India’s nuclear weapons program is a cornerstone of New Delhi’s security strategy for the 21st century. For most of the post-war period, India badly trailed the established nuclear powers in weapon quality, quantity, and the sophistication of delivery systems. In recent years, however, India has indicated a willingness to take the steps necessary to becoming a first rate nuclear power.
This article examines the development of the nuclear program over history, the current state of the program and its associated delivery system projects, the strategic rationale of India’s nuclear efforts, and the likely future contours of the program. The current balance of nuclear power in South and East Asia is unstable, and likely to result in a nuclear arms race involving Pakistan, India, and China.
History of the Program:
Indian work on nuclear technology began even prior to independence from the United Kingdom, but a period of instability and insecurity beginning in 1960 accelerated development. Indian defeat in the Sino-Indian War demonstrated conventional vulnerability, which the inconclusive 1965 Indo-Pakistani exacerbated. US efforts to intimidate New Delhi during the 1971 war with Pakistan also played a role.
India detonated its first nuclear device in 1974, in a “peaceful” nuclear demonstration. Yielding between 6 and 15 kilotons, the test drew widespread international criticism. Indian nuclear development progressed through fits and starts over the next two decades, with New Delhi reaching an uneasy accommodation with the world’s nuclear community to keep the program in the shadows. Ballistic missile development continued alongside the nuclear program.
This accommodation broke down in May, 1998, when India tested five devices (four fission, and one thermonuclear device that likely failed). Driven by domestic politics and deteriorating relations with Pakistan, the tests strained India’s relations with the United States, and with the international non-proliferation community. However, they did indicate India’s commitment to a future nuclear defense profile, and confirmed India’s progress with weapons design over the previous two decades.
How Many Nukes Does India Have?
According to the Arms Control Association, India likely possesses around 100 nuclear weapons, mostly of a low yield fission variety. However, reports indicate that India has stepped up its production of fissile material, in conjunction with its nuclear submarine program. This could give India the ability to produce more and larger weapons in a relatively short time frame. It is certainly within India’s means to vastly increase the size of its arsenal, and plans to construct four ballistic missile submarines (each carrying twelve missiles) almost certainly indicates an intention to expand.