50 years since Pokhran I, does India need to look at reviewing its nuclear doctrine?

Is the world, or specifically south Asia, about to witness another arms race?

46-Indira-Gandhi Illustration: Deni Lal

For India, May 18 has been a date of destiny.

It was on May 18, 1498, that Vasco da Gama spotted the Kerala coast after a long, turbulent voyage. The Portuguese seafarer and his crew were the first Europeans to land in India, and their arrival ultimately paved the way for British rule.

The 1974 test demonstrated that the Indian establishment had the capability to keep secrets. None of the ‘listening’ systems and intelligence networks of the US or the Soviet Union had information on India’s preparations.

Exactly 526 years later, at 8:05am on May 18, 1974, tremors shook the Indian Army’s Pokhran testing range in Rajasthan’s Jaisalmer district, which borders Pakistan. It was Buddha Purnima and India had tested a nuclear bomb. It was an underground test, making India the first country to test its first nuclear bomb below the ground. All other nuclear powers had first conducted overground tests before exploding bombs underground.

The Pokhran operation was code-named ‘Smiling Buddha’. That day, India announced its nuclear capability to the world, changing the course of its strategic and military history. After the test, Raja Ramanna, who was director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), told prime minister Indira Gandhi: “The Buddha has smiled”.

“Smiling Buddha marked India’s entry into the exclusive nuclear club,” former Indian Air Force chief R.K.S. Bhadauria told THE WEEK. “Since then, India’s nuclear strategy and capability, premised on the principles of credibility, no-first-use [policy] and minimum credible deterrence, has evolved significantly in a very calibrated manner.”

The 1974 test demonstrated that the Indian establishment had the capability to keep secrets. None of the ‘listening’ systems and surveillance and intelligence networks of the US or the Soviet Union had information on India’s preparations.

It was also a test of safety regulations. Rajagopala Chidambaram, considered to be an architect of India’s nuclear capability, told THE WEEK: “Ramanna, the main guiding force behind Pokhran II, asked if anybody on site got hurt when the explosions took place. Someone replied that only a crow [was hurt]; it was flying near the site when the mound blew up and hit it.”

Ground zero: Prime minister Indira Gandhi examines a piece of rock at the Pokhran test site on December 22, 1974. Near Gandhi are Union minister K.C. Pant (left) and Homi Sethna, then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission | AP Ground zero: Prime minister Indira Gandhi examines a piece of rock at the Pokhran test site on December 22, 1974. Near Gandhi are Union minister K.C. Pant (left) and Homi Sethna, then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission | AP

It was unlike what had happened in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1945, when J. Robert Oppenheimer witnessed the destructive potential of a nuclear bomb and whispered a verse from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

With the Pokhran test, the idea of weaponising India’s nuclear knowhow gathered traction. The armed forces were roped in―starting with the Air Force, and then the Army and the Navy.

“Operation Shakti (Pokhran II, 1998) demonstrated India’s advanced nuclear capabilities and its ability to design and detonate thermonuclear weapons, pivotal in establishing India’s stature as a credible nuclear weapons power,” said Bhadauria. “Punitive retaliation capability, should deterrence fail, has grown significantly and adequately over the last 50 years with materially advanced development of a triad comprising land-based missiles, submarine-launched missiles and air-delivered weapons. Our doctrine prioritises strategic stability and caution over aggression or coercion, despite the challenges of regional security dynamics.”

Time of triumph: Prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visits the Pokhran II test site in 1998 | PTI Time of triumph: Prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visits the Pokhran II test site in 1998 | PTI

In 2003, less than five years after Pokhran II, the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) was formed to manage the country’s tactical and strategic nuclear weapons. Now, it is widely accepted that India has the nuclear bomb in all its versions, including indigenous delivery platforms that will deliver the warhead on target. Details of the nuclear arsenal remain a closely guarded secret, though. In 2016, the SFC was added to the list of organisations that were exempted from the purview of the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

“Countries are secretive about their nuclear inventories and capabilities because ambiguity is one of the components of nuclear deterrence. It is a mind game,” Admiral Karambir Singh, former Indian Navy chief, told THE WEEK.

The weaponisation programme has been progressing at a blistering pace. On March 11, 2024, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) announced the successful launch of Mission Divyastra from Dr Abdul Kalam Island off the Odisha coast. Mission Divyastra involved the flight-testing of the intercontinental ballistic missile Agni V with the complex ‘multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle’ (MIRV) technology.

Agni V can carry six to 12 nuclear warheads that can zero in on targets that are hundreds of kilometres apart. Before March 11, Indian missiles had only Pakistan within their range. Now, with a range of 5,000 to 8,000km, the nuclear-capable Agni V has Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong within reach.

On April 4, the government said the SFC and the DRDO had successfully flight-tested a new-generation ballistic missile called Agni-Prime. It was one of the very few instances when the work of the usually secretive SFC was being made public.

On April 18, DRDO announced that it had flight-tested a home-made missile off the Odisha coast. Sources told THE WEEK that the missile was an upgraded version of Nirbhay, which has an operational range of about 1,000km and is capable of flying at tree-top heights (less than 50 metres). Weighing around 1,500kg, a single Nirbhay missile can be loaded with a 450kg conventional or a 12-kilotonne nuclear warhead. For perspective, the Hiroshima bomb was of about 15 kilotonnes.

“India’s nuclear strategy, which has traditionally focused on Pakistan, now appears to place increased emphasis on China, and Beijing is now in range of Indian missiles,” said the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) in its July 2022 report.

At the moment, five countries―the US, the UK, Russia, France and China―are generally considered nuclear-weapon states, while India, Pakistan and North Korea have conducted nuclear tests and possess nuclear weapons. Israel, despite being a nuclear-weapon state, has maintained a policy of deliberate ambiguity.

According to the prestigious think-tank Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the nine nuclear countries together held “about 12,512 nuclear weapons, of which 9,576 were considered to be potentially operationally available”. An estimated 3,844 of these warheads were deployed with operational forces, including around 2,000 that were kept in a state of high operational alert.

“India is estimated to have produced approximately 700kg of weapons-grade plutonium, sufficient for 138 to 213 nuclear warheads,” said the FAS report. “However, not all material has been converted into nuclear warheads. Based on available information… we estimate that India has produced 160 nuclear warheads. It will need more warheads to arm the new missiles that it is currently developing.”

These numbers do not serve much strategic purpose. For instance, the Ohio-class submarines of the US Navy, when all are fully loaded, can carry up to 280 nuclear warheads. But because of stipulations imposed by the Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (START), the submarines carry much reduced numbers. If the Ohio-class submarines were a country, they would have ranked fifth in the list of countries with the most nuclear weapons!

To make a nuclear weapon, there are two key necessities―availability of fissile material (plutonium and highly enriched uranium) and availability of warheads. Another key ingredient is the delivery platform―the nuclear missile or the aircraft that will carry the nuclear weapon.

“We estimate that India currently operates eight different nuclear-capable systems: two aircraft, four land-based ballistic missiles, and two sea-based ballistic missiles,” said the FAS report. “At least four more systems are in development, most of which are thought to be nearing completion.”

These eight systems make up India’s nuclear triad. The report may be alluding to Mirage-2000 and Rafale fighter aircraft, the short-range Prithvi-II (350km) and Agni-I (700km), the medium-range Agni-II (more than 2,000km) and the intermediate-range Agni-III (3,500km). The sea-based ballistic missiles may be the ship-launched Dhanush (400km) and the submarine-launched K-15 missile (700km).

“Which aircraft would carry nukes is an evolving issue,” a source in the security establishment said. “These are not water-tight compartments. The roles of the delivery systems keep on changing. For example, the Air Force’s deep-penetration Jaguar aircraft is capable of carrying nuclear weapons, but it is in the process of being phased out. And newer aircraft are taking over.”

On November 5, 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “India’s pride, nuclear submarine INS Arihant, successfully completed its first deterrence patrol!”

The undersea part of the triad is expected to be of primary focus in the near future. Bigger, wider and made-at-home nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines will be armed with the still-in-development K-4 and K-5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), which are believed to have a range of about 3,500km and 5,000km.

“On the nuclear delivery front, adequate effort is being put in,” said Admiral Singh. “We have longer range missiles in the K5 that can be launched from our next set of SSBNs. MIRVs are now the norm and is part of the arsenal.”

The significant aspect about India’s nuclear weapons programme is that the fissile material and the warhead are both homemade. It does not have to depend on a foreign source. Moreover, most nuclear weapon states with a declared ‘no-first-use’ policy―like India―keep their nuclear weapons in a de-mated condition, with components in the hands of different agencies except for higher operational areas.

“But at times of need, they can be mated really fast to cater to the needs of the situation,” said the security establishment.

In 2014, the BJP’s poll manifesto stated two aims―to revise and update India’s nuclear programme and to maintain a credible minimum deterrent. The strongest articulation of revisiting the no-first-use policy came from Manohar Parrikar, who became defence minister when the BJP came to power. On November 10, 2016, Parrikar said, “If a written-down strategy exists, or you take a stand on a nuclear aspect, I think you are actually giving away your strength in nuclear. People say India has no-first-use nuclear concept. Why should I bind myself? I should say that I am a responsible nuclear power, and I will not use it irresponsibly.”

The defence ministry later distanced itself from Parrikar’s position, saying it was the minister’s personal opinion and not the ministry’s stated position. And then, on August 16, 2019, on the occasion of the death anniversary of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, defence minister Rajnath Singh tweeted: “Pokhran is the area which witnessed Atal ji’s firm resolve to make India a nuclear power and yet remain firmly committed to the doctrine of ‘no first use’. India has strictly adhered to this doctrine. What happens in future depends on the circumstances.” It was when Vajpayee was the PM that the government decided to adopt the no-first-use policy just after Pokhran II in 1998.

Said Prof Kumar Sanjay Singh of Delhi University, who specialises in Cold War politics: “In the post World War-II era, nuclear weapons are increasingly being viewed as a deterrent against invasion by superior military powers. This explains the nuclear programmes of the countries of the global south.”

According to Lt Gen (retd) Raj Shukla, a strategy specialist, India needs to keep up with the changes in the global nuclear domain. “The US has revisited its nuclear posture in significant ways,” he said. “China has virtually transformed its nuclear profile, implementing concepts like launch-on-warning and precision targeting. It has grown its silos and improved its warhead sophistication.”

Shukla said India needed to completely review its nuclear “concepts and postures”. He said, “We need to look afresh at the nature of our triad and response options. We also need to incorporate other related developments in a futuristic scenario. For example, our nuclear policy should factor in things like how is it going to impact India if Iran goes nuclear.”

Is the world, or specifically south Asia, about to witness another arms race? “The immediate and superficial answer is yes,” said Sanjay Singh. “Witness how Pakistan is attempting to redress the technological asymmetry with Indian military by importing weapon systems from China. But the possibility [of an arms race] is slim, principally because of the delimiting clauses of the India-US Civil Nuclear Agreement. Indian diplomacy is averse to transcending them. Hence, it has preferred to leverage itself as a strategic ally of the US-led west to check the Chinese influence.”