Here's What You Need to Know: Unlike the missile-centric U.S. and Russian nuclear forces, India still heavily relies on bombers, perhaps not unexpected for a nation that fielded its first nuclear-capable ballistic missile in 2003. Modernization thus requires the production of new weapons, including nuclear missiles.
India has 130 to 140 nuclear warheads—and more are coming, according to a recent 2018 report.
“India is estimated to have produced enough military plutonium for 150 to 200 nuclear warheads, but has likely produced only 130 to 140,” according to Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists back in 2018. “Nonetheless, additional plutonium will be required to produce warheads for missiles now under development, and India is reportedly building several new plutonium production facilities.”
In addition, “India continues to modernize its nuclear arsenal, with at least five new weapon systems now under development to complement or replace existing nuclear-capable aircraft, land-based delivery systems, and sea-based systems.”
Unlike the missile-centric U.S. and Russian nuclear forces, India still heavily relies on bombers, perhaps not unexpected for a nation that fielded its first nuclear-capable ballistic missile in 2003. Kristensen and Korda estimate India maintains three or four nuclear strike squadrons of Cold War-vintage, French-made Mirage 2000H and Jaguar IS/IB aircraft targeted at Pakistan and China.
“Despite the upgrades, the original nuclear bombers are getting old and India is probably searching for a modern fighter-bomber that could potentially take over the air-based nuclear strike role in the future,” the report notes. India is buying thirty-six French Rafale fighters that carry nuclear weapons in French service, and presumably could do for India.
India’s nuclear missile force is only fifteen years old, but it already has four types of land-based ballistic missiles: the short-range Prithvi-II and Agni-I, the medium-range Agni-II and the intermediate-range Agni-III. “At least two other longer-range Agni missiles are under development: the Agni-IV and Agni-V,” says the report. “It remains to be seen how many of these missile types India plans to fully develop and keep in its arsenal. Some may serve as technology development programs toward longer-range missiles.”
“Although the Indian government has made no statements about the future size or composition of its land-based missile force, short-range and redundant missile types could potentially be discontinued, Files with only medium- and long-range missiles deployed in the future to provide a mix of strike options against near and distant targets,” the report noted.
India is also developing the Nirbhay ground-launched cruise missile, similar to the U.S. Tomahawk. In addition, there is Dhanush sea-based, short-range ballistic missile, which is fired from two specially-configured patrol vessels. The report estimates that India is building three or four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, which will be equipped with a short-range missile, or a bigger missile with a range of 2,000 miles.
It’s an ambitious program. “The government appears to be planning to field a diverse missile force that will be expensive to maintain and operate,” the report points out.
What remains to be seen is what will be the command and control system to make sure these missiles are fired when—and only when—they should be. And, of course, since Pakistan and China also have nuclear weapons, Indian leaders may find that more nukes only lead to an arms race that paradoxically leaves their nation less secure.
This article first appeared in 2018.