- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

India’s Emerging Nuclear Doctrine: Exemplifying the Lessons of the Nuclear Revolution

Ashley J. Tellis

After a hiatus of almost 24 years, India startled the world in May 1998 by resuming nuclear testing at a time when the international community solemnly expressed a desire through the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to refrain from the field–testing of nuclear explosives. In the aftermath of these tests, India declared itself to be a "nuclear weapon state" and formally announced its intention to develop a "minimum credible (nuclear) deterrent." In the face of strong international—and particularly U.S.—pressures to clarify its objectives, the Indian government affirmed that India would behave as a responsible nuclear power and promised to enunciate a nuclear doctrine that would corroborate this claim. This paper analyzes India's emerging nuclear doctrine on both the declaratory and operational levels of policy and assesses its implications for regional stability in South Asia.

In contrast to the views held by many within and outside India, New Delhi does not currently possess or desire to build a ready nuclear arsenal, but instead seeks to develop a "force–in–being," which can be defined as a nuclear deterrent made up of available, but dispersed, components that can be constituted into a usable weapon system during a supreme emergency. The force will consist of unassembled nuclear warheads, with their sub–components stored separately under civilian control, and delivery systems maintained without their nuclear payloads by the military either at varying levels of alert or in storage away from operational areas. The command of this force will lie solely with civilians in the persons of the prime minister and the cabinet, while civilians and the military will jointly share custody of the various strategic assets that make up the deterrent. In the event of deterrence breakdown, both civilian and military officials would be called upon to integrate the formerly separated components into usable weapons systems, the custody of which would gradually be transferred to the military.

The Declaratory Level of Policy

The most significant and distinguishing facet of India's declaratory nuclear doctrine is its consistent claim that nuclear weapons are political instruments of deterrence rather than military tools of warfighting. To Indian thinking, the possession of even a few survivable nuclear weapons capable of being delivered on target in the aftermath of an attack on India, together with an adequate command system, is seen as sufficient to preserve the country's security. This emphasis on deterrence means that, for India's security managers, nuclear weapons are...

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