India’s Nuclear Weapons Programme: The Myth of Moderation

Ever since India conducted five nuclear explosions in 1998, its government has strenuously laid claim to a policy of nuclear “moderation” based on a “credible minimum deterrent” and “no-first-use” of nuclear weapons. In part, this derives from the need to rationalise the radical, sudden shift in India’s posture executed by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government: from maintaining, but not exercising, a “nuclear capability”, to actually building a nuclear arsenal.

Like all rationalisations, this too is meant to mask reality — specifically, that India is driving a nuclear and missiles arms race in one of the world’s most volatile and poorest regions, marked by persistent strategic hostility and a hot-cold war between India and Pakistan since 1947. There is very little clarity, as we see below, about India’s nuclear deterrence doctrine. This is likely to add to regional insecurity and instability. Besides, as experience of the Cold War, and India-Pakistan standoffs in 1999 and 2001-02 suggest, deterrence could prove perilously slippery.

1998: A Shift in India’s Nuclear Policy

India for decades championed global nuclear disarmament and condemned nuclear deterrence as “morally abhorrent” and a recipe for a ruinous arms race. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who presented a plan for complete global nuclear disarmament to the United Nations in 1988, termed nuclear deterrence the “ultimate expression of the philosophy of terrorism”. In 1995, India pleaded for outlawing nuclear weapons before the International Court of Justice.

A major shift in India’s posture became visible in 1996 when it opposed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) — which it had pioneered in 1954 and repeatedly cited as a worthy measure. This changed the terms of the domestic nuclear debate and paved the way for the 1998 tests amidst an outbreak of militant nationalism led by the Hindu-Rightwing BJP and its cohorts.

The Congress-led Manmohan Singh government, in power since 2004, continued with its predecessor’s nuclear policy — although Singh himself had sharply criticised the 1998 tests in Parliament, arguing that they violated the “nuclear capability” national consensus.

International Legitimisation of India’s Nuclear and Missiles Programmes

As part of the growing United States-India “strategic partnership”, President George Bush in 2005 offered de facto legitimisation for India’s nuclear weapons through the US-India civilian nuclear cooperation agreement (popularly called the Nuclear Deal), which grants India a special waiver from international nuclear commerce rules. It permits India to import civilian nuclear reactors and materials under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections — although India has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty or the CTBT.

The Deal was approved and extended globally in 2008 by the IAEA and the 46-member Nuclear Suppliers’ Group. Pakistan and China resent the exception made for India. Islamabad feels frustrated at the US’s pro-India “strategic tilt”.

This is one reason for the recent intensification of India-Pakistan rivalry. Both states are furiously building up their nuclear arsenals and missile batteries.

India and Pakistan: A Comparison of Arsenals

India and Pakistan have respectively amassed 90-110 and 100-120 nuclear weapons, and China has 250. About 50 of India’s weapons are believed to be operationally deployed. “India is actively building up its nuclear forces, so these numbers are expected to grow …”

India and Pakistan have developed and flight-tested 17 new nuclear-capable delivery vehicles since 1998—an average of more than one every year.

Unlike the US, Russia, the UK, France and China, India (and Pakistan) continues to produce and stockpile weapons-usable plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) in significant quantities in facilities free of IAEA safeguards.

India’s nuclear weapons programme is primarily based on plutonium, of which India has an estimated 54±0.18 tonnes. Only 3-8 kilogrammes are needed for one Nagasaki-type warhead. India’s plutonium has been produced in the 40 MW-thermal CIRUS reactor (built with Canadian and US help) and the 100 MWt Dhruva, both in Mumbai. CIRUS shut down in 2010, and is being replaced by a larger reactor. India also plans to build a new 100 MWt reactor in Andhra Pradesh.

India’s HEU stockpile is estimated at 2.4±0.9 tonnes. It is mainly deployed to fuel its nuclear-propelled submarines, the first of which is now undergoing sea-trials. The HEU is produced in a centrifuge plant in Mysore in Karnataka. This is being expanded. India is reportedly building another enrichment facility elsewhere in Karnataka.

India’s missile development is spurred by rivalry with both Pakistan and China. India has developed a variety of nuclear-capable missiles: from the short-range Prithvi (150-250 kilometres) to the intermediate- and long-range Agni series. Agni-III (range, 3,000-3,500 km) and Agni-V (range 5,000 km) can target parts of China. Others are more Pakistan-specific[1].

Agni-I and Agni-III were inducted into India’s forces after only a few test-flights. Agni-V was first test-flown in April 2012; more test-flights are planned. An even longer-range Agni-VI is also said to be under development.

India is also developing a submarine-launched ballistic missile called K-15-Sagarika with a 750-km range. This was first launched in January 2013. Also under development is Shourya, Sagarika’s land-based version.

A new driving force behind India’s nuclear weapons and missile programmes is the anxiety that Pakistan may have an edge in both and is building more plutonium-producing reactors and uranium centrifuges—and more accurate missiles. Acceleration of these programmes is profoundly destabilising for South Asian security, which is already threatened by conventional arms races. Recent months have seen growth of a potentially more dangerous rivalry over tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons. Pakistan has reportedly made significant advances in developing these. India has responded by developing a variety of accurate shorter-range missiles for potential use against military bases or armoured formations, including the 150-km range Prahaar ballistic missile and the multi-barrel rocket system Pinaka.

India is also developing cruise missiles BrahMos and Nirbhay. BrahMos is the product of a joint venture with Russia and is reportedly ready for deployment, if not already deployed. It is nuclear-capable, has a 300-500 km range, and is said to be highly accurate.

Nuclear Rivalry: Keeping an Eye on China

The sub-continent’s growing nuclear rivalry is accompanied by lack of clarity about India’s nuclear doctrine based on a “credible minimum deterrent” and “no-first-use”. There exists only a brief official public statement about India’s doctrine, which does not define what is “minimum” or “credible”, and whether it is directed towards Pakistan or China.

Given the size of China’s nuclear arsenal, and the far-eastern location of its main strategic centres, India would need a much larger deterrent vis-à-vis China than Pakistan. Thus, the requirements of the “minimum” and “credible” vary. What is credible towards China will probably not be minimum as regards Pakistan; what is minimum vis-à-vis Pakistan may not be credible towards China.

In practice, India is building its nuclear forces, and designing their range and numbers, with China in mind, although it is Pakistan with which actual conflict is most likely.

India probably still lacks a robust and reliable credible minimum deterrent vis-à-vis China. Its Agni-III and Agni-V missiles have not undergone a sufficient number of test-flights, with proof of accuracy, for them to be considered reliable and robust. Yet Agni-III has been declared “ready for induction” in keeping with the Defence Research and Development Organisation’s (DRDO) proclivity to make hasty, extravagant or boastful claims.

DRDO also claims to be working on multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) technology for its Agni missiles. A single MIRV-ed missile can carry multiple warheads aimed at different targets. But it is not clear if DRDO has the political authorisation for this, and how successful the programme is.

However, one thing is clear. India’s missile developers will come under growing pressure to expand the programme and enhance capabilities to create an effective deterrent against China, whose economy is three times bigger. This will cause a further drain on resources. India’s military budget has already ballooned threefold since 1998. India has become the world’s biggest importer of armaments since 2006, accounting for one-tenth of arms sold worldwide.

India recently launched several military and surveillance satellites and seems to be getting drawn into an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons and ballistic missile defence (BMD) race with China. In 2007, China destroyed an old satellite with ASAT. India too has tried to develop an ASAT capability.

India has conducted several test-flights of its rudimentary BMD system wherein an “interceptor” destroyed an “attacker” missile at an altitude of 120 km. It is now aiming for higher altitudes. India is also jointly working with the US and Israel on more advanced BMD systems.

These programmes are likely to provoke China’s hostility. India and China should discuss ways of defusing their rivalry on this potentially dangerous terrain.

India’s Nuclear Doctrine: A Matter of Uncertainty

There are other ambiguities about India’s nuclear doctrine, a major one being dilution of the no-first-use (NFU) pledge made in the 1999 “Draft Nuclear Doctrine”, which said India would not use nuclear weapons for a first strike; they would only be used “in retaliation against a nuclear attack” by a nuclear weapons-state (NWS); retaliation “will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage”. Nuclear weapons would never be used against a non-NWS unless it is allied with an NWS.

The official position, stated in 2003, modifies this severely: “India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons” even in “the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons”. This too casts serious doubt over the “moderation” claim.

All this assumes that nuclear deterrence will work reliably: with complete transparency about capabilities to inflict “unacceptable damage”, and no misperceptions, no accidents, no politically unauthorised use of nuclear weapons, no inadvertent conflict escalation — even in an extremely tense situation. Another crucial assumption is that there will be no conventional wars with nuclear adversaries — in keeping with the nuclear deterrence dogma, which rules out such wars between NWSs.

But India and Pakistan fought a bitter, mid-sized war at Kargil in Kashmir just a year after going nuclear. This involved 40,000 Indian soldiers, top-of-the-line weaponry, and hundreds of casualties. Worse, the two states’ leaders cavalierly exchanged nuclear threats, and probably readied their nuclear weapons for a launch. It took US mediation to defuse the conflict.

Similarly, after a terrorist attack on India’s Parliament House in December 2001, instantly attributed to Pakistan, a million soldiers from their armies were eyeball-to-eyeball for 10 months, and came close at least twice to a shooting war which could well have escalated to the nuclear plane given the military preparations and vile rhetoric on both sides.

India and Pakistan are both highly accident-prone societies with a poor safety culture, and notorious for mishaps in their military installations. The Nuclear Materials Safety Index of the Nuclear Threat Initiative gives them the bottom 23rd and 22nd ranks respectively among 25 states with one kg of weapons-usable nuclear material. India scores worse than Pakistan in security and control measures, and in domestic commitments and capacity, and has shown slower overall improvement.

Indian and Pakistani military leaders have a history of strategic misperception leading to conflict escalation, and probably do not share a common view of what constitutes “unacceptable damage”. They enjoy excessive battlefield autonomy from the political leadership, which raises nuclear risks.

This makes it imperative that India and Pakistan negotiate nuclear risk-reduction measures, including non-deployment of missiles close to the border, keeping warheads separated from launch vehicles, a bilateral test ban, visits by personnel to each other’s nuclear installations, and a nuclear weapons-free zone (NWFZ) in Kashmir.

The Kashmir NWFZ proposal is supported by the ruling party in Pakistani Kashmir, and could help revive the demand for a South Asian NWFZ, generating moral-political pressure on India-Pakistan from their neighbours.

A Look ahead: Is a Slowdown in the Nuclear Arms Race in Sight?

The world community would do well to encourage India and Pakistan to reach nuclear risk-reduction and confidence-building measures, including negotiating a fissile-material production freeze independently of international talks. India should be urged to publicise its recently updated Rajiv Gandhi plan for global disarmament and hold an international conference on the issue.

Anti-nuclear weapons sentiment in India is reflected primarily in the work of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP), created in 2000 by over 200 civil society groups, and the Left parties led by the Communist Party-Marxist and Communist Party of India. Neither CNDP nor the Left has policy-level influence yet, but can play a valuable public education and opinion-shaping role especially if their activists engage other civil society groups.

There is unlikely to be much change in India’s nuclear weapons policy if the ruling alliance returns to power. If the rival BJP-led coalition wins, there will be some hardening of India’s stance. However, the victory of an alternative coalition based on regional parties, including the new Aam Aadmi Party, could open up possibilities for genuine moderation and risk-reduction initiatives.