India’s Nuclear Doctrine: Including Radiological Weapons In WMD Category – Analysis


By Tanvi Kulkarni

The 2003 CCS Review which operationalized India’s nuclear doctrine, incorporated nuclear retaliation against attacks using weapons of mass destruction (WMD), namely chemical and biological weapons. This has become a major bone of contention. The case made against this position is that it contradicts the no first use policy enunciated by India and distorts the intrinsic nature of its nuclear deterrent. However, nuclear weapons are instruments to deter attacks that threaten the country and its people. Moreover, the existence of links between states with WMD capabilities and terrorist entities presents a menacing threat of the possible use of WMDs. The threat of radiological terrorism is the most obvious. It could therefore be argued that India’s nuclear weapons policy should include nuclear retaliation against the use of radiological weapons since the Indian nuclear deterrent is designed against all WMDs. Should radiological weapons be considered as WMDs for purposes of the nuclear doctrine? This commentary argues for this proposition.

Current status: The homeless aggressor


The simplest definition of a radiological weapon is one which leads to radiological fallout on detonation or explosion. It is arguable whether radiological weapons qualify as unconventional weapons or WMD. They are popularly described as weapons of mass ‘disruption’. However, as part of CBRNEs (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive), radiological weapons are included as WMDs. Adding to the confusion is its position in WMD forums and official documentation. UNSC Resolutions 1540, 1673 and 1810 have no reference to radiological weapons. But, the WMD Commission established by the Swedish Government and the UN Working Group on Preventing and Responding to WMD Terrorist Attacks have adopted a wider definition of WMDs. The Conference on Disarmament (CD) defines radiological weapons as ‘new types of WMD and new systems’. In India, there is no consensus yet on a standard definition. Therefore radiological weapons can be included within the widest definition of WMDs. These weapons are also sometimes considered as an adjunct to nuclear weapons. For instance the Indian National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has issued guidelines for both nuclear and radiological emergencies.

Why should radiological weapons be considered as WMDs?

Nuclear weapons use fissile materials that are radioactive. Such radioactive material can also be retrieved from nuclear waste or commercial sources to make explosives. Weapons containing different isotopes are designable and usable to provide higher yields. Salted bombs or cobalt bombs have not been tested, but are defined as radiological weapons that involve nuclear fission and are therefore nuclear-variants. The casualties resulting from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in the Iraq War (2007) and in Afghanistan (2011) are eye-openers; they inform of the damage that a massive radiological weapons attack can effect. A hypothetical scenario can be envisaged where a country is subjected to simultaneous geographically dispersed attacks using ‘disruptive’ radiological weapons.

Why should radiological weapons warrant a threat of nuclear retaliation?

Given the operational problems associated with the use of radiological weapons by the military, the threat of a radiological weapons attack mainly arises from non-state actors, specifically terrorist entities. The threat to India from terrorism being high, any WMD content makes the threat very serious. The threat from radiological weapons is grave because of the relative ease to accessing them and possible use by terrorists. At the 2002 CD, India stated that the “threat of radiological weapons seemed more real nowadays with the spectre of dirty bombs.” Radiological terrorism is considered most probable. Unlike chemical and biological weapons, however, radiological weapons have not been outlawed by international laws or treaties.

The proliferation of technology and materials from rogue states or internal elements to terrorists highlights the danger of state-sponsored radiological terrorism, which has implications for nuclear deterrence. There is no need to lower the nuclear threshold by advocating nuclear retaliation against a radiological weapons attack. Rather, the adversary should be deterred from considering such an attack, directly or indirectly, by instilling the fear of credible nuclear retaliation. The footnote: The Indian nuclear doctrine.

Nuclear deterrence is uniquely designed against nuclear weapons threats from states, but leaves open the possibility of threats emanating from non-state actors. It is difficult to deter state-sponsored terrorism. Credible deterrence requires that the ultimate decision-makers (with the Prime Minister at the helm) should retain the choice of response with nuclear weapons, after gauging the nature and intensity of the attack. The Prime Minister could be then allowed to interpret an incoming radiological attack as a nuclear attack. This argument assumes that the nuclear retaliation policy is flexible, and not a rigid one requiring a massive response to every WMD attack. It also assumes the country is bestowed with a rational leadership and the decision-maker enjoys full knowledge of the adversary and the incoming attack.

Tanvi Kulkarni
Research Officer, IPCS
email: [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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