While India’s nuclear arsenal has been growing over recent years, little mention is made of this fact in reports and assessments in the international discourse relating to South Asian strategic stability. And there has, recently, been much hysteria in international circles about Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
Pakistan has rejected the exaggerated claims about the growth of its nuclear arsenal and has called for shifting the focus to India’s expanding nuclear and missiles programme, and its negative impact in the region. A recent joint report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Stimson Center said that Pakistan has the most rapidly expanding nuclear programme which would outpace India in the development of nuclear warheads in 5-10 years. Pakistan has been denying these assessments since long as they are purely speculative, and has pointed out that it is India which is the driving factor of nuclear growth in Asia.
A recent report co-authored by David Albright and Serena Kelleher-Vergantini of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) said that India has one of the largest nuclear power programmes among developing nations. Using the plutonium produced in its power reactors and discharged in irradiated or spent fuel, India has developed a comparatively large plutonium separation programme and an associated fast breeder reactor programme that is using the separated plutonium. In the Albright-Vergantini report, India’s fissile material production is estimated at 440-480 tons of HEU every year.
The report says that the nuclear weapons that can be made from this stock can be around 110-175 with a median of 138. However, the 2015 SIPRI Yearbook estimates that the Indian nuclear arsenal comprises 90 to 110 warheads, as some quantity of the material is dedicated for use in nuclear submarines and research centres. As against this estimate, the Fissile Materials Organisation data shows India as producing 3.2 tonnes of HEU and 5.7 tonnes of non-civilian plutonium annually. The same source gives the estimate of Pakistan’s fissile production at 3.1 tonnes of HEU and 0.19 tonnes of plutonium. Thus the total output of fissile material in India is estimated by these sources to be considerably higher than that of Pakistan.
A disturbing report by investigative journalist, Adrian Levy, published in Foreign Policy magazine states that India is building a “secret nuclear city” in Karnataka to produce thermonuclear weapons. It is expected to be completed by 2017, becoming the subcontinent’s largest complex of nuclear centrifuges. According to independent experts in London and Washington, this will help India to get an extra stockpile of enriched uranium fuel that could be used in new hydrogen bombs, significantly increasing the explosive force of those in its existing nuclear arsenal.
India, according to a recent report by former Australian non-proliferation chief John Carlson, is one of just three countries that continue to produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons (the others are Pakistan and North Korea). The enlargement of India’s thermonuclear programme would more clearly position the country alongside Britain, the United States, Russia, Israel, France, and China, which already have significant stocks of such weapons.
According to an ISIS report, India’s military plutonium stockpile is growing and is capable of maintaining moderately large nuclear weapons production complex. Currently it can produce plutonium and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons and nuclear powered submarines. It has a sophisticated missile production complex that provides the delivery systems for its nuclear weapons. Indian nuclear weapons use weapons-grade plutonium. The bulk of this plutonium for nuclear weapons has come from the Cirus and Dhruva heavy water reactors, both located at the Bhabba Atomic Research Center (BARC) in Mumbai. Canada supplied the Cirus reactor for peaceful purposes only, and India designed and built the Dhruva reactor itself. India may have procured many parts for these reactors from overseas.
India is also strengthening its delivery systems and nuclear reach capabilities with nuclear-capable missile tests. In May 2015 India successfully tested an advanced version of the BrahMos land-attack cruise missile from the Car Nicobar Islands. Subsequently, India successfully test fired its first indigenous multi-role nuclear-capable subsonic cruise missile, named Nirbhay (or Fearless in Hindi), October 17, 2015. The land-to-land configuration of BrahMos Block-III version was test-launched from a Mobile Autonomous Launcher (MAL) for its full-range of 290-km at 1330 hours according to sources. In November 2015, Supersonic cruise missile BrahMos, with a strike-range of over 290 kms, was test-fired from the navy’s newest stealth destroyer INS Kochi successfully hitting a decommissioned target ship in the Arabian Sea.
On February 15, 2016 India’s military had fired an indigenous Prithvi-II missile from a mobile launcher. Finally, on March 15, 2016 the Indian Strategic Forces Command launched an Agni-I nuclear war head missile capable of targeting within the range of 750 km off the Odisha coast. In addition, the Agni V, with a 5000 km range can target much of Europe It is estimated that there is now almost a 3:1 ratio in missile testing frequency between India and Pakistan, which means that India is making and testing nearly three times more missiles than Pakistan.
According to Bloomberg Business report, India is coming close to becoming the world’s sixth country to put a nuclear-armed submarine into operation. This might intensify a race for more underwater weapons in Asia. The submarine Arihant will be India’s first indigenously designed and manufactured nuclear-powered and armed vessel and its deployment would complete India’s nuclear triad, allowing it to deliver atomic weapons from land, sea and air. Since India is developing a sea-based second strike capability along with a BMD, it will have the possibility of launching a decapitating strike and pre-emption attack.
Looking at the total picture, it is amazing that the international community is not alarmed by the growing India arsenal of missiles and sea-based nuclear deterrence. By many estimates, India now possesses a 3300 plus land, air and sea-based missiles inventory, some of its land-based systems remain at a launch-on-warning mode, with warheads ready to use at short notice, an arsenal that is a cause of much concern to countries of the region.
The writer is the executive director of the Center for International Strategic Studies.