In 1974, India conducted its first nuclear test, which it claimed was a ”peaceful nuclear test”, not a military test. The test was met with strong criticism and sanctions from the international community. India later stated that its nuclear devices were designed for peaceful uses, such as building canals.
India declared itself a nuclear weapon state in 1998 after it conducted a series of nuclear weapons tests at the Pokhran site in Rajastan. The country has a well developed civilian and military nuclear programme, which includes at least 10 nuclear reactors, uranium extraction, a uranium enrichment plant, nuclear fuel production, and advanced nuclear research.
The number of nuclear weapons in the Indian arsenal has not been publicized by the Indian government, which creates difficulties in determining its size. Based on calculations of India’s inventory of weapons-grade plutonium and the number of operational nuclear-capable delivery systems, Federation of American Scientist, FAS, estimates that India has an inventory of 110-120 nuclear warheads, but does not say how many of these may be operational or in storage. All of these are believed to be strategic nuclear weapons, even though some concerns have been raised about India’s development of a new ground-launched cruise missile.
India’s means of delivering nuclear weapons remain classified. Nevertheless, India’s nuclear arsenal is believed to currently be deployed on both ballistic missiles and aircraft. India’s new strategic nuclear submarines (SSBNs) are also expected to be armed with nuclear ballistic missiles. This would give India a full nuclear ”triad” consisting of air-, land- and sea-based means of delivering nuclear weapons.
While there is no public information available on whether any nuclear bombs are stored with the aircraft or separately, India currently fields several types of aircraft that potentially could deliver nuclear weapons:
- Mirage 2000H: The Indian Air Force (IAF) has reportedly certified the Mirage 2000H combat aircraft for delivering nuclear gravity bombs.
- Jaguar IS: Uncertainties remain as to whether the Jaguar IS will have a nuclear role.
- SU-30MKI: As with the Jaguar IS, it is unclear whether the SU-30MKI combat aircraft will have such a role as India does not publicize this information.
India currently has six land-based ballistic missile types that are either already deployed or currently undergoing further development:
- Prithvi II: a 350-km range missile based on India’s first ballistic missile, the Prithvi I. The missile entered India’s strategic nuclear force in 2003 and has been publicly declared to have a nuclear role.
- Agni I: a 700-km range road-mobile missile that became operational in 2007.
- Agni II: a rail-mobile and solid-fuelled missile with a range of more than 2000 km. The missile entered India’s strategic force in 2011, and was test-fired as recently as November 2014.
- Agni III: a rail-mobile and solid-fuelled missile with a range of more than 3000 km, allowing India to strike targets as far away as Beijing. While not operationally deployed yet, the missile was tested in 2013 and, according to an Indian Strategic Forces Command (SFC) spokesman, was nearing operational readiness.
- Agni IV: a more modern 4000-km range missile. It was tested in late 2014 just two days after Pakistan tested a missile. The missile has not yet been operationally deployed but has been approved for production by the DRDO.
- Agni V: India’s latest missile, with a projected range of 5000 km, enabling India to reach near-intercontinental range capacity and strike China from bases further inland. The missile is designed to be launched from a mobile canister system, but is not yet operationally deployed; the date of deployment is uncertain. Rumours that the missile will carry multiple re-targetable nuclear warheads (MIRVs) have been denied by DRDO officials, who have stated that there are currently no plans for the missile to have such a capacity.
Modernization of nuclear weapons
India’s nuclear weapons capacities and its ambitions for their role have increased rapidly, and likely will continue to do so. The Indian minister of defense, Shri A. K. Anthony, promised in February 2007 to do everything possible to give India a military deterrence capability reflecting the country’s size and geostrategic position. Regarding the latter, India had earlier made it clear that it worries about the cooperation between China and Pakistan on nuclear weapons and missiles.
India is developing a Ballistic Missile Defence Program with an advanced early warning system against incoming missiles. The goal is a multi-layered ballistic missile defence system (enabling it to hit a wide range of enemy missiles in multiple phases of the missiles’ trajectory) to defend India from ballistic and cruise missile attacks. Aiming to defend against missile threats primarily emanating from Pakistan, India has developed the ”Prithvi Air Defence” (PAD) and ”Advanced Air Defence” (AAD) missiles for high- and low-altitude missile intercepts respectively. The country has also cooperated with Israel in developing the ”Barak-8” missile defence system designed for aircraft and cruise missile intercepts, and has purchased the Russian S-300 S-400 missile defence systems for use as an ”anti-tactical ballistic missile screen”.
India is developing at least three naval missile systems, designed to be launched from either surface vessels or submarines. With the development of the Prithvi III (”Dhanush”), K-15 and K-4 missiles, India will strengthen the leg of its sea-based nuclear triad. For several years, the Indian Navy has tested the Prithvi III missile, a 400-km range missile, most recently in November 2014 when it was fired from a naval surface ship. The 400-km range is short, which means that the vessel carrying these missiles is forced to go close to enemy shores in order to reach targets further inland, making the ship vulnerable to detection and counter-attack.
Since 1985, India has developed an ”Advanced Technology Vessel” (ATV) – a nuclear-powered submarine that will likely carry the Prithvi III submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). The model is inspired by a design from a Soviet submarine that India leased from the former Soviet Union in 1988-1991. While the submarine was initially scheduled to be ready for deployment in 2007, the submarine’s 83 MW pressurized light water reactor first reached criticality in mid-2013. On December 13, 2014, the submarine was launched from the Visakhapatnam harbour and began its first sea trials.
Despite the fact that India is not a party to the NPT, India and and the United States entered into an agreement in 2008 that would give India further access to nuclear technology and material that is not intended for its nuclear weapons programme, but can nevertheless be used for military purposes.
Fissile material inventory
India is currently nearing the end of construction of a 1250 MW fast-breeder reactor that is not safeguarded by the IAEA and that potentially could produce about 140 kg of plutonium each year, allowing India to increase its nuclear stockpile by as many as 28-35 weapons annually. India is also currently strengthening its capability to enrich uranium. The purpose of this HEU enrichment capability, according to the SIPRI Yearbook 2014, is production of naval reactor fuel. India has traditionally had a single uranium enrichment centrifuge facility at the Rattehalli Rare Materials Plant (RMP) near Karnataka. In 2013, however, satellite imagery revealed that India is constructing what might be a second uranium enrichment facility at the RMP. India has also begun construction of a second industrial scale enrichment plant at Karnataka, which will not be under IAEA safeguards.
The role of nuclear weapons in national security strategy
In 1999, the Indian government published a draft nuclear weapons doctrine that states that India’s nuclear weapons capability is intended to deter a nuclear attack and that India will pursue a policy of using nuclear weapons only for retalitory purposes. The draft stated that India thereby pursues a ”no first use” (NFU) of nuclear weapons policy, and that India will only maintain the minimum number of nuclear weapons needed to deter an enemy attack (also known as a ”minimum deterrence” posture). The draft also clarified that India is to respond to a nuclear attack in case nuclear deterrence fails. According to the 1999 doctrine, the Indian Prime Minister is responsible for deciding any use of nuclear weapons.
Since 1999, India has, on several occasions, confirmed its NFU pledge that it will not be the first state to use nuclear weapons against another state. However, this attitude seems to be changing. In 2003, India released a statement on the ”operationalization” of its nuclear doctrine, stating that nuclear weapons could also be used as a response to a ”greater” attack with biological and chemical weapons, not only to a nuclear attack. This revision of the policy has caused some worries, as it is difficult to assess under what circumstances India might respond to a biological or chemical attack with nuclear weapons. Nor does the statement contain any mention of armed attack by non-state actors, who often enter India from Pakistani territory. This has raised some speculation that India’s NFU pledge might be revised in the future, as it has proved inadequate in deterring non-state armed attacks.
In the 2006 annual report by the Indian Minister of Defence, there was also a change in the country’s attitude to the principle of ”launch-on-warning”—the maintenance of nuclear weapons on high alert and ready to launch in the event of an imminent attack with weapons of mass destruction, so that a ”retaliatory” nuclear counter-strike can be launched before one’s own nuclear forces are destroyed. Earlier reports stated explicitly that India had distanced itself from a launch-on-warning doctrine, but the 2006 report made no such statement. This is an important change in light of the development of a missile defence system that will give India the capacity to receive radar information about an incoming attack and increase its ability to respond rapidly.
While India’s nuclear weapons doctrine has remained somewhat stable over the past decade, the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2014 parliamentary election has caused some concerns that the doctrine might undergo changes in the coming years. In the run up to the elections, the BJP issued a revision of its election manifesto, stating that the party believes that ”the strategic gains acquired by India during the [earlier BJP-led] Atal Behari Vajpayee regime on the nuclear programme have been frittered away by [Singh’s] Congress”, and pledged to ”study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to [the] challenges of current times”. While this formulation was rather vague, BJP spokespeople later clarified that India’s NFU pledge would be prioritized. The BJP’s candidate and later Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, however, stated that there would be no compromise on NFU (20). Nevertheless, the uncertainty caused by these conflicting stances has caused debate and worry, since the BJP has traditionally held an aggressive stance on foreign policy. This was evident in the period leading up to India’s 1998 nuclear weapon tests, as the BJP had promised to conduct nuclear tests in 1996 if it came to power, as it subsequently did.
India’s nuclear weapon programme could also be used to strengthen the position that India should gain a permanent seat at the UN Security Council. The five permanent members of the Security Council today are the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China – the P5 nuclear weapon states.
Last update: March 16, 2017