This piece is part of a compilation bringing together Regional Voices on the Challenges of Nuclear Deterrence Stability in Southern Asia.


Gaurav Kampani
Gaurav Kampani is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.

In the decade and a half since India conducted nuclear tests and formally claimed nuclear status, a revolutionary transformation has occurred in the way that Indian national security managers have approached nuclear weapons. This transformation concerns a serious effort on their part to operationalize India’s nuclear arsenal. India’s shift toward an operationalized nuclear force has upended the earlier consensual view among policymakers and academics that successive Indian governments did not take the demands of nuclear planning seriously.

Beginning when India first tested a nuclear device in 1974, a belief grew that Indian policy planners primarily cared for the political symbolism and prestige associated with nuclear weapons.1 By 1993, when it was generally assumed that India had secretly built a basement nuclear arsenal, some scholars pointed to the absence of visible signs of operational planning as evidence that Indian national security managers were invested in a normative regime of nuclear restraint.2 Others attributed the apparent restraint to a unique strategic culture that foreswore the use of nuclear weaponry.3 And still other scholars argued that the dysfunction in India’s civil-military institutions and the distrust that pervaded them precluded India from fielding an operational arsenal.4Even in the aftermath of the 1998 round of nuclear tests, it became an accepted truism that India would likely continue its institutional path dependency in favor of politically symbolic but operationally dormant nuclear weaponry.5

The trajectory of India’s nuclear force development and planning in the last decade, however, defies all these neat categorizations. Not only is India attempting to develop all the technical elements of a classic triad nuclear force, but it has also paid attention to the infrastructure—such as communications, transportation, storage, and logistics—as well as the institutional and organizational aspects that give any force its teeth.6 India’s efforts in all three spheres are ongoing, and it will likely take another decade until many of these efforts enter a phase of maturity and begin to bear fruit. Nonetheless, these efforts are evidence that Asia is now in the midst of a second nuclear age, with China, India, and Pakistan at its center.

In the last decade, the institutional participation of the Indian military in both nuclear planning and operations has become central to New Delhi’s effort to develop a credible deterrent. Although efforts to reform civil-military relations in the conventional sphere have proceeded slowly and at times have sputtered, India’s civilian principals have moved relatively quickly to establish robust civil-military institutions to manage the nuclear arsenal. In doing so, they have made the military a co-participant with the scientific agencies that had earlier dominated nuclear planning. The two principal developments in this regard have been the creation of India’s tri-service Strategic Forces Command (SFC) to execute nuclear operations and, subsequently, the formation of the Strategic Planning Staff (SPS) to undertake long-range planning and provide independent advice to India’s Nuclear Command Authority (NCA).

This study presents data and analysis on the evolution of India’s civil-military institutions in an operational nuclear context. It uses information from open sources, supplemented by interviews with senior Indian national security managers, to analyze the institutional, organizational, and procedural aspects of Indian force planning; the principles and types of logic that guide India’s nuclear command and operations; and the institutional civil-military perceptions of force credibility, survivability, and assured retaliatory capability.

Institutions, Organizations, and Procedures

India’s stepping out of the nuclear closet in 1998 was a game changer for South Asia’s nuclear landscape. The end of the country’s external nuclear ambiguity paved the way for the collapse of its regime of internal ambiguity as well. It helped extricate India’s nuclear weapons program from its narrow technical confines and embed it into a broader template of institutions, organizations, and procedures, giving meaning to the idea of force employment.7

India’s national-security-related institutional reforms exploded in the aftermath of the 1999 Kargil War and the Kargil Committee Report, which channeled nearly four decades of the reformers’ angst over the country’s national security institutional stasis.8 This movement for institutional reforms, which began to gain strength in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was fully expressed in the 2000 Group of Ministers’ report on national security reforms.9 Reforms touched every aspect of decisionmaking: long-term national security planning, intelligence collection and aggregation, jointness among the three armed services, and the recasting of civil-military relations.10 The operational management of the nuclear force was also part of the reform process, but political decisionmakers accorded it a low priority.11 It was not until the years 2003–2004 that the military gained institutional authority for nuclear force planning and management alongside the scientific agencies.12

Historically, each of India’s armed services has enjoyed a high degree of organizational autonomy from its sister services, as well as minimal operational interference from civilian oversight authorities. Before the reforms initiated in the last decade, joint planning between the services was the province of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (CoSC), which consisted of the three service chiefs. The chairmanship of the CoSC devolved by rotation on the most senior serving chief. But this did not signify the principle of first among equals. The three services developed doctrines and operational plans independently of each other with minimal coordination. Likewise, the CoSC institutionalized the practice of each service not contesting the others’ force planning and acquisition requests to the civilian Ministry of Defense.13

The net result of such institutional practices was the near absence of weapons and operational synergy among the services. Nuclearization created an even more acute operational dilemma because India’s institutional legacy of maintaining a de-mated nuclear force was designed to require exactly the sort of operational synergy traditionally lacking in India’s conventional planning. The control of nuclear warheads is divided between two civilian scientific agencies: the Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC) and the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), which control the fissile cores and non-nuclear firing assemblies, respectively. However, the air force and the navy each retain separate control of nuclear delivery systems. The protagonists of military reform therefore sought to recast institutions to instill greater coordination and joint planning among the services.14

The principal vector of institutional reform was the Arun Singh–led Task Force on Management of Defense.15 It proposed defense reforms in the context of the revolution in military affairs and India’s status as a nuclear weapons state. The heart of its recommendations concerned the replacement of the CoSC with an Integrated Defense Staff (IDS), which would be led by a chief of the Defense Staff (CDS), to bring joint planning and coordination to the armed services. Compared with the past, when the CoSC’s chairman was only a nominal head, the CDS would be a first among equals. With assistance from a vice chief of the Defense Staff (VCDS), and with the IDS acting as his secretariat for staffing functions, the CDS would “administer the Strategic Forces” and “provide single point military advice to the government,” as summarized by former CoSC chairman Arun Prakash.16 Pursuant to the Singh task force’s recommendations, the government instituted the IDS in 2001. A tri-service SFC to coordinate and manage nuclear forces was subsequently instituted in the IDS in May 2002. Although the creation of the CDS position fell victim to intraservice and civil-military bureaucratic rivalries and remains in limbo, successive Indian governments since the early 2000s have sought to create robust institutional mechanisms to manage the nuclear deterrent professionally.17

In January 2003, India publicly acknowledged the establishment of the NCA for its nuclear force. The NCA consists of two halves: the Political Council (PC) and the Executive Council (EC). India’s prime minister chairs the PC, the composition of which has not been made public.18 If it follows the pattern of India’s past institutional practices, however, it most likely consists of the Cabinet Committee on Security (ministers of home, defense, and external affairs), the national security adviser (NSA), the cabinet secretary, and the prime minister’s principal secretary. Other special invitees, given the nature of the context, could possibly include the principal scientific adviser, the scientific adviser to the defense minister, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and the three service chiefs in a nonvoting capacity. The PC is the “sole body which can authorize the use of nuclear weapons,” as a 2003 press release described it.19

The EC, the press release added, “is chaired by the National Security Advisor. It provides inputs for decisionmaking by the Nuclear Command Authority and executes the directives given to it by the Political Council.”20 The EC’s composition has also not been made public. However, it almost certainly includes the three service chiefs; the commander of the SFC; the principal scientific adviser; and the heads of the AEC, DRDO, and the intelligence agencies. Within the NCA, the SPS and representatives from the armed services, the DRDO, the AEC, and the External Affairs Ministry provide strategic inputs on the quality and reliability of India’s nuclear weapons and delivery systems, foreign intelligence, global arms control and disarmament initiatives, and long-term planning for the arsenal. In addition, a separate Strategic Armaments Safety Authority advises the NSA and the NCA on the safety and security of India’s nuclear assets.21

Since the middle of the last decade, the SFC’s organizational presence within India’s nuclear planning operation has grown substantially. In 2010, the former commander of the SFC, Rear Admiral (retired) Vijay Shankar, estimated the SFC’s staff strength at a “little below 100.” This number, according to Shankar, is a “large staff for a command, especially when compared to other conventional operational commands, where staff strength does not exceed 50–60.”22 With organizational expansion, the SFC now has departments that cover logistics; a works department for building infrastructure; a technical section that has representation from all three military services; and a department of land, air, and sea vectors responsible for generating standard operating procedures for the various stages of operational readiness, in both peacetime and war. The SFC also has an electronics department that focuses on general release codes for nuclear weapons, as well as the NCA’s general computing and communications requirements; an independent intelligence analysis group that processes raw data from various government agencies; and its own specialized medical staff.23

One of the SFC’s principal initiatives has been to force a change in the methodology for nuclear force planning—from one based on heuristics to one based on robust estimates of statistical damage expectancy. In the pre-SFC era, it is highly likely that projections of fissile material availability and crude guesstimates of overall systems and prelaunch survivability were the basis for force planning. However, the greater availability of fissile material in the aftermath of the 2005 Indo-U.S. nuclear rapprochement and the deeper institutionalization of the SFC appear to have changed that reality. Senior SFC commanders such as Rear Admiral (retired) Shankar have insisted that “everything is numbers based . . . on operations research-based probabilistic analysis. The former is necessary to arrive at facts, . . . in contrast to the intuitive gut-instinct analysis of the nuclear scientists, politicians, and their civilian advisers in the past.”24

The operationalization of the arsenal has also forced the NCA to grapple with principal-agent dilemmas, especially in the context of long-term force planning, technical issues related to force reliability, and operations. Before 1998, the prime minister’s office (PMO) served as the de facto NCA. However, it lacked independent institutional capacities to oversee the scientific and military agents that were tasked with the development and management of India’s fledgling nuclear arsenal. But gradually, during the past decade, political and bureaucratic decisionmakers in the PMO have asserted their authority over their scientific and military agents by creating formal institutions to manage nuclear decisionmaking.

The best example of this is the creation of the SPS. Although information is still compartmentalized within the SPS, the body informally performs staffing functions for the SFC related to long-term planning. Furthermore, in a self-referential system confronted by perennial problems of guarding the guardians, the SPS provides an oversight mechanism for the political decisionmakers at the apex of the NCA.25

The Bifurcation of Conventional and Nuclear Commands and Operations

During the past fifteen years, India has followed up on the development of its nuclear force by bifurcating its nuclear and conventional commands and operations. There are two rationales for this choice. The first is doctrinal, stemming from the internalization of the principle that nuclear weapons are instruments of deterrence and not war fighting. The second is that nuclear weapons are too dangerous to be integrated with the conventional military, lest that integration produce inadvertent or accidental escalation. Related to this is the notion that, whereas conventional forces can serve purposes of offense and/or defense under various circumstances, nuclear weapons are purely defensive.

For these reasons, the NCA directly oversees nuclear force planning and use from within the PMO. This institutional arrangement is unprecedented in India’s history; in the conventional sphere, the armed services are allowed considerable autonomy, and services draw up their plans for weapons acquisition and develop operational doctrines independently of civilian inputs. This is partly due to the fact that civilian managers—those politicians and bureaucrats to whom the armed services are answerable—lack the epistemic means to supervise their military agents.26 Such autonomy, although not ideal, is tolerated in the conventional sphere because the consequences of conventional war are considered manageable.

However, this is not the case for India’s nuclear forces, in which the SFC, although part of the IDS, has few linkages with it. The SFC commander reports directly to the chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (CCoSC) and the NSA. Within the PMO, the SPS provides independent advice to the NSA. In effect, the command of India’s nuclear forces flows from the PMO through the office of the NSA to the CCoSC and the SFC commander. More practically, the SFC commander interacts directly with the NSA, the SPS, and the NCA, more or less circumventing the conventional military entirely.

India’s conventional military has accepted this institutional bifurcation, with some misgivings. It is considered more acceptable in the case of China than with respect to Pakistan. Although China was the original trigger for New Delhi’s interest in nuclear weapons in the 1960s, India’s national security managers do not perceive the threat posed by China’s nuclear arsenal as an existential dilemma. They view it as a potential tool of political blackmail and psychological intimidation.27 Despite India’s rout in its 1962 border war with China, Indian leaders have historically considered the Chinese threat with far greater equanimity than is often communicated publicly.28 The Himalayas, which separate India and China, constitute a natural geographic barrier that limits the scale and scope of conventional operations. Indian leaders regard border skirmishes and counterinsurgency operations as having a greater likelihood along India’s northeastern frontier against China, the most probable site for physical hostilities between the two powers.

From India’s perspective, four issues—its unresolved border dispute with China, Chinese nuclear and missile assistance to Pakistan, China’s potential support for insurgencies in India, and water sharing from the rivers emanating in the Himalayan watershed—are potential causes of conflict. India’s support for a potential Tibetan insurgency in the Tibet Autonomous Region, or its attempts to disrupt Chinese energy supplies or trade traversing the sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean, or the two nations’ rivalry in Southeast Asia could serve as other causes of conflict. Yet none of these issues qualify immediately as nuclear-threat-inducing, given that both countries possess powerful conventional forces that can address these contingencies.

The great strategic unease in New Delhi concerns how Beijing might politically leverage nuclear asymmetries that favor it. Likewise, Indian national security planners complain that Chinese support for Pakistani nuclear and missile programs has enabled Islamabad to threaten India’s national identity as a secular polity by giving material and ideological support to insurgent and terrorist groups. Above all, the issue that most concerns Indian policy planners is China’s potential to confine India to South Asia and thus to deny it the great power role and status commensurate with its self-perceptions as one of the world’s great civilizations.29

Pakistan’s case, however, is considered markedly different. Senior Indian military leaders in the conventional services see a greater need for institutional coordination with the nuclear command because of Pakistani revisionism and Pakistan’s resort to a strategy of low-intensity conflict to achieve that revisionism.

Beginning in the early 1980s, the nuclear threat from Pakistan revitalized India’s nuclear weapons program.30 The idea of a Pakistani threat to India is somewhat counterintuitive because of India’s massive advantages in size, geographic depth, conventional force numbers, and overall resource availability. However, numbers and raw estimates of material disparities are crude proxies for power because they ignore differential abilities for institutional mobilization and field operations. Even for conventional militaries, a more sophisticated measure of operational power is what Stephen Biddle describes as “force employment,” which privileges organizational capacities to execute complex operations on the battlefield over technology.31

On the Indian subcontinent, Pakistan’s superior internal lines of communications, reserve forces, and shorter mobilization times, along with the division of India’s army along its northern and western borders, in practice attenuate most of the conventional advantages that India enjoys in theory.32 However, even with its crude numbers advantage, India realized in the early 1980s that in conditions of nuclear asymmetry it would find itself unable to concentrate its conventional forces. Such conditions would enable a weaker conventional enemy to chew up the Indian forces piecemeal. This argument, presented in the early 1980s by General K. S. Sundarji in the famous Mhow Papers, became the core of a revived Indian rationale for a nuclear weapons program.33

A related rationale for Indian weaponization was that in conditions of nuclear asymmetry, Pakistan might make an attempt to snatch disputed territory such as Kashmir from India, especially if the Indian political leadership were to find itself paralyzed for want of a nuclear option.34 Hence India’s approach since the mid-1980s has been to counter the possibility of nuclear blackmail that could prevent a counter-Indian conventional response against a Pakistani conventional grab operation in Kashmir, either through standard military operations or indirectly through the severing of lines of communications.35

Pakistan also has a long history of subcontracting foreign and defense policies to nonstate proxies.36 From the late 1980s onward, Pakistan used such a strategy in Kashmir, capitalizing on local disaffection due to Indian misgovernance by supporting insurgent and terrorist groups against India, confident in the assumption that its nuclear arsenal would both immunize it from an Indian conventional riposte as well as catalyze international intervention.37 The Indian counter to this approach has gradually evolved to punish Pakistan conventionally through limited conventional war while preventing escalation to the nuclear level. But if nuclear operations commence, India aims to terminate war at the lowest possible rung of nuclear escalation.38

In the mid-2000s, the Indian army informally announced a new doctrine, Cold Start, to fight a limited conventional war under nuclear conditions. It devised this doctrine to deal with the problem of Pakistan’s subconventional war strategy against India. Before 1999, the Indian military responded to Pakistani provocations with a strategy of denial and dissuasion. Thereafter, it switched to a strategy of denial and punishment. Instead of simply denying victory to Pakistani-sponsored insurgents and terrorists, it sought to punish their Pakistani sponsors by striking swift retaliatory blows, making limited incursions, and occupying Pakistani territory along the border.39

Pakistan’s nuclear strategy has in turn evolved, to seeking to defeat India’s new punishment strategy by adopting what Vipin Narang terms “asymmetric escalation.” This essentially means that Pakistan proposes to use nuclear weapons first and early.40 In response, India insists that (1) it will not use nuclear weapons first; and (2) any Indian response to nuclear use, even limited use by Pakistan, will be punishment through massive retaliation. At the declaratory level, India maintains that it will choose only between the two extremes: Either do nothing or undertake massive attacks that will impose unacceptable losses on the enemy.41

More likely, India’s operational employment policy does not actually seek to punish a nuclear aggressor in a counterspasm of nuclear frenzy. Senior Indian military leaders have suggested that the SFC’s operational plans encompass a range of options that include nuclear demonstration shots, tactical use against military area targets on the conventional battlefield, and use against other counterforce targets, not just large-scale countercity attacks.42 However, India’s lack of clarifications between stated and actual employment policy creates room for doubt and miscalculations.43

Since 2010, the Indian government and army have backed away from Cold Start. Equipment shortages within the military, the lack of serious reorganization within army units, and as-yet-unaddressed logistical gaps suggest that Cold Start remains nonviable in practice.44 The Indian navy and air force are moving in the direction of acquiring long-range standoff precision weapon capabilities, which in theory would give Indian conventional services the capability to strike targets deep inside Pakistan without crossing the border, and would thereby circumvent the need to occupy any physical ground. Conversely, such weapons could also provide the capability to strike Pakistan’s nuclear assets, triggering a nuclear escalatory response from Pakistan.45

Several senior Indian military leaders view subconventional, conventional, and nuclear operations as part of a single spectrum of operations. Conventional operations could seamlessly transition to a nuclear exchange, because low-yield nuclear weapons, which China and Pakistan possess, could be used for strategic political effect on the battlefield with relatively low casualties.46 A nuclear attack by an adversary, at least in its early stages, would very likely assume the form of a symbolic strike, a demonstration or warning shot against some tactical Indian formation in the field.47

Senior Indian military leaders at the highest levels aver that such attacks, if they do materialize, would demand a highly calibrated Indian counterresponse to terminate war at the lowest possible level of nuclear exchange.48 However, such a nuanced politico-military strategy would be difficult to pull off, given the existing state of compartmentalization between India’s conventional and nuclear war commands.49

Civil-Military Perceptions of Force Credibility, Survivability, and Retaliatory Capability

After a decade of grappling with operational issues, the Indian military remains concerned about the technical reliability, reconstitution, survivability, and overall operational viability of India’s nuclear arsenal.

Public assurances to the contrary, Indian military leaders privately harbor deep concerns about the viability of India’s tested warhead designs. Critical open-source data analysis of the 1998 tests is one source that feeds their doubts.50 The evidence available in the open-source literature and the testimony of a whistle-blower within India’s defense establishment suggest that the thermonuclear design tested in 1998 did not achieve “efficient burn” and requires further “hot tests” to be validated.51 Indeed, India may have forgone the weaponization of this thermonuclear device.52

It is possible that the boosted-fission trigger on India’s thermonuclear device could have been developed into a weapon. However, the yield reliability of the boosted-fission design also remains in doubt. Some weapon designers and scientists point out that the reliability of boosted designs is more an empirical art and less a science.53 It is thus plausible, as the best open-source analysis of the Indian tests surmised a decade ago, that simple Hiroshima-type 20–30 kiloton fission weapons constitute the core of India’s nuclear inventory.54 Yet even if this is the case, further concerns have surfaced with regard to the reliability of India’s non-nuclear detonation systems, such as accurate height burst fuses.55

India’s nuclear design establishment has sought to assure the military that warhead reliability can be verified with computer simulations, the separate testing of components and subsystems, and subkiloton tests. However, the military remains skeptical that simulations and subsystem tests are a reliable proxy for integrated system tests.56 They also doubt claims that India’s nuclear scientists were able to collect sufficient data from India’s five field tests to build accurate computer simulations and subkiloton tests. Other nuclear weapons powers have had to conduct several dozen tests, or even hundreds, to achieve similar results.57 The military, however, has no way to force the issue.

Warhead yield limitations and reliability concerns have inevitably shifted India’s attention to the performance of the delivery systems—to aircraft and ballistic missiles. Performance, according to the SFC, is less a problem with aircraft, which remain by far the most reliable and flexible nuclear delivery vectors in India’s inventory.58 The limitations of aircraft have mainly to do with their short range (which restricts their use to the Pakistani theater of operations), and the uncertainty surrounding their ability to penetrate lethal modern air defenses. Reliability is also a lesser concern with India’s dual-use aircraft, because the entire inventory is imported.

The range limitations of aircraft and their vulnerability to air defenses mean that long-range ballistic missiles—both land- and sea-based—will be India’s primary means for targeting China. Relying only on missiles is a difficult proposition, because India’s long-range ballistic missiles have historically suffered from a high launch failure rate. Only in this decade, under pressure from the military, have India’s scientific agencies begun testing missiles more thoroughly under operational conditions. Ballistic missiles incorporate a range of critical technologies—boost, postboost realignment and spin, stage separation, warhead separation, reentry, and navigation systems.59 A critical failure of any of these systems, whether individually or in conjunction, can cause catastrophic mission failure.

For example, before 2010, missile tests under operational conditions were sparse. The Agni technology demonstrator (TD) flew only three times between 1989 and 1994.60 Similarly, the medium-range Agni II was tested five times between 1999 and 2011, and the Agni III was tested four times between 2006 and 2010. Failure rates in these tests were high. For example, the Agni TD had a launch failure rate of 33 percent.61 The medium-range Agni II and III have suffered launch failure rates of 40 and 25 percent, respectively. Furthermore, launch successes and failures tell us nothing about the performance of the missiles’ other critical systems; data concerning these systems are scarce. Open-source reports, however, suggest that even those missiles that launched successfully suffered some navigation malfunctions.62 The real failure rates of some Indian ballistic missiles might be much higher than India’s scientific agencies have publicly disclosed.

Beyond reliability issues, nuclear force reconstitution and operational employment remain the SFC’s other principal concerns. As things stand now, two civilian entities, the Bhabha Atomic Research Center and the DRDO, have custody of the fissile cores and nonfissile trigger assemblies. The SFC controls a small ballistic missile force. The air force has control over all dual-use combat aircraft in peacetime. This distributed force posture, according to senior SFC commanders, would not be a problem if India had a first use policy because the initiative for nuclear use would rest with India. However, successful retaliation in the chaos of war depends on timely force constitution. Much would depend, of course, on the scale of a potential nuclear strike against India. A small and symbolic first strike would leave India relatively unscathed. A large-scale attack, however, could throw the country into chaos and knock out critical parts of its nuclear force preceding reconstitution.63

Senior SFC and other military leaders are intrinsically uncomfortable with this recessed posture and with divided command and control, for two reasons. First, the recessed posture and divided structure make it harder for India to overcome the challenges of weak physical and organizational infrastructure. Second, the slow development of robust operations management practices make the recessed posture and divided command and control even more unreliable.64 During the mid-2000s for example, the SFC judged the infrastructure of the Indian nuclear force, especially its communications and transportation networks, to be subpar. The SFC’s focus has therefore turned to improving the physical infrastructure, which encompasses everything from secure communications networks to multiple and redundant command-and-control nodes, safe storage and launch hideouts for the nuclear force, and robust transportation links for the secure passage of warheads, fissile cores and delivery vehicles.65 These intangibles are becoming the focus of budgetary attention.

From a logistics point of view, the transformation of India’s dormant force into an operational force also requires enormous coordination between the country’s scientific and military agencies. It places great demands on standard operating procedures, the training of personnel, and exercises to test the interface of humans and machines. The problem here is not the “fog of war” that civilian policy planners often imagine, but the “friction of war”—the product of technical errors and operator misjudgments compounded by unforeseen contingencies.66

Two events, the Kargil War in 1999 and India’s 2001–2002 military standoff with Pakistan, made plain to both Indian national security managers and political leaders the necessity of developing new institutional procedures for the operational readiness, deployment, and use of nuclear weapons. For example, in the mid-1990s, civilian bureaucrats and nuclear scientists assumed, on the basis of back-of-the-envelope calculations, that it would take approximately 72 hours for India to absorb and launch a retaliatory nuclear attack.67 But when the Kargil War broke out in 1999, the assembly of nuclear weapons alone took about a week.68 The war started in May 1999, but the air force only achieved operational readiness sometime in June.69 The 2001–2002 crisis showed similarly serious discrepancies between plans on paper and the actual time needed to achieve operational readiness.70 These two crises proved Clausewitz’s observation that, during war, the simplest things are often the hardest to do.

Based on the lessons learned from these crises and from internal military exercises, by the mid-2000s the SFC prevailed upon the government to streamline nuclear-alerting protocols and to reduce the number procedural steps necessary to deploy the arsenal from six to four. Under these new protocols, the first stage of nuclear force alerting begins simultaneously with any conventional mobilization. The assembly of nuclear weapons begins during this first stage. Weapons dispersal follows, in the second stage. The third stage involves mating the weapons with delivery systems. The role of the scientific agencies ends at the completion of the third stage—and firing authority devolves upon the military during the fourth and final stage.71

In peacetime, India’s nuclear arsenal remains de-mated, but underneath this broad institutional pronouncement, small procedural changes have begun to erode some of the earlier civilian reticence concerning positive controls. For example, some types of nuclear ordnance are now co-located with delivery systems at air and naval bases.72 The DRDO has expressed its intent to deploy intermediate-range missiles such as the Agni V and VI in canisters, which, besides storing missiles one step closer to launch-readiness, offer ideal conditions for climate control, particularly temperature, humidity, and dust.73 Canisters also ensure climate control for nuclear warheads.74 Unless India changes its procedures to keep missiles on constant patrol, however, there is no overwhelming technical and logistical necessity to keep warheads mated onto them. Mating is more likely to occur during an operational alert, just before flushing out missiles from hideouts to predesignated patrol areas and launch sites. This procedure makes sense because mating warheads is a time-consuming task. It can probably only be done at a few select sites, where teams of scientists have the requisite facilities, equipment, and diagnostics to perform safety and reliability checks.

With the development of India’s sea-based nuclear capability, there has been a growing realization among political decisionmakers that maintaining a de-mated posture on warships and submarines is difficult. They realize that the institutional mechanisms of the past will need to make way for new ones. The former Indian national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra, acknowledged that policymakers have begun to consider land and sea postures differently, especially in light of India’s proposed investments in a dedicated submarine-launched ballistic missile force:

You have to make a difference between the navy, the air force, and the missiles on land. When the admiral . . . is out . . . hundreds of miles away, he must have those weapons with him; . . . but there must be a way of communication between the submarine or the ship and the decisionmakers in Delhi whether to fire or not to fire. But in the case of [the] air force, unless they are on an aircraft carrier, . . . that’s a different matter. But with land-based missiles that is not the same question.75

Even in the case of nuclear missile submarines (SSBNs), it is unclear whether India will follow the example of other nuclear weapons powers and maintain submarines on constant patrol. China, for example, never sent its first nuclear submarine out on patrol. The S2—India’s first SSBN, which is currently undergoing sea trials—is a test bed for proving technologies that will likely find their way into successor vehicles.76 The S2 class suffers from several design deficiencies, such as a small reactor size, a short refueling cycle, and limits on the size and number of missiles it can carry.77 It will take at least another decade for India to develop submarines and missiles of greater size, power, and range.78 Until that happens, Indian leaders might simply decide to keep their submarines in port during peacetime and to send them out on patrol only during an emergency. It is still too early to tell what procedures India will adopt with regard to the sea leg of its arsenal.


There is now reliable evidence that India’s national security managers take the demands of nuclear operational planning seriously. This upends beliefs about a unique Indian strategic culture that forswears nuclear use. New Indian thinking concerning nuclear deployment and use also raises doubts about earlier assumptions of India’s operational passivity. In the last fifteen years, India has not only developed many technical elements of a classic nuclear triad; it has also invested in the organizational, institutional, and procedural aspects that render such a force usable. Despite these operational advances, the Indian military harbors serious doubts about the technical quality and reliability of India’s nuclear warheads and delivery systems. In the absence of further nuclear testing, it is unlikely that Indian scientists will be able to address all the military’s concerns about the reliability of India’s existing nuclear weapons designs. In the case of delivery systems, however, India’s national security managers have accepted the need for more operational tests.

Away from the technical sphere, the primary institutional development in the last decade has been the constitution of the SFC as an organization solely dedicated to the operational deployment and use of nuclear weapons. Equally and perhaps even more important, the formation of the SPS within the NCA represents a serious attempt by India’s political principals to develop an independent oversight capacity for a highly secretive and self-referential system. The SPS’s role in long-term planning somewhat separates its staff functions from the SFC, leaving it solely with command functions. Advocates of military reform in India have long demanded the separation of staff and command functions within India’s military. Although this reform has yet to take shape in the conventional military, its implementation in the nuclear realm signifies the seriousness with which India’s civilian principals have begun to approach nuclear planning.

The Indian nuclear force remains de-mated, with its custody is shared between civilian and military agencies. This low state of operational readiness during peacetime has raised concerns among military leaders about the likelihood of successful force reconstitution during an emergency or at the sudden onset of war. Due to these concerns and India’s historical experiences in the last decade, new procedures have been instituted to accelerate force reconstitution during an emergency. New technical measures, such as the deployment of canisterized ballistic missiles, will enable faster force movement, dispersal, and readiness. It is as yet unclear if the deployment of missiles in sealed canisters will also end the institutional practice of separating warheads from land-based delivery systems during peacetime. The maturation of the sea leg of the triad will almost certainly end the practice of de-mated storage, and it is still unclear how civilian principals plan to resolve the challenges of devolving partial control of nuclear weapons to the military.

Institutionally speaking, India’s national security managers have kept the SFC separate from the conventional military to reduce the likelihood of inadvertent or accidental nuclear use. The Indian government’s hesitation in appointing a CDS to command India’s nuclear forces and render single-point military advice to the government also serves to disrupt the nuclear chain of command linking the civilian government to the military. In effect, the absence of a CDS places the SFC directly under the control of civilians in the PMO. The weak linkage between India’s conventional and nuclear forces further complicates the task of coordinating conventional and nuclear war planning. Indian military leaders fear that a conventional war on India’s borders (especially a war against Pakistan) could easily take a nuclear turn. Nuclear weapons add a new layer of complexity to military operations. Unless India’s conventional and nuclear commands closely coordinate their operations planning, an Indian nuclear response threatens either to be unsuccessful or to escalate out of control.

Gaurav Kampani is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.


1 Karsten Frey, India’s Nuclear Bomb and National Security (New York: Routledge, 2006).

2 George Perkovich, “A Nuclear Third Way in South Asia,” Foreign Policy, Summer 1993, 85–104.

3 Rajesh M. Basrur, Minimum Deterrence and India’s Nuclear Security (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), 57–65.

4 George Perkovich, India’s Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999), 450.

5 Ashley J. Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture: Between Recessed and Ready Arsenal (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2001).

6 Verghese Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2012); Bharat Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2008).

7 Guarav Kampani, “China-India Nuclear Rivalry in the Second Nuclear Age,”Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies, November 2014, 18.

8 Ibid.

9 Anit Mukherjee, Failing to Deliver: Post-Crises Defense Reforms in India, 1998–2010 (New Delhi: Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, 2011), 9–22.

10 Satish Chandra, “Slow, But Steady: Evolution of the National Security System,” Force, October 2005, 49–51.

11 Arun Prakash, “India’s Higher Defense Organization: Implications for National Security and Jointness,” Journal of Defense Studies 1, no. 1 (August 2007): 13–31.

12 Pravin Sawhney, “Bombed,” Force,February 2004, 10; Bharath Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy (New Delhi: Pentagon Press, 2008), 94–95.

13 Gaurav Kampani, “India: The Challenges of Nuclear Operationalization and Strategic Stability,” in Strategic Asia 2013-2014: Asia in the Second Nuclear Age, eds. Ashley J. Tellis, Abraham M. Denmark, and Travis Tanner (Washington, DC: National Bureau of Asian Research, October 2013), 107.

14 Ibid.

15 Prakash, “India’s Higher Defense Organization.”

16 Ibid.

17 Mukherjee, Failing to Deliver, 18–32.

18 Government of India, “Cabinet Committee on Security Reviews Progress in Operationalizing India’s Nuclear Doctrine,” press release, January 4, 2003,

19 Kampani, “India: The Challenges of Nuclear Operationalization and Strategic Stability,” 109; Government of India, “Cabinet Committee on Security Reviews Progress in Operationalizing India’s Nuclear Doctrine,” press release, January 4, 2003,

20 Ibid.

21 Kampani, “India: The Challenges of Nuclear Operationalization and Strategic Stability,” 109; Shyam Saran, “Weapon That Has More Than Symbolic Value,” Hindu,May 3, 2013,

22 Authors’ interviews with Rear Admiral (retired) Vijay Shankar, commander-in-chief, Strategic Forces Command (2006–2008), New Delhi, July and August 2010.

23 Kampani, “India: The Challenges of Nuclear Operationalization and Strategic Stability,” 109.

24 Author’s interviews with Shankar.

25 Author’s nonattributable interview with a senior Indian official, Cambridge, MA, May 8, 2015.

26 Anit Mukherjee, “The Absent Dialogue,” Seminar, July 2009,

27 Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 58–75, 273–80.

28 Andrew B. Kennedy, “India’s Nuclear Odyssey: Implicit Umbrellas, Diplomatic Disappointments and the Bomb,” International Security 36, no. 2 (Fall 2011): 133–34.

29 Ashley J. Tellis, “China and India in Asia,” in The India-China Relationship, eds. Francine R. Frankel and Harry Harding (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 134–77.

30 Kargil Review Committee, From Surprise to Reckoning, 183–213.

31 Kampani, “India: The Challenges of Nuclear Operationalization and Strategic Stability,” 102–103; Stephen Biddle, Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat In Modern Battle (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 1–5.

32 V. K. Sood and Praveen Sawhney, Operation Parakram: The War Unfinished (New Delhi: Sage, 2003), 145–70.

33 Kampani, “India: The Challenges of Nuclear Operationalization and Strategic Stability,” 102–103; K. S. Sundarji, ed., Effects of Nuclear Asymmetry on Conventional Deterrence (Mhow, India: College of Combat, 1981).

34 Kargil Review Committee, From Surprise to Reckoning, 187.

35 Kampani, “India: The Challenges of Nuclear Operationalization and Strategic Stability,” 102–103.

36 S. Paul Kapur and Sumit Ganguly, “The Jihad Paradox: Pakistan and Islamist Militancy in South Asia,” International Security 37, no. 1 (Summer 2012): 111–41.

37 Kampani, “India: The Challenges of Nuclear Operationalization and Strategic Stability,” 103.

38 Ali Ahmed, “In Tribute: Recalling the Sundarji Doctrine,” USI Journal 88, no. 571 (January–March 2008),

39 Kampani, “India: The Challenges of Nuclear Operationalization and Strategic Stability,” 118–119; Walter C. Ladwig III, “A Cold Start for Hot Wars: The Indian Army’s New Limited War Doctrine,” International Security 32, no. 3 (Winter 2007–2008): 158–90.

40 Vipin Narang, “Posturing for Peace? Pakistan’s Nuclear Postures and South Asian Stability?” International Security 34, no. 3 (Winter 2009–2010): 38–78.

41 Kampani, “India: The Challenges of Nuclear Operationalization and Strategic Stability,” 118–119.

42 Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 363–65.

43 Kampani, “India: The Challenges of Nuclear Operationalization and Strategic Stability,” 118–119.

44 Jaganath Sankaran, “Pakistan’s Battlefield Nuclear Policy: A Risky Solution to an Exaggerated Threat,” International Security 39, no. 3 (Winter 2014–2015): 127–33.

45 Christopher Clary and Vipin Narang, “Doctrine, Capabilities, and (In)stability in South Asia,” in Deterrence Stability and Escalation Control in South Asia,ed. Michael Krepon and Julia Thompson (Washington, DC: Stimson Center, 2013), 101–4.

46 Author’s interview with Arun Prakash; author’s interviews with Ajit Bhavnani, New Delhi, April 2009 and February 2010.

47 Kampani, “India: The Challenges of Nuclear Operationalization and Strategic Stability,” 119; Author’s interviews with Shankar.

48 Author’s nonattributable interview with “R”; author’s e-mail communication with Prakash.

49 Kampani, “India: The Challenges of Nuclear Operationalization and Strategic Stability,” 119.

50 Arun Prakash, “Riding Two Horses,” Force,November 2009,

51 P. K. Iyengar, “Non-Fissile Doubts,” OutlookIndia, October 26, 2009,; also see the public protest note to the Indian government by several senior Indian scientists: “On Thermonuclear Weapon Capability and Its Implications for Credible Minimum Deterrence,” Mainstream 48, no. 1 (December 2009),

52 Pranay Sharma and Ajaz Ashraf, Interview with K. Santhanam, “The Myth Bomber,” OutlookIndia, October 5, 2009,

53 Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 520–21.

54 Ibid., 519–22.

55 Sawhney, “Bombed,” 8.

56 Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, 66.

57 As Admiral Arun Prakash put it: “I don’t think anyone is satisfied. I mean people in the military wonder if five tests are enough for all time to come when other countries have conducted over hundreds of, even thousand, tests of thermonuclear weapons; . . . they needed to do those tests, then are our computer simulations enough?” Quoted by Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy,69.

58 Author’s nonattributable interview with commander, Strategic Forces Command, “P.”

59 U.S. Department of Defense, Means of Delivery Technology: Theater Ballistic Missiles,Militarily Critical Technologies List (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, 1998), II–1–10.

60 “Agni (Technical Demonstrator),”,

61 Ibid.

62 Bharat Karnad, Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy (New Delhi: Macmillan, 2002), 430.

63 Author’s interview with Prakash.

64 Author’s interviews with Bhavnani and Shankar.

65 Ibid.

66 Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces,162–74.

67 Author’s nonattributable interviews with senior defense official “X,” New Delhi, October and November 2009.

68 Author’s nonattributable interview with senior defense official “A,” New Delhi, August 2010.

69 Ibid.

70 Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, 93; author’s interview with Prakash.

71 Ibid., 95–96.

72 Ibid.

73 Y. Mallikarjun, “Agni V’s Next Trial Will Be Canister-Based,” Hindu, December 2013,; Ajai Shukla, “Advanced Agni VI Missile with Multiple Warheads Likely by 2017,” Business Standard, May 8, 2013,

74 Author’s personal communication with Pavel Podvig, director of the Russian Nuclear Forces Project; also see Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces,108.

75 Author’s interview with Brajesh Mishra, national security adviser / principal secretary to Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee (1998–2004), New Delhi, October 2009.

76 Arun Prakash, “A Step before the Leap,” Force, September 2009,; Pravin Sawhney and Vijay Shankar, “Is the Navy’s Newest Sub Worth the Price?,” Hindu, January 25, 2012.

77 Ibid.

78 Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces,128–31; Prakash, “Step.”