Sam Seitz

The Indian nuclear program represents an interesting case due to India’s fairly unique path to nuclear acquisition as well as to its current posture and organization. The Indian case is made even more fascinating by India’s geographic position: It confronts two potential nuclear-armed adversaries in Pakistan and China, but the more capable “pacing threat” of China is less likely to come to blows with India than the conventionally inferior Pakistan. Thus, India faces a complex strategic environment that presents a difficult challenge for Indian planners. This challenge is compounded by the ever-present threat of Pakistani-sponsored terrorism, which impedes Indo-Pakistani strategic stability and could conceivably trigger a chain of events that culminates in a large-scale conflict. Given these high stakes, India’s nuclear program is not simply an interesting case study but also consequential, rendering a thorough understanding of India’s nuclear arsenal and posture all the more important.

India’s Path to the Bomb

The Indians possessed a nuclear research program as early as 1947, but the development of a nuclear device was not mandated until 1964.[1] One explanation for India’s turn toward weaponization is the growing threat China posed to India during that period, as manifested through the 1962 Indo-Chinese border skirmish and 1964 Chinese nuclear test. A decade after embarking upon its weapons research, India conducted its first test of a nuclear device with its so-called peaceful nuclear explosion. However, no further tests were conducted until 1998. One explanation for Indian lethargy is that by 1974 China posed little threat, as it was internally-oriented, having just emerged from the Cultural Revolution, and was unlikely to provoke conflict due to its desire for rapprochement with the United States. Another explanation is that the test was conducted not for reasons of strategic security but rather for domestic consumption. In particular, the fact that practically nobody in Indian foreign policy and military circles was consulted about or even informed of the test before it happened implies that the international strategic environment was of little importance. Indira Gandhi’s low approval ratings at the time also suggest, though certainly do not irrefutably prove, that the detonation may have been a diversionary move meant to focus people’s attention on India’s nuclear prowess and thus give Gandhi a boost in the polls.[2]

Whatever the reasons for India’s aversion to further testing, the self-imposed moratorium lasted for decades despite Pakistani nuclear advances in the 1980s. Moreover, while India maintained this recessed posture – continuing nuclear R&D and acquisition of nuclear capable aircraft and ballistic missiles but conducting no tests – it also lobbied heavily for arms control treaties like the Partial Test Ban Treaty and, later, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).[3] India did eventually test again in 1998 before the CTBT was finalized, but there have been no further tests. And the nuclear deal it agreed to with the U.S. in 2006, which saw India safeguard its civilian nuclear facilities, agree to stringent export controls, and commit to a testing moratorium in exchange for civil nuclear cooperation with the U.S. and full Indian access to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, makes it unlikely that India will restart testing in the future.

India’s Posture and Arsenal

India not only halted testing after 1998 but also declared a unilateral no first use (NFU) policy, suggesting that India was, and perhaps still is, a cautious proliferator not interested in a massive arsenal or arms racing.[4] India’s nuclear posture also supports the view that India is uninterested in nuclear dominance or the employment of nuclear weapons in any contingency short of a nuclear strike on India or, possibly, its military forces. India’s NFU is buttressed by the fact that India keeps its warheads demated from delivery systems and unassembled.[5] Furthermore, India divides control of its nuclear components among three agencies: the civilian Bhabha Atomic Research Center, which controls nuclear cores, the civilian Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), which controls the firing assemblies, and the military services, which control delivery vehicles.[6] Recently, Indian officials have revealed that India is modifying its force organization to allow for the rapid assembly and launch of some portion of its arsenal. For example, certain rapid reaction bases store cores, firing mechanisms, and delivery systems in close proximity.[7]

Despite these moves toward increased responsiveness, India still maintains tight, centralized control over its nuclear arsenal. The organization that overseas Indian nuclear weapons is referred to as the National Command Authority (NCA) and was established in 2003. The NCA is composed of the Executive Committee, which is chaired by the National Security Advisor and is tasked with executing strikes, and the Political Committee, which is composed of the prime minister, senior cabinet members, and science advisors. Only the Political Committee can authorize nuclear use, and through this protocol India ensures strict civilian control over the military.[8] As India continues to develop its SSBN force, this centralized control may become more difficult to maintain. As it stands, though, India relies primarily on aircraft and ballistic missiles to deliver its nuclear warheads, minimizing the need for a delegative approach toward nuclear launch authority.

India’s nuclear capabilities are relatively limited when measured against Pakistan and China, its two likely adversaries. Unlike Pakistan, India does not possess tactical nuclear weapons for use on the battlefield, and its missiles lack the range of China’s. And although India purports to possess thermonuclear weapons, this is hotly disputed, and most experts believe that its warheads are between 15-30 kilotons, with perhaps a few boosted warheads as well.[9] India also has a fairly underdeveloped nuclear doctrine, relying on the threat of massive retaliation to deter nuclear use by Pakistan or China. As one Indian general put it, “I do not see the weapons as a war-fighting one. It’s like you make an expensive ornament for your wife… she wears it only once and keeps it in the vault.”[10] This limits the likelihood of Indian employment of nuclear weapons, but it also constrains Indian flexibility when dealing with potential Pakistani tactical nuclear use. For example, it may not be credible for India to threaten large-scale nuclear retaliation for a Pakistani nuclear strike on Indian forces advancing on Lahore.

Risks

Despite India’s seeming caution in the realm of nuclear weapons, the subcontinent remains perhaps the most likely region outside of Korea to see conflict between nuclear powers break out. There are several reasons for this, but two stand out as particularly salient. First, India must develop capabilities to deter both China and Pakistan. And while Pakistan is clearly perceived as the more likely threat by Indian policymakers, prudent strategists in New Delhi are compelled to hedge against China as well by developing capabilities to compete with the superior PLA. While these capabilities are not being formulated and developed explicitly for use against Pakistan, India could just as easily deploy them against Pakistani forces. There is, therefore, a risk of an extended security spiral developing, where efforts by India to secure itself against China increase Pakistani insecurity. In particular, Pakistani leaders have become increasingly concerned about Indian MIRVs, nascent BMD work, and SSBNs though, of course, China was the first country in the region to develop MIRVs and SSBNs.[11]

While arms races do not automatically lead to war, they lower trust and can color leaders’ views about their adversaries’ intentions, conceivably increasing the risk of misperceptions and escalating instability. Moreover, this security dilemma exists in the conventional realm as well as the nuclear. And as Clary points out, the relatively high Indian defense budget means that India could eventually achieve massive conventional superiority over the Pakistanis, spooking leaders in Islamabad and perhaps tempting Indian policymakers to rely more heavily on military coercion.[12]

This security dilemma dynamic also exacerbates Pakistani beliefs that India is opportunistic and destabilizing, views which were initially formed after India intervened in the Liberation War and helped Bangladesh break away from Pakistan. But it also contributes to the second point of destabilization: terrorism. Given Indian conventional superiority, Pakistan has chosen asymmetric approaches to confronting India, with support for terrorist groups and insurgencies holding pride of place. Pakistan has complemented this strategy with a nuclear doctrine calling for the quick introduction of nuclear weapons to the battlefield as a way to deter large Indian retaliatory strikes. In other words, India and Pakistan represent a prime example of the stability-instability paradox: Pakistan views escalation as unlikely because of Indian fears of nuclear escalation, so it therefore acts more aggressively at lower conflict levels. However, India has responded to the terrorism threat with its so-called “Cold Start” Doctrine, which envisions large Indian strike corps entering Pakistan after a terror attack to undertake limited, but high intensity, combat operations.[13] It is far from obvious that this would result in a Pakistani nuclear strike, but given the stress and emotional pressure this situation would create as well as the delegative nature of Pakistan’s arsenal, it would be dangerous to rule out the possibility of limited nuclear escalation.

Policy Recommendations

The enduring rivalry between India and Pakistan, the presence of semi-independent terror networks, and the complicated strategic situation in the region combine to make policy solutions difficult. However, one of the biggest problems seems to be the limited flexibility within Indian war plans. Its conventional doctrine envisages massive escalation via the invasion of Pakistan by Indian maneuver formations. Its nuclear doctrine is Manichean, with the two options ostensibly being non-use or some form of massive retaliation. Thus, one way that India could decrease the risks of massive escalation while concomitantly raising the credibility of its deterrent force is to introduce a more graduated series of responses. For example, instead of moving forces into Pakistan, India could respond to a terror attack with air strikes or a cyberattack on the ISI group directing the operation. A similar approach could be adopted at the nuclear level, with India undertaking proportional retaliation against Pakistan.

Another step that may prove beneficial, but will likely be difficult to realize, is some kind of grand bargain regarding Kashmir.[14] Were both sides to make concessions that led to the creation of a more stable and less contentious situation in the disputed territory, the kind of nationalist fervor that plays a significant role in provoking and sustaining conflict could be tempered. The U.S. and China, with their ties to India and Pakistan respectively, may be able to push the two countries in this direction, as neither seeks a conflict in Southeast Asia. However, progress would ultimately require bold action from Islamabad and Delhi.

Conclusion

India’s arsenal is unique in its origin and management, and it is defined by Indian leaders’ cautious and restrained approach to nuclear strategy. The initial program seems to have been born of security concerns, but prestige and domestic considerations arguably have played a greater role at certain points in its development. India has also, at least until recently, seemed somewhat ambivalent about its arsenal, with only limited weapons testing and extremely tight civilian control over nuclear components and launch authority. Even as India has begun to diversify its arsenal and formalize its command and control infrastructure, it still does not seem to have fully grappled with and decided how best to incorporate nuclear weapons into its overall military doctrine. On the one hand, this is reassuring as it suggests that Indian recklessness in the nuclear realm is exceedingly unlikely, but on the other hand it suggests that India has failed to fully situate nuclear weapons within national policy, making it less prepared for certain contingencies than is prudent.

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Notes:

[1] Guarav Kampani,  “The Challenges of Nuclear Operationalization and Strategic Stability,” in Strategic Asia 2013-14: Asia in the Second Nuclear Age, edited by Ashley Tellis and Abraham Denmark, Washington, DC: The National Bureau of Asian Research, 104.

[2] Scott D. Sagan, “Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons? Three Models in Search of a Bomb,” International Security 21, no. 3 (Winter 1996/97), 67-68.

[3] Anupam Srivastava, “The Impact of Bureaucratic Politics on India’s Nuclear Strategy,” in Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age, edited by Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes, Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 135; 136.

[4] Kampani, 106.

[5] Vipin Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era: Regional Powers and International Conflict, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014, 103.

[6] Kampani, 107.

[7] Narang, 103.

[8] Srivastava, 139.

[9] Kampani, 110.

[10] Narang, 102.

[11] Kampani, 124.

[12] Cristopher Clary, “The Future of Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons Program,” in Strategic Asia 2013-14: Asia in the Second Nuclear Age, edited by Ashley Tellis and Abraham Denmark, Washington, DC: The National Bureau of Asian Research, 154.

[13] Kampani, 118-119.

[14] Dalton and Perkovich, “Is a Pakistan-India War Just One Terrorist Attack Away?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1-24-17.