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May 2017

India’s Tactics on Nuclear Capability Policies and Diplomacy

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Dr. Vijay Khare

Gaurav Kokil,

Victor Leray,

India is considered as a major player in the international scene. Thanks to its strong economic growth, increasing demographics, rich culture, extensive diaspora and democratic institutions, India can rely on its hard and soft power.[1] If the country is still an expanding giant, it strongly intends to voice its presence to the world, and especially to its close neighbors, China and Pakistan. Since 1998, India has been undertaking a gigantic modernization of its army and nuclear capabilities. Being the world's largest arms importer, developing military applications from its ambitious space program and upgrading its nuclear arsenal demonstrates that India is engaging into an intensive arms race.

The independent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates that India already possesses between 90 and 110 nuclear weapons, as compared to Pakistan’s estimated stockpile of up to 120.[2] India is currently working on building a top-secret nuclear facility in Challakere, in the south-western state of Karnataka. Its home-made Agni-V intercontinental ballistic missile is now operational.[3] In 2001, these developments led United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to declare that India was “a threat to other peoples, including the United States, Western Europe and West Asian countries”.[4] No Western official today would make this kind of statement. Courted by most of the world powers - with China being the notable exception - India now has the luxury of choosing its allies.

With the strength of its economic expansion, New Delhi wants to use the nuclear option to assert itself as a world military power. But if India aspires to enter the “perpetual feast of the great powers”[5], what does it want to do with this power? What is the vision behind this quest? These questions generally remain unanswered by Indian officials.

India’s military tactics and nuclear agenda could find their origins in the will to put an end to its perennial image of a small regional actor attached to the “moral diplomacy” or “moralpolitiks” principles inherited from the Gandhi then Nehru years. This posture may also result from a real dilemma between India’s attraction for the United States and its desire to be part of a sovereignist alternative partly inherited from the non-aligned movement embodied by the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). It can therefore be argued that this growing uncertainty had led to a paralysis of the Indian diplomacy, which tends to seek refuge in abstention and sometimes even obstruction. This essay aims to provide an input on India’s nuclear ambitions, needs and strategies.

The nuclear doctrine of India

Twenty-four years after the experimentation of its first “peaceful” nuclear bomb on the 18th of May 1974, India undertook underground nuclear testing in 1998. In fact, India did not suddenly become a credible military nuclear power on the 11th of May 1998. Its technical capacity to carry out three simultaneous tests is the result of long experience acquired since the country’s Independence in 1947. In 1948, Prime Minister Nehru ordered the start of the civilian nuclear program with the establishment of the National Atomic Energy Commission. As early as the 1950s, the military option was considered with some restraint. Indeed, a “moral barrier” prevented the authorities from taking such a decision. How could India, which had gained its independence by the massive use of non-violence, acquire such a weapon? The use of nuclear energy for military use nuclear was to remain taboo for many years.

However, India’s defeat against China in 1962 on its Himalayan border led to the development of its conventional and nuclear military capability in order to protect itself from China's threats of aggression. In response, Pakistan also acquired nuclear weapons. Pressure for nuclear weapons development became stronger in the context of a troubled regional situation that favored the development of nuclear weapons. The third war against Pakistan had demonstrated that China was Islamabad’s strong ally. Similarly, the presence of American nuclear weapons aboard aircraft carrier USS Enterprise in the Bay of Bengal contributed to New Delhi’s feeling of nuclear blackmail. Indira Gandhi's decision to carry out "peaceful trials" in 1974 must be placed in this particular context which excluded any other option. In accordance with its non-alignment policy, New Delhi never considered the possibility of a formal alliance with Moscow or Washington. Access to the nuclear umbrella of one of the big two was impracticable in particular because of the United States policy of non-proliferation. This unfavorable context greatly contributed to the development of a sense of insecurity. In the 1990s, research and developments of the Prithvi and Agni ballistic missiles were another proof of India’s ambitious efforts in getting credible nuclear dissuasion arsenal. It was also in the 1990s that Indian military and diplomatic experts conceptualized a nuclear deterrent strategy for India.

The 1998 nuclear tests marked a turning point. India's reluctance to join the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) despite strong pressure from the international community was expected by foreign powers. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – a Hindu nationalist party which promised to extensively develop the use of military nuclear weapons – reviewed India’s atomic policy according to two major principles. First of all, the regional environment was a determining factor in the acquisition of nuclear weapons (following the persistent trauma of the 1962 defeat against China, a campaign to modernize the Chinese nuclear arsenal at the end of the 1990s and the rise of Sino-Pakistani technologies). Secondly, India’s willingness to become a world power through atomic weapons would have granted the country international recognition. Thirdly, strong pressure from the international community in the 1990s towards the signing of the CTBT certainly influenced India on its nuclear tests’ agenda. For India, the signing of such a treaty would had mean the formalization and perpetuation of the power imbalance to the advantage of China.

Following Pakistan’s nuclear tests, the Indian government commissioned national experts from a document presenting the country’s Nuclear Doctrine. The National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), together with a National Security Advisory Committee (NSAB), wrote the Draft Nuclear Doctrine for parliamentary scrutiny. This ambitious document sets out the reasons for India's accession to nuclear weapons.

The nuclear tactics of India

While working on developing effective tactics to counter the rising number of terrorist attacks emanating from Pakistan, India needs to ensure that its military tactics and its restrained nuclear doctrine and arsenal mesh well together[6]. With regards to nuclear weapons, India follows a stringent no first use policy. The nuclear tests of 1998 forced both, India and Pakistan, to formulate and enact policies on nuclear deterrence.[7] Following the Kargil conflict of 1999, Indian officials and scholars developed and released a report prepared by the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) highlighting India’s nuclear doctrine. The report emphasized India’s doctrinal pronouncements and also reiterated India’s stance with regards to the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT), disarmament and nonproliferation. In addition to this, the report also underlined that the development of India’s nuclear programme is to “achieve economic, political, social, scientific and technological development within a peaceful and democratic framework”.[8] The report also draws the attention to India’s three pillars of nuclear policy: credible minimum deterrence; no first use of nuclear weapons; and “punitive reaction” to inflict “unacceptable” damage in response to a nuclear attack on India[9]. Post the tension between India and Pakistan in 2001-2002, the Indian government, in January 2003, amended its nuclear doctrine and made it official by releasing a statement. The doctrine predominantly remained similar to the NSAB report, with amendments to two of its pillars. India caveated it’s no first use policy to allow it to retaliate to a nuclear attack not only on Indian soil, but also on “Indian forces anywhere”.[10] In addition to this, punitive reaction was reworked and changed into “massive retaliation”.[11]

Strategic concerns about perceived threats stemming from certain nuclear weapon states-like China- and fears emerging from preferential international treaties such as the NPT and the NSG, has lead India to pursue a more robust nuclear doctrine.[12] Through its current nuclear doctrine, it can therefore be argued that India develops its nuclear capabilities to deter China, while stockpiling against Pakistan. India’s pace towards further nuclearization has been successfully moderate despite having sanctions imposed on New Delhi in May 1998.[13] India sustained the economic sanctions imposed on it due to its size and geostrategic weight. This also allows India the requisite autonomy to counter various political pressures that nuclear weapon states might impose on New Delhi to roll back its nuclear programme.[14] While India weathers the storm with the help of its hegemonic status and allies, Pakistan unfortunately cannot afford the similar luxury. To prove its mettle and to counter Indian hegemony in the subcontinent, Pakistan would rather risk internal stagnation and decay than exacerbate its external vulnerability by caving in to international pressures for denuclearization; as long as its archrival, India, refuses to take the first step towards denuclearization.[15] India, in turn, will refuse to contemplate such a step until China, its principal long-range threat, remains a significant nuclear power. China would not consider denuclearization until the United States and Russia, its main strategic rivals, do not consider denuclearization as well. This fosters mistrust and confusion with the arms race in South Asia.

Since 2003, India’s nuclear doctrine has remained constant. It can be argued that as long as Indian policymakers strongly believe that the existing nuclear weapons states will not or cannot move to reduce their individual stockpiles, with complete nuclear abolition as a global goal. Therefore, until this complete nuclear abolition is achieved, neither India nor Pakistan will roll back on their respective nuclear programmes.[16] Like other emerging countries, India is unsure of the use of its military nuclear power.

Yesterday’s moralpolitik versus today’s realpolitik

From a strategical and military point of view, India demonstrated its power as a global nuclear player, with it’s quadruple nuclear test in early May 1998.[17] Pakistan emulated India’s actions by carrying out its own nuclear test a few days later.[18] Prior to the aforementioned events, New Delhi had struggled to gain global recognition as the seat of power for an emerging power in the sub-continent and had been subjected to sanctions from the West and Japan. While India is still not a part to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), its international recognition as a major nuclear player is now indisputable.

Since the late 1980s, India made the most intense financial efforts to strengthen and modernize its military-industrial complex, with an average expenditure of 2.8% of its GDP over the 1988-2011 period. India also ranks as the world’s largest arms importer between 2006 and 2017. India is modestly increasing its defense spending by 11 percent to around $40 billion for the fiscal year 2015-2016.[19] Although India now possesses the fifth largest nuclear arsenal on the planet, its tactics and strategy cannot be clearly deduced from official speeches or its diplomatic actions. New Delhi seems to be abandoning its moralpolitik in favor of a new realpolitik and simultaneously pursuing two strategies that are difficult to reconcile: getting closer to the United States while claiming the leadership of the BRICS at the same time. Hence a certain difficulty to be heard in the international scene.

India was renowned for its idealistic vision of the world that defended a philosophy of non-alignment and rejected the confrontation between the Soviet and capitalist dogma in the name of Gandhi’s inspirations. It once advocated for a strong solidarity among nations and global non-violence – including the denuclearization of Asia. Prime Minister Nehru’s posture was idealist and even utopist during his tenure between 1947 to 1964. During these – almost – seventeen years, Nehru put his Gandhian humanist and nationalist approach into practice by declaring “We are inclined to attach less importance to military solutions than to pacific solutions. […] Disarmament should be bilateral, or multilateral... Everyone should disarm”.[20] On the other hand, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh adopted a clear realistic approach when he justified the need of a United States - India nuclear partnership: “We must face reality. International relations are a matter of power and powers are not equal. We cannot escape reality. We need to use the international context in the best interests for ourselves.”[21]

Switching from moralpolitik to realpolitik is almost inevitable in a situation of nuclear and economic emergence. Nehru almost admitted it: moralpolitik was the tool of the weak, the poor, and those who were not listened to; it no longer has its place as India’s interests are now deployed much further than in the 1960s. The rise of India as a nuclear power suggests that emerging countries differ little from the old nuclear powers when they are able to compete with them on the same grounds. Furthermore, India is not interested in the production of international public goods but rather see international relations only through the effects they have on its internal problems, hence the absence of a coordinated and oriented external strategy. As a result, one of BRICS’ rare common interests is to solve their domestic problems far from the eyes of the outside world. In a sense, we are brought back to the Concert of Nations: logics of alliance and strategic calculation, free trade, no or little international public goods and mutual opacity over domestic political agenda.

While many considerations have been brought up with regards to denuclearisation, it can be argued that the nuclear capable states would like to enjoy their great power status indefinitely. Furthermore, the fear of consequences of cheating, apprehension about possible proliferation involving rogue states and perhaps non-state actors and the age-old considerations about national security measures form a unique nexus rendering India’s nuclear disarmament a remote goal, at least for the moment. Considering present power politics and the emerging threat of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and other rogue states, we need to develop long-term strategic nuclear policies. These policies will help India focus on peace, security and sustainability of resources. India has the potential to guide global actors to deal with disarmament of nuclear weapons as well as other weapons of mass destruction. Therefore, if we want to usher in a world without nuclear weapons, we need to develop strategic goals and execute policies to achieve diplomatic solutions through negotiations.

1. Dr. Vijay Khare : Professor  and Head of Defenc and Strategic Studies Dean  faculty of Humanities and Director International Centre and YC National Centre of International Security and Defence Analysis Savitribai Phule Pune University Pune(India)

2 Mr. Ga Gaurav Kokil, Research Assistant YC-NISDA

3.Victor Leray, Intern YC-NISDA


[1] Nye, J. (March 16 2004) Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. Public Affairs.

[2] SIPRI. “Biological, chemical and nuclear weapons/World nuclear forces”. Retrieved March 30 2017.

[3] Times, Global. “India successfully tests Agni-V intercontinental missile - Global Times”. Retrieved March 30 2017.

[4] Varadarajan, S. (February 18 2001) Stop supply of N-fuel to India, US tells Russia. The Sunday Times.

[5] Khilnani, S. (1999). The idea of India. New York.

[6] Dalton, T.; Perkovich, G.: India’s Nuclear options and escalation dominance. Accessed through on 30th March, 2017

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Tellis, J. A.: India’s emerging nuclear posture Between recessed deterrent and ready arsenal. Accessed through on 30th March, 2017, pg. 21

[13] CNN World: US imposes sanctions on India. Accessed through on 30th March, 2017

[14] Tellis, J. A.: India’s emerging nuclear posture Between recessed deterrent and ready arsenal. Accessed through on 30th March, 2017, pg. 22

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid, pg. 21

[17] Carey, S. “Nuclear Weapon Archives”. Retrieved March 30, 2017.

[18] Levy, A. and Scott-Clark, C. (1977) Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons. Walker Publishing Company, page 112.

[19] Gady, F-S. (March 3 2015) Is India's Defense Budget Adequate? The Diplomat. Available from:

[20] Mende, T. (1956) Conversations with Nehru, Secker & Warburg, London.

[21] Singh, M. (November 4 2004) The Hindu.


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