present public nuclear doctrine is silent on this scenario.85

These remarks have provoked allegations by some scholars, among whom Christopher Clary and Vipin Narang are the most prominent, who have maintained that India’s nuclear doctrine has, in fact, shifted (or is, at least, drifting) and now permits India to strike first with nuclear weapons if a nuclear attack was, indeed, imminent.86 Other commentators, based on Clary and Narang’s assertions, have consequently claimed that India has now effectively transitioned toward a nuclear first use policy, even though its traditional nuclear doctrine on abjuring first use remains unchanged formally.87

These assertions are assessed in greater detail in Chapter 4 when different aspects of strategic stability in Southern Asia are examined. For the moment, however, it suffices to note that the claims about India’s nuclear doctrine having incorporated first-use possibilities is dubious on diverse counts. Obviously—and by definition—any no-first-use commitment is impossible to verify a priori, so the promise that India would never use its nuclear weapons first would only be disproven when it actually does. The real question, consequently, is not whether any Indian first use is possible—it always is—but whether the expectation of nuclear first use by New Delhi is reasonable given both the circumstances that might provoke it and the capabilities that India possesses to make such (possibly preemptive) nuclear use effective. On both these counts, there are sufficient reasons for doubt (elaborated at some length in Chapter 4), but the problem highlighted by Menon about the challenges posed to India by any imminent nuclear attack must be addressed right away because it speaks directly to the question of whether the second element of India’s traditional declaratory doctrine, no first use, is changing or whether the new revisionists are engaged in little other than what one Indian scholar has caustically labelled “ghost hunting.”88

While Menon is, indeed, correct that India’s public doctrine is silent about how India would respond if faced with the contingency of impending nuclear attack, knowledgeable Indian security managers thought long and hard about this scenario in the years surrounding the 1998 nuclear tests. At that time, they concluded—rightly—that even when an adversary’s nuclear first use loomed visibly, it still made sense for India, as the doyen of India’s strategic thinkers, K. Subrahmanyam, put it then, to hew to “a totally uncaveated policy, with no reservation whatsoever on no first use.”89

The reasons for affirming this position are still unassailable. First, any information about an imminent attack will always be inherently ambiguous until the moment that nuclear detonations actually occur on Indian soil, because which adversary delivery systems have nuclear warheads and what their targets are could be uncertain; even if reliable information exists on these counts, preparations for launch can always be countermanded right up to the last second, thus making any preemptive Indian nuclear attacks on an adversary’s prepared weapons potentially very costly. Second, unless it is presumed that India can preemptively attack all the adversary’s nuclear weapons successfully—an impossible proposition for reasons discussed later in Chapter 4—simply striking that subset appearing to be prepared for imminent launch with nuclear weapons only ensures that a nuclear attack on India, “which was only probable up to that point, actually [becomes] inescapable.”90 The consequences of any Indian nuclear first strike would then be either massive or graduated escalation by an adversary—both of which would then take India right into the nuclear war that its weapons were fundamentally intended to deter.

Of course, any nuclear first use by an adversary, which implies the ultimate failure of nuclear deterrence, would provoke Indian retaliation. But, in this instance at least, the deterrence breakdown would not have resulted from India having breached its no-first-use commitments. If anything, averting such a scenario requires India to pay more attention to ensuring the survivability of its nuclear deterrent rather than playing fast and loose with its no-first-use policy, because New Delhi should aim never to find itself in a position where it feels “compelled to use its nuclear weapons first merely because the vulnerability of its strategic reserves produces enormous differences between the expected costs of striking first and those of striking last.”91

If India’s retaliatory capabilities are survivable, the threat of an adversary’s nuclear first use dissolves into irrationality because it not only ensures that Indian retribution becomes inescapable but also renders nugatory all incentives for any Indian first use. As Lieutenant General Prakash Menon, who served as the military advisor to national security advisor Shivshankar Menon, noted in response to the controversy provoked by the passing remarks in the latter’s book:

though India’s no first use [commitment] does not envisage pre-emption under any circumstances, it is possible that misjudgment, misperception, miscommunication, and/or sheer accident can set in motion a chain of events that manifests as a first strike. The lesson here is that one must avoid the situation where nuclear weapons are alerted. In fact, post the Cuban missile crisis, political leaders of nuclear weapon states have embraced caution in their strategic behavior, even if it was preceded by aggressive rhetoric. The no first use posture of India is likely to endure even as the pressure for change may linger on.

The credibility of the no first use policy depends on survivability of the nuclear arsenal and its command and control system. Survivability, coupled with retaliation under the framework of credible minimum deterrence (CMD), is therefore the main challenge for India’s nuclear strategy (emphasis added).92

Confirming this assessment—and in a striking rebuttal of the claims that India has changed its no-first-use policy—Shivshankar Menon would reveal that, despite being reviewed thrice by various Indian governments since 2003, the no-first-use commitment has survived because “it actually serves India’s interests.”93 Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government too conducted a review of India’s nuclear doctrine as soon as it arrived in office in May 2014 and concluded that the no-first-use declaration merited continued retention. Because India’s interests ultimately consist of avoiding nuclear attacks of any sort, there is no Indian nuclear first use that ever advances that goal even in circumstances when an adversary’s nuclear attack might be imminent. Since New Delhi’s nuclear weapons can always punish an adversary’s first use by painful countervalue or even some countermilitary attacks at any time, there is never any need for India to use its nuclear weapons before its opponent does so. India is unlikely to ever face the prospect of conventional defeat that requires nuclear weapons to correct such reverses. Furthermore, it cannot eliminate an adversary’s entire nuclear reserves even by the first use of its nuclear weapons; consequently, any Indian nuclear first strikes on some adversary weapons that are presumably being readied for attack would ultimately be strategically futile because they would only invite further attacks by the enemy’s surviving weapons.

Could New Delhi’s no-first-use policy change in the future? It could. Even now, it is only an assurance that is unverifiable. But as long as India enjoys sufficient conventional force advantages over its adversaries and lacks nuclear weapons in the numbers, yields, and accuracies as well as the requisite intelligence to make so-called splendid first strikes on its adversaries’ nuclear forces viable, the no-first-use commitment remains rational for India. It is the combination of political interests and technical inadequacies that makes India’s no-first-use pledge realistic and not merely its public assurances. But because neither these interests nor these inadequacies are likely to change dramatically in the foreseeable future—as the discussion in Chapter 4 elaborates—India’s no-first-use policy is likely to persist so long as its nuclear forces continue to evolve along their present trajectory.

Unlike the debate about no first use, which arose largely thanks to frustrations at the Indian end about Pakistani behavior, the discussion about the third element of India’s declaratory policy—the wisdom of its commitment to massive retaliation—arose mainly because of the changes in Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities. When Pakistan’s nuclear inventory consisted solely of “strategic” weapons—meaning weapons with yields of about 12 kilotons intended mainly for countervalue attacks on India—the Indian doctrine of massive retaliation was plausible because it promised unacceptable pain if Islamabad were to ever cross the nuclear use threshold. Over a period of time, however, and in response to fears that New Delhi was developing strategies of punitive conventional retaliation against Pakistan’s subconventional wars, the Pakistani military began to develop lower-yield nuclear weapons that were intended for limited use against India’s conventional military forces.94

Once Pakistan shifted toward its version of “flexible response,” implying possibly limited nuclear first use against Indian military forces (operating either in Indian or Pakistani territory), the question of whether New Delhi’s doctrine of massive retaliation remained credible became a new issue of contention within India. This debate is one that the United States is familiar with. The U.S. doctrine of “massive retaliation,” which was first articulated when Washington enjoyed significant nuclear superiority over Moscow but lacked the conventional force levels required to successfully protect its weaker European and Asian allies, evolved toward a doctrine of “flexible response” once the Soviet Union acquired a substantial arsenal of its own and could retaliate against any massive U.S. nuclear punishment with comparable attacks.95

In the Indian case, however, the incredibility of massive retaliation derived not from the fact that Pakistan acquired more larger-yield weapons but rather some smaller ones, which it now threatened to use in various limited ways. Any massive Indian retaliation to such use would only have the effect of prompting equally massive Pakistani “third strikes,” thus nullifying the value of the Indian punishment to begin with. Once again, these concerns made sense because it was widely assumed in India that New Delhi’s retaliation would be directed mainly at either countervalue (or, at best, countermilitary) targets. Consequently, Pakistan would still have sufficient nuclear weapons of high enough yield to punish India’s nuclear retaliation by inflicting high (and presumably equally unacceptable) levels of damage to make the Indian punitive response relatively senseless.

This conundrum has provoked a variety of responses from Indian analysts. One approach has been to deny that “massive retaliation” is in fact the Indian doctrine because, as Rajesh Rajagopalan has argued, the official formulation “actually does not use this phrase, saying instead that ‘nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.’”96 This effort to distinguish between “massive retaliation” and “retaliation that will be massive” may be linguistically accurate, but it certainly has not been read that way by India’s most important nuclear adversary, Pakistan (which is perhaps where it matters most). Reading India’s doctrine as threatening massive retaliation, Lieutenant General Khalid Kidwai, the longtime director of Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, for example, has dismissed it as “very unrealistic” and one that has “not been thought through.”97

Another Indian scholar, Gopalan Balachandran, who has worked closely with the Indian government on many strategic issues, has offered a different defense. He argued that the notion of massive retaliation makes sense fundamentally in the context of punishing the “first strike” that India’s official doctrine explicitly refers to. In other words, the threat of massive retaliation is only invoked in response to a comprehensive counterforce strike levied by an adversary, thus leaving India to respond as it sees fit to any lesser forms of nuclear use without being constrained by the obligation to unleash all-out retaliation.98 This defense is undoubtedly artful, but whether it is persuasive is another matter.

Whenever officially inspired articulations have materialized, however—as, for example, that offered by Shyam Saran, a former Indian foreign secretary, who delivered a notable defense of the conventional understanding of India’s nuclear doctrine—the emphasis on massive retaliation has only been reaffirmed. As Saran, in an address encouraged by the Indian leadership, argued:

India will not be the first to use nuclear weapons, but . . . if it is attacked with such weapons, it would engage in nuclear retaliation which will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage on its adversary. As I have pointed out earlier, the label on a nuclear weapon used for attacking India, strategic or tactical, is irrelevant from the Indian perspective. A limited nuclear war is a contradiction in terms. Any nuclear exchange, once initiated, would swiftly and inexorably escalate to the strategic level. Pakistan would be prudent not to assume otherwise as it sometimes appears to do, most recently by developing and perhaps deploying theatre nuclear weapons. It would be far better for Pakistan to finally and irreversibly abandon the long-standing policy of using cross-border terrorism as an instrument of state policy and pursue nuclear and conventional confidence building measures with India which are already on the bilateral agenda.99

Given the problems of credibility that afflict all formulations of massive retaliation in situations where rivals possess more-or-less significant (even if not symmetrical) capacities to harm, it is not surprising that several Indian analysts have, therefore, called for revising India’s threats of massive retaliation to something lower, perhaps even reverting to the doctrine of “punitive” retaliation as was suggested in the draft doctrine.100

After extensive internal deliberations, the Indian government has chosen to avoid revising its declaratory doctrine for several reasons. For starters, the importance of retaining the threat of massive retaliation was judged essential to emphasizing that the firebreak that mattered most to India was the divide between conventional and nuclear war. The moment an adversary crossed into the latter, India could respond with essentially unlimited nuclear use, the threat of which was intended to prevent any nuclear excursion in the first place. The importance of retaining massive retaliation was also justified by what India expected would be the end result of even a limited nuclear response: further nuclear attacks of uncertain intensity by the adversary that could provoke more Indian nuclear retaliation. Because India wants to avoid both nuclear use and protracted nuclear war, whether through graduated responses or otherwise, it was judged that retaining the threat of massive nuclear retaliation offered the best promise of deterring all nuclear use to begin with, even if India chose to actually respond with less-than-maximal reprisals in any given instance.101 The Modi government’s early review of India’s nuclear doctrine reaffirmed this conclusion, which had already been reached by its predecessor.

Other considerations also intervened to justify reiterating the original formulation when it could have been altered. The Indian government wanted to avoid modifying its nuclear doctrine every time there occurred some change in its strategic environment. Repeated doctrinal alterations could undermine the core message that India’s declaratory affirmations were intended to convey: that any use of nuclear weapons against India would open Pandora’s box and, hence, was not worth the risk for an adversary. Although Pakistan’s shift from strategic to tactical nuclear weapons was obviously significant and could have justified revision of India’s nuclear doctrine—as has occurred in other states when faced with comparable changes in their strategic environment—the Indian decision to reject change was ultimately grounded in a realistic view of the limitations of nuclear doctrine itself.

Indian policymakers are justifiably convinced that, at the end of the day, prewar nuclear doctrines—no matter what they say or do not say—do not deter; only nuclear weapons do. Hence, irrespective of their utterances or the inadequacies of their formulations, what makes successful deterrence possible is simply nuclear weapons, their survivability, and the possibility of their use. As long as these elements subsist, the impact of doctrine is assessed to be marginal in the final analysis for successful deterrence. This judgment echoes the penetrating comment once offered by former U.S. secretary of defense James Schlesinger who, at the height of the Cold War, in testimony before Congress, soberingly observed, “Doctrines control the minds of men only in periods of non-emergency. They do not necessarily control the minds of men during periods of emergency. In the moment of truth, when the possibility of major devastation occurs, one is likely to discover sudden changes in doctrine.”102

Finally, even as Indian decisionmakers rejected the possibility of diminishing their doctrinal threats of massive retaliation, they have, in fact, developed nuclear options that permit varying levels of retribution. No responsible nuclear power would do otherwise. As Shivshankar Menon phrased it, “India’s nuclear doctrine has far greater flexibility than it gets credit for.”103 This remark has been interpreted to mean, by noted Indian defense journalist Ajai Shukla for example, that India could conduct counterforce strikes on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal after absorbing any limited attacks involving either its tactical or its other nuclear weapons.104 A limited Indian counterforce strike is plausible at this juncture, if it can in fact be successfully executed. But Menon’s statement has little to do with nuclear warfighting, given that the entirety of his argument about nuclear weapons in Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy emphasizes their utility solely as deterrents for India. In this context, he amplifies what his later reference to “greater flexibility” means when he declares explicitly that:

There is nothing in the present doctrine that prevents India from responding proportionately to a nuclear attack, from choosing a mix of military and civilian targets for its nuclear weapons. The doctrine speaks of punitive retaliation [sic]. The scope and scale of retaliation are in the hands of the political leadership. . . . [Nuclear weapons] are weapons of mass destruction whether one chooses to call them tactical or strategic, and with its no-first-use doctrine, India has reserved the right to choose how much, where, and when to retaliate. This is an awesome responsibility for any political leader, but it is the price of leadership and cannot be abdicated to a mechanical or mathematical formula or a set of strategic precepts.105

Given this clarification, it is perplexing that Christopher Clary and Vipin Narang have interpreted Menon’s characterization of India’s nuclear doctrine possessing “greater flexibility than it gets credit for” as somehow insinuating the prospect of “preemptive [nuclear] counterforce options.”106 Neither this inference nor Narang’s earlier claim—that “There is increasing evidence that India will not allow Pakistan to go first. And that India’s opening salvo may not be conventional strikes trying to pick off just Nasr batteries in the theater, but a full ‘comprehensive counterforce strike’ that attempts to completely disarm Pakistan of its nuclear weapons so that India does not have to engage in iterative tit-for-tat exchanges and expose its own cities to nuclear destruction”107—can be derived either from Menon’s remarks or the evidence about India’s nuclear capabilities. Rather, the totality of Menon’s remarks could be construed at worst as insinuating the possibility of India’s nuclear first use (in violation of its prewar commitments). But deriving from that possibility the claim that New Delhi is likely to mount a comprehensive nuclear counterforce first strike against the entirety of Pakistan’s strategic assets is more than what Menon’s language or independent evidence substantiates. The challenges of strategic stability in Southern Asia, thus, need not be compounded by what Dhruva Jaishankar has correctly dismissed as “a non-controversy.”108

In any event, what Menon’s cryptic remarks suggest is that the judgment offered soon after the 1998 nuclear tests about India’s eventual incorporation of limited retaliation alternatives—but without advertising them—has come true. As was argued then:

while Indian decisionmakers may certainly execute massive retaliation—especially if they either absorbed an immense first strike that left them with little other choice or sought to punish a weaker state like Pakistan on the presumption that they possessed the capability for escalation dominance—it is possible that in many other circumstances India would settle for a limited or proportionate retaliation that, while embodying retribution and perhaps signaling its inherent capabilities, threatens to escalate to even higher levels of violence in the hope of enforcing a speedy termination of conflict. Of course, since an adversary cannot be confident that India would respond in this measured fashion and no other, the emphasis on deterrence by punishment is likely to suffice as an effective antidote to adventurism. Indian policymakers, in turn, will only seek to reinforce the robustness of this strategy by refusing to clearly specify their nuclear employment policy a priori in any detail and, if they do, will tend to emphasize its overwhelmingly painful consequences, even if at the moment of truth they find it counterproductive to carry out their own prewar ultimatums.109

Consequently, “prewar Indian declaratory policy will certainly continue to insinuate the prospect of sure ‘massive’ retaliation because security managers in New Delhi would seek to deny both Islamabad and Beijing the hope that they could pursue nuclear aggression while accommodating some low and manageable levels of Indian retribution.”110

One Meaningful Operational Evolution

This brief survey of India’s nuclear doctrine suggests that it has survived without fundamental changes since its 1998 nuclear tests. Where the declaratory policy is concerned, the desire for a credible minimum deterrent has persisted despite the changes occurring in the nuclear arsenals around India. The character of India’s nuclear program has only comported with this aim. Although the size of the envisaged Indian deterrent will expand given the changes in China’s and Pakistan’s nuclear forces, New Delhi still seeks to build only those capabilities necessary for effective retaliation rather than attempting to mechanically match the combined arsenals of its two rivals or comprehensively develop the capabilities for deterrence by denial that emphasize nuclear warfighting. New Delhi’s no-first-use doctrine also remains durably in place despite the pressures for revision that have occasionally surfaced. Although several Indian public figures have questioned its viability, the fact that it coheres with India’s core interest in avoiding all nuclear threats and attacks ensures its viability for some time to come—which is only reinforced by India’s still-poor counterforce capabilities and its prevailing disinterest in improving them. Finally, India’s nuclear doctrine still hews publicly to threats of massive retaliation in order to deter any nuclear use by an adversary, but it has acknowledged the capabilities for flexible retaliation—which it always inherently possessed anyway—to permit different levels of reprisal as judged appropriate depending on circumstances.

India’s conservative declaratory doctrine has survived largely because its leaders believe that the dangers of actual nuclear use against their country are still remote and whatever capabilities they possess already suffice to parry any realistic nuclear threats.

Despite these marginal shifts, India’s conservative declaratory doctrine has survived largely because its leaders believe that the dangers of actual nuclear use against their country are still remote and whatever capabilities they possess already suffice to parry any realistic nuclear threats. The broad persistence of India’s nuclear doctrine at the operational level confirms these intuitions: except for changes that are similar to China’s in regard to the desired speed of retaliation, India has stayed the course by routinely maintaining its land-based weapons in de-mated form, albeit with fewer degrees of separation, and by focusing its nuclear capabilities to support principally a strategy of punishment. New Delhi still deploys its air-delivered and land-based missile-delivered nuclear weapons primarily as a force-in-being with unyielding assertive control vested solely in its apex civilian authority and oriented toward avoiding any unauthorized use.

The willingness to accept delayed retaliation also persists, though, like China, India has moved toward a disposition that enables faster retribution than was envisaged at the time of the 1998 tests. By moving toward a posture that requires a few weapons—not the entirety of India’s nuclear deterrent—to be brought to readiness relatively quickly for retaliatory operations after crossing the appropriate alert level, New Delhi seeks to defeat any expectations on the part of an aggressor that it could launch nuclear attacks on India and exploit the delays that might characterize Indian retaliation to bring international political pressures to obviate reprisals. This element represents the most meaningful modification in India’s nuclear doctrine at the operational level but, as subsequent discussion about its nuclear posture will indicate, the speed at which New Delhi can actually retaliate after an attack will depend, among other things, on the nature of the nuclear aggression that India suffers to begin with.

Finally, India’s nuclear capabilities are still oriented toward servicing strategies of punishment, though what this implies in any given retaliatory action will depend fundamentally on political circumstances. Although India’s nuclear weapons can be used against diverse targets, their technical characteristics optimize them principally for countervalue and, to a much lesser degree, countermilitary attacks. This too represents a continuation of the situation that existed in 1998.

India’s Nuclear Arsenal

The discussion that follows substantiates the broad conclusions about India’s nuclear doctrine summarized above. Like the review of Chinese capabilities in Chapter 1, it assesses successively India’s fissile material stockpile and potential; its nuclear warheads, the delivery systems in (or entering) the arsenal, the command-and-control arrangements and the operational posture; and finally the role of strategic defenses and the character of the integration between nuclear and conventional forces with an eye to elucidating any significant changes that have occurred over the last two decades.

Fissile Material Production and Stockpiles

An appraisal of India’s fissile material stockpile is necessary because it sheds light on the size of the deterrent that New Delhi either possesses or can build over a given period of time under certain assumptions. It also helps to clarify the kinds of nuclear materials that India has and illumines, by implication, the types of nuclear weapons it has either developed or could build in the future. This survey is particularly relevant because unlike China, which has ostensibly stopped producing weapons-related fissile materials, India continues to produce the same for its weapons program. Because India has been a late nuclearizer and because its primary focus has been power generation rather than weapons production, India feels compelled to persist with producing fissile materials in order to build up the stockpile necessary to create its credible minimum deterrent. China, in contrast, could afford to contemplate terminating the production of weapons-grade materials because it had amassed a large enough inventory to build many hundreds of weapons by the 1980s. Whether it actually ended production remains an open question. In any event, India’s stockpile of weapons-grade materials is much smaller than China’s. And because New Delhi has to contend with two major nuclear adversaries simultaneously, China and Pakistan, both of which are expanding their nuclear forces, it is not surprising that New Delhi has not yet terminated its weapons-related fissile material production.

During early discussions about the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty in Geneva, Indian diplomats indicated that India would be ready to stop producing fissile materials for weapons as soon as a global cutoff came into force—on the condition that New Delhi would not have to reveal its past stockpile.111 This caveat suggested that India believed then that it would have had enough material for its weapon program by the time a treaty came into force. Although the universal termination of fissile materials production for weapons is nowhere in sight today, it does imply that New Delhi concluded about twenty years ago that a “small” nuclear inventory of perhaps 100–150 weapons would suffice for its deterrent—if it is assumed that India had enough material for about fifty weapons in 1998 and that the global termination of fissile materials was possible within the next two decades.112

Whether this judgment holds today is unclear, but the slow pace of producing weapons-grade fissile materials in India even now is striking. This is all the more remarkable because India possesses a large nuclear infrastructure, but this capability is predominately focused on power generation and other civilian applications of nuclear energy. Weapons production remains largely secondary (despite occasional allegations to the contrary113). India currently operates twenty-three nuclear power reactors, with another seven under construction, and many more either announced or approved. Nineteen of the operational units are pressurized heavy water reactors, using natural uranium as fuel and capable of producing plutonium as a byproduct; the remaining four operational reactors are boiling water and pressurized water reactors, which use low-enriched uranium as fuel and are not significant sources of plutonium.114 Of the twenty-three operational reactors, fifteen units are under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and, consequently, the pressurized heavy water reactors within that subset do not produce plutonium for India’s weapons program.115

The other eight reactors, which India kept outside of safeguards after the conclusion of the U.S.-India civil nuclear cooperation agreement, can in principle be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium. As discussions during the civil nuclear agreement indicated, however, the spent fuel from these reactors was intended as feedstock for India’s future breeder reactors, which compose the second stage of Homi Bhabha’s three-stage plan. The first of these, the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR), has been constructed and is likely to be commissioned in 2022, though the schedule for commissioning has slipped steadily in the past.116 If India chooses to use this PFBR to produce plutonium for its weapons program, rather than using it to breed more plutonium for the additional breeder reactors envisaged by the three-stage plan, India could rapidly expand its stockpile of WGPu at far higher rates than have been the norm historically.117 Indian policymakers traditionally disavowed such intentions. In fact, as part of the civil nuclear agreement, they negotiated a reprocessing agreement with the United States on the calculation that the future fuel imports for their power as well as their breeder reactors would be used entirely for power production rather than nuclear weapons.

Thus, although India could use the eight power reactors currently outside of safeguards to produce large quantities of WGPu, it has chosen not to do so.118 It is likely that India produced some WGPu in its power reactors in the past, but this experimental effort seems to have been driven largely by the desire to test India’s capacity to accelerate the production of weapons-grade materials should a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty suddenly appear to be on the cusp of a rapid conclusion.119 Today, these pressures have abated. Although India can use its unsafeguarded pressurized heavy water reactors to produce WGPu in copious quantities,120 avoiding the costs associated with the increased fuel requirements as well as minimizing the wear and tear on the refueling machines when these reactors operate in a low-burnup mode will likely deter India from using its power reactors for this purpose—given the tight fiscal margins that the power program operates on and its continuing focus primarily on electricity production. The quantity of WGPu produced in India’s power reactors in the past is unknown, but it would hardly have been the dominant contributor to India’s fissile material stockpile.121 Consequently, even though India’s power reactors can produce WGPu, and do so naturally as their fuel loadings begin their initial burnup, New Delhi has continued its traditional practice of producing plutonium for its weapons principally from its research reactors: the 40-megawatt (MW) CIRUS reactor that operated from 1954 until 2010 and the still operational 100-megawatt Dhruva, which went critical in 1985 and is likely to remain in service at least until 2025 (if not longer).

Prior to the 1998 tests, India is believed to have produced 12–16 kilograms of WGPu annually from both these research reactors.122 The lower bound of this range was probably the more accurate figure; one well-informed Indian source noted that, given the two reactors’ capacity factors at the time, the CIRUS produced 4 kilograms and the Dhruva 8 kilograms of WGPu each year.123 After the 1998 tests, when India set out to overtly build its nuclear deterrent, the annual production rate likely increased, but the retirement of the CIRUS reactor in 2010 left the Dhruva with the principal burden of India’s continuing production of WGPu. Assuming capacity factors of between 65 and 75 percent, the Dhruva reactor produces 16–20 kilograms of WGPu annually—clearly an improvement over India’s historical rate of accumulation but nowhere near the vast acceleration that the critics of the U.S.-Indian civil nuclear cooperation agreement often feared.124

The best available data suggest that whatever the annual rate of increase may have been, India’s fissile material stockpile in 2020 consisted of 450–750 kilograms of WGPu.125 (One other authority claimed, more improbably, that India could have possessed as much as 850 kilograms of WGPu in 2014.126) Although these figures involve a substantial range—given the inherent uncertainties about India’s production efficiencies—they do suggest that the Indian WGPu inventory derives mainly from the output of its research reactors because these totals would be dramatically larger if India’s power reactors had been committed to the production of WGPu since the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal. If India’s fission weapons are assumed to use about 6 kilograms of plutonium-239—a crude but not unrealistic assumption127—a fissile materials inventory of this size would yield a stockpile of some 75–125 weapons. If the same amount of plutonium-239 was used in the primary of India’s thermonuclear weapons, the number of weapons that could be produced would be smaller still since the “spark plug” would require additional plutonium beyond that used in the primary.

If India continues to add another 20 kilograms of WGPu to its stockpile annually for the next ten years, it could enlarge its total inventory of WGPu to some 630–930 kilograms by 2030. This would enable it to have a warhead stockpile of about 105–155 simple fission weapons or a smaller number of thermonuclear equivalents. Even if it were assumed that India did possess 850 kilograms of WGPu in 2014, its stockpile growing at the higher-end rate of some 20 kilograms annually would consist of some 1,170 kilograms of WGPu by 2030. This would enable New Delhi to produce about 195 simple fission weapons (at 6 kilograms of WGPu per device), or a somewhat smaller number of thermonuclear devices depending on how much additional plutonium was required for the spark plug. A comparison would, therefore, suggest that the largest number of weapons that India may be expected to have in 2030 would still be smaller than the size of the current Chinese nuclear inventory, if the 2019 estimation of its being in the low 200s is correct. If the current Chinese nuclear inventory consists of some 350 warheads—as is entirely probable—then Beijing will continue to possess numerical superiority over India’s nuclear forces even more resolutely, in addition to the advantages it already enjoys in terms of the sophistication and the yield of its weapons.

Obviously, India could erase this Chinese numerical superiority quickly if it began to produce WGPu in its power reactors, and it could erode China’s qualitative advantages as well were New Delhi to resume nuclear testing. Whether current Chinese nuclear advantages produce political benefits for Beijing is a different matter; Indian policymakers do not appear to believe that their smaller and less sophisticated nuclear force makes much of a difference vis-à-vis China in the real world of politics today. Their military planners, however, may judge otherwise. Yet whatever their assessments may be, both arms of the Indian state will have to live with the weapons they have, while waiting for an opportunity for New Delhi to resume nuclear testing when circumstances permit.

The crude calculations above help to illustrate the size of India’s minimum deterrent on the assumption that India will persist with its current practice of using mainly its research reactor(s) for producing weapons-grade materials. Even if it does so, there is no assurance that India will machine all its available fissile material into useable warheads. In the past, India maintained a much larger stockpile of weapons-grade materials than it had warheads. Assessing its “actual” number of weapons, therefore, requires correlating the quantity of available WGPu with the number of delivery systems. Since the quantity of gravity bombs that India currently possesses is unknown but is unlikely to be growing significantly, the small numbers of missiles deployed today (plus the few score bombs already built) suggest that the total Indian deterrent is still modest. The small but slowly increasing number of delivery systems implies that New Delhi will likely continue the practice of maintaining a much larger inventory of weapons-grade materials than it does weapons, something that is likely to persist even if, or after, India finally terminates the production of fissile materials.

Although the discussion thus far has focused entirely on WGPu because of its desirability as a fissile material, India also possesses reactor-grade plutonium and HEU that could be used in its nuclear weapons. The large Indian civilian nuclear power program that has been underway for decades has bequeathed the country with a huge stockpile of reactor-grade plutonium. Given the number of Indian power reactors that have been operational since the program’s inception, it is reasonable to expect that New Delhi’s reactor-grade plutonium inventory must consist of several tens of thousands of kilograms, with the largest fraction deriving from unsafeguarded reactors because almost all of India’s nuclear power plants were unsafeguarded prior to the U.S.-India civil nuclear cooperation agreement.128

Consistent with this expectation, David Albright and Serena Kelleher-Vergantini calculated that New Delhi possessed close to 32,000 kilograms at the end of 2014, a stockpile that has obviously grown larger since.129 Most of this reactor-grade plutonium resides in spent fuel discharged from India’s power reactors and is largely unseparated. India traditionally had rather limited plutonium separation capabilities and its plants rarely operated at full capacity. They may explain partly why India has not aggressively pursued plutonium separation from its spent reactor fuel, but the fact that India’s PFBR—for which the reactor-grade plutonium is intended—has taken so long to come online probably better explains the languid pace of reprocessing. Since India’s ambitious three-stage plan envisages several breeder reactors being built over time, the bulk of the reactor-grade plutonium currently contained in India’s spent fuel is intended to fuel these units when they are finally constructed. Because these follow-on reactors are nowhere in sight, the need to separate all the plutonium in India’s spent fuel is not particularly urgent. The International Panel on Fissile Materials has estimated that India’s stockpile of separated reactor-grade plutonium consisted of anywhere between 4,300 and 11,300 kilograms in 2020.130

The question of whether this separated reactor-grade plutonium could be used to expand India’s nuclear weapons inventory thus remains. This is an issue of some significance because the unique properties of plutonium make even its reactor-grade variant, which has a higher proportion of the undesirable plutonium-240 isotope, useable in a nuclear weapon.131 Since India already has large quantities of reactor-grade plutonium, New Delhi could, in principle, therefore rapidly expand its weapons stockpile by using this material as a supplement, or even as a substitute, for weapons-grade plutonium in both its fission and its boosted-fission designs. Reactor-grade plutonium could also be used in the secondary stage of India’s thermonuclear weapons, substituting in part for other materials in the pusher/tamper.132

Although it is likely that India has explored such possibilities either out of experimental inquisitiveness or in support of contingency planning for a rapid expansion of the weapons inventory, it is doubtful that reactor-grade plutonium would ever become the primary solution for expanding India’s weapons stockpile. India is alleged to have experimented with reactor-grade plutonium for weapons during the 1998 nuclear tests.133 But it could not become the preferred material for India’s nuclear weapons given its current device designs. Simple fission weapons that use reactor-grade plutonium in lieu of weapons-grade plutonium can overcome the problems of preinitiation—the threat of “a divergent chain reaction just as the nuclear core becomes critical”134—as well as the difficulties created by increased heat and radiation either by reducing the amount of reactor-grade plutonium used in the pit or by relying on fast assembling designs to limit the chances of a pre-detonation.135 India is capable of exploiting both these pathways in its present fission weapon designs, but it appears that employing reactor-grade plutonium of the kind produced in India’s Canada Deuterium Uranium (CANDU)–type reactors would have the highest probability of producing yields of mostly between 1 and 5 kilotons, with progressively lower probabilities of producing yields that approach the 20 kilotons demonstrated in the fission weapon used at Nagasaki.136

These results indicate why utilizing reactor-grade plutonium as the primary solution for expanding its arsenal would not be an attractive option for India: it would require New Delhi to bear the extra costs of producing both the firing sets required by the additional weapons and their associated delivery systems for what would be only subpar increases in lethality. The biggest technical constraint that currently confronts India’s nuclear strategy of deterrence by punishment is the small yields of its existing weapons. Enlarging the nuclear inventory with more even smaller-yield devices does little to correct the biggest visible deficiency that presently afflicts its nuclear arsenal. Of course, the pre-initiation risks of reactor-grade plutonium could be circumvented by utilizing it in boosted weapon designs: such devices can produce yields that are comparable to those using weapons-grade plutonium and, in fact, much bigger yields than the ~12 kilotons produced by India’s fission weapon in the 1998 tests.137 Thus far, however, India has not demonstrated a capacity for successful boosting if the evidence from its last test series is anything to go by (an issue discussed further below). Consequently, utilizing reactor-grade plutonium in its boosted weapons is risky in the absence of further hot testing.

If the opportunities for field testing were available, India could validate all its device designs that use reactor-grade plutonium to produce more substantial yields, including by boosting. In their absence, though, only WGPu can confidently generate the higher and more reliable yields sought by Indian designers. It is possible that blending some reactor-grade plutonium into the weapons-grade variant would marginally enlarge the Indian weapons inventory, but if inventory expansion was the goal, India would clearly be better off increasing its production of WGPu by also utilizing its unsafeguarded power reactors if necessary. The bottom line, therefore, is that the large quantities of reactor-grade plutonium that India possesses are best reserved for fueling its breeder reactors as India currently intends, rather than by using it for weapons where its benefits are either meager or uncertain.

In fact, given the priority that the breeders enjoy in the Indian nuclear power program, New Delhi is unlikely to conceive of its reactor-grade materials as being useful primarily for its weapons program where they would serve to produce admittedly more nuclear weapons but of questionable yield in the absence of field testing. Because the quantities of reactor-grade plutonium used in weapons, however, are minuscule compared to the quantities required to fuel India’s breeder reactors, it is possible that New Delhi’s weapon designers will find some use for reactor-grade plutonium in its existing devices. But their driving calculation cannot be expanding the size of the inventory, given the ease with which they can produce large amounts of weapons-grade plutonium in their power reactors.138 Rather, the utilization of reactor-grade plutonium would be most likely spurred by design curiosity and could find its greatest utility in some of India’s boosted-fission weapons or in the secondaries of its thermonuclear devices.

India is also unlikely to use its inventory of enriched uranium for expanding its weapons stockpile. Although it has operated a large centrifuge facility called the Rare Materials Project (or more colloquially the Mysore Rare Materials Plant) at Rattehalli since 1990, this plant was dogged by technical difficulties for many years.139 Unlike Pakistan, which moved quickly to invest in uranium centrifuge technology after the return of A. Q. Khan from the Netherlands in the early 1970s, India ignored enriched uranium production because it did not fit into Bhabha’s three-stage plan. The Rare Materials Plant, therefore, began as an experimental effort, suffering many hiccups along the way, but more recently has shifted to industrial scale enrichment. The bulk of the enriched uranium produced at Rattehalli is LEU with concentrations of less than 20 percent of U-235 and is intended primarily to fuel India’s current and planned nuclear submarines.140 Beyond this defense-related need, India has also used the Rare Materials Plant to produce different grades of enriched uranium for research purposes as well as for experimenting with alternative fuels for its civilian pressurized water reactors. India currently is constructing a new gas enrichment facility at Chitradurga in southern India, but this plant is intended to produce LEU as fuel for the new civilian light water reactors that India plans to import as supplements to the pressurized heavy water reactors that otherwise constitute the mainstay of its power program.141

None of India’s nuclear weapon designs employ enriched uranium as a fissile material and hence the production of highly enriched uranium for weapons, that is, uranium with a concentration of greater than 90 percent of U-235, does not enjoy priority in Indian strategic planning.142 Consequently, the claim advanced by the International Panel on Fissile Materials that India has between 3,800 and 6,600 kilograms of HEU must be understood appropriately.143 Although this inventory apparently consists of uranium that is enriched to between 30-45 percent—and is thus technically HEU—it is highly unlikely that such uranium would be used in a nuclear weapon. More importantly, though, both the quantity of HEU that India supposedly possesses and the level of enrichment characterizing this stockpile are highly speculative. They derive from uncorroborated presumptions about the number of centrifuges present at the Rare Materials Plant, their separative efficiency, and their duration of operation, none of which can be discerned with any confidence from the outside. India’s uranium enrichment capabilities are undoubtedly expanding, with New Delhi investing in more or larger facilities, but there is no evidence that it is concentrating on the production of HEU at the enrichment levels required for its use in nuclear weapons. For all practical purposes, therefore—and despite some claims to the contrary144—India’s enriched uranium stockpile can be excluded as irrelevant to the expansion of its nuclear weapons inventory.

Obviously, India continues to produce other materials relevant to its weapons program such as deuterium-tritium, lithium deuteride, beryllium and polonium, but whether it has overcome the traditional constraints on the production of some of these materials is unclear.145 If it has not, the large numbers of nuclear weapons that India could hypothetically produce, including through its power reactors, become even more notional. Any constraints, for example, on lithium enrichment would affect the ability to produce thermonuclear weapons, even if large quantities of WGPu are otherwise available. Because India persists in its conviction that a huge nuclear arsenal is unnecessary for deterrence, the smaller quantities of special materials necessary for nuclear weapons likely remain within reach. At any rate, the expansion of India’s nuclear estate has in general been slow. For example, India has not yet begun constructing the new research reactor that was supposed to replace the Dhruva, which will have been operational for forty years in 2025.146 The reliance on reactor life extension, coupled with the continuing focus on a minimum deterrent, will end up with India making do with what it has or at best settling for marginal solutions until such time as additional research reactors are constructed either at Trombay or more likely as planned at Vishakhapatnam on India’s eastern coast.147 The scale of India’s fissile material production for weapons thus far suggests that New Delhi genuinely believes that its modest deterrent will be ipso facto credible even at low force levels as long as its weapons are survivable. The quality of India’s nuclear device designs also seems to be compatible with this belief.

Nuclear Weapon Designs

Unlike China, which raced through the transformation of its nuclear device designs, moving from simple fission to boosted to thermonuclear weapons within a space of some three years, India’s nuclear weapons designs have been at best in slow evolution. India’s first nuclear test in 1974 was fundamentally a science experiment: it involved a huge fission device that lacked the portability to serve as a weapon. Built around an implosion system that incorporated a solid sphere of 6 or more kilograms of Pu-239 with a polonium initiator and high explosive lenses, it was a primitive device by the standards of modern nuclear weaponry but would serve as the archetype for the most reliable Indian nuclear weapons even today. The 1974 test was advertised by the Indian atomic energy establishment as producing a yield of 12 kilotons, but in actuality it was far lower, producing probably somewhere between 2 and 4 kilotons at best.148

During the 1980s, when the Indian weapons program was restarted after a political hiatus, this fission design was improved to reduce weight and incorporate better firing sets; by the mid-1990s, it resulted in more variants that also incorporated different kinds of levitated pits.149 The fission weapon was one of the two designs tested in 1998: it produced the bulk of the yield detected in that test, which has been judged by the most reliable estimates at coming in somewhere between 9 and 16 kilotons (with the mean estimate set at approximately 12 kilotons).150 Since the fission weapon tested in 1998 was ostensibly from the stockpile, it can be concluded that it remains India’s most reliable weapon and is capable of producing a yield of ~12 kilotons at most. This maximum attributed yield of ~12 kilotons derives from the assumption that the thermonuclear device, which was also tested simultaneously, produced no meaningful yield whatsoever. If it is assumed, however, that the thermonuclear device produced a fizzle yield of somewhere between 2 and 8 kilotons, then the fission weapon’s yield would be even lower, coming in at anywhere between 4 and 10 kilotons. Whatever the specific yield of the fission weapon therefore actually was, the range of possibilities only confirms that India’s most dependable nuclear weapon has relatively low explosive power and could be even smaller than the early nuclear weapons used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.151 All the same, this design, which was first configured for aircraft-delivered gravity bombs, has spawned variants that equip other delivery systems now present in the Indian armory.

Some variants of this evolved design are probably boosted to produce larger yields notionally, but even these weapons hardly represent the state of the art today. Given the failure of the boosted-fission primary during the 1998 test, they must still be considered unproven. India has pursued the development of boosted weapons since the 1980s, driven, at least partly, by the desire for enhanced yields and to reduce the weight of its physics packages.152 Successful boosting would also have enabled India to utilize supplementary fissile materials such as reactor-grade plutonium in its basic fission design without sacrificing yield. At any rate, the descriptions emerging after the 1998 test suggested that India did use solid lithium deuteride as the boost material in its primary, which was intended to drive the secondary stage of India’s thermonuclear device, the second weapon sought to be validated on May 11, 1998. Although Indian scientists denied it at the time, the thermonuclear device clearly failed. It is likely that this failure resulted not so much from problems in the secondary—as has been claimed153—but because the boosted-fission primary failed to produce the double-digit yield necessary to drive the fusion reactions in the second stage.

There could have been many reasons why this boosted-fission primary fizzled, but the description offered by one source provides an important clue: If the Indian primary “use[d] solid fuel in the form of lithium deuteride (LiD) to produce tritium in situ,” on the assumption that this approach “is used in most current fusion weapon designs,”154 the failure to boost would, in this instance, have derived from a poor understanding of the limits of lithium deuteride itself. Successful solid boosting, which is challenging in any case compared to gas boosting, requires not simply lithium deuteride but rather lithium deuteride-tritide as fuel; in the case of gas boosting, “deuterium and tritium gas are present in the hollow plutonium shell at the time of implosion,”155 because, as Gregory S. Jones has pointed out, “whatever the form [of boosting involved], tritium is an essential component, since at low energies the DT [deuterium-tritium] fusion cross section is about one hundred times larger than the DD [deuterium-deuterium] cross section.”156 This is one more example where India’s lack of extensive prior nuclear testing may have prevented it from overcoming the design challenges that other nuclear powers have surmounted by repeated experimentation.

It is unclear what proportion of India’s current warheads are boosted-fission devices, but how New Delhi could have confidence in the reliability and effectiveness of these weapons, given the failure in 1998, is not obvious. No doubt, India’s weapon designers have been hard at work since their last nuclear tests, and it is likely that they have focused both on correcting the problems associated with their solid boosted-fission designs and on incorporating gas boosting in their newer primaries. In the absence of demonstrated success through hot testing, however, India cannot be justifiably credited with possessing such capabilities, even though some Indian scholars have all too glibly contended that the 1998 tests had already proven that the country possessed “an effective “tritium-boosted” fission design of 40 kilotons as the primary for a fusion weapon.”157 If such yields had, in fact, been attained, it is possible that the Indian thermonuclear test might have been successful, but the combined yield of all three nuclear tests conducted on May 11, 1998, was way below the yield supposedly produced by the boosted-fission primary alone.

The skepticism about the effectiveness of India’s boosted-fission weapon extends a fortiori to the third type of device in the armory: the two-stage thermonuclear weapon. Because the first stage of this device sputtered during the 1998 test, it could not drive the second stage appropriately—irrespective of whether this stage contained all the thermonuclear material required along with the appropriate spark plug or merely a small test capsule as a substitute.158 The reports emerging after 1998 indicated that the thermonuclear device had a complete secondary even though the limited depth of the test shafts prevented Indian designers from testing it to the maximum yield that the design theoretically permitted. In any event, and even if this device was only a “weaponizable design” but not a weapon then existing in the stockpile, it has been widely judged to have been a failure.159 This has not prevented India’s nuclear scientists and other Indian commentators, however, from claiming that New Delhi can build thermonuclear weapons of yields “up to 200 kilotons without any problem.”160 Sometimes even higher yields—of 200–500 kilotons161—are alleged to lie well within India’s capacity, despite the fact that the specifics of India’s thermonuclear design are unclear nor have such yields been experimentally demonstrated.

In any case, since the first decade of this century, India proceeded to fabricate thermonuclear weapons that were intended to arm both the missiles and the air-delivered systems in the Indian deterrent.162 Whether Indian nuclear scientists were able to discern and subsequently rectify their design errors or whether they were inducting their thermonuclear devices mainly on the strength of corroboration provided by computer simulations is not known. India has a very sparse history of testing nuclear weapons—six tests, at most, since 1974—and, hence, it certainly does not possess the design codes to either validate or improve its weapons, especially its staged designs, without further hot testing. China, in contrast, has undertaken forty-seven nuclear tests of multiple device designs with clearly demonstrated high yields unlike India.

Consequently, the credibility of India’s thermonuclear weapons is still suspect, even if Indian nuclear planners have proceeded to introduce these unproven devices into their arsenal.163 It is not surprising, therefore, that late in 2009, a group of senior Indian nuclear scientists, including many who were actively involved in the weapons program, called upon their government to conduct an “in-depth analysis of our real capabilities,” given “the grave situation we are in regarding our Thermonuclear (H-bomb) capability,” with an eye to undertaking “resolute, speedy and comprehensive corrective action.”164 When India’s primary nuclear threat consisted of Pakistan alone, unreliable thermonuclear devices in the inventory may not have had serious consequences—but when China has emerged as a daunting strategic danger, persisting with the deployment of these defective warheads is a risky proposition. In fact, the best thing that India could do would be to withdraw its thermonuclear weapons from the active stockpile and replace them with its more reliable fission devices, while waiting for the opportunity to return to hot testing in order to demonstrably validate its advanced nuclear designs. After all, nothing could be worse for India’s security and credibility than employing faulty thermonuclear weapons in extremis that not only fail to inflict the punishment desired but also subsequently leave the country open to even greater intimidation.

The developments pertaining to India’s nuclear device designs leading up to and beyond the 1998 tests thus confirm the impression that while New Delhi has pushed the envelope where civilian nuclear science endeavors are concerned, the sophistication of its weapons design base has lagged in comparison. In large measure, this is because both the Indian state and its nuclear community have not prioritized weapons development in the face of their still significant deficits in hydrodynamics expertise. They have been satisfied with the absolute power of nuclear weapons rather than pursuing cutting-edge sophistication in their weapons designs.165 To the degree that they have pursued improvements, these have been focused mainly on improving the firing sets and the permissive action links on their nuclear weapons. This is eminently sensible because, assuming that the survivability of their fission weapons is not at issue, ensuring their reliability and preventing their unauthorized use advances effective deterrence.

As a complement to these efforts, India has also focused on increasing its weapon yields, which explains the continuing quest for thermonuclear capabilities. These higher-yield devices, with their “one-bomb, one-city” destructive potential, have been sought primarily because they make deterrence possible at relatively low force levels. But more significantly, India has not gone in the opposite direction: consciously designing and building highly portable, low-yield, tactical nuclear weapons for general warfighting because of the view “that a nuke is a nuke and the use of even a tactical one is a strategic strike.”166 This, too, is entirely a consequence of its convictions about nuclear weapons being political instruments.

International nonproliferation pressures, however, have prevented India from testing its nuclear weapons repeatedly to validate those design characteristics that strengthen New Delhi’s capacity to maintain the smallest possible deterrent. Consequently, the yield of its weapons, their reliability under operational (as opposed to test) conditions, and even their safety in a field environment all remain open questions.

The variable quality of Indian manufacturing, including the techniques used to fabricate its weapons, and the risks associated with the chemical explosives used in the implosion assemblies exacerbate problems that are inherent even in simpler designs. Unlike Pakistan’s nuclear devices, most of which are designed to incorporate insertable pits for reasons of both safety and security, India’s nuclear weapons are “sealed pit warheads” that are intended to “reduce the size and weight of [the payloads], which is important for land-mobile missiles, and even more so for SLBMs—India’s two chosen modes for missile deployment.”167 Although in such designs, “nuclear safety is achieved by finely balancing the quantities of fissile and [high explosive] materials so that nuclear yield would not result if the triggering assembly accidentally ignites,”168 this benefit does not obtain in the Indian case because its nuclear weapons utilize hexamine nitramene (HMX) as the high explosive, which “has a very high detonation velocity.”169 Although HMX-based explosives and their derivatives make India’s (and Pakistan’s) nuclear weapons smaller and lighter, their use indicates that “neither country may have adopted either insensitive high explosive or fire resistant pits,”170 thus leading one scholar to correctly conclude that, in the quest to avoid weight and size penalties, neither Indian nor Pakistani nuclear weapons are one-point safe; as such, “if they are deployed, there may be a risk of accidental detonation.”171

A lengthier nuclear testing regime would have helped India address such issues systematically. This would have included exploring the incorporation of low adjustable-detonation-velocity plastic-bonded explosives or other advanced materials such as 1,3,5-triamino-2,4,6-trinitrobenzene (TATB) as the high explosive charge in its nuclear weapons. TATB has been described as a material “whose thermal and shock stability is considerably greater than that of any other known material of comparable energy”172 and is used, for example, in British nuclear weapons. Additional hot testing would also have enabled India to experiment with other alternative physics packages that could be better than those utilized in its current device designs. However, political constraints have denied New Delhi this freedom.173

Even if the benefits of larger yields cannot be realized immediately because of these constraints, the challenges relating to safety can be mitigated, however, by procedural solutions: sequestering the pit from its high explosive detonators, as India initially intended when the early models of its force-in-being were devised, offers one way out at least in peacetime. Alternatively, the physics packages can be maintained completely within the warhead containers without the latter being inserted into the delivery system until the alerting process requires their full integration. As the degrees of separation between various components of the Indian nuclear force diminish, however—a development driven by the desire to bring to full readiness at least a few nuclear weapons quickly to enable speedier retaliation—the risk of accidents, including detonations, only increases, especially when field dispersal of land-based missiles encounters hostile conditions, particularly shock, that could adversely impact the warhead. Only a diverse and extensive test regime can thus produce weapons that satisfy the desire for reliable high yields and enhanced safety simultaneously.174

Only a diverse and extensive test regime can produce weapons that satisfy the desire for reliable high yields and enhanced safety simultaneously.

Since India cannot avail itself of such an advantage currently, it appears to have settled for building enough weapons as are necessary for a small but slowly growing force, while waiting for the chance to return to nuclear testing when renewed opportunities—perhaps provoked by resumed testing by others—present themselves. Until that time, New Delhi must make do with a stockpile consisting of a few types of low-yield fission weapons largely capable of producing ~12-kiloton yields, although yields of 20–30 kilotons, 90–150 kilotons, and even as much as 300 kilotons have more improbably been asserted.175 Indian scientists have also rather confidently claimed that their thermonuclear design can produce an assured yield of up to 200 kilotons, but these assertions, too, are unfortunately utterly at variance with what has been demonstrated.

None of this, however, seems to faze Indian policymakers because of their conviction that effective nuclear deterrence does not depend on the technical sophistication of a nuclear weapon or even the presence of high yields (especially if an adversary cannot be sure what the yields of India’s weapons might be in the first place). To be sure, high-yield weapons would be preferable if these could be obtained without undermining other national interests, but until the point when India develops and demonstrates these capabilities publicly, low-yield weapons will have to suffice. At the end of the day, as K. Subrahmanyam and V. S. Arunachalam—reflecting the dominant views of Indian policymakers—have argued, “nuclear deterrence is essentially a mind game. A potential aggressor will be deterred if he is persuaded that the nuclear retaliation that will be delivered by the survivable nuclear force of the victim will cause unacceptable damage, totally incommensurate with any strategic, political, economic or any other objective that drives him to go for the first strike.” Consequently, India’s “small” nuclear weapons are deemed to be effective because “even with 25 kiloton fission bombs, the damages [that India can inflict] are going to be far more and extensive than what Hiroshima and Nagasaki suffered given the higher population densities in the cities of China and South Asia and the urban development of recent years. Therefore, the Indian deterrent posture will not lose its credibility if India is compelled to rely on fission weapons only.”176

India’s Evolving Delivery Systems

Within these constraints, India has continued to modernize and expand its nuclear delivery systems to service multiple goals. Increasing its retaliatory reach to target distant high value centers, especially in northeastern China, has driven the pursuit of progressively longer-ranged delivery systems, especially missiles, in the Indian arsenal. New Delhi has also been compelled to look for solutions that could partly compensate for the yield limitations of its nuclear devices: possibly increasing either the number of missiles or, eventually, the number of warheads on certain strategic missiles to allow India to inflict higher levels of punishment despite the presence of low-yield and possibly unreliable warheads. India has also focused on improving the technical quality of its missile systems by incorporating composite materials in its airframes, better heat shields and guidance systems in its reentry vehicles, and, with an eye to the future, developing different kinds of penetration aids as well as hypersonic glide vehicles to ensure that its missiles can reach their targets despite any adversary attempts at intercepting them. Finally, the slow expansion of the nuclear force is intended to increase the survivability of the deterrent as a whole. This objective has taken India toward greater diversity in delivery systems: it is now concentrating on building a genuine triad (Figure 3) because of its conviction that submarine-based nuclear weapons are not only the most survivable elements of the deterrent but also could potentially reduce the damage that India would suffer if its opponent executes counterforce attacks in war.

Air Systems

Although India has moved systematically toward longer-ranged land-based missiles in recent years (with long-ranged sea-based missiles also on the horizon), New Delhi still retains a significant inventory of air-delivered nuclear weapons. The air-breathing leg of the force, originally consisting of Mirage 2000 and Jaguar fighters, is not simply a legacy component. Admittedly, it was developed mainly to deter Pakistan on the assumption that India would enjoy sufficient air superiority to make penetrating retaliatory missions viable.177 If Indian nuclear use materialized toward the end of a high intensity conventional war, this presumption would likely have proven correct because the Pakistani air defense net would have been sufficiently degraded by then. Retaliatory operations earlier in a conventional campaign, however, could prove more taxing on Indian Air Force (IAF) resources, especially if the estimates that India would need about sixty aircraft for the success of each mission are true.178 Even if this number seems unduly high, India’s punitive strike at Balakot in 2019 demonstrated that numerous aircraft are, in fact, required to support relative small strike operations, thus making the challenge of successfully completing any air-delivered nuclear retaliation quite significant early in a conflict.

Given such burdens, India has pursued supplemental alternatives to gravity bombs, though the latter remain prominent in the Indian stockpile. Consistent with the judgment offered by one Indian scholar, the late Gurmeet Kanwal, that “aircraft carrying nuclear glide bombs are also essential” for the success of India’s air-breathing leg,179 the DRDO has developed two different systems, the 30-kilometer-range Garuda and the 100-kilometer-range Garuthma.180 Both glide bombs carry a 1,000-kilogram payload, which would suffice to deliver India’s nuclear weapons, an intention clearly suggested by the intimate involvement of the Terminal Ballistics Research Laboratory and the Research Center Imarat in their development.181 The ability to deliver nuclear weapons through standoff systems gives the IAF’s penetration mission an increased probability of success even in the early stages of a war when an adversary’s integrated air defenses may not have been fully suppressed.

That the air force takes this role seriously is further corroborated by the fact that it has now allocated its most formidable strike-fighter, the Su-30MKI, to the nuclear delivery mission, whether that involves carrying gravity or glide bombs. The number of combat aircraft earmarked for this purpose is unknown, but Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda plausibly suggest that close to one-third of India’s current nuclear weapons inventory is allocated to air-breathing delivery systems such as the Mirage 2000 and Jaguar aircraft (though, curiously, the Su-30MKIs are not identified by them for this mission).182 Yogesh Joshi and Frank O’Donnell have reported that India has assigned one squadron of Mirage 2000s, two squadrons of Jaguars, and forty Su-30MKIs for the nuclear role. In another study, O’Donnell and Alexander Bollfrass suggested that some two squadrons of Jaguars and one squadron of Mirage 2000s have been certified for nuclear missions. If true, India will have reserved some fifty-odd aircraft for the nuclear delivery role.183 Whatever the precise numbers may be, the Jaguar is unlikely to have a nuclear role anymore except in emergencies; this mission today and for the foreseeable future is likely to be executed principally by the Mirage 2000 and the Su-30MKI because their sophisticated self-protection suites, advanced avionics and defensive weapons, aerial refueling capability, and basing locations in proximity to India’s nuclear weapons storage sites all combine to make them best suited for the nuclear retaliatory mission.

Land Systems

Although the numbers of both nuclear warheads and nuclear-certified aircraft found in the literature are speculative, they do confirm the importance that air-delivered nuclear weapons still enjoy in India. The missile force, however, is where the future of the Indian deterrent lies because of the benefits it bestows in range, penetrativity, and likely pre-launch survivability. The earliest Indian missile delivery system, the Indian Army’s 150-kilometer-ranged liquid-fueled Prithvi-I short-range ballistic missile (SRBM), has now been retired from service. Its somewhat-longer-ranged sibling, the 350-kilometer liquid-fueled Prithvi-II, still remains in the force with nuclear and conventional roles. Some thirty of these missiles are purportedly equipped with nuclear warheads, although their overall number is obviously larger.184 Because liquid-fueled missiles are cumbersome to operate, India moved to supplement its Prithvi series with solid-fueled systems and the 700-kilometer single-stage solid-fueled Agni-I came to serve as the main short-range nuclear-tipped missile designed for retaliatory operations against Pakistan. The Agni-I’s longer range allows it to be deployed farther in the rear—unlike the Prithvi, which has to operate closer to the India-Pakistan border—and the smaller number of vehicles in its ground support train further enhance its survivability.

For reasons that are not completely clear, India appears to have had reliability problems with the Agni-I missile, but whether these are connected to the missile’s solid rocket motor—the DRDO has had a history of difficulties with casting solid rockets—or its other ground support elements is uncertain.185 At any rate, it is likely that both the Prithvi-II and the Agni-I missile will be progressively retired from the Indian inventory during this decade and will be replaced by the new 1,500-kilometer, two-stage, solid-fuel Agni-IP medium-range ballistic missile, which, like its predecessors, will be road mobile as well.186 The Agni-IP is one of a new class of canisterized Indian missiles, which have been designed for greater reliability, responsiveness, and operational flexibility. Utilizing new composites and a better guidance and control system, it will be the lightest and most accurate ballistic missile in the Indian arsenal when operational.187 The fact that the Agni-IP is canisterized—meaning that it is routinely stored in an enclosed, temperature-regulated, launch tube carried by a transporter-erector-launcher (or a mobile-erector-launcher)—coupled with its higher accuracy (an ambitious CEP of 10 meters has been suggested), has given rise to widespread speculation that these missiles will not only be “stored with their warheads in peacetime” but also that they would be oriented toward counterforce targeting and, accordingly, deployed in “a strike posture that leaves an opponent with short warning times.”188

This mythology has been endlessly repeated in recent times, but as the discussion on India’s nuclear posture later in this chapter will clarify, these claims misunderstand both the intent and the nature of canisterization. The discussion in Chapter 4 demonstrates further that even more accurate missiles, such as the Agni-IP (assuming that it does achieve the small CEP attributed to it), are unlikely to be able to execute the damage-limiting attacks that Western critics of India’s supposed shift toward counterforce often fear.

In any event, while missiles like the Agni-I and Agni-IP will find primary utility vis-à-vis Pakistan, India has concentrated on developing even longer-ranged solid-fueled missiles for deterrence against China. These include the Agni-II, India’s first MRBM with a range of up to 2,000 kilometers, and the Agni-III IRBM, capable of reaching up to perhaps 3,500 kilometers. Both the Agni-II and Agni-III are rail-mobile systems and were intended to carry India’s thermonuclear weapons. The range of the Agni-II makes it suitable for targeting Pakistan from northern and western India, while the Agni-III, despite its longer reach, has to be based (or operate) in northeastern India or its environs if it is to reach critical Chinese targets at depth.189 Although both missiles have been inducted into the Indian Army, they have been deployed thus far in relatively small numbers. Kristensen and Korda estimate that India has twelve Agni-II launchers and eight Agni-III launchers in service.190 Though the number of missiles in the force could be higher, they probably consist of at most a few more missiles beyond the identified number of launchers.

Figure 4, which illustrates the evolution of India’s nuclear forces and is drawn from the IISS’s Military Balance, is subject to all the errors and uncertainties that were earlier flagged in the discussion on China. All the same, even the crude data illustrated above highlights the proposition that India has been content with a relatively modest nuclear force so long as its delivery systems are survivable. The Prithvi-II, Agni-I, and Agni-II missiles currently dominate India’s nuclear missile force, albeit in relatively small numbers. While the total size of the Indian inventory will grow over time, the Agni-II and Agni-III missiles may end up as interim systems until the even-longer-ranged Agni-IV and Agni-V enter the force in sufficient strength. The Agni-IV IRBM, with its ~3,500-kilometer range, is intended to be road mobile: it appears to have entered production, but it remains unclear whether it has been inducted into the Indian Army’s missile brigades already. Because of its range limitations, if it is intended for use against critical Chinese targets as far away as Beijing, it too will have to be based (or operate) nearer the Indian northeast. The road-mobile, canisterized Agni-V missile, which has entered low-rate production and which the Indian Army anticipates is a few years away from formal induction into its field formations, will represent the mainstay of the long-range land-based Indian nuclear force. Its ~5,000-kilometer range will allow New Delhi to strike at distant targets even beyond Beijing from as far away as southern India. If this missile proves to be satisfactory, it could be deployed in a rail-mobile version as well; if so, it would supplement and eventually replace the Agni-III in that deployment mode.191

The Indian missile program’s activities in the aftermath of the 1998 nuclear tests indicate that India’s future long-range, land-based missile force will eventually consist solely of solid-fueled systems that are deployed in both road- and rail-mobile versions. With India’s vast road and rail network, each mode offers different kinds of flexibility where dispersal is concerned. These missiles are also likely to be based deep within the Indian landmass and their longer range would allow them to reach their preferred targets without lengthy transits to their launch points, although these pre-surveyed sites would be located some distance from their peacetime storage garrisons in order to enhance their survivability. India’s road-mobile missiles, for instance, are stored in highly secure, isolated, and protected facilities with easy road access to both their field hides and launch points. The rail-mobile missiles, on the other hand, are carried on wagons that are generally indistinguishable from the Indian freight trains used for commercial purposes. Because road- and rail-mobility is viewed as critical for the survivability of India’s long-range missile force, it is almost inevitable that most missiles that were initially designed for one form of transportability will spawn variants that are deployed in another mode.

Beyond the Agni-V—which, at ~5,000 kilometers, is India’s longest-range missile to date—New Delhi, of course, also has the capability to develop true intercontinental-ranged ballistic missiles, like China has, with ranges of 5,500 kilometers or greater. In the past, such systems were not pursued because of fears of unnerving the United States. These concerns have now abated and there has been frequent speculation that India is developing an Agni-VI missile with a range of 5,500 kilometers or greater, which would be capable of carrying three or more MIRVs.192 At the moment at least, no such weapon has appeared, perhaps because it is unnecessary. The Agni-V missile, which India carefully configured to reach just under ICBM range, provides it with both extensive reach vis-à-vis China and huge dispersal flexibility. Consequently, except for prestige and status, there is no operational necessity that justifies the deployment of an ICBM, given that India’s sole nuclear adversaries, China and Pakistan, can be more than adequately reached with IRBMs such as the Agni-V.

Since the serial production of some late-generation Indian missiles such as the Agni-IP and the Agni-V remains some time away, neither the eventual nor the stable size of India’s future missile force can be estimated right now. Much will depend on the character of the strategic environment faced by New Delhi. Yet it makes sense for India to rationalize its land-based missile force, which currently consists of diverse systems, some of which are deployed only in small numbers. A sensible long-term force can be structured on three types of canisterized missiles deployed in larger numbers: the Shaurya can serve as the road-mobile replacement for the current Prithvi-II and Agni-I short-range ballistic missiles; the Agni-IP can replace the Agni-II and be deployed in both road- and rail-mobile variants to cover the medium-range requirement; and the Agni-V, deployed in both road- and rail-mobile versions, can replace the Agni-III and Agni-IV missiles entirely in the intermediate-range class, while bestowing on New Delhi significant basing flexibility. Deploying fewer missile types would provide significant logistical and operational benefits to India.

In any event, and whatever its choices, India will likely equip some of its missiles with maneuvering reentry vehicles (MaRVs) and others possibly with multiple reentry vehicles (MRVs), to include MIRVs. The original Agni technology demonstrator program tested a maneuvering reentry vehicle,193 and it is likely that some of the new developmental systems—such as the Agni-IP, which has been tested with a MaRV payload—will be equipped with such a warhead when operational.194 If so, it would join the Agni-II missile, which already has a MaRV payload.195 Multiple independently targetable (or maneuvering) reentry vehicles would obviously help to defeat emerging Chinese ballistic missile defenses, and they would also enable India to enhance the destructiveness of its retaliatory attacks if its small-yield nuclear weapons are employed for “cookie-cutter” targeting of major countervalue targets.196 In the absence of proven high-yield thermonuclear weapons, multiple numbers of smaller nuclear warheads delivered by a single missile (or by multiple single-warhead missiles) might serve as an adequate interim substitute for purposes of deterrence.

It is highly likely that any Indian MIRV-equipped missiles in the future will be intended primarily to increase the size of the surviving fraction of the Indian nuclear deterrent and, when retaliation is at issue, to maximize the casualties that can be inflicted by distributed targeting of large soft targets rather than being used for counterforce attacks as is sometimes claimed.197 These contentions, which sound plausible in the abstract, fail to appreciate the limits of India’s nuclear capabilities and thus deduce exaggerated implications rather than the more prosaic purposes for which its multi-warhead missiles would be most useful. In any event, it is worth noting that none of India’s current ballistic missiles are armed with multiple warheads of any kind nor do their reentry vehicles possess any terminal guidance packages.

Furthermore, many claims about the accuracy of Indian missiles are highly exaggerated. For example, the Agni-V missile, India’s longest-range offensive weapon, has been declared by DRDO officials to possess “pinpoint, single-digit accuracy.”198 If such claims are taken at face value, it is easy to see why expectations of a counterforce capability might arise. But a simple comparison puts things into perspective: the most sophisticated U.S. strategic missiles intended for hard-target counterforce missions, such as the Minuteman III and the Trident D5, with their advanced inertial measurement units (supplemented in the latter by stellar correction), have accuracies that run into many tens of meters. It is unreasonable to expect that Indian guidance and control systems will do much better (at a proportional range). More to the point, however, Indian policymakers have not demanded extreme accuracies of their strategic missile systems because they have never envisaged—and still do not envisage—nuclear counterforce campaigns. One Indian analyst, even when cheering the increasing accuracy of India’s missiles, aptly summarized this perspective by noting that “for a nuclear role, very high accuracy is not required.”199 Consequently, while it is possible that Indian long-range ballistic missiles enjoy smaller CEPs than their Chinese counterparts—most of which have accuracies than run into hundreds of meters—there is no reason to believe that India’s current systems, which lack terminal guidance packages, possess accuracies in the few tens of meters to make routine counterforce operations possible.200

Finally, what also seems clear thus far is that New Delhi has shown no interest in arming its close-range ballistic missiles with nuclear weapons. Numerous Indian commentators, often aped by their Western counterparts, frequently characterize many Indian systems, such as the Pinaka, Pralay, Nirbhay, Brahmos, or Shaurya, as “nuclear capable.”201 Since the Shaurya is the land-based clone of the K-15 Sagarika submarine-based ballistic missile, it could easily carry the same nuclear warhead currently aboard the latter. The virtue of deploying another nuclear-tipped 750-kilometer-ranged land-based missile is not obvious, though it could better serve as a replacement for the Agni-I and the Prithvi-II if New Delhi seeks to maintain a short-range nuclear capability even after the Agni-IP is inducted into the force. Developing a nuclear-tipped version of an improved Brahmos or Nirbhay cruise missile would be more challenging—although possible in principle—because of the volume and weight constraints of their payload spaces. If such systems were to eventually emerge in nuclear variants, however, they would be intended principally to diversify the arsenal for enhancing survivability, defeating emerging Chinese missile defenses, and supplementing the strategic targeting coverage that is otherwise the primary responsibility of the ballistic missile force.202 Because of both the design of its warheads and its doctrinal preferences, tactical nuclear delivery systems hold little interest for India. Consequently, weapons like the Pinaka, Pralay, and Prahaar, being close-range battlefield systems, will not be equipped with nuclear warheads, leaving these so-called nuclear-capable platforms merely potentialities rather than real nuclear delivery vehicles.

Naval Systems

Unlike the land-based missile systems, which have been in slow evolution since even before the 1998 tests, the most dramatic transformation in India’s nuclear delivery capabilities has been the shift toward a submarine-based deterrent. From the beginning of its overt nuclearization, India committed itself to developing a triad.203 This commitment was not driven by any assessed vulnerability of its land-based components but rather by the conviction that a submersible nuclear force is most secure simply by definition. India, in fact, moved to operationalize a sea-based deterrent as soon as it could. The earliest effort consisted of deploying two or three nuclear-armed Prithvi-class missiles aboard each of two Sukhanya-class offshore patrol vessels.204 These ships are still operational, though their survivability in conflict is questionable because their 350-kilometer-range Dhanush missiles would bring them in close proximity to Pakistan’s shores. Their small fission warheads would also not add much to the firepower already present in India’s land-based missilery, but the benefits of threatening Pakistan with retaliation from nonconventional directions were judged to be worth the cost.205

Given New Delhi’s interest in true sea-based deterrence, the Dhanush could only serve as an interim solution; it would not be long before India shifted its Advanced Technology Vessel project, which previously was focused on developing nuclear attack submarines, toward the construction of an SSBN.206 Through a combination of Russian assistance and indigenous efforts, the first of the Arihant-class SSBNs, INS Arihant, was commissioned in 2016. Although this vessel does not yet represent the mature design that the Indian Navy seeks—it is, for example, underpowered relative to its desired performance—it has nonetheless been pressed into service as a testbed while also simultaneously serving as an interim deterrent. The Arihant has four launch tubes, each carrying three solid-fueled K-15 Sagarika SLBMs, for a total of twelve missiles with a relatively short range of some 750 kilometers. Although more survivable than the Sukhanya-class patrol boats, the Arihant nevertheless is effective only against Pakistan because of the modest reach of its missile battery.207

In time, the twelve K-15 missiles will be replaced by four K-4 missiles of 3,500-kilometer range, which will enable the Indian SSBNs to range most of China (but still falling short of Beijing) from the central Bay of Bengal. If these vessels launch their K-4s from the northern portion of the bay, most of China, including Beijing, comes within reach. Indian technologists are currently developing an even-longer-ranged 5,000–6,000-kilometer missile, the K-5, which will bring almost all of China within reach from launch points adjacent to the SSBNs’ homeport at Rambilli on the east coast of India. The K-5 is likely to carry four MIRVed warheads on the calculation that each Indian SSBN must host a significant fraction of the country’s nuclear reserves since the submarines are likely to remain the most survivable components of India’s nuclear deterrent.208 Given the desired range—and, by implication, the size—of the K-5, it is unclear whether this missile would be deployed on the last two Arihant-class SSBNs or only aboard the follow-on vessels.

India plans to deploy four Arihant-class SSBNs by 2025—with successive enlargements in the vessels’ size and in the number of missile tubes in each two-hull flight—though this schedule is certain to slip if the past record is any indication. Depending on the number of missile tubes on each submarine, and assuming that each SSBN carries K-4- or K-5-class missiles, the Indian sea-based deterrent could consist of as many as forty-eight SLBMs by the time the sixth vessel in the Arihant series is completed. It is also expected that India will launch a larger SSBN either late in this decade or sometime in the next, possibly powered by a larger 190-megawatt nuclear reactor. If the DAE and DRDO’s efforts come to fruition quickly—though India has experienced significant difficulties in designing naval nuclear reactors—this design could form the basis for the fifth and sixth boats of the Arihant class, which would then carry “12 SLBMs with ranges of 6,000 km and with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) capability.”209 Depending on the number of submarines finally procured, and the number of MIRVed missiles aboard them, the proportion of Indian sea-based nuclear weapons will commensurately increase.

The Indian SSBN force has attracted some criticism in the West because of what are perceived as the dangers accompanying ready nuclear forces at sea.210 The challenges of effectively communicating with submerged platforms, the risks of loss in the context of an adversary’s anti-submarine operations (with the attendant prospect of use-it-or-lose-it fears), and the dangers of accidents have all been highlighted. Obviously, these are not imaginary problems, but it is easy to overstate them. At any rate, India has begun to focus on these issues. The challenges of communication, for example, are already being addressed. India has begun construction of an ELF site in addition to its existing VLF stations. However, because both types of facilities (which are collocated) could become victims of an adversary’s nuclear attacks, the navy has already begun to review the fallback solutions that might be necessary for the transmittal of nuclear launch orders. The deployment of trailing ELF communications antennae from India’s maritime patrol aircraft or long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is one such emergency communications system that is being considered.211 This work is still in its infancy, but it will progress as the SSBN fleet and its operations mature and as India moves toward maintaining continuous SSBN deterrent patrols.

The dangers of adversary attacks as a threat to SSBN survivability are more remote because, at least for now, Chinese and Pakistani submarine-based ASW capabilities are relatively primitive.212 Where China is concerned, the constraints of geography will also prevent its submarines from enjoying any easy subsurface ingress into the Bay of Bengal, where most Indian SSBNs will likely conduct their deterrent patrols. Pakistani submarines, too, will not have an easy time operating in these waters where Indian air, surface, and subsurface ASW platforms will be present in strength. The dangers of accidents are obviously hard to evaluate. Unfortunately, Russian nuclear submarines have been disproportionately hazard-prone, an issue that matters given Russian design influence on the Arihant program and the quality control problems of Indian manufacturing.213 Be that as it may, India has no choice but to mitigate these dangers as best it can given its determination to maintain a sea-based deterrent. The risk of accidents did not prevent other nuclear powers from building SSBNs because of their potentially higher survivability, and India will not prove to be an exception to this rule either.

Even as it persists with its SSBN program, concentrating along the way on increasing both submarine safety and the lethality of its missiles, India must build the quietest SSBNs it can simply in order to lower the risks of successful detection and attack in wartime. SSBNs, unlike land-based missile platforms, represent highly concentrated firepower; any losses, whatever their cause, would diminish India’s retaliatory capacity disproportionately.214 Should such diminutions occur, however—despite the efforts made to avoid them—the saving grace is that they are unlikely to precipitate any use-or-lose scenarios as is often feared. The purpose of maintaining a triad is precisely to obviate these contingences to begin with, and Indian policymakers believe—correctly—that any nuclear attacks that make use-it-or-lose-scenarios realistic would require the massive and comprehensive nuclear attacks on India that are simply implausible in all foreseeable circumstances.215

Strategic Defense Capabilities

This brief survey of India’s evolving nuclear capabilities suggests that New Delhi is continuing to invest resources in expanding its offensive capabilities through the construction of a nuclear triad that is oriented primarily toward preserving deterrence through the threat of retaliation. Like China, however, and in continuing contrast to Pakistan, New Delhi has also initiated a modest strategic defense program. This effort is nowhere as comprehensive as China’s is today. Yet it is aimed at erecting a two-layered defensive system around the national capital and perhaps a handful of other major Indian economic centers (depending on the resources available) as an antidote to accidental, unauthorized, or limited missile attacks originating from both Pakistan and China. India’s progress in this area has been painfully slow. It has focused its efforts thus far on developing and integrating terrestrial sensors for long-range search, cueing and fire control; testing new interceptors for upper-, medium-, and lower-tier intercepts; and developing the command-and-control structure for managing ballistic missile defense operations. When this system matures, India will be capable of defending small enclaves (that include point targets) against limited attacks, but this thin defense system will not provide either nationwide protection or an antidote to substantial strikes.216

Expanding coverage to larger areas will require a space-based sensor segment and the development of a genuinely integrated air and missile defense system that fits into the existing Indian air defense architecture. New Delhi will probably move in this direction over time but even when such a system is finally ready—which is likely to be more than a decade out—India will not have shifted to a defense-dominant nuclear regime in any way.217 Rather, like China, the bulk of its attention and investments will focus on expanding the offensive components of its nuclear deterrent. In time, this may come to include greater incorporation of cruise missiles and possibly hypersonic delivery vehicles and MRV/MIRVs aboard its ballistic missiles, all oriented toward holding strategic targets at risk. Because India believes that strategic defenses have not matured—and will likely never mature—to the point of making offensive nuclear systems obsolete, it will continue to concentrate first and foremost on modernizing its nuclear triad, while treating its emerging thin defenses as secondary insurance to deal with more remote contingences such as limited attacks. The persistent Indian emphasis on strengthening deterrence and warding off nuclear attacks has also resulted in a conspicuous lack of interest in integrating offensive nuclear operations with strategic defense—a posture that is also unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.218

Command and Control, Operational Posture, and Force Employment

The transformations in nuclear weapons design that were on display in 1998 and the evolution of India’s delivery systems since have garnered most of the public attention in the two decades following India’s last nuclear tests. Yet the changes—for most part outside of the public eye—in the supporting infrastructure and in the procedural systems associated with nuclear operations have been equally, if not more, significant. When the government of prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee departed office after its surprise defeat in 2004, its national security leadership was fearful that the incoming government, led by Congress prime minister Manmohan Singh, might be less than committed to staying the course that the BJP had embarked upon. These concerns derived from the fact that the Congress Party was not entirely enthusiastic about the 1998 nuclear tests, with many of its leaders viewing them as a political effort at boosting the BJP’s domestic fortunes.219 In any event, the record confirms that the Singh government, taking its bearings from what India’s national interests demanded, faithfully sustained the Indian nuclear deterrent when it was in power from 2004 to 2014, systematically enlarging and improving the supporting infrastructure necessary for the conduct of retaliatory operations.220

The diverse initiatives undertaken here included expanding the number of secure sites throughout the country that could be used for the storage of nuclear weapons and/or their components as well as their delivery systems. These facilities, which range from aboveground to underground structures and incorporate measures to disguise their purpose and location—what one former chief of India’s Chiefs of Staff Committee metaphorically called “hardened silos”221—are critical to ensuring the survivability of India’s nuclear deterrent. By protecting critical elements, such as the nuclear weapons themselves and key delivery systems like missiles, at sites far away from the usual and known military bases, Indian decisionmakers have sought to ensure that a sufficient fraction of their deterrent capabilities can survive even in the event of a surprise attack that prevents them from readying, integrating, and dispersing their forces beforehand.222

All the components of the Indian nuclear deterrent, both the land-based elements that are still maintained as a force-in-being as well as the SSBNs, which will eventually be deployed as a ready arsenal, are now connected by a dedicated and secure communications network.223 Soon after the 1998 tests, many Indian commentators argued that the diverse Indian communications systems already in existence, both military and civilian, would suffice to connect the different components of the Indian nuclear force.224 While these extant defense and civilian networks obviously remain useful backups, India’s planners decided that a dedicated strategic communications network was essential for the effectiveness of their deterrent. Accordingly, they integrated many previously existing elements such as long-range high-frequency radios and various large and small, fixed and mobile, satellite communications systems into a new network that also uses an extensive set of buried fiber-optic lines for the terrestrial transmission of data and orders where appropriate.225

Connecting the various nodes of the Indian deterrent to one another and to the leadership enables the synchronization that is necessary when the national command authority determines that its nuclear forces should be assembled and made ready for retaliatory operations. Ensuring the survival of the leadership itself is critical for this purpose: although India has formalized a system of succession and devolving authority in a so-called Red Book,226 to ensure continuity of government and the possibility of issuing legitimate orders for nuclear release even in the event of a decapitation of the senior leadership, it has complemented this procedure by building several secret underground command facilities for both civilian and military leaders to enable successful nuclear retaliatory operations in the event that the principal peacetime command center at South Block in New Delhi is destroyed by an adversary attack.227 All these command posts are linked by voice and electronic communications, which feed a computerized decision support system that aids the leadership in choosing from among various nuclear options when appropriate.

The formation of the Strategic Forces Command in 2003 was a critical step in transforming the effectiveness of the Indian deterrent, which until then consisted of informal procedures for developing, maintaining, and deploying the deterrent force.

While India, therefore, has undertaken all the key physical investments necessary to ensure effective nuclear retaliation consistent with its stated doctrine, it has not made developing a dedicated tactical warning and assessment system a priority yet. Some such capabilities already reside in its integrated air defense system and in its civilian space capabilities, but sensors specifically for early warning of ballistic missile launches as well as for trans- and post-attack assessment have not been deemed essential because of the assumption that Indian nuclear retaliation does not have to be instantaneous.228 Consequently, there would be enough opportunities to assess the scale and the extent of any nuclear attack through diverse national sensors (even if not in real time), coupled with corroboration by friendly foreign partners as well as other local sources. India’s capability for tactical warning will improve once its ballistic missile defense systems, and especially their associated space detection sensors, slowly become operational, but it is likely that New Delhi will put off investing heavily in real-time tactical warning and assessment capabilities in favor of other requirements, such as improving its delivery systems and increasing its force survivability, because of their larger and more important contributions to the success of deterrence.

As these different elements of supporting physical infrastructure have fallen into place—with many activities still ongoing—the procedural systems that make the Indian nuclear posture viable have also been rationalized since the 1998 tests. The formation of the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) in 2003 was a critical step in transforming the effectiveness of the Indian deterrent, which until then consisted of informal procedures for developing, maintaining, and deploying the deterrent force. The creation of a Strategy Program Staff within the national security advisor’s office, tasked with coordinating between the SFC and the civilian leadership, also brought greater coherence to the business of planning future forces, advising civilian authorities on political and technical matters affecting the deterrent, and providing oversight in regard to the SFC.229 Thanks to these two institutions, there is now a systematic process in place for assessing requirements, debating alternatives, planning for future capabilities, and systematically executing the myriad tasks associated with nuclear force generation once India’s civilian leaders initiate the alerting process. The mechanics of force generation are now formally codified in the so-called Red and Blue Books.230

The SFC is central to the management of India’s nuclear forces. Headed by a three-star officer, with the position rotating between the army, navy, and air force, the commander-in-chief of the SFC and his staff are responsible for India’s nuclear operations. This includes: assessing requirements pertaining to nuclear weapons and delivery systems; coordinating with the two civilian agencies responsible for India’s nuclear weapons, the DAE, which produces the fissile cores, and the DRDO, which, among other things, produces the high explosive charges and the safing, arming, fusing, and firing systems for the warheads, develops the delivery systems, and oversees and controls all the strategic storage sites associated with the nuclear deterrent; creating the nuclear targeting and employment plans and securing their approval from the national command authority; and, finally, identifying the relevant force components and overseeing their training, readiness, and disposition for nuclear missions. The formation of the SFC has thus been a critical element in the evolution of the Indian nuclear deterrent from what was initially almost entirely a civilian enterprise, with the military role restricted mainly to weapons delivery, to a fused civilian-military endeavor today, with the military playing a greater role in the planning, organization, and operation of the deterrent but with still significant civilian participation by the DAE and the DRDO at critical points in the process.231

While the SFC thus manages India’s overall deterrent, it exercises differential control over the various force components in peacetime. Those elements that have exclusively nuclear missions, like the Indian Army’s nuclear missile brigades and the Indian Navy’s SSBN fleet, remain under the persistent operational command of the SFC.232 The dual-use components in contrast, such as the IAF’s strike-fighters, which are capable of carrying nuclear weapons and are tasked for executing retaliatory missions when required, fall under the SFC’s operational control when necessitated by the appropriate stage of the alerting sequence; prior to that transition, they remain under IAF command and could be employed flexibly for conventional operations. In any case, the Indian armed services continue to man and maintain all the delivery systems routinely, irrespective of their mission. In coordination with the SFC, they are also responsible for developing the concepts of operations and the operating procedures that govern the physical employment of their delivery systems. The SFC’s ability to seamlessly control these forces in peacetime and war is made possible by the three two-star officers (and their staffs) who are seconded from each of the three armed services to oversee the different strategic force “vectors” within the SFC. In this capacity, they are responsible for liaising with their parent headquarters to ensure that the nuclear components are capable and ready for action as required. The presence of these service-level deputies, sometimes but not yet authoritatively identified as “chief staff officers,”233 serves to avoid oscillating changes in operational control where the dedicated nuclear delivery systems are concerned, and it ensures that the shifting control of the dual-use delivery vehicles from the services to the SFC occurs when required without undue prejudice to either conventional or nuclear operations.

Beyond the delivery systems, the nuclear weapons themselves are preserved separately and their disposition entails multitiered arrangements. The production facilities where the fissile cores are manufactured, the Bhabha Atomic Research Center at Trombay, and the high explosive production facilities, most likely the Terminal Ballistics Research Laboratory at Chandigarh, lie at the base of the edifice.234 India’s nuclear weapons components are usually aggregated at Trombay; once tested and certified, they are transported for stowage at several “central storage locations,”235 where they are preserved either in component form or as assembled weapons depending on the demands of their maintenance cycles, the threat environment obtaining at any given point in time, and their designated allocation for integration with particular delivery systems. The identity and location of these national depositories is unknown except to the Indian civilian and military leadership involved in managing the deterrent, but the sparse descriptions that have emerged suggest that they include underground facilities that may even take the form, in some cases, of “mountain tunnel complexes.”236 In any event, these sites, which are heavily disguised and scattered throughout the country far from conventional military establishments, feed a large number of equally opaque “forward support facilities,”237 which likely exist in some proximity to, if not actually at, the air, missile, and naval bases hosting the delivery systems designated for nuclear operations.238

The nuclear warheads and/or components at Trombay and at the national depositories remain in the custody of civilian authorities: the DAE in the case of the former and the DAE and the DRDO in the case of the latter. The weapons at the forward facilities, which are now largely maintained in assembled form because of India’s desire for expeditious retaliation, are controlled through similar arrangements—meaning in the custody of civilian stewards—even if the facilities themselves are located on military bases.239 The ironclad determination to maintain civilian custody over all of India’s nuclear weapons until retaliatory operations are plausible has resulted in the DRDO becoming the pivot for day-to-day control over key elements of India’s nuclear deterrent: it maintains the nuclear storage sites, oversees the special security units employed for protection duties, and, in partnership with the DAE, manages the transportation, assembly, and mating of the nation’s nuclear warheads. These arrangements represent a fundamental continuity with the procedural system that was in place during the 1998 tests.

What has changed since then is that the overall storage infrastructure has expanded significantly and the protocols for transferring nuclear weapons from production to central to forward sites, and from forward sites to the military operators of the delivery systems, have been refined and systematized.240 Furthermore, most Indian nuclear weapons, which, prior to 1998, were maintained with high degrees of separation—that is, with the pit stored separately from the rest of the weapon assembly—are now stored at the forward facilities fully assembled. Many, though probably not all, devices sequestered at the rearward central storage sites are also likely to be maintained assembled because of New Delhi’s desire to retaliate as quickly as possible after suffering a nuclear attack.241 But even this judgment, which reflects public comments offered by senior SFC officials,242 must be treated with caution: depending on the levels of threat, the features of a particular storage site, the availability of DAE and DRDO personnel therein, and the maintenance associated with any given weapon, India’s nuclear devices could subsist routinely at different states of assembly. Consequently, it must not be assumed that all Indian nuclear weapons, irrespective of their location, are readily available for nuclear operations routinely.

In any event, maintaining some weapons at high assembly states—that is, with the nuclear pit and high explosive system fully integrated and fitted into the warhead canister—enables land-based and air-delivered systems to be quickly mated with their lethal payloads when so ordered by India’s national command authority.243 Where aviation delivery systems are concerned, therefore, the assembled nuclear devices at the forward site (possibly located at the airbase itself) would merely require the completion of their final technical checks before being fitted on to the alerted aircraft prior to executing the retaliatory mission. Where land-based missiles are concerned, however, the assembled weapons in their warhead containers would, after completing their final checks, have to be inserted into the reentry vehicle shell and mated to the missile airframe, which could be stored at the forward site itself (or at some other proximate facility), before the missiles are then loaded on to their transporters for possible dispersal before launch. Whether the delivery system involves aircraft or missiles, the mating of the warheads with their carriers occurs only “in the third stage” of India’s four-step alert sequence, which is when civilian custody of India’s nuclear weapons also comes to an end.244

Once the appropriate mating is completed, both the rail- and road-mobile missiles can be launched from either their garrisons or after dispersal from pre-surveyed launch points at some distance from their peacetime storage sites. The former is feasible only if the garrisons are above ground. Since most of India’s key missile systems, however, are now preserved in underground facilities, the latter launch mode has inevitably become the default and is obviously preferred because it preserves the locational opacity of the complex wherein the weapons and missiles are stored. The actual integration sequence prior to Indian missile launches is thus likely to be more complex, depending on the extent of separation between the assembled warhead and the missile and the type of missile systems in question and where they are based, but the simplified description above, which captures the essential details, underscores the critical point that India’s land-based nuclear missiles (and, for that matter, its nuclear aircraft) cannot be launched “within minutes” from a standing start.245

The canisterization of some Indian missiles, such as the Agni-IP and the Agni-V, has created confusion because it has led to the belief, as Vipin Narang has expressed, that “the warhead is likely pre-mated to the delivery vehicle and kept hermetically sealed for storage and transport,” a posture that then enables India to maintain “some subset of the force within minutes of readiness” to launch.246 Bharat Karnad has advanced a similar—misleading—claim when he asserts that “the ongoing process of canisterising Agni missiles . . . provides the country not only with a capability for launch-on-warning but also for striking pre-emptively should reliable intelligence reveal an adversary’s decision to mount a surprise attack.” This capability supposedly derives from the fact that “nuclear missiles in hermetically sealed canisters are ready-to-fire weapons and signal an instantaneous retaliatory punch to strongly deter nuclear adventurism.247

The reality, however, is somewhat more complicated. The move toward the canisterization of some Indian ballistic missiles was driven by the fact that the composite propellant used in the Agni series as a whole—a formulation that combines hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB) with ammonium perchlorate (AP) and aluminum (Al) powder—is overly sensitive to the temperature and humidity variations that are common at the strategic storage sites dispersed throughout the Indian subcontinent.248 At higher temperatures, AP/Al/HTPB motors have lowered tensile strength and can develop cracks, deformation, and debonding at the interface between the propellant and the liner. Storing the missile in optimum temperature- and humidity-controlled conditions is, therefore, essential to avoiding propellant failures.

Instead of maintaining the entire storage facility (which could be quite large) as a single environmentally controlled unit—a costly solution that the DRDO experimented with—protecting individual missiles in low temperature- and humidity-controlled canisters has proven to be a better solution. Since canisterization also permits cold launch, where the missile is ejected by compressed gas from the container before motor ignition, it has the further benefit of protecting the transporter-erector-launcher from thermal damage. Furthermore, because the missile body is maintained at the optimum temperature within the canister during storage, it does not have to undergo a lengthy period of adjustment to the ambient temperature outside the receptable when being prepared for launch—a problem that handicaps all non-canisterized missiles in India (and Pakistan) that use AP/Al/HTPB propellant. As a result, although canisterized missiles can be brought to readiness far more quickly for military operations, this should not be confused with the capability for prompt nuclear launches—even though DRDO scientists have boasted of such in their public remarks.249

Protecting the missile inside a canister has little to do with whether it is deployed with its warhead and, as Gaurav Kampani has correctly noted, “there is no firm evidence . . . yet” that canisterization entails the missiles being mated with nuclear weapons routinely in peacetime.250 Yogesh Joshi has adamantly declared that “even with the canisterization of India’s missile force, there exists a physical separation between the warhead and the delivery vehicle.”251 This view is consistent with the standard operating procedures governing India’s nuclear forces, which require DAE and DRDO personnel based at the storage site to prepare the nuclear devices in their custody and insert the warhead containers into the missile airframes only at the third stage of the four-step alert sequence, after which the completed system is released to the military units for dispersal or firing.252

The conflation of canisterization with a prompt nuclear launch capability also fails to appreciate the pattern of Indian missile operations. Even if India’s canisterized missiles routinely contained nuclear warheads, they cannot be launched from a standing start—as, for example, U.S. and Russian silo- and sea-based missiles can. Most of India’s land-based strategic missiles are dispersed and stored in underground hides that are some distance from their pre-surveyed launch points. Even if these systems are customarily maintained with their attached warheads, they cannot be launched until their system checks are completed in situ and they are dispersed to their launch sites when authorized to do so. Even canisterized missiles that supposedly have their warheads routinely attached may not be mounted constantly on their transporter-erector-launchers; if not, attaching the canister to the transporter, connecting the umbilical cables, and completing the assembly checkout could take over an hour. To this must be added the time required for the assembled system (and its accompanying support vehicles) to travel to their field hide or launch site (since it is highly unlikely that any missile would be launched from just outside its storage facility except perhaps in an emergency). Thereafter, the process at the launch site for aligning the launcher’s azimuth, stabilizing the trailer, erecting the missile canister, establishing communications with the launch control vehicle and higher command echelons, loading and/or confirming the targeting data, and completing the final checks prior to firing only extend the timelines way beyond the metaphorical “within minutes” response time that canisterized missiles are supposed to achieve. After India’s land-based missiles reach their wartime field hides or their launch locations, they can be fired as quickly as their alignment and launch sequences permit—but at that point, whether they are canisterized or not is entirely irrelevant.

The only time canisterization would make a difference to India’s ability to unleash instantaneous attacks is if these weapons could launch from their peacetime locations with little to no notice. Since this is physically impossible, given that India’s most valuable nuclear missiles are currently bivouacked underground, canisterization only speeds up the time it takes the missiles (assuming that they are constantly mated with their nuclear warheads) to deploy to their launch locations, because it minimizes the environmental adjustments and “also gives the missile a longer shelf life [while] protecting it from the harsher climatic conditions.”253 This certainly constitutes an advantage over non-canisterized systems, but it does not permit any instantaneous launch from a standing start, the assumption that seems to underly the claims advanced by Narang and others that “some portion of India’s nuclear force, particularly those weapons and capabilities designed for use against Pakistan, are now kept at a high state of readiness, capable of being operationalized and released within seconds or minutes in a crisis” (emphasis added), which then “enables India to possibly release a full counterforce strike with few indications to Pakistan that it was coming (a necessary precondition for success).”254 Canisterization, for all its advantages, does not permit such an alacrity of response. But, even more importantly, there is no subset of the Indian nuclear deterrent—whether oriented toward Pakistan or China—that is customarily maintained at such a high level of readiness so as to permit it to prosecute combat operations within “seconds or minutes” of the issuance of alert orders.

For all the adjustments that have occurred since 1998, India’s land-based nuclear forces in peacetime are still postured as a force-in-being rather than as a ready arsenal. Many of the nuclear weapons themselves are already assembled, especially at the forward sites. But these weapons, irrespective of their assembly state, are controlled and remain under the sole custody of their civilian guardians, the DAE and DRDO technicians who oversee them at the various storage facilities. Only when the alerting sequence evolves are these weapons mated to the delivery systems, which remain under military control and receive their lethal payloads solely when retaliatory operations are conceivable. That this force posture has survived robustly is a testament to the Indian belief that nuclear weapons are, in the final analysis, still political tools of deterrence rather than military instruments of warfighting.

As was anticipated some two decades ago, the force-in-being model of India’s nuclear deterrent has been transformed most by the development of its ballistic missile submarine force.255 But even here, India has thus far been relatively cautious. Nuclear-armed ballistic missiles are not yet deployed persistently on either its ships or its submarine(s); rather, these weapons are only loaded aboard the host vessels when required at the appropriate stage of the alerting sequence and before they put to sea on their deterrence patrols. As Yogesh Joshi has noted, “As far as the operationalization of the SSBN force is concerned, it is unlikely that India’s SSBNs will carry any nuclear payload during peacetime.”256 In other words, nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles are not deployed aboard the submarines (or the surface vessels) routinely, at least right now. When they are so deployed in anticipation of a deterrence patrol or during a crisis, they will likely be removed from their host vessels when the latter return from at-sea operations and stored at their shore bases until the next patrol. Whether these missiles are then sequestered with or without their nuclear warheads is largely irrelevant—this choice is likely to be determined more by maintenance requirements than anything else—because they cannot be fired from their storage sites in any case.

What the sequencing processes above indicate is the importance of India’s four-stage alerting system. During peacetime, India’s nuclear weapons, even if many are stored fully assembled at various rear and forward facilities, are ordinarily not mated to their delivery systems. The mating of weapons to their carriers occurs as the alerting sequence evolves—a process that finally eventuates either with a retaliatory mission or with a progressive return to the peacetime condition as a distributed capability. The air-breathing leg of the deterrent now probably conforms to what was described two decades ago as posture VI: weapons maintained at a high stage of assembly and awaiting only mating with their delivery aircraft. The land-based missiles conform either to posture V—that is, assembled warheads are integrated with the missile, which is separated from its launcher—or to a variation of posture V, where the assembled warhead is either separated from the reentry vehicle or is integrated with it, with the final mating of this payload to the missile occurring when required at the third stage of the alerting sequence.257 Only aboard surface ships and in submarines would complete Indian nuclear weapons and delivery systems be maintained in ready-to-use condition, and only then when these vessels are on designated deterrent patrols.

The SFC oversees all the changes associated with these evolutions. As noted earlier, the SFC has administrative control over the entire Indian nuclear deterrent. But it enjoys persistent command only over the dedicated nuclear delivery vehicles; it acquires command over the dual-use systems once the strategic alert is sounded, but in neither instance does it have physical possession of India’s nuclear warheads, which remain in the custody of civilian stewards until the integration of India’s nuclear forces is underway. As the alerting process advances in the aftermath of receiving strategic warning of a possible conflict, the SFC’s control over all the land-, air-, and sea-based nuclear systems extends to completing their integration, implementing their possible dispersal, and, eventually, executing the nuclear strike operations that may be ordered by the civilian leadership.258

However these processes play out, the timelines pertaining to the integration and readiness of India’s nuclear forces have changed significantly. Whereas at the time of the 1998 tests, India seemed content to integrate its deterrent after it had suffered a nuclear attack, the importance of overcoming the “discounting problem” referred to in Chapter 1 has now resulted in India—just like China—planning to accelerate the integration of its nuclear force in order to shore up deterrence, especially against more risk-acceptant adversaries such as Pakistan. This shift, too, was anticipated two decades ago.259 As Figure 5 illustrates in schematic form, India now plans to begin the process of relocating weapons and delivery systems (if required) and completing the mating of its nuclear weapons to their delivery systems, together with any other activities necessary to increase force readiness, immediately on arrival of strategic warning, which could materialize (ideally) prior to a conventional war or could coincide with its initiation. While India is unlikely to generate all its nuclear reserves, it seeks to have a small subset of its weapons ready for operations well before it suffers any nuclear attacks so that its retaliatory actions can be mounted swiftly thereafter.

This sequencing model obviously applies mainly to the land-based forces and to the naval surface deterrent; if the SSBN force is already on patrol before a crisis breaks out, it would be ready for retaliatory operations on very short notice. If India does not deploy nuclear-tipped missiles on its SSBNs persistently and the vessels are not at sea during the onset of a crisis, the force generation sequence illustrated in Figure 5 would apply here as well with the appropriate modifications.

Preparing missile-based nuclear systems that are not configured for instantaneous response inevitably involve lengthy procedures. Although aircraft could possibly be readied in a few hours, missile forces on land and surface ships (as well as on submarines not on patrol) would require many hours, and possibly up to a few days, to reach complete launch readiness. The importance of generating a strategic alert as early as possible during the evolution of any major crisis thus becomes self-evident. Because India’s nuclear capabilities are growing, are diverse, and are deployed across a huge landmass, New Delhi is unlikely to authorize the integration of its entire nuclear deterrent all at once. But how much of the force is to be readied, integrated, and dispersed will depend on who the adversary is and the nature of the crisis. It is, therefore, probable that some fraction of the force will be primed and generated for retaliatory operations while other elements may continue to remain dormant, even if alerted. The number of systems that are actually prepared for war could vary considerably; consequently, one of the SFC’s tasks is to prepare emergency action plans that permit different levels of force generation depending on the contingency.

Amid all the evolution since the 1998 tests, four cardinal features of the Indian nuclear deterrent have not changed whatsoever.

First, the command of the force remains vested solely with civilian authorities and only the prime minister and his designated successors can order the use of nuclear weapons. The national security advisor—aided by the Strategic Program Staff, other military advisors, and members of the Strategic Policy Group as appropriate—will play a key role in these deliberations, but the decisions with respect to nuclear use remain firmly in the hands of civilian leaders.260 The same is true today, even where the development of India’s strategic weapons is concerned. Although senior officials of the DAE, DRDO, and Strategic Forces Command all play a critical role in developing proposals pertaining to the acquisition of new capabilities, the (civilian) Cabinet Committee on Security is the final decisionmaking body. While the DAE and the DRDO have enormous latitude in pursuing various research and development endeavors independently, whether their fruits are finally incorporated into the Indian nuclear deterrent depends on the political decisions made entirely by civilian politicians. Whether the latter always appreciate the consequences of their choices is a different matter, but the decisions at least are effectively theirs alone.261

Second, the control of India’s nuclear weapons also remains fundamentally with civilians to this day. It is safeguarded partly through procedural solutions, which involve civilians from the DAE and the DRDO preserving custody of both the assembled weapons and the disaggregated fissile cores and weapon assemblies at the various storage sites in peacetime. Civilian technicians from the DAE and the DRDO also control the weapons maintenance, assembly, and mating process until their handover to the military, which then deploys the delivery systems either on missions or for dispersal and possible launch. The Indian armed forces, therefore, do not yet have routine custody of India’s nuclear warheads or their components, even when these may be sequestered in facilities that are located on military bases. They acquire such custody only after the third stage of the four-step alert sequence evolves, when their civilian overseers hand the assembled weapons over to the military operators as required by the exigencies of dispersal and potential use. Because completed nuclear weapons will end up in the custody of the uniformed military at the terminal stages of the alert process, or could be persistently in military hands when India begins continuous SSBN deterrent patrols, the standing procedural controls that define peacetime custody are now supplemented by technical controls on all Indian nuclear weapons which prevent their launch in the absence of deliberate actions by India’s civilian authorities.262 These controls involve a two-channel process: civilian authorities possess the permissive enable system (PES) codes that the warheads’ firing systems must receive first before the uniformed operators’ permissive action links (PAL)—codes that are distributed to the military at some stage in the alerting process—can be rendered active in order to enable the warheads to arm.263 Even with these technical controls, which now govern all of India’s nuclear weapons irrespective of how they are delivered, India also requires that the PAL codes be keyed in by two individuals separately, thus institutionalizing, in Shyam Saran’s words, “a two-person rule for access to armaments and delivery systems.”264

Third, India continues to resile from any pre-delegation of nuclear launch authority to its military services. In part, this rejection is grounded on the expectation that large-scale nuclear attacks against India are highly unlikely, but in order to protect against just such a contingency, New Delhi has invested heavily in ensuring leadership survival and the success of its succession mechanisms. Hypothetically, if all these insurance mechanisms were to fail, Indian leaders would yet prefer no retaliation over the hazards of inadvertent nuclear war. Consequently, their command-and-control system, designed to fail safe rather than fail deadly, indicates that they still—and very sensibly—continue to privilege negative over positive control where nuclear weapons are concerned.265 This preference is reflected clearly by the fact that command authorities do not distribute the launch codes for nuclear use until late in the alert sequence and civilian officials will not key in their PES codes before Indian nuclear retaliation is actually deemed necessary. Given the possibilities of accidents, as evidenced most recently by the inadvertent launch of a conventional Indian Brahmos cruise missile into Pakistani territory,266 the importance of such technical safeguards cannot be overemphasized.

Fourth, and finally, India’s nuclear weapons are not integrated into conventional warfare in ways that attempt to advance operational warfighting aims. They are linked to conventional operations only insofar as nuclear force alerting and preparations are likely to proceed in tandem with conventional force mobilization, but only during serious political crises. The Indian armed forces obviously take nuclear threats into account when planning conventional operations principally with an eye to protecting the viability of their military assets. But Indian nuclear weapons, being distinct instruments of deterrence and intended primarily for retaliation, are not amalgamated into conventional force planning in order to secure any battlefield goals. On this count, China and India are very similar, in contrast to Pakistan.

Taking Stock

This survey of India’s nuclear evolution since the 1998 tests indicates that its initial conceptions of deterrence, which were articulated early in their aftermath, have survived quite robustly more than two decades later. The commitment to no first use still endures despite endless debates because it comports well with the extant balance of capabilities vis-à-vis Pakistan and China and fits the interests of a status quo power like India. The quest for a minimum credible deterrent still continues with all the available evidence suggesting that New Delhi has not built the largest-possible arsenal of warheads and delivery systems that it is capable of. The threats of massive retaliation in case of attack have been retained at the declaratory level, but Indian nuclear planning contains enough flexibility to permit flexible or proportionate retaliation as required by the end objective of securing speedy war termination.

India’s overall nuclear force posture will remain quite variegated. On balance, therefore, and in some ways similar to China, the continuities in the Indian nuclear program remain significant and its persistent conservatism very striking.

India’s nuclear weapons are best suited for countervalue punishment. They could be used for discrete countermilitary and even for some modest counterforce targeting, but such strikes would not inflict the “massive” damage that attacks on countervalue targets would exact (and which India’s declaratory policy calls for). As long as India is not victimized by true bolt-out-of-the-blue nuclear attacks, it will seek—and this is one significant change since 1998—to integrate its nuclear capabilities—of which the most important components are still routinely controlled by civilian entities—on receipt of strategic warning rather than after an attack, and it will aim to retaliate as quickly as possible in the aftermath of absorbing an adversary’s nuclear strikes. The extent of the force mobilized, however, will depend on the nature of the crisis, and the alacrity of India’s retaliation, too, will depend on the scale of the damage suffered due to the enemy’s nuclear first use. All this confirms the proposition that India’s nuclear deterrent is still maintained largely as a force-in-being rather than as a ready arsenal. The new SSBNs that are being inducted into the fleet will change this disposition eventually, but how and to what extent remains unclear right now. In any event, the sea-based leg of the deterrent could remain the exception to the way that that the larger nuclear force is managed and operated. India’s overall nuclear force posture will thus remain quite variegated. On balance, therefore, and in some ways similar to China, the continuities in the Indian nuclear program remain significant and its persistent conservatism very striking. This provides a useful benchmark for assessing the differences that mark Pakistan’s nuclear program and the changes occurring therein.


1 Homi J. Bhabha, “Note on the Organisation of Atomic Research in India (April 26, 1948),” Nuclear India 43, no. 5–6 (2008): 3.

2 Homi J. Bhabha and N. B. Prasad, “A Study of the Contribution of Atomic Energy to a Power Programme in India,” in Proceedings of the Second United Nations International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy (Geneva: United Nations, 1958), 89–101.

3 S. Banerjee, R.K. Sinha, and S. Kailas, “Thorium Utilization for Sustainable Supply of Nuclear Energy,” Journal of Physics: Conference Series 312 (2011).

4 Perkovich, India’s Nuclear Bomb, 282–292; and K. Subrahmanyam, “Indian Nuclear Policy – 1964-98 (A Personal Recollection),” Strategic Analysis 42, no. 3 (2018): 305.

5 For a good review of these issues connected with India’s second stage fast breeder reactor program, see R.D. Kale, “India’s Fast Reactor Programme – A Review and Critical Assessment,” Progress in Nuclear Energy 122 (April 2020): 19–42.

6 Nuclear Energy Agency, “Perspectives on the Use of Thorium in the Nuclear Fuel Cycle,” Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, August 15, 2015,, 17.

7 Perkovich, India’s Nuclear Bomb, 17.

8 A comprehensive overview of foreign involvement in India’s development of its nuclear capabilities is given in Perkovich, India’s Nuclear Bomb, especially 1–145, 190–292. See also, Roberta Wohlstetter, “The Buddha Smiles: U.S. Peaceful Aid and the Indian Bomb,” in Nuclear Heuristics: Selected Writings of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter (Carlisle: Strategic Studies Institute, 2009), 339–356.

9 Itty Abraham, The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb: Science, Secrecy and the Postcolonial State (New York: Zed Books, 1998), 49.

10 Perkovich, India’s Nuclear Bomb, 60–85. See also, Engineering With Nuclear Explosives: Proceedings of the Third Plowshare Symposium (Washington, DC: U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, 1964).

11 For a discussion about the differences between a “nuclear explosion” and a “nuclear weapon test explosion,” see Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 195–200.

12 In From Surprise to Reckoning: The Kargil Review Committee Report, a document substantially authored by K. Subrahmanyam, it was revealed officially for the first time that India did in fact weaponize its nuclear capabilities sometime between 1992 and 1994. See From Surprise to Reckoning: The Kargil Review Committee Report (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2000), 205.

13 For an account of the international backlash and the larger nonproliferation response following the Pokhran-I test, see Perkovich, India’s Nuclear Bomb, 161–225; and Ian Smart, “Janus: The Nuclear God,” The World Today 34, no. 4 (1978): 118–127.

14 For an overview of U.S. and international export controls during this period, see Office of Technology Assessment, Export Controls and Nonproliferation Policy (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994). The impact of secrecy of the evolution of the Indian nuclear weapons program has been illuminatingly assessed in Gaurav Kampani, India’s Nuclear Proliferation Policy: The Impact of Secrecy on Decision Making, 1980–2010 (New York: Routledge, 2021).

15 Kalman A. Robertson and John Carlson, “The Three Overlapping Streams of India’s Nuclear Program,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, April 1, 2016,, 18–19. Whether the Indian enrichment facilities identified in Robertson and Carlson’s paper are involved in the Indian weapons program is discussed later in this report.

16 For a full discussion, see Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 280–296.

17 Glenn H. Snyder, Deterrence and Defense (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961).

18 For a clear statement of the convictions that persist to this day, see “India Not to Engage in a N-Arms Race: Jaswant,” The Hindu, November 29, 1999; and Shivshankar Menon, Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2016), 105-123.

19 Menon, Choices, 105-123.

20 See the discussion in the Preamble to “Draft Report of National Security Advisory Board on Indian Nuclear Doctrine,” Ministry of External Affairs of the Government of India, August 17, 1999,; and Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Doctrine, 281.

21 Peter Feaver, “Command and Control in Emerging Nuclear Nations,” International Security 17, no. 3 (1993): 160–187.

22 “Draft Report of National Security Advisory Board on Indian Nuclear Doctrine”; and “The Cabinet Committee on Security Reviews [O]perationalization of India’s Nuclear Doctrine,” Ministry of External Affairs of the Government of India, January 4, 2003,

23 Raja Ramanna, “Security, Deterrence, and the Future,” Journal of the United Services Institution of India 122, no. 509 (1992): 282–292.

24 For a full discussion of Indian calculations around the size of its nuclear arsenal, see Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 374–401.

25 See Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 20–89.

26 This lower bound was given by K. Subrahmanyam, longtime head of the government-funded Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA); see K. Subrahmanyam, “Articulating Our Nuclear Policy,” Economic Times, June 15, 1994. The upper bound was given by defense analyst Bharat Karnad; see Bharat Karnad, “A Thermonuclear Deterrent,” in India’s Nuclear Deterrent, ed. Amitabh Mattoo (New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications, 1999), 128. In an earlier 1998 paper, however, as Naeem Salik points out, “Karnad ha[d] openly called upon the Indian government to establish a force based on 400 thermonuclear warheads with diversified delivery systems.” Naeem Ahmad Salik, “Pakistan’s Ballistic Missile Development Programme—Security Imperatives, Rationale and Objectives,” Strategic Studies 21, no. 1 (Spring 2001): 37.

27 An excellent analysis that illuminates this Indian policy judgment can be found in Rajesh Basrur, “Deterrence, Second Strike and Credibility: Revisiting India’s Nuclear Strategy Debate,” Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, July 1, 2014,

28 For the contrast with U.S. attitudes during the Cold War, see Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 271–280.

29 A larger analysis of the global trends that make this expectation sensible can be found in T. V. Paul, “The Paradox of Power: Nuclear Weapons in a Changed World,” Alternatives 20, no. 4 (1995): 479–500.

30 “Draft Report of National Security Advisory Board on Indian Nuclear Doctrine.”

31 “The Cabinet Committee on Security Reviews [O]perationalization of India’s Nuclear Doctrine.”

32 Ibid.

33 See Toby Dalton, “Much Ado About India’s No-first-use Nuke Policy,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 26, 2019,

34 The next three paragraphs are drawn from contemporaneous notes of official conversations between the author and NSA Brajesh Mishra and senior Indian officials in the Prime Minister’s Office in January 2003 and subsequently and which were reported in telegrams from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi at the time.

35 Scott D. Sagan and Jane Vaynman, “Reviewing the Nuclear Posture Review,” Nonproliferation Review 18, no. 1 (2011): 248–249.

36 Author’s private notes of contemporaneous official conversations with NSA Mishra and senior Indian officials in the Prime Minister’s Office in January 2003 and subsequently.

37 Menon, Choices, 110.

38 Rajesh Rajagopalan, “The Strategic Logic of the No First Use Nuclear Doctrine,” Observer Research Foundation, August 30, 2019,

39 “Draft Report of National Security Advisory Board on Indian Nuclear Doctrine.”

40 “The Cabinet Committee on Security Reviews [O]perationalization of India’s Nuclear Doctrine.”

41 Ashley J. Tellis, “The Changing Political-Military Environment: South Asia,” in The United States and Asia: Toward a New U.S. Strategy and Force Posture (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2001), 203–240; Francisco Aguilar et al., An Introduction to Pakistan’s Military (Cambridge: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 2011), 8–11; and Frank O’Donnell and Alex Bollfrass, The Strategic Postures of China and India: A Visual Guide (Cambridge: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 2020).

42 Ashley J. Tellis, C. Christine Fair, and Jamison Jo Medby, Limited Conflicts Under the Nuclear Umbrella (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2001), 16–17.

43 Lora Saalman, “India’s No-First-Use Dilemma: Strategic Consistency or Ambiguity Towards China and Pakistan,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, December 2, 2020, For a perceptive Indian analysis—albeit in the guise of political fiction—of the conditions under which Chinese nuclear use against India might occur, see General K. Sundarji, Blind Men of Hindoostan (New Delhi: UBS Publishers’ Distributors Ltd., 1993), 141–157.

44 Shyam Saran, “Is India’s Nuclear Deterrent Credible?,” (speech, New Delhi, IN, April 24, 2013), Research and Information System for Developing Countries,'s%20Nuclear%20Deterrent%20Credible-%20rev1%202%202.pdf.

45 The details of a “force-in-being” approach are discussed in detail in Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 251–724.

46 Harsh V. Pant, “India’s Nuclear Doctrine and Command Structure: Implications for Civil-Military Relations in India,” Armed Forces & Society 33, no. 2 (2007): 238–264.

47 For a description of the development and technical specifications of the Agni family of missiles, see Missile Defense Project, “Missiles of India,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 14, 2018,

48 See Missile Defense Project, “Dhanush,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, August 11, 2016,

49 David Albright, “India’s and Pakistan’s Fissile Material and Nuclear Weapons Inventories, end of 1999,” Institute for Science and International Security, October 11, 2000,

50 Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 371–372, 402–428; other useful details are found in Bharat Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy (Westport: Praeger Security International, 2008), 63–106.

51 Sushant Singh, “20 Years After Kargil War: How India Readied Nuclear Weapons in IAF’s Mirage,” Indian Express, July 21, 2019,; and Kampani, India’s Nuclear Proliferation Policy, ff. 115.

52 For a full discussion, see Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 321–340.

53 See, for example, “India Not to Engage in a N-Arms Race: Jaswant”; and M. S. Subirthana, “Deterrence, Assured Retaliation Capability—An Analysis on India’s Second-Strike Policy,” International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research and Publications 3, no. 3 (2020): 53–57.

54 “Draft Report of National Security Advisory Board on Indian Nuclear Doctrine.”

55 For an analytically illuminating discussion about the capabilities of small nuclear forces in relation to deterrence, see Rajesh Rajagopalan, “Nuclear Strategy and Small Nuclear Forces: The Conceptual Components,” Strategic Analysis 23, no. 7 (1999): 1,117–1,131.

56 The varied demands of such targeting strategies in the U.S-Soviet context are discussed in David Alan Rosenberg, “U.S. Nuclear War Planning, 1945–160,” Desmond Ball, “The Development of the SIOP, 1960–1983,” and William T. Lee, “Soviet Nuclear Targeting Strategy,” in Strategic Nuclear Targeting, eds. Desmond Ball and Jeffery Richelson (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), 35–56, 57–83, and 84–108.

57 Dean A. Wilkening, “Nuclear Warfare,” in Stress of War, Conflict and Disaster, ed. George Fink (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2010), 314–328.

58 See by way of example Vipin Narang, “Five Myths About India’s Nuclear Posture,” Washington Quarterly 36, no. 3 (2013): 143–157; Christopher Clary and Vipin Narang, “India’s Counterforce Temptations: Strategic Dilemmas, Doctrine, and Capabilities,” International Security 43, no. 3 (2019): 7–52; Sidharth Kaushal, James Byrne, Joe Byrne and Gary Somerville, “India’s Nuclear Doctrine: The Agni-P and the Stability-Instability Paradox,” Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, July 8, 2021,; Ankit Panda, “Nuclear South Asia and Coming to Terms With ‘No First-Use’ With Indian Characteristics,” The Diplomat, March 28, 2017,; and Kumar Sundaram and M. V. Ramana, “India and the Policy of No First Use of Nuclear Weapons,” Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament 1, no. 1 (2018): 152–168.

59 This conclusion is emphatically affirmed in Menon, Choices, 105–123.

60 Brahma Chellaney, “Why India’s Powerful Anti-Deterrent Lobby Supports Nuclear Deal With the U.S.,” Asian Age, January 5, 2008,

61 Rajesh Rajagopalan, “India’s Nuclear Doctrine Debate,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 30, 2016,

62 For examples of the attempts made by Indian scholars to correct some hermeneutical confusion on India’s nuclear doctrine, see Rajesh Rajagopalan, “India’s Nuclear Doctrine Debate,” and Abhijnan Rej,

“India Is Not Changing Its Policy on No First Use of Nuclear Weapons,” War on the Rocks, March 29, 2017,

63 Yogesh Joshi and Frank O’Donnell, India and Nuclear Asia: Forces, Doctrine, and Dangers (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2019), 14–15.

64 A similar judgment applies a fortiori to the claims advanced by Christopher Clary and Vipin Narang, who aver that “India’s investment in a diverse array of capabilities . . . would be useful for damage-limiting first strikes, but which otherwise make little sense for an assured retaliation or a minimum deterrence posture.” See Clary and Narang, “India’s Counterforce Temptations: Strategic Dilemmas, Doctrine, and Capabilities,” 24.

65 B. S. Nagal, “Perception and Reality: An In-Depth Analysis of India’s Credible Minimum Deterrent,” Force, October 2014,

66 “India Dismisses US Demand on Minimum Nuclear Deterrence,” Hindustan Times, January 6, 1999.

67 Norris and Kristensen, “Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, 1945–2010,” 82.

68 For good overviews, see Lawrence Freedman, “British Nuclear Targeting” and David S. Yost, “French Nuclear Targeting,” in Strategic Nuclear Targeting, eds. Ball and Richardson, 109–126 and 127–156.

69 Press Trust of India, “Pakistan Trying to Bleed India to Death Through a Thousand Cuts: Official,” Economic Times, October 11, 2011,

70 P.R. Chari, “India’s Nuclear Doctrine: Stirrings of Change,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 4, 2014,

71 “BJP Manifesto for 2014 Lok Sabha Elections,” News18, April 7, 2014,

72 “Why Bind Ourselves to ‘No First Use Policy’: Parrikar on India’s Nuclear Policy,” The Wire, November 10, 2016,

73 “No First Use Nuclear Policy May Change in Future, Says Rajnath Singh on India’s Defence Strategy,” India Today, August 16, 2019,

74 For example, in the case of Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar’s comments in 2016: see Sushant Singh, “Manohar Parrikar Questions India’s No-First-Use Nuclear Policy, Adds ‘My Thinking,’” Indian Express, November 11, 2016,

75 Pankaj Sharma, “Statement by Ambassador (Dr.) Pankaj Sharma, Permanent Representative of India to the Conference on Disarmament, Geneva During the General Debate of the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly on October 14, 2020,” Permanent Mission of India to the Conference on Disarmament, October 14, 2020,

76 “Why Bind Ourselves to ‘No First Use Policy’: Parrikar on India’s Nuclear Policy.”

77 See, by way of example, Anil A. Athale, “Why India Needs Nuclear Weapons,” Rediff, September 25, 2009,; B.S. Nagal, “Nuclear No First Use Policy: A Time for Appraisal,” Force, December 2014,; and Anil Kumar, “Jettison the No-First-Use Nuke Policy,” Rediff, November 27, 2007,

78 Glenn Snyder, “The Balance of Power and the Balance of Terror,” in The Balance of Power, ed. Paul Seabury (San Francisco: Chandler, 1965), 185–201.

79 Menon, Choices, 117.

80 Chari, “India’s Nuclear Doctrine.”

81 Paul, “The Paradox of Power,” 484.

82 Ibid. See also, Todd S. Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann, “Crisis Bargaining and Nuclear Blackmail,” International Organization 67, no. 1 (2013): 173–195.

83 Athale, “Why India Needs Nuclear Weapons.”

84 Ibid.

85 Menon, Choices, 110.

86 Clary and Narang, “India’s Counterforce Temptations,” 17–20; Vipin Narang, “Plenary: Beyond the Nuclear Threshold: Causes and Consequences of First Use,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 20, 2017,; and Frank O’Donnell and Debalina Ghoshal, “Managing Indian Deterrence: Pressures on Credible Minimum Deterrence and Nuclear Policy Options,” Nonproliferation Review 25, no. 5–6 (2019): 419–436.

87 See for example, Ankit Panda, “From ‘No First Use’ to ‘No, First Use?’” The Diplomat, August 18, 2019,; and Matthew R. Costlow, A Net Assessment of “No First Use” and “Sole Purpose” Nuclear Policies (Fairfax: National Institute for Public Policy, 2021).

88 Manpreet Sethi, “Perceptions of India’s Nuclear Capability Buildup,” The Diplomat, April 2, 2019,

89 K. Subrahmanyam, “Nuclear Tests: What Next?,” IIC Quarterly 25, no. 2-3 (1998): 57.

90 Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 311.

91 Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 312.

92 Prakash Menon, “India’s Nuclear Journey Post Kargil,” Journal of Defence Studies 13, no. 3 (2019): 139–153.

93 Siddharth Varadarajan, “Menon: The Policy of No First Use of Nuclear Weapons Has Served India’s Purpose,” The Wire, December 12, 2016,

94 Khalid Kidwai and Peter Lavoy, “A Conversation With Gen. Khalid Kidwai,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 23, 2015,, 4–5, 8–9. See also, Sannia Abudallah, “Pakistan’s Full-Spectrum Deterrence: Trends and Trajectories,” South Asian Voices, December 13, 2018,

95 J. E. Stromseth, The Origins of Flexible Response: NATO’s Debate Over Strategy in the 1960s (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1988). For a useful corrective, see also John S. Duffield, “The Evolution of NATO’s Strategy of Conventional Response: A Reinterpretation,” Security Studies 1, no. 1 (1991): 132–156.

96 Rajagopalan, “India’s Nuclear Doctrine Debate.”

97 Kidwai and Lavoy, “A Conversation With General Khalid Kidwai.”

98 G. Balachandran and Kapil Patil, “Revisiting India’s Nuclear Doctrine,” Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, March 27, 2017,

99 Saran, “Is India’s Nuclear Deterrent Credible?”

100 Verghese Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2012), 244–245; Raja Menon, “Boxed In by Pakistan,” Indian Express, September 6, 2014,; and Bharat Karnad, “India’s Nuclear Amateurism,” New Indian Express, June 28, 2013,

101 Menon, Choices, 110–112.

102 Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, 93rd Cong. (1974) (responses of James R. Schlesinger, secretary of defense, to questions submitted by Senator William S. Symington, Thursday, April 4, 1974),, 160.

103 Ajai Shukla, “After a Pakistani TNW Strike, India Can Go for Pakistan’s Nuclear Arsenal: Former NSA Shivshankar Menon,” Business Standard, March 18, 2017,

104 Ibid.

105 Menon, Choices, 110–111.

106 Clary and Narang, “India’s Counterforce Temptations,” 10–11.

107 Remarks by Professor Vipin Narang, Department of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “Plenary: Beyond the Nuclear Threshold: Causes and Consequences of First Use,” Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference Washington, DC, March 20, 2017,

108 Dhruva Jaishankar, “Decoding India's Nuclear Status,” The Wire, April 3, 2017,

109 Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 339–340.

110 Ibid., 338, with a detailed discussion on 333–341.

111 Gaurav Rajen and Michael Vannoni, “Fissile Materials Control in South Asia: Regional Analyses and Potential Confidence Building Measures,” Sandia National Laboratories, February 2006,, 12–13; and Rekha Chakravarthi, Yogesh Joshi, and R. Rajaraman, “India and the Impending FMCT: Interview With Prof. R. Rajaraman,” IPCS Nuclear Security Project, June 1, 2009,

112 Admittedly, this conclusion hinges on the assumption that India would not accelerate the production of weapons-grade fissile materials in anticipation of the conclusion of a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty.

113 M.V. Ramana, “More Missiles Than Megawatts,” IEEE Spectrum, July 1, 2007,

114 “Nuclear Power in India,”

115 Several facilities have been submitted for safeguards that are not yet operational. “Agreement Between the Government of India and the International Atomic Energy Agency for the Application of Safeguards to Civilian Nuclear Facilities,” International Atomic Energy Agency, January 10, 2020,

116 Manu Tayal, “PFBR Likely to Commission by Oct 2020; Add 500 MW Electrical Power to Grid,” Energetica, September 23, 2020,

117 Alexander Glaser and M.V. Ramana, “Weapon-Grade Plutonium Production Potential in the Indian Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor,” Science and Global Security 15 (2007): 85–105.

118 Even critics of India’s safeguards agreements, such as John Carlson, “India’s Nuclear Safeguards: Not Fit for Purpose,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, January 2018,, do not claim that India’s eight unsafeguarded reactors are used for producing weapons-grade materials, only that they could do so because of their “strategic” appellation. See also, Robertson and Carlson, The Three Overlapping Streams of India’s Nuclear Program. India’s use of the terminology “strategic,” however, which was discussed at length between the U.S. and Indian governments during the negotiations over India’s separation plan, did not refer to weapons-related activities.

119 Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, 92–93.

120 Ashley J. Tellis, Atoms for War? U.S.-Indian Civilian Nuclear Cooperation and India’s Nuclear Arsenal (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2006), 17–37.

121 See the discussion in David Albright and Serena Kelleher-Verantini, India’s Stocks of Civil and Military Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium, End 2014 (Washington, DC: Institute for Science and International Security, 2015); and in Gregory S. Jones, Reactor-Grade Plutonium and Nuclear Weapons: Exploding the Myths (Arlington: Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, 2018), 101–121.

122 R. Ramachandran, “Pokhran II: The Scientific Dimensions,” in India’s Nuclear Deterrent, ed. Mattoo, 34–61.

123 Ibid., 36.

124 See for example, Zia Mian and M. V. Ramana, “Wrong Ends, Means, and Needs: Behind the U.S. Nuclear Deal With India,” Arms Control Today 36, no. 1 (2006): 11–17.

125 “India,” International Panel on Fissile Materials, August 31, 2021,

126 This upper bound is given in David Albright and Serena Kelleher-Verantini, India’s Stocks of Civil and Military Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium, End 2014 (Washington, DC: Institute for Science and International Security, 2015).

127 See, for example, Global Fissile Material Report 2015: Nuclear Weapon and Fissile Material Stockpiles and Production (Princeton: International Panel on Fissile Materials, 2015), 41–44.

128 David Albright and Serena Kellcher-Vergantini, “India’s Stocks of Civil and Military Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium, End 2014,” Institute for Science and International Security, November 2, 2015,, 3–4.

129 Ibid., 2.

130 “India,” International Panel on Fissile Materials.

131 J. Carson Mark (with an Appendix by Frank von Hippel and Edward Lyman), “Explosive Properties of Reactor-Grade Plutonium,” Science and Global Security, 17 (2009): 170–185. See also, Jones, Reactor-Grade Plutonium and Nuclear Weapons: Exploding the Myths, 8–100, for an excellent overview of the viability of reactor-grade plutonium for making nuclear weapons.

132 André Gsponer and Jean-Pierre Hurni, “ITER: The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor and the Nuclear Weapons Proliferation Implications of Thermonuclear-Fusion Energy Systems,” Independent Scientific Research Institute, February 2, 2008, 15.

133 Perkovich, India’s Nuclear Bomb, 427–428.

134 Jones, Reactor-Grade Plutonium and Nuclear Weapons, 61.

135 Amory B. Lovins, “Nuclear Weapons and Power-Reactor Plutonium,” Nature 283 (1980): 820–821.

136 Jones, Reactor-Grade Plutonium and Nuclear Weapons, 63.

137 Ibid., 58–71.

138 Tellis, Atoms for War? U.S.-Indian Civilian Nuclear Cooperation and India’s Nuclear Arsenal, 17–37.

139 David Albright and Susan Basu, “India’s Gas Centrifuge Enrichment Program: Growing Capacity for Military Purposes,” Institute for Science and International Security, December 1, 2006,, 3–5.

140 M.V. Ramana, “An Estimate of India’s Uranium Enrichment Capacity,” Science & Global Security 12, no. 1–2 (2004): 115–124.

141 David Albright and Serena Kelleher-Vergantini, “India’s New Uranium Enrichment Plant in Karnataka,” Institute of Science and International Security, July 1, 2014,

142 Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 478–481, 487–490.

143 “India,” International Panel on Fissile Materials.

144 Adrian Levy, “Experts Worry That India Is Creating New Fuel for an Arsenal of H-Bombs,” Center for Public Integrity, December 21, 2015,; and Mansoor Ahmed, “Reactors, Reprocessing & Centrifuges: India’s Enduring Embrace of Fissile Material,” South Asian Voices, June 26, 2014,

145 Perkovich, India’s Nuclear Bomb, 186, describes India’s traditional constraints with respect to, for example, polonium production. But the bigger challenge is likely to be tritium production: like so much else, India has the potential capacity to produce large quantities of tritium, but whether it has actually done so either through lithium enrichment or detritiation of heavy water is unclear.

146 “New Reactor Being Planned in Trombay,” The Hindu, April 28, 1999.

147 Saurav Jha, “India’s Research Fleet,” Nuclear Engineering International, December 12, 2017,

148 See Perkovich, India’s Nuclear Bomb, 181–183; and Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 195–199.

149 Raj Chengappa, Weapons of Peace: The Secret Story of India’s Quest to Be a Nuclear Power (New Delhi: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000), 207–208.

150 Brian Barker et al., “Monitoring Nuclear Tests,” Science 282 (September 25, 1998): 1968.

151 The yield of the Hiroshima weapon is now calculated at 15 kilotons and the Nagasaki weapon produced a yield of 21 kilotons. For details, see John Malik, “The Yields of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki Nuclear Explosions,” Los Alamos National Laboratory, September 1985,

152 Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, 56; and Kampani, India’s Nuclear Proliferation Policy, 126.

153 Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, 68.

154 R. Ramachandran, “Pokhran II: The Scientific Dimensions,” 46.

155 Richard L. Garwin, “Maintaining Nuclear Weapons Safe and Reliable Under a CTBT,” Paper presented at “The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and US National Security Interests,” AAAS Annual Meeting, San Francisco, CA, February 16, 2001,

156 Gregory S. Jones, “The Role of Boosting in Nuclear Weapon Programs,” July 25, 2017,, 4.

157 Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, 65.

158 For a discussion of the early academic skepticism of the test’s success, see Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 508–519. These initial assessments were later confirmed by K. Santhanam, a senior scientist in the Pokhran-II project and former chief advisor to the DRDO; see K. Santhanam and Ashok Parthasarathi, “Pokhran-II Thermonuclear Test, a Failure,” The Hindu, September 17, 2009,

159 See Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 508–518.

160 Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, 73; and “India Can Produce N-Bomb of 200 Kiloton: Chidambaram,” Times of India, May 23, 1998.

161 See, for example, Arun Prakash, “Strategic Policy Making and the Indian System,” Maritime Affairs 5, no. 2 (2009): 22–31, who offers a curious formulation: “In the midst of the current brouhaha, we need to retain clarity on one issue; given that deuterium tritium boosted-fission weapons can generate yields of 200–500 kilotons, the credibility of India’s nuclear deterrent is not in the slightest doubt.” The issue, of course, is not whether DT-boosted fission weapons can yield 200–500 kilotons, but whether India’s boosted fission weapons can produce such yields since they did not demonstrate such in 1998. For a more breathtakingly optimistic assessment of India’s capabilities, see Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, 35–107; and Sanjay Badri-Maharaj, Indian Nuclear Strategy: Confronting the Potential Threat From Both China and Pakistan (New York: Routledge, 2019), 31–98.

162 For useful details, see Kampani, India’s Nuclear Proliferation Policy, 112–143.

163 Badri-Maharaj, Indian Nuclear Strategy: Confronting the Potential Threat From Both China and Pakistan, 59–62.

164 P. K. Iyengar et al., “On Thermonuclear Weapon Capability and Its Implications for Credible Minimum Deterrence,” Mainstream 48, no. 1 (2009):

165 See the justification in K. Subrahmanyam and V.S. Arunachalam, “Deterrence and Explosive Yield,”

The Hindu, September 2009,

166 Air Commodore Rippon Gupta, “Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Myths and Realities,” Journal of the United Service Institution of India 148, no. 614, (October-December 2018),

167 Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces, 126.

168 Ibid.

169 Zia Mian, “Commanding and Controlling Nuclear Weapons,” in Confronting the Bomb: Pakistani and Indian Scientists Speak Out, ed. P. Hoodbhoy (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012), 226.

170 Ibid., 231.

171 Ibid., 227.

172 Steven F. Rice and Randall L. Simpson, “The Unusual Stability of TATB: A Review of the Scientific Literature,” Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, UCRL-LR-103683, July 4, 1990, 1,

173 For a reflection on this subject, see Michael Krepon, “Safe Nuclear Weapons,” Arms Control Wonk, April 29, 2015, See also Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces, 122–128.

174 As Gaurav Kampani notes, although the developers of India’s nuclear weapons have begun to train the operators, the Strategic Forces Command (and presumably the Indian armed forces), about how to handle nuclear weapons safely, these institutions have “no independent academic-scientific training to challenge [their] sources of technical information and knowledge,” especially when India’s nuclear weapons are not yet “one point safe” and will not be without further hot testing. See Kampani, India’s Nuclear Proliferation Policy, 132. On the importance of a deep design base and the accumulated experience on weapons design in ensuring device safety, see Jason M. Weaver, “One in a Million, Given the Accident: Assuring Nuclear Weapon Safety,” Sandia National Laboratory, August 25, 2015,

175 Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, 80.

176 Subrahmanyam and Arunachalam, “Deterrence and Explosive Yield.”

177 For a discussion of the advantages of the Indian Air Force in a possible conflict with Pakistan, see Ashley J. Tellis, Troubles, They Come in Battalions (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2016), 9–15.

178 Pravin Sawhney, “Bombed,” Force, February 2004, 8.

179 Gurmeet Kanwal, “India’s Nuclear Force Structure 2025,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 30, 2016,

180 “DRDO Successfully Tests ‘Glide Bombs’ in Pokhran,” Times of India, August 20, 2016,

181 “DRDO Tests 1000 Kg Class Indigenous Guided Glide Bomb,” Press Information Bureau, December 19, 2014,

182 Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “Indian Nuclear Forces, 2020,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 76, no. 4 (2020): 218–219.

183 Joshi and O’Donnell, India and Nuclear Asia: Forces, Doctrines, and Dangers, 20; and O’Donnell and Bollfrass, The Strategic Postures of China and India, 5.

184 Kristensen and Korda, “Indian Nuclear Forces, 2020,” 218.

185 Manoj Joshi, “India’s Nuclear Arsenal Failed by ‘Unreliable’ Missiles,” India Today, September 4, 2012,

186 Ajai Shukla, “New-Age Agni to Boost Pak-Focused Nuclear Deterrent,” Business Standard, December 17, 2016,

187 Snehesh Alex Philip, “Agni Prime Is the New Missile in India’s Nuclear Arsenal. This is why it’s special,” The Print, June 30, 2021,

188 Kaushal, Byrne, Byrne, and Somerville, “India’s Nuclear Doctrine: The Agni-P and the Stability–Instability Paradox.”

189 Kristensen and Korda, “Indian Nuclear Forces, 2020,” 220.

190 Ibid., 218.

191 Krishn Kaushik and Sushant Kulkarni, “Explained: Agni (ICBM) vs China’s Hypersonic Missile,” Indian Express, October 28, 2021.

192 Vikas Sv, “Why India May Not Test Agni 6 Even if DRDO Is Ready With Technology?,” OneIndia, July 10, 2019,

193 V. K. Saxena, “Agni I to VI – Not Just a Number Game,” Journal of the United Service Institution of India 148, no. 613 (2018).

194 Hemant Kumar Rout, “India to Conduct First User Trial of Agni-V Missile,” New Indian Express, September 13, 2021,

195 Saxena, “Agni I to VI – Not Just a Number Game.”

196 For more, see Halvor A. Undem, “A Random Variable Approach to Nuclear Targeting and Survivability,” Military Operations Research 5, no. 2 (2000): 19–36; and for a graphic illustration, see Office of Technology Assessment, The Effects of Nuclear War (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office), 44.

197 Clary and Narang, “India’s Counterforce Temptations”, 7–52; and Zachary Keck, “India’s Agni-V ICBM to Carry Multiple Nuclear Warheads,” The Diplomat, May 31, 2013,

198 “Agni-V Vital: Tessy Thomas,” The Hindu, October 02, 2013.

199 Arjun Subramanian.P, “Longer Reach and Enabling More Options: AGNI V,” Center for Air Power Studies, April 30, 2012,, 2.

200 The only possible exception to this conclusion where Indian ballistic missiles are concerned is the Agni-IP, but even its attributed CEP of 10 meters is more likely an expansive ambition rather than a demonstrated capability. In contrast, India’s cruise missiles are likely to be relatively accurate but, at least as of now, neither the Brahmos nor the Nirbhay are nuclear armed and the latter at any rate cannot conduct prompt counterforce operations.

201 Ajit Kumar Dubey, “Indian Army Might Get Pinaka Rockets to Counter Pakistan's Mini-nuclear Weapons,” India Today, September 26, 2017; “Indian Army Test Launches Prahaar Short-Range Ballistic missile,” Army Technology, September 21, 2018,; Franz-Stefan Gady, “India Test Fires Nuclear-Capable Nirbhay Cruise Missile,” The Diplomat, April 15, 2019,; “BrahMos Fired From Sukhoi,” Times Now News, October 30, 2020,; Debabrata Mohanty and Rahul Singh, “India Successfully Tests Nuclear-Capable Shaurya Missile,” Hindustan Times, October 3, 2020,; and “DRDO Successfully Carries Maiden Flight Test of ‘Pralay’,” The Pioneer, December 23, 2021,

202 Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, 82; and Franz-Stefan Gady, “India to Test 800-km Range BrahMos Supersonic Cruise Missile in 2018,” The Diplomat, January 24, 2018,

203 For example, the “Draft Report of National Security Advisory Board on Indian Nuclear Doctrine” states that India will develop “a triad of aircraft, mobile land-based missiles and sea-based assets” so that the “survivability of the forces will be enhanced by a combination of multiple redundant systems, mobility, dispersion and deception,” providing the “assured capability… to retaliate effectively even in a case of significant degradation by hostile strikes.”

204 Rahul Roy-Chaudhary, “India and Pakistan: Nuclear-Related Programs and Aspirations at Sea,” in South Asia's Nuclear Security Dilemma: India, Pakistan, and China, ed. Lowell Dittmer (New York: Routledge, 2015), 85.

205 Iskander Rehman, Murky Waters: Naval Nuclear Dynamics in the Indian Ocean (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2015); and Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Indian Nuclear Forces, 2017,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 73, no. 4 (2017): 205–209.

206 The meandering history of this program is illuminatingly detailed in Yogesh Joshi, “Samudra: India’s Convoluted Path to Undersea Nuclear Weapons,” Nonproliferation Review 26, no. 5–6 (2019): 481–497.

207 Kristensen and Korda, “Indian Nuclear Forces, 2020,” 218–219.

208 “India Continues to Develop New K-5 Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile SLBM,” Navy Recognition, February 1, 2020,

209 Sandeep Unnithan, “A Peek Into India’s Top Secret and Costliest Defence Project, Nuclear Submarines,” India Today, December 18, 2017,; and Rajat Pandit, “Arihant’s N-Capable Missile ‘Ready to Roll,’” Times of India, January 25, 2020,

210 See, for example, Andrew C. Winner and Ryan W. French, “Rip Currents: The Dangers of Nuclear-Armed Submarine Proliferation,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 72, no. 4 (2016): 222–227; Diana Wueger, “India’s Nuclear-Armed Submarines: Deterrence or Danger?,” Washington Quarterly 39, no. 3 (2016): 77–90; and Tom Hundley, “India and Pakistan Are Quietly Making Nuclear War More Likely,” Vox, April 4, 2018,

211 For details, see Rehman, Murky Waters, 14–15.

212 While China’s ASW capabilities have been rapidly improving in recent years, they remain limited. See, for example, Eric Heginbotham et al., The U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power, 1996–2017 (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2015), 208–214, 224; Ronald O’Rourke, China’s Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities – Background and Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2018), 4; and William S. Murray, “Underwater TELs and China’s Antisubmarine Warfare: Evolving Strength and a Calculated Weakness,” in China’s Near Seas Combat Capabilities, eds. Peter Dutton, Andrew S. Erickson, and Ryan Martinson (Newport: U.S. Naval War College, 2014), 17–30.

213 For a description of Russia’s role in the development of the Arihant program, see Kerry R. Bolton, “Indo-Russian Defence Cooperation and INS Arihant: Some Geopolitical Implications,” World Affairs 17, no. 1 (2013): 52–61. For an account of Russia’s unreliable track record of nuclear submarine safety, see Cristina Chuen, Michael Jasinski, and Bret Lortie, “Russia’s Blue Water Blues,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 57, no. 1 (2001): 65–69.

214 G. Balachandran, “What Is the Relevance of a Triad?,” The Hindu, September 10, 1999.

215 For further elaboration, see Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 309–310.

216 For an overview of India’s interests in missile defense, see Balraj Nagal, “India and Ballistic Missile Defense: Furthering a Defensive Deterrent,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 30, 2016,; and Ashok Sharma, India’s Missile Defence Programme: Threat Perceptions and Technological Evolution (New Delhi: Centre for Land Warfare Studies, 2009).

217 See the discussion in Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, “Strategic Implications of India’s Ballistic Missile Defense,” Federation of American Scientists, May 8, 2017,

218 Balraj Nagal, “India and Ballistic Missile Defense.”

219 Perkovich, India’s Nuclear Bomb, 422–424.

220 For an overview of the expansion of India’s nuclear infrastructure under Prime Minister Singh, see Vipin Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era: Regional Powers and International Conflict (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 100–110; and Kampani, India’s Nuclear Proliferation Policy, 112–143.

221 Arun Prakash, “India’s Nuclear Deterrent: The More Things Change…” S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, March 2014,, 4.

222 Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, 101–103; and Kampani, India’s Nuclear Proliferation Policy, 121–131.

223 Saran, “Is India’s Nuclear Deterrent Credible?”

224 Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 595–609.

225 Ibid.; and Lauren J. Borja and M.V. Ramana, “Command and Control of India’s Nuclear Arsenal,” Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, 3:1 (2020): 1–20.

226 Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, 97; and Kampani, India’s Nuclear Proliferation Policy, 129.

227 Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, 101–103. See also, Borja and Ramana, “Command and Control of India’s Nuclear Arsenal,” 1–20.

228 See Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 609–635.

229 Saran, “Is India’s Nuclear Deterrent Credible?,” 11; and Kampani, India’s Nuclear Proliferation Policy, 112–143.

230 Kampani, India’s Nuclear Proliferation Policy, 129.

231 For a good overview of the role of the SFC, though with caveats about some specifics, see Kampani, India’s Nuclear Proliferation Policy, 112–143.

232 As Yogesh Joshi notes, “There exists a strict division of labor between the navy and the SFC: maintenance and day-to-day operations of India’s SSBN fleet are the navy’s job; operational deployment falls exclusively under the SFC’s purview. Unlike the air vector of India’s nuclear-delivery systems, SSBNs will have no dual tasking and will remain solely under the operational command of the SFC.” Joshi, “Samudra,” 495. Presumably, a similar arrangement obtains where control of the ship-based nuclear deterrent is concerned as well.

233 For examples pertaining to the three services, see “Chief Staff Officer (Air Vector Strategy) Appointments at Strategic Forces Command,” Bharat Rakshak,; “Maj Gen Gamlin Takes Charge as SFC Chief Staff Officer,” Dawnlit Post, August 28, 2017,; and “Biodata: Rear Admiral SY Shrikhande, AVSM, IN (Retd),”

234 Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 91; and “India’s Nuclear Weapons Program: Smiling Buddha: 1974,” Nuclear Weapons Archive, November 8, 2001,

235 Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Worldwide Deployments of Nuclear Weapons, 2017,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 73, no. 5 (2017): 289–297.

236 Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, 102–103.

237 Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 417.

238 Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces, 142–149; Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, 102–103; and Kampani, India’s Nuclear Proliferation Policy, 129–130.

239 Kampani, India’s Nuclear Proliferation Policy, 130.

240 Ibid., 112–143.

241 Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces, 147–149, however, infers that the need for assembled weapons derives from the fact that India deploys sealed pit warheads. But sealed pit warhead designs are not necessarily incompatible with low assembly states, thus suggesting that the imperatives for maintaining assembled warheads, whatever their number, is driven by the need to support speedy retaliation rather than because of their technical features.

242 Kampani, India’s Nuclear Proliferation Policy, 112–143.

243 Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era, 100–109.

244 Kampani, India’s Nuclear Proliferation Policy, 130.

245 Shiv Aroor, “New Chief of India’s Military Research Complex Reveals Brave New Mandate,” India Today, July 3, 2013,

246 Narang, “Five Myths About India’s Nuclear Posture,” 148.

247 Bharat Karnad, “Why concerns about an India-Pakistan nuclear war are highly exaggerated,” Hindustan Times, March 31, 2017,

248 Ajey Lele and Parveen Bhardwaj, India’s Nuclear Triad: A Net Assessment (New Delhi: Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, 2013), 24–28.

249 In this vein, a former DRDO director, Dr. Avinash Chander—in a display of bravado aimed at domestic audiences—has claimed that “In the second strike capability, the most important thing is how fast we can react. We are working on canisterised systems that can launch from anywhere at anytime. . . . We are making much more agile, fast-reacting, stable missiles so response can be within minutes.” Aroor, “New Chief of India’s Military Research Complex Reveals Brave New Mandate.”

250 Kampani, India’s Nuclear Proliferation Policy, 131.

251 Joshi, “Samudra,” 495.

252 Joshi, “Samudra,” 494; and Kampani, India’s Nuclear Proliferation Policy, 130.

253 Kaushik and Kulkarni, “Explained: Agni (ICBM) vs China’s Hypersonic Missile.”

254 Clary and Narang, “India’s Counterforce Temptations,” 37–38.

255 Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 672–724.

256 Joshi, “Samudra,” 494.

257 Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 410.

258 Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era, 107–108.

259 Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 463–466.

260 Saran, “Is India’s Nuclear Deterrent Credible?,” 17–18.

261 Ibid., 19–20.

262 Gaurav Kampani, “India’s Evolving Civil-Military Institutions in an Operational Nuclear Context,” June 30, 2016,

263 The PES/PAL system is flagged in Prakash, “India’s Nuclear Deterrent,” 4; and in Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces, 100–105.

264 Saran, “Is India’s Nuclear Deterrent Credible?,” 21.

265 Kampani, India’s Nuclear Proliferation Policy, 113, does not disagree with this conclusion but his linguistic formulation is confusing.

266 Press Trust of India, “India Accidentally Fired Missile Into Pakistan, Govt Orders Probe,” Economic Times, March 11, 2022,