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India’s Enhanced Strategic Nuclear Triad: Implications For South Asian Strategic Stability – OpEd

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Since the last few years, India has embarked on an extensive augmentation of its strategic nuclear capabilities. This is primarily inspired by its long-held desire to dominate the escalation ladder of the South Asian region and extend its strategic outreach.

The massive buildup of strategic nuclear capabilities is also part of India’s grand strategy that is intended towards achieving the status of global power. In pursuit of this, it has carried out an overwhelming enhancement of its nuclear capabilities aimed at completing a strategic nuclear triad. Furthermore, India has been maintaining an offensive nuclear force posture along with the provision of advanced delivery systems and platforms that are capable of firing nuclear missiles. In this regard, a very robust three-pronged nuclear force structure which includes land-based, air-launched, and submarine-launched nuclear missiles form the very basis of the Indian nuclear triad.

Specifically, this has become more significant given the Indian induction of sophisticated platforms to strengthen its existing nuclear triad. This is further aimed at both initiating the first strike option and ensuring a second-strike capability. India’s attempt to dominate the regional deterrence equilibrium by enhancing its nuclear triad would adversely affect the strategic stability of the South Asian region.

In simplistic terms, the nuclear triad is the ability to launch a nuclear offensive from various platforms and delivery systems at air, land, and undersea. This is aimed at ensuring a three-prong offensive nuclear force posture. Air platforms are a major source of delivering nuclear warheads. In this regard, initially, India had relied on its Jaguar and Mirage 2000 jets with the provision to deliver the air-launched nuclear missiles.

Later on, the Russian Sukhoi Su-30 jets were acquired by India which is also capable of delivering nuclear missiles. India has also reportedly modified 40 of these jets to carry the BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles, one of the fastest supersonic missiles currently available in the world. This has significantly enhanced India’s air-based nuclear capability. Since then, these jets have been projected as the backbone of the air component of the Indian nuclear triad.

Most recently, India has received the first five of its total 36 Rafale jets from France. It is widely believed that the Indian Rafales would likely be modified to play the nuclear role. Since, along with its other advanced strikes capabilities, Rafale is well known to be capable of delivering a nuclear payload. Especially against the backdrop of the humiliation which India has faced in recent crises, the addition of Rafale in the Indian Air Force (IAF’s) inventory would further complement the air-based component of the Indian nuclear triad. 

In the same vein, India’s land-based component of the nuclear triad consists of offensive missile systems capable of delivering nuclear warheads at various ranges. In this regard, most notably, the Agni and Prithvi missiles are India’s fully operational land-based nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. Especially the Agni missiles are believed to be the backbone of the Indian land-based nuclear capability. The Agni-V and Agni-VI variants of this series are reportedly Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBMs). The Agni-V of 5000 km range is in service, whereas the Agni-VI of 10000 km range is under development. This shows Indian eagerness to complete an ICBM ranged land-based component of its nuclear triad.

In addition to these, there has been much hype regarding the land launched version of the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile which India has developed in collaboration with Russia. The BrahMos missile is also capable of delivering nuclear warheads with its incredible speed. India also aspires to have hypersonic nuclear-capable cruise missiles as part of its land-based nuclear capability. In this regard, the recent tests of the Shaurya ballistic missile and Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV) for future cruise missiles are considerably important.

Furthermore, there are also reports which suggest that India and Russia are jointly working on the BrahMos-II a hypersonic variant of this cruise missile. Though the practicality of this might remain questionable, such developments indicate that India wants to further enhance the land-based component of its nuclear triad. 

It is worth mentioning here that the provision of nuclear first-strike and assurance of second-strike capability undersea is the most credible component for the completion of a nuclear triad. The naval based component appears to be the Indian priority as well. This is evident from the Indian enhancements of its naval based nuclear deterrent capabilities with the provision of nuclear-powered and ballistic missile-carrying submarines (SSBNs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

In this regard, the presence of the INS Arihant SSBN and the K-series SLBMs in the Indian naval inventory are worth considering. Especially, the K-serious has tremendous significance for India’s sea-based nuclear capability aimed at completing the nuclear triad. These include; the K-15 missile (the land-based version of Sagarika missile) with a range of 700 km and the K-4 missile of 3500 km range. The long-range K-5 and K-6 missiles of 5000 and 6000 km are also under development.

Along with these, the INS Arighat, India’s second SSBN as reported is set to be deployed by the end of 2020. It is also believed to be capable of carrying more nuclear-capable missiles as compared to the INS Arihant. These platforms have considerably enhanced India’s naval based second-strike capability and further ensured the completion of a strategic nuclear triad.

Hence at the present, India seeks to maintain a credible and reliable strategic nuclear triad in pursuit of its hegemonic designs and great power aspiration. India’s nuclear triad is in large part ensured by its offensive enhancement of air, land, and undersea nuclear capabilities. Such an Indian attempt to dominate the regional deterrence equation would likely further increase the risk of instability in the region. These factors combined would have long-lasting implications for the overall regional deterrence equilibrium that is primarily ensured by Pakistan’s nuclear capability. Though, Pakistan still holds a very calculated and principled minimum credible deterrence approach, Indian eagerness to expand its nuclear triad would likely challenge the nuclear threshold of Pakistan. This would ultimately undermine the strategic and deterrence equilibrium in South Asia.

*The writer currently works as a Research Associate at the Strategic Vision Institute (SVI) in Islamabad, Pakistan. 

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