India's Nuclear Arsenal
PC : Reuters

India’s nuclear deterrence has survived until now in spite of the Indo-China tense standoff since last six months. Massive PLA mobilisation has created an unprecedented security scenario for the first time after the 1962 war. That means that the existing Nuclear Doctrine has served its aim. However, an examination of the existing doctrine will indicate that with the fast changing security dynamics in this region and the new emerging technologies, there is  a requirement for upgrading the existing doctrine and the need for fast tracking it’s ‘Development and Force Structuring’, which give intrinsic stability. This may negate the risk of deterrence hanging on a slender thread.

This poses a few questions on India’s existing nuclear posturing, which is correlated to its existing doctrine. Is there is a case to factor the Power of ‘Nuclear Deterrence’ in our National Security Strategy to offset the conventional asymmetry with the adversary-like drawing thresholds to support war-fighting etc. ? Is there a need to change the ‘No First Use’ (NFU) policy, when facing a stronger adversary? Is the present operational doctrine, sufficient to tackle twin collusive threats in a volatile security environment? Do newer technologies demand a more proactive and ‘Launch-on-Warning’ category of doctrine? Because India’s current Nuclear Doctrine is more unidirectional oriented and appears ambiguous to cater to duel threats. It lacks a National Mission. This poses a strategic dilemma. The ibid doctrine does not spell out contingencies with exactitude. The doctrine is silent on the aspects of war fighting. This consequently, affects sequentially on building future nuclear capacities. The operationalization of the nuclear arsenal, the type of targeting, Command and Control and flexible response capability, are all derivatives of the correct nuclear mission. This mission thereafter dictates the preparation and application of the Nuclear Forces for National Security Objectives. There are four options for the application of nuclear power. First, the national policy and doctrine for ’No First Use’ (NFU) or the ‘First use’ (FU).The second, is the decision to engage counter-value targets or the counter-force targets; Thirdly, the need for flexible and immediate response or only the pre-planned counter value (political bomb) targeting. Yet another aspect, which needs clarity, is the issue of thresholds, which are linked to ground military operations and thus become force multipliers to the military’s mission.

 Nuclear Doctrine: 2003

India’s official nuclear doctrine, released by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) in 2003, states a posture of “NFU” and in case of a first-strike by the adversary, it promises retaliation that is “Massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage”. The current doctrine, therefore has built on the following organisational capacities and characteristics: (i) Firstly, ‘Credible Minimum Nuclear Deterrence’ with adequate retaliatory capability, if deterrence fails. (ii)  Secondly, due to the policy of ‘retaliation only’, the survivability of the arsenal becomes critical. Thus their  need for security and concealment becomes .mandatory.(iii)Thirdly, India’s peacetime posture is aimed at convincing any potential aggressor that: any nuclear attack on India will invite “massive” retaliation with nuclear weapons to inflict damage unacceptable to the aggressor.(iv) It further qualifies, that deterrence requires  India should always maintain sufficient, survivable and operationally prepared nuclear forces, a robust command and control system backed by effective intelligence and early warning capabilities. It further says that to fulfil this India should have ‘Triad’ capabilities. (v) Lastly, it spells out that Nuclear weapons will be tightly controlled and released at the highest level. It is also observed that in the initial draft of the doctrine made in 1999, the retaliation was to be only “Punitive”. However, in 2003 later it was reworded to read “Massive”, which clearly indicates that India wanted to preclude the option of nuclear use against its adversaries. This was also aligned with India’s objective of relying on its conventional capability to enable strategic deterrence by a punishment strategy through the Indian Strike Corps. This has always provided the conventional edge to India and has been a preferred option against Pakistan. However now, the nuclearisation of the sub-continent has changed this landscape. Pakistan’s ‘FU’ doctrine and incorporation of tactical nuclear weapons in its force posture needs a call for further substitution of the “massive retaliation” concept with a more “graduated” or “flexible” retaliation and “Counter-Force” type of military targeting. There is a case for evolving newer doctrines like of ‘Extended Deterrence” or “Limited Deterrence” But such philosophies go against the grain in the current nuclear doctrine because unlike the “massive” formulation, the “Graduated or Limited” response allows control of the Escalation Ladder. This facilitates ability to leverage an advantage for military gains, rather than going straight for “Counter-Value” targeting of cities. Coupled with the policy of ‘Escalation Control’ measures, there is a need for issue of guidelines for quantification and proportionality in terms of weapons yields and numbers. This will then dictate the inventory of future arsenals and also the ‘Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicle’ (MIRV) capability and research for Fourth Generation/Fifth Generation nuclear warheads. . In addition, recapitulating the history of nuclear weapons and its parlance would help, in better understanding for decision-making.

Historical Argument & Way Ahead

During the Cold War and détente between the USA and erstwhile USSR, many European strategists speculated many defence postures that included the ability to use effective force. Thus, many terms were coined. Intermediate Deterrence theory was propagated by Buzard; Intermediate Courses by Liddell Hart; the Middle Game by Strachey; Measured Retaliation by Healy. Buzzards of “Graduated Deterrence” propagated the most practical theory. However, Bernard Brodie who had expressed the tenets of nuclear war stated: ‘Nuclear War is Unwinnable’. What has to be really examined is, that will the theory of deterrence holds in the future too, for the developing nations of the Asian subcontinent? In the present fast detieorating Indo-Pacific environment with the US-china, rivalry in ascendency and India being the pivot in Asia as perceived by the USA is causing geo-political ripples in the China-ASEAN inter-states relationships. The emergence of QUAD in this region is yet another evolving architecture for security and freedom in this theatre. It is in the formative stage and as an annexure; the unspoken ‘Nuclear-Alliance’ between the states is bound to develop as part of an overarching Indo-Pacific strategy. This is again advantage India and will in fact strengthen the nuclear deterrence and nuclear stability in this region. Therefore, there is a need to do a closer examination of the current doctrine to ensure that India judiciously employs the currency of nuclear weapons so as to ensure a ‘A zero Sum Game’ when facing a duel threat(Pakistan-China nexus).In case of a singular threat, the said new doctrine should enable India, a clear edge over Pakistan. As regards China, the said new doctrine should be worded differently to ensure a “No War Matrix” equation. It could also talk of a ‘Nuclear Alliance Matrix’ (As discussed above) so added as a “Third Strike Force”. When such a ‘Force-Mix’ is added to this equation then a very complex nuclear matrix emerges in the Indo-Pacific Theatre, again with advantage India. Remember, nuclear war is unwinnable. The exercise of additions and subtractions of nuclear Warheads is only a theoretical figure. Because in reality it is only a mind game. However, ironically and truly, this actually affects and paves way for peace. The said discussed alliance mix, adds to India’s deterrence capability even against a twin threat. This will then shut the China conventional superiority argument over India at least for the next two decades. (There will be no more Doklams and Galwan incidents).This advantage will give adequate space to India for achieving its strategic objectives. This is just a school of thought and needs validation and debate. Thus, it can be said that these arguments and these equations are theoretical and may promote the deterrence stability to hold good between India and China. Otherwise alternatively, if status quo in the doctrine is maintained, then China will continue to enjoy overwhelming conventional and nuclear superiority over India, thus compelling India not to use Nuclear Weapons in case of a conventional military defeat? This issue needs more deliberation by military planners. With India now having a CDS, such introspection is possible on a fast track and is mandatory. There is a definite requirement of delineating geographic thresholds across the LAC/LOC and the same be dovetailed with the Limits of Penetration in the overall defence battle. These have to be decided by the military and that it should augment the defensibility of Strategic Objectives. The construction of the CPEC through Pakistan has yet added another dimension to the security calculus where Pak-China collusiveness is bound to synergise more and more.

Since the inception of the current nuclear doctrine, twenty years have elapsed and there has been a dramatic shift in the global security architecture. This is mainly due to the rapid transformation of multiple and newer technologies of Information domination, gathering of real-time Intelligence, digitisation and the increased use of precision-guided munitions to name a few. The geopolitical security landscape is also under flux due to the rise and belligerence of China and its subservient allies. Before we delve into the desired changes in recalibrating the existing nuclear doctrine, we have to understand, how in tandem, it will also affect the national military strategy.

The theory of “Pre-war deterrence” and “Intra-war deterrence” in the Asian context needs to be seen by the NSAB urgently for a corresponding change in India’s nuclear strategy. The linkage between Flexible Response and the Command and Control is a critical infrastructure, which should give a real-time management facility. Strategists like Racket, Stinbruner, and Cartor, to prove this point had carried out a major study on this aspect. Military doctrine is more commonly a product of strategy. It spells out the principals and lays the dogma for development, employment and deployment of force. In nuclear terminology, the nation’s nuclear policy is the broad strategy comprising facets like a blueprint for development, the requirement of Fourth Generation systems, and use in Space. The nuclear doctrine thereafter gives principles concerning the ethical, physical aspects and declaratory statement for the necessary deterrence effect. It may also include aspects like threat assessment, nuclear threshold levels and retaliatory strike drills and training. In short, it operationalizes the nuclear forces. Ideally, the Military (CDS) should decide the policy, which could be deliberated by the NSAB thereafter, for evolving the operational aspect of the doctrine.

China-Pakistan Nuclear Growth

Analysing the Chinese and Pakistan nuclear growth and strategy will also facilitate India in recalibrating the new Indian ‘Nuclear Strategy’ and a follow-up doctrine. Nuclear analyst holds that China is modernizing “the PLA’s nuclear capability through the creation of a small yet more accurate and versatile triad-based strategic and tactical missile force” China has 320 nuclear warheads(Figures could be much more) this year as against 290 in 2019 and Pakistan has 160, which were about 150 to 160 in the year 2019. India has the least among the three with 150 counts of warheads and had 130 to 140 in the year 2019. New developments further suggest that China intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch-on-warning (LOW) posture with an expanded silo-based force.

Pakistan possesses a wide variety of nuclear-capable medium-range ballistic missiles with ranges up to 2750 km. Pakistan also possesses nuclear-tipped Babur cruise missiles with ranges up to 700 km. Pakistan has a Hatf-4 Shaheen-1A, said to be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead designed to evade missile-defence systems. Army Strategic Forces Command of Pakistan Army controls these land-based missiles. Pakistan is also believed to be developing tactical nuclear weapons for use on the battlefield with ranges up to 60 km such as the Nasr missile.


The arguments that can be made for a changed doctrine are summarised below:

NFU/FU Debate. Incentive of damage limitation during a crisis when nuclear use is imminent could shift the calculus in India’s decision-making to the point that pre-emptive counterforce first strike becomes a rational choice to avoid the damage inflicted by first use. This is a more desirable option when the foremost objective of India’s nuclear doctrine to keep the conflict from going nuclear is not met. While the NFU may serve India’s interest in peacetime, it will make no sense to absorb the full impact of a potential first nuclear strike or use, particularly when such use is imminent.
Counter-Force Targetting.There is a need for a study on ‘Tactical Weapons’ and its linkage to the Escalation ladder and the need for a flexible response only further strengths the stability and the deterrence factor. History of NATO-WARSAW also proves the same point. In any case, both China and Pakistan have Nuclear weapons and have a policy for its military use. Future technologies talk of very light Fourth Generation Nuclear Systems, which can be fitted, on a tactical missile.

Threshold Perceptions. This enables a nuclear weapon in complimenting military operations. These could be geographical points showing a nuclear response if the adversary crosses the line.
Battlefield Transparency. This enables better targeting and situational awareness by the adversary. This demands a lesser response time by defender when following an ‘NFU’ policy. Thus, it is necessary to create architecture for Information domination and reaction. This may demand the necessity of having “Launch-On-Warn” capability. Space militarisation unfortunately, is an unfolding reality. India also needs judicious investments in this frontier to enable building a kind of “Space Deterrence” which may in fact degrade the potency of strategic nuclear weapons as against firing precession guided fractional nuclear weapons
Transparent Nuclear Doctrine. Adoption of newer technologies with special emphases on Precision Firing capabilities, Fourth Generation systems etc. be included in the open doctrine. Being transparent in a doctrine strengthens the deterrence rather than grading things as classified, which only aids de-stability.

Modernisation & New Concepts

The issues, as discussed above need to be further debated for a national consensus. The Parliament or at least the CCS should preferably clear the same. Thereafter, plan the Force Structuring and employment in a short time frame due to the fast detonating security environment around India’s perimeter. There is a definite requirement of a more Atmannirbhar ‘R&D’ on many future nuclear weapons technologies. Some facts on nuclear modernisation and its application are spelt out as (i) US is making a ’Mini-Nuke’ (W76-2 bomb), which will ensure shrinkage of power and enable tactical applications. This will enable nuclear-war-fighting “flexibility,” This weapon system will transcend the concept of war fighting. The limited use of tactical nuclear weapon to “restore strategic stability” is essentially the same concept as the Russian “escalate-to-deescalate” doctrine that the Nuclear Posture Review also had mentioned.(ii)Multiple countries are seeking to build even smaller and more sophisticated nuclear weapons, China is developing a mobile missile with multiple-independently targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) In order to counter missile defence, (iii)China and Russia are developing hypersonic glide vehicles, and Russia is probably developing a nuclear-armed, nuclear powered underwater vehicle (iv) Concept of Non-Strategic Nuclear weapons and munitions like artillery ammunitions and mine are taking roots. (v)Finally, miniaturised nukes and fractional bombs are becoming possible because of technologies like the Fourth Generation Nuclear Systems, which are based on Plutonium. They are also called the Pure Fusion bombs.

These trends are shifting warfare from the ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’ analogy, based on Counter-Value targeting, which had ensured deterrence. However, as can be seen, the USA and others are talking of Fractional yields to be used for war fighting. They are talking of using tactical mini-nukes to stabilise a combat situation to protect a strategic objective. What does that imply? Will we have two levels of deterrence? One in the spectrum of nuclear war fighting and the other for going for higher yield weapons, which target major cities, and population centres. This kind of layered deterrence may become the new norm. Nevertheless all the above, the fundamental basic moot question is, what will be the impact of these niche technologies on the slender thread of the existing strategic deterrence? Since after the First Nuclear Bomb, both NATO and the erstwhile WARSAW and now Russia have not allowed the thread of deterrence to break at any cost, in spite of various precarious geopolitical conflicts. The future will be very uncertain with China also jockeying for superpower status. Therefore, India is left with a very limited option of defying the trends of tactical nuclear weapons. This may even require a national debate as a good democracy demands. Finally, as can be seen, the future of global security is definitely under challenge as we see the slender thread of nuclear deterrence weakening more and more to create an uncertain world.