India’s nuclear strategy, which has traditionally focused on Pakistan, has now increased emphasis on China, and Beijing is now in the range of Indian missiles, according to a report. The report said that this posture has likely been reinforced after the 2017 Doklam standoff, during which Chinese and Indian troops were placed on high alert over a dispute near the Bhutanese border.
An analysis of India’s nuclear forces published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists on July 20 by Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda makes this observation. The authors said, “While India’s primary deterrence relationship is with Pakistan, its nuclear modernization indicates that it is putting increased emphasis on its future strategic relationship with China. All the new Agni missiles have ranges that indicate their primary target is China. This posture is likely to be reinforced after the 2017 Doklam standoff, during which Chinese and Indian troops were placed on high alert over a dispute near the Bhutanese border. Tension remained high in 2019, with troop injuries on both sides of the border.”
“The expansion of India’s nuclear posture to take a conventionally and nuclear superior China into account will result in significantly new capabilities being deployed over the next decade, which could potentially also influence how India views the role of its nuclear weapons against Pakistan,” they said.
“According to one scholar, “we may be witnessing what I call a ‘decoupling’ of Indian nuclear strategy between China and Pakistan. The force requirements India needs in order to credibly threaten assured retaliation against China may allow it to pursue more aggressive strategies – such as escalation dominance or a ‘splendid first strike’ – against Pakistan”,” the report said.
“India has long adhered to a nuclear no-first-use policy, even though the policy was weakened by India’s 2003 declaration that it could potentially use nuclear weapons in response to chemical or biological attacks (which would, therefore, constitute nuclear first use, even if it were in retaliation). Yet amid the 2016 dispute with Pakistan, then–Indian defence minister Manohar Parrikar indicated that India should not “bind” itself to that policy. Although the Indian government later explained that the minister’s remarks represented his personal opinion, the debate highlighted the conditions under which India would consider using nuclear weapons,” the report added.
“Current defence minister Rajnath Singh has also publicly questioned India’s future commitment to its no-first-use policy, tweeting in August 2019 that “India has strictly adhered to this doctrine. What happens in the future depends on the circumstances”. Recent scholarship has further called India’s commitment to its no-first-use policy into question, with some analysts asserting that “India’s NFU policy is neither a stable nor a reliable predictor of how the Indian military and political leadership might actually use nuclear weapons”,” it added.
” Even so, India’s NFU policy might have served to limit somewhat the scope and strategy of Indian nuclear forces for the first two decades of its nuclear era. Additionally, although India has long been thought to store its nuclear warheads separate from deployed launchers, there is growing speculation that India may have increased the readiness of its arsenal significantly over the past decade by “pre-mating” warheads with missiles in canisters for a subsection of the ballistic missile launchers, and possibly also storing some bombs at airbases. There is still some uncertainty about how ready those missiles are on a day-to-day basis, since only the Agni-V, which is not yet deployed, is reported to be carried in a canister. But this trend will likely strengthen with India’s development of a sea-based leg of its nuclear triad, which, at least in the way the United States and Russia operate ballistic missile submarines, has typically involved mating warheads with missiles,” it further added.
“Fighter-bombers were India’s first and only nuclear strike force until 2003 when the Prithvi-II nuclear-capable ballistic missile was fielded. Despite considerable progress since then in building a diverse arsenal of land- and sea-based ballistic missiles, bombers continue to serve a prominent role as a flexible strike force in India’s nuclear posture. We estimate that three or four squadrons of Mirage 2000H and Jaguar IS aircraft at three bases are assigned nuclear strike missions against Pakistan and China,” the report said.
It said, “The Mirage 2000H Vajra (“divine thunder”) fighter-bombers are deployed with the 1st, 7th, and possibly the 9th squadrons of the 40th Wing at Maharajpur (Gwalior) Air Force Station in northern Madhya Pradesh. We estimate that one or two of these squadrons has a secondary nuclear mission. Indian Mirage aircraft also occasionally operate from the Nal (Bikaner) Air Force Station in western Rajasthan, and other bases might potentially function as nuclear dispersal bases as well.”
“The Indian Mirage 2000H was originally supplied by France, which used its domestic version (Mirage 2000N) in a nuclear strike role for 30 years, until its retirement in the summer of 2018. The Indian Mirage 2000H is undergoing upgrades to extend its service life and enhance its capabilities; the modernized version is called Mirage 2000I. The Indian Air Force also operates four squadrons of Jaguar IS/IB Shamsher (“sword of justice”) aircraft at three bases (a fifth squadron flies the naval IM version). These include the 5th and 14th squadrons of the 7th Wing at Ambala Air Force Station in northwestern Haryana, the 16th and 27th squadrons of the 17th Wing at Gorakhpur Air Force Station in northeastern Uttar Pradesh, and the 6th and 224th squadrons of the 33rd Wing at Jamnagar Air Force Station in southwestern Gujarat. We estimate that one or two of the squadrons at Ambala and Gorakhpur (one at each base) are assigned a secondary nuclear strike mission. Jaguar aircraft also occasionally operate from the Nal (Bikaner) Air Force Station in western Rajasthan,” it added.
“India is searching for a modern fighter-bomber that will probably take over the air-based nuclear strike role in the future. On September 23, 2016, India and France signed an agreement for delivery of 36 Rafale aircraft. The order was considerably reduced from initial plans to buy 126 Rafales. The Rafale is used for the nuclear mission in the French Air Force, and India could potentially convert it to serve a similar role in the Indian Air Force,” it said.
“The Rafales will be deployed in two equally-sized squadrons of 18 fighters and four dual-seat trainers: one squadron (17th “Golden Arrows” Squadron) at Ambala Air Base Station, located only 220 kilometers from the Pakistani border, and the other squadron (101st “Falcons” Squadron) at Hasimara Air Force Station in West Bengal. New infrastructure developments to accommodate the planes are being constructed at both bases, and the Indian Air Force is reinstating the squadrons to active duty after they had both been decommissioned years earlier,” the report said.
The report also said:
Land-based ballistic missiles: India has four types of land-based, nuclear-capable ballistic missiles that appear to be operational: the short-range Prithvi-II and Agni-I, the medium-range Agni-II, and the intermediate-range Agni-III. At least two other longer-range Agni missiles are in development and nearing completion: the Agni-IV and Agni-V. It remains to be seen how many of these missile types India plans to keep in its arsenal. Some may serve as technology development programs toward longer-range missiles. Although the Indian government has made no statements about the future size or composition of its land-based missile force, short-range and redundant missile types could potentially be discontinued, with only medium- and long-range missiles deployed in the future to provide a mix of strike options against Pakistan and China. Otherwise, the government appears to be planning to field a diverse missile force that will be expensive to maintain and operate.
Despite widespread speculation in news media articles and on social media that the Agni-V will be equipped with multiple warheads – or even multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) – there is good reason to doubt that India can or will add MIRVs to its missiles in the near future. There are no official reports that the Indian government has approved a MIRV program, and loading multiple warheads on the Agni-V would reduce its extra range, a key purpose of developing the missile in the first place.
The Agni-V is estimated to be capable of delivering a payload of 1.5 tons (the same as the Agni-III and -IV), and India’s first- and second-generation warheads, even modified versions, are thought to be relatively heavy compared with warheads developed by other nuclear-armed states that deploy MIRVs. It took the Soviet Union and the United States hundreds of nuclear tests and 25 years of effort to develop reentry vehicles small enough to equip a ballistic missile with MIRVs. Moreover, deploying missiles with multiple warheads would invite serious questions about the credibility of India’s minimum deterrent doctrine; using MIRVs would reflect a strategy to quickly strike multiple targets and would also run the risk of triggering a warhead race with adversaries. Unless China develops an efficient missile defense system with capability against intermediate-range ballistic missiles, there seems to be no military need for MIRVs on Indian missiles.
It seems likely, though, that China’s recent decision to equip some of its ICBMs with MIRVs, and Pakistan’s announcement in January 2017 that it had test-launched a new Ababeel medium-range ballistic missile with MIRVs, will strengthen the hand of those in the Indian military-industrial complex who favor development of a MIRV capability, if for no other reason than to avoid falling behind in MIRV technology.
Although Ministry of Defence officials have recently indicated that India’s strategic missile force will be “capped for the present with the Agni-V, with no successor or next series on the horizon or even on the drawing board”, India apparently has also begun development of a true ICBM, known as Agni-VI. Official data is scarce, but an article posted on the government’s Press Information Bureau website in December 2016 claimed the Agni-VI “will have a strike-range of 8,000–10,000 kilometers” and will “be capable of being launched from submarines as well as from land” (Ghosh 2016). Whether these claims are accurate remains to be seen; a range improvement of roughly 50 percent to nearly 100 percent of that of the Agni-V seems exaggerated. The US Air Force, National Air and Space Intelligence Center estimates the range is closer to 6,000 kilometers (3,730 miles).
India has also converted some of its ballistic missile technology into an anti-satellite interceptor. In March 2019, the Defence Research and Development Organisation completed its first successful anti-satellite test (“Mission Shakti”) against one of its own satellites.
Sea-based ballistic missiles: India operates a ship-launched and a submarine-launched, nuclear-capable ballistic missile and is developing a second submarine-launched ballistic missile for eventual deployment on a small fleet of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. India also appears to be developing its next generation of SSBNs––the S-5 class. To arm the SSBNs, India has developed one nuclear-capable sea-launched ballistic missile, and is working on another: the current K-15 (also known as Sagarika or B-05) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) with a range of 700 kilometers, and the future K-4 SLBM with a range of about 3,500 kilometers.
Cruise missiles: India is developing a ground-launched cruise missile, the Nirbhay. The missile looks similar to the American Tomahawk or the Pakistani Babur and might also be intended for air- and sea-based deployment. The Indian Ministry of Defence describes the Nirbhay as “India’s first indigenously designed and developed long-range subsonic cruise missile having 1,000 kilometer range and capable of carrying up to 300-kilogram warheads”.
Although there are many rumors that the Nirbhay is dual-capable, neither the Indian government nor the US intelligence community has publicly stated such. A test of the Nirbhay cruise missile fitted with an indigenous propulsion system was scheduled for April 2020; however, it appears to have been postponed, likely due to the spread of COVID-19. The Defence Research and Development Organisation confirmed in early 2020 that additional variants of the Nirbhay cruise missile–including submarine-launched and air-launched versions—are in the early stages of planning and development.