Indian Decade

India Eyes Nuclear Triad

New Delhi progresses towards air, land, and sea-based atomic forces, says new report.

“India’s drive to develop a nuclear triad proceeds apace,” write Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris in India’s entry in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ 2012 Nuclear Notebook.

Like most nuclear-armed countries, New Delhi maintains a certain degree of opacity about the size of its nuclear arsenal making it difficult to pinpoint. Thus, while estimating that India has produced enough weapons-grade plutonium for 100-130 nuclear warheads, Kristensen and Norris believe that it has only produce 80-100 of them. This may increase in the future, however, as India enhances its ability to produce plutonium, and increases its delivery systems.

Indeed, the two authors derive their estimate for the size of India’s arsenal based on its air, land, and sea-based delivery systems. With the world’s four-largest air force, Kristensen and Norris contend that Delhi’s fighter-bombers “constitute the backbone of India’s operational nuclear strike force.” Three aircraft currently form the air component of Delhi’s drive to have a complete nuclear triad, according to the authors. These are: the Mirage 2000H aircraft, the French-British designed Jaguar IS/IB, and the domestically manufactured MiG-27 Flogger fleets. India is currently upgrading all three, with the Mirage 2000H’s upgrade alone estimated at $43 million per aircraft (it has 49 of them). Additionally, the authors point out that India intends to purchase 126 Rafale fighter-bombers from France.

The land-based leg of India’s budding triad is what received the most attention over the past year, thanks to the first test-launch of the Agni-V ballistic missile, which, with an estimated range of 5,000 km, is able to reach most major targets in China. With the Agni-V still years away from being operational, Kristensen and Norris write that Delhi possesses as many as three operational nuclear-capable missiles: the short-range Prithvi I, the short-range Agni I, and the medium-range Agni II. However, the authors are only certain that the Prithvi I, which has been relied upon for decades and has a range of 150 km (93 miles), is fully operational and deployed. Given the Agni-I’s eighth successful test-launch in December 2010, the authors write that the missile may finally be fully operational as well. On the other hand, the fact that India delayed the planned ninth test-launch of the missile in May 2012 due to a “technical glitch,” warrants a healthy dose of skepticism. The authors are even less confident that India’s medium-range (2000 km/1,243 miles) rail or road-launched Agni II missile is operational.

Finally, India is also making headway on acquiring a sea-based deterrent force with the continued development of a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) and a ship-launched ballistic missile. Although India’s SSBN, the Arihant, has been under development since 1984, Defense Minster A.K. Antony announced in May 2012 that it will be inducted into India’s Navy sometime in the middle of next year. Kristensen and Norris claim the ship is estimated to have 12 tubes designed to launch the Sagarika submarine-launched ballistic missile, which U.S. intelligence estimates has a range of 290 km (180 miles).

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The authors go on to note that India successfully test-launched its Dhanush ship-launched ballistic missile for the seventh time last year. Some suspect that missile is also nuclear-capable but, as the authors conclude, the missile’s utility is severely hampered by its short range and the fact that it can only carry a smaller payload. Pakistan doesn’t appear to take much comfort in these potential shortcomings, given its drive to match its larger rival every step of the way.

Zachary Keck is Assistant Editor of The Diplomat.