India's successful launch of the Agni-III intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) on May 7, 2008 coincided with the tenth anniversary of the five nuclear tests conducted by India on May 11 and 13, 1998, after which India had declared itself a state with nuclear weapons. The third successful launch of the Agni-III has made a significant contribution to the credibility of India's nuclear deterrence.
Many reasons like a quest for world power status were attributed to former Prime Minister Vajpayee's decision to bring India's nuclear weapons out of the closet in May 1998. However, the primary motivation clearly stemmed from threat perceptions: a dangerous nuclear neighbourhood with two inimical nuclear powers, China and Pakistan, colluding with each other to destabilise India through a nuclear warhead-ballistic missile nexus and a long-drawn proxy war under the nuclear shadow.
India's nuclear doctrine professing 'credible minimum deterrence' is built around a policy of 'no first use'. As a corollary, India is willing to absorb a 'first strike' and has declared its intention of inflicting massive punitive retaliation to cause unacceptable damage if attacked with nuclear weapons. Although there is some criticism, there is a broad national consensus that no first use is a viable policy. Consequently, India follows a 'counter value' targeting strategy aimed at destroying high-value cities and industrial centres, as against a 'counter force' strategy aimed at destroying the adversary's nuclear forces.
India's nuclear force structure is based on a triad: Surface-to-Surface missiles (Prithvi, Agni-I and Agni-II) with nuclear warheads manned by personnel of the artillery regiment of the Indian Army; nuclear glide bombs under slung on Jaguar, Mirage 2000 and SU-30 MKI fighter-bomber aircraft of the Indian Air Force; and, in due course, SLBMs on SSBNs (nuclear-powered submarines) of the Indian Navy. India has abjured the use of 'tactical' and 'theatre' nuclear weapons as these are mainly employed against battlefield targets and India does not believe in nuclear 'warfighting'. These weapons also require complex command and control mechanisms, enhance the risk of unauthorised and accidental launches and are difficult and costly to manufacture and maintain.
The issue of the total number of warheads that India needs for credible minimum deterrence in a no first use scenario, has seldom been discussed in detail. A retaliatory strike capability to destroy eight to 10 major population and industrial centres of the adversary would be adequate to meet the requirements of nuclear deterrence. For 10 counter value targets to be destroyed in the adversary country, a total of 40 nuclear warheads, at the scale of four 20 to 40 Kiloton warheads per target, would be adequate to cause unacceptable damage in a retaliatory nuclear strike if the probable error (CEP) of the Agni IRBM delivery systems is taken to be 1,000 metres and a destruction assurance level of 0.7 (about 70 percent) is considered acceptable.
If the efficiency or overall reliability of India's nuclear delivery system is taken to be between 0.5 and 0.6 (50 to 60 per cent), a reasonable assumption for a modern nuclear force, then 75 warheads must actually be launched for about 40 to 45 warheads to explode successfully over their targets as some missiles may fail to take off, some may veer off course, some may be intercepted and some warheads may either fail to explode or may explode in a sub-optimal manner. Hence, a minimum of 75 warheads and, of course, their delivery systems must survive the enemy's first strike on Indian targets and be available for retaliation.
Despite the best possible concealment and dispersion measures, up to 50 per cent of the nuclear warheads and delivery systems may be destroyed in a first strike by the adversary. Therefore, warhead stocking levels should be twice the requirement – 150 warheads. Reserves are needed to allow for larger than anticipated damage to own nuclear forces in a first strike, escalation control and war termination strategies and unforeseen eventualities. One-third the required number of warheads should be adequate as reserves. Hence, India needs 200 nuclear warheads for a minimum deterrence doctrine with a no first use strategy.
India is generally estimated to have approximately 50 to 60 nuclear warheads and enough plutonium to manufacture 40-50 more. Hence, additional fissile material is necessary before the proposed FMCT comes into play if India's reactor-grade fissile material reserves that are susceptible to sub-optimal yields are not to be utilised. During peace time, the nuclear cores are reported to be in the custody of scientists of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the high explosive triggers in the custody of the Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). Hence, India's nuclear warheads are not kept mated with the launchers, which are held by the armed forces. These measures together reduce the risk of accidental and inadvertent launch and enhance strategic stability.
India's nuclear weapons are firmly under civilian control. The National Command Authority (NCA) guides India's nuclear command and control system. The Prime Minister heads the Political Council of the NCA and the National Security Advisor heads the Executive Council. All policy decisions, including the decision to employ nuclear weapons, are vested in the Political Council. The Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Forces Command, advises the Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee and exercises operational and technical control over the nuclear forces. A chain of succession has been formulated. India has a National Command Post (NCP) that will act as a tri-Service operations centre. Rehearsals and joint exercises involving simulated retaliatory nuclear strikes are carried out periodically.
Besides the protection that a Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system provides, the quality of India's nuclear deterrence will be substantially enhanced. Hence, India should opt for a BMD system to destroy incoming missiles. Except for the fact that the Agni series of ballistic missiles require further testing and nuclear-powered submarines with SLBMs are still a long way from being deployed, India's nuclear deterrence is credible and fully operational.
India has been a strong advocate of total universal nuclear disarmament. Despite not having signed the Non Proliferation Treat (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), India has voluntarily complied with all the key provisions of these treaties. India has renounced further nuclear testing and has an unblemished non-proliferation record among the nuclear weapons powers. Ultimately, it is in India's interest to work towards total nuclear disarmament.
(Courtesy: Opinion Asia, 12 May, 2008)
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views either of the Editorial Committee or the Centre for Land Warfare Studies.