Making Sense Of India’s Nuclear Weapons – Analysis


Under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, India’s first nuclear test in 1974 was called ‘Operation Smiling Buddha’, a peaceful nuclear explosion test carried out for civilian purpose. By 1998, second nuclear test was conducted under Prime Minister Atal Behari which aimed to serve military purpose. This article takes a look at the reasons for India’s nuclear weapons and the steps needed to be taken to live up to its no first use policy.

Rationale behind India’s nuclear weapons

Use of weapons mass destruction is not new to India. The Vedic age had witnessed the development of weapons of mass destruction like the Pashupatastra and Brahmastra. In fact the Pashupatastra was so destructive a weapon that Lord Rama and Lakshamana were barred from using it. Post Vedic period, Kautlilya had stated that every nation desires to maximise its power and hence, moral principles are not of much concern to the states. He also stated that agreements on peace issues could only be achieved amongst equal and superior kings while the inferior one could be attacked.

National security is of paramount precedence for any state. In realism and neo realism paradigm, state is the referent object and it has to be protected at any cost. Structural anarchy or the absence of a government gives rise to security dilemma. Existential threat is one of the important reasons why states generally develop nuclear weapons. South Africa developed nuclear weapons and used them as deterrence against both Soviets and the USA till the Cold War. Post 1991, South Africa with reduction of external threat had destroyed its nuclear weapons arsenal. Thus, as long as there is threat, states would try to secure themselves given that states exist in an anarchical world and there is a persistent existence of security dilemma. China’s nuclear weapon development in 1970s made it mandatory for New Delhi to acquire the same. Thus, the domino theory was revealed in the region and Pakistan too followed the suit. Today Pakistan is developing sophisticated nuclear weapons and enhancing its arsenal leaving no other option for India but to join the arms race.

States which try to secure their national security “must balance against any rival state that develops nuclear weapons by gaining access to a nuclear deterrent itself”. The “animus dominandi” or the desire for power of a state could be satisfied by enhancing its hard power prowess and nuclear weapons especially tipped with ballistic missiles are the best options. Kenneth Waltz had also stated in ‘Man States and War’ that “power appear as a possible useful instrument rather than as a supreme value that men by their very natures are led to seek”.

By adopting a ‘no first use policy’, India made it clear to the world that nuclearisation is a compulsion for India given the threat it is subjected to from China and Pakistan. Hence, nuclear weapons would only be used in what is termed as ‘punitive retaliation’ in case she is attacked by nuclear weapons by her adversaries. The ‘no first use’ strengthens India’s deterrence posture by being defensive, rooted in its cultural and traditional beliefs. Credible minimum nuclear deterrent was adopted as India felt that nuclear weapons are more of political weapons and not military ones and their only purpose is to provide deterrence against the use and the threat of use of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons have been the “second force to working for peace in post war world” as had been put forward by Kenneth Waltz. K. Subraniam had stated that if Mahatma Gandhi was alive, he too would have been in favour of nuclear weapons. Mahatma Gandhi had even said once “those nations who have atom bombs are feared even by their friends”. One could rightly say that since the development of nuclear weapons in both Pakistan and India, both the countries have avoided conflict even at a limited scale. Relations between China and India are also not as strained as it was before India’s nuclearisation.

India could choose this movement as an opportunity for convergence with Pakistan. Both India and Pakistan could stand up against ‘nuclear apartheid’ and the global zero and justify their cause of possessing nuclear weapons that if the developed countries could possess them, the developing countries could possess them too. States have the sovereign right to possess nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are resulting in an arms race in the region. Even though this is seen as a matter of concern, it must be understood that the arms race strengthens the stability-instability paradox in the region. However, in a few years, when arms escalation reaches its peak, both India and Pakistan could decide to call for talks on arms reduction.

Nuclearisation has also enabled India to look beyond Russia and build new defence relations with countries like Israel, the US and France. This has enabled India to acquire sophisticated weapons. India now talks of fifth generation aircrafts and missile defences. Large part of India’s budget goes in building Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles, Short Range ballistic Missile, acquiring aircrafts like the Mirage category and the Jaguars. In a few years or so India would also be able to develop sea based deterrent which include submarine launched ballistic missiles and submarine launched cruise missiles. India is also working towards an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile of the Agni variant. There is an effort to develop multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles for the Agni class of missile. Long range ballistic missiles for developing countries become feasible only when they are fitted with nuclear weapons.


India’s quest towards developing a credible survivable option would mean that India must keep its nuclear options ready. India’s shift from liquid propelled fuel to solid propelled fuel is a step towards achieving survivability since the latter is best suited for road and rail mobility. India needs to work effectively on its sea based deterrent for a counter and second strike capability since submarine launched ballistic missiles are the weapon for counter strike. However, no delivery system is credible without an effective command and control system. There should be a dispersal of command and control for effective control over the nuclear arsenal.

India must be able to articulate about the reasons for a ballistic missile defence and that the defence system is only for defensive purpose and not meant for any offensive purpose. That is, the defence system would be used to prevent an adversary’s first strike, and not to launch a first strike and use the BMD to prevent the remaining adversary’s arsenal for targeting India.

As India develops its MIRV capability, it must be noted that MIRVs require miniaturised warhead technology which could affect the range of ballistic missile, that is, it could reduce the range of ballistic missile. Being a first strike weapon, India must be able to articulate the fact that MIRVs are technology demonstrator for New Delhi and would not be used for first strike. However, given India’s no first use policy, if the missiles survive a first strike, MIRVs would be the best option to launch a counter strike and destroy adversary’s targets with minimum number of missiles.

It must be noted that even though nuclear weapons could be a threat to United States’ forward base at Diego Garcia, these weapons are not aimed at the same. The US would need a strong power to contain the dragons in the Asian periphery and India is one of the options.

Debalina Ghoshal
Associate Fellow
Centre for Air Power Studies
New Delhi.
Email: [email protected]

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One thought on “Making Sense Of India’s Nuclear Weapons – Analysis”

  1. The problem with India is they always leave out the P5 who are the real enemies to India’s nuclear deterrence. always thinking about China/Pakistan threat is what made India to look at Indo/Soviet treaty during 1971 when the nuclear armed Enterprise sailed into Bay of Bengal in 1971. Even today as Snowden leaks reveal USA is spying on France and European nations along with India.Our cyber security is so bad, the second strike capability can be be easily compromised by cyber attack.We are unnecessarly wasting money on Giant star lifters insttead of concentrating on Arihant development and also GSLV development which USA has debarred us from

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