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India’s Nuclear Weapons Arsenal: Is It Enough to Counter Pakistan and China?

India's nuclear weapons program is one of the world's most advanced.

As I noted recently, India’s two key rivals, China and Pakistan, are not only increasing their level of conventional military cooperation, but they are also growing the size and capabilities of their nuclear weapons.

This is a major security concern, not only for India, but also for its biggest ally in the USINDOPACOM Area of Responsibility, the United States.  

Given these developments, it is important to know how India’s own nuclear program compares to those of its two big rivals. 

The Beginnings of the Indian Nuclear Program

Though Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program began in 1972, the Indians got there first. On  May 18, 1974, there was the so-called peaceful nuclear explosion codenamed Smiling Buddha. At this time, India was under the leadership of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi did not share Nehru’s pacifistic outlook.

She remembered how her country had been humiliated by China during the 1962 border clashes while her father’s prime ministership waned. 

Fast-forward to May 11, 1998 — one week shy of the 24th anniversary of Smiling Buddha — and India, this time led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, dropped any pretenses to “peaceful” purposes as it conducted the successful nuclear weapons tests known as Pokhran II. In the event, it detonated a total of five warheads.

Not to be outdone, Pakistan followed suit 17 days later, conducting five nuclear detonations of its own in a successful test dubbed Chagai-I. The subcontinental nuclear genie was now completely out of the bottle.  

As a quick personal aside, I was closely following the developments of May 1998, as a year earlier I had graduated from the USC School of International Relations, where South Asia had been my secondary region of focus (after East Asia).

Observing the mass celebrations by Indians and Pakistanis alike in response to their countries’ successful nuclear tests, I thought to myself at the time, “Good Lord, you’d think they just won the World Cup!”

The Present State of the Indian Nuclear Program

Depending on which source you consult, New Delhi currently possesses around 90-110 nukes, or perhaps as many as 160. Their Pakistani counterparts are believed to hold anywhere from 100 to 165 nuclear warheads, and China has at least 350 available.

However, that 90 -160 estimation range doesn’t tell you the full story on India’s part. The world’s second-most populous country has enough weapons-grade plutonium, approximately 700 kilograms, to produce up to 213 warheads.

India’s land-based nuclear arsenal starts off with the short-range, road-mobile Prithvi-II and Agni-I missiles that can travel 155 miles and 435 miles, respectively. The latter system is most likely intended for targeting Pakistan, hence the approximately 20 launchers deployed in western India.

From there, New Delhi wields the medium-range Agni-II and intermediate-range Agni-III, which can strike targets 1,243-2,175 miles and 1,865-3,107 miles away, respectively. 

What about air-dropped or air-launched nukes? The Indian Air Force has the aging but still highly capable Mirage 2000H/I, SEPECAT Jaguar IS/IB, and potentially the French-made Rafale aircraft that can arm India’s estimated 48 nuclear warheads specifically designated for aerial delivery.

Last but not least, unlike Pakistan, India has a true nuclear triad, as they’re also able to launch nuclear missiles by sea. The Dhanush is a short-range, ship-launched ballistic missile variant of the Prithvi-II that is configured for mounting on the back of the Indian Navy’s Sukanya-class patrol vessels.

They also have a submarine-launched ballistic missile known as the K-15

The Future of the Indian Nuclear Program

As noted by a fact sheet from the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation,Indian engineers are also building six fast breeder reactors by 2033 to produce both electric power and fissile material. 

“India has already developed the K-15 SLBM and is in the process of creating the more advanced K-4 SLBM. The former has a strike range of 750 km while the latter may reach 3,500 km. These SLBMs are or will be carried on the still developing INS Arihant class submarines, which have faced repeated delays and production issues.

These missiles and submarines are intended to ensure a second-strike retaliatory capability. 

“India is further developing the Agni-IV, Agni-V, and Agni-P. Agni-IV is a rail- and road-mobile ballistic missile with a range of approximately 4,000 km, giving it the capability to strike targets in nearly all of China. The  Agni-V is reportedly road-mobile and has a range of more than 5,000 km, potentially making it the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missile.”

Given Pakistan and China’s rush to proliferate, India certainly has plenty of motivation for going further and further down the nuclear weaponry rabbit hole. Namaste

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS)

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).