- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

India: The Challenges of Nuclear Operationalization and Strategic Stability

Gaurav Kampani


This chapter provides an overview of the operational advances in India’s nuclear capabilities over the past decade and analyzes their regional and global implications.

Main Argument

At the technical level, India has the means for an assured strike capability against Pakistan. But it will take at least another decade before India acquires similar assurance against China. The pernicious nature of the Indo-Pakistani ideological rivalry, Pakistan’s continued resort to low-intensity warfare, and China’s huge nuclear lead do not bode well for deterrence and crisis stability in the Asia-Pacific. Although India’s emergence as a nuclear weapons power is a positive development for the U.S. in managing China’s rise, the price for that development is active diplomatic intervention in South Asia to ensure crisis stability and close vigilance to ensure that Pakistan’s expanding nuclear arsenal remains safe and secure.

Policy Implications

  • In the short term, the nuclear competition in the Asia-Pacific is prone to deterrence instability. Deterrence instability stems from material gaps in India’s nuclear hardware, especially pertaining to China. The U.S. has the choice of continuing its present course of approaching India’s nuclear drive with relative passivity or assisting India more aggressively through the supply of hardware.
  • As long as Pakistan retains its strategy of low-intensity warfare against India, the threat of recurring crises in South Asia will remain, as will the demand for U.S. intervention and crisis management.
  • The size of Chinese nuclear forces in the future may be partially determined by India’s rival nuclear force. Chinese force expansion would complicate further reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal below 1,000.

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Fifteen years have passed since India stepped out of the nuclear closet and staked its claim to nuclear power status. Within the cohort of countries with nuclear weapons, India is generally regarded as a “reluctant” proliferator, having sat on the nuclear fence for sixteen years. [1] Scholars often attribute New Delhi’s indecision to a strategic culture that is averse to nuclear weapons as well as to a leadership that is generally shy about taking political risks. Further, scholars and policy practitioners attribute India’s quest for nuclear weapons to prestige as much as security. Until 2005–6, seven years after conducting nuclear tests, the pace of India’s nuclear operationalization was slow. This led many to believe that Indian political leaders cared more about the symbolism associated with nuclear weapons than their military utility. Thereafter, the process picked up steam, especially with the military’s participation in nuclear force planning. During the last seven years, India has made impressive strides toward deploying a nuclear triad of aircraft, mobile land-based missiles, and sea-based assets. Senior national security managers have also insisted that they take the task of building operational capabilities—the institutional and infrastructure invisibles such as command, control, communications, intelligence, logistics, procedures, planning, safety, and training—very seriously. However, critics maintain that India’s arsenal is technically unreliable and suffers from huge institutional and organizational lacunae.

During the last decade, India’s and Pakistan’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, China’s nuclear force modernization, and North Korea’s nuclear tests have put Asia at the center of the “second nuclear age.” Although the rivalry between the nuclear powers in Asia does not approach the intensity of the Cold War competition between the Soviet Union and the United States, relations in the India-China and especially the India-Pakistan nuclear dyads are particularly tense. Since beginning their nuclear quest in the 1970s, India and Pakistan have fought one war and confronted each other in four serious crises that almost led to war. China and India have also clashed along their land border, and China has undermined India’s security by materially aiding Pakistan in the development of its nuclear arsenal. Not surprisingly, therefore, serious concerns arise about maintaining strategic stability in the Asia-Pacific over the next several decades.

This chapter assesses how India perceives nuclear weapons as advancing its national interests in order to present a picture of the operational distance the country has traveled in the last decade. The first section offers a historical overview of India’s nuclear weapons program and situates India’s nuclear drive within the context of national security objectives. Next, the chapter surveys the hardware capabilities of both its weapons and delivery systems and analyzes the technical challenges that India must overcome to acquire a truly secure second-strike capability. The chapter then discusses the regional impact of India’s emergence as a nuclear power with respect to deterrence stability, crisis stability, and arms race stability. Finally, the conclusion assesses these developments for U.S. policy in the Asia-Pacific and the world at large.

This chapter makes four arguments. First, India already possesses the technical means for an assured strike capability against Pakistan but will need at least another decade to acquire a similar capability vis-à-vis China. Second, institutional, organizational, and procedural capacities are as vital as hardware for force employment purposes. The latter constitute the Achilles heel of India’s nuclear force and are acquiring increasing attention from national security managers. Third, the pernicious nature of the ideological rivalry between India and Pakistan, the latter’s ongoing reliance on terrorism and low-intensity warfare, and China’s huge nuclear lead over India do not bode well for deterrence and stability in the region. Nonetheless, the nuclear arms competition is more stable than external actors often perceive it to be. Finally, although India’s emergence as a nuclear weapons power is a positive development for the United States in managing China’s rise, the price for that development is active U.S. intervention in the region to ensure stability during…


[1] After conducting a nuclear test in 1974, the Indian government began weaponizing in spring 1989. Although India conducted a second round of nuclear tests in 1998 and subsequently claimed the status of a nuclear power, it had acquired nuclear weapons sometime during 1990–92.

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