MV Ramana


India continues to develop a triad of nuclear-delivery systems that have an increasing capacity to deliver destruction to longer distances. In recent years, the country’s political elite also have expanded their military ambitions. Despite a stated national commitment to a policy that involves no-first-use of nuclear weapons, there is some evidence that operational doctrines might call for first use of nuclear weapons under some circumstances; some of the additions to the country’s nuclear arsenal will allow for quick launch of weapons.1


Current stockpile


India is estimated to have 120–130 nuclear warheads,2 and to have produced approximately 580 kilograms of weapon-grade plutonium.3 There is also a stockpile of highly-enriched uranium, but it is generally believed that this is primarily intended for use as fuel in nuclear submarines. Currently, the nuclear warheads may be delivered by three or four squadrons of nuclear-capable fighter-bombers purchased from Europe several decades ago, four kinds of land-based ballistic missiles with ranges estimated to be from 350 km to 3200 kilometers, and one sea-based ballistic missile.4 However, there are several more delivery vehicles under development.




India has been increasing the diversity, range, and sophistication of its nuclear delivery vehicles. These can be used to target Pakistan and China; the longer term aim seems to be to demonstrate ICBM capability. This has involved multiple tests of different missiles, sometimes in rapid succession.5 A ballistic missile defence system is also under development, and there have been a number of tests of interceptor missiles.6 The system has been under development since 1995, when the government bought S-300 surface-to-air missiles to protect New Delhi and other cities.7 The program has missed many deadlines, including one for “initial systems deployment by 2013”,8 and in 2017 the Ministry of Defence directed the state-owned Defence Research and Development Organization to urgently submit a final induction strategy and timeline for the BMD system.9


The longest range missile tested by India is the three-stage, 5,000-kilometer range Agni-V. India most recently test-fired the Agni-V in January 2018, reportedly to its full range.10 Though there have been many reports that a longer range missile called Agni-VI, armed with multiple warheads, would be tested by 2017,11 so far that has not happened.


Perhaps the most important operational characteristic of the Agni-V is that it can be fired from a canister.12 Keeping missiles inside a tube (or canister) makes for easier transportation, and allows the missile to be launched from relatively unprepared locations.13 Because the Agni missile uses solid fuel, only limited preparation needs to be carried out before launching it. Both these factors allow for rapid launch of the missile. These preparations suggest the possibility that a third condition for a rapid launch—nuclear warheads mated on top of the missile—may also be met or be under consideration. Because the “demating of warheads and delivery systems” has been considered a step for India to “support its NFU [No First Use] commitment”,14 the deployment of a canisterized missile could presage a transition to a posture that is no longer committed to a No First Use policy.


Other missiles under development that could complicate the command and control of nuclear weapons are submarine launched missiles. Of these, the longest range one is the K-4, a 3500-kilometer range submarine-launched ballistic missile. The K-4 has undergone a series of tests but the last one in December 2017 was a failure.15 The K-4 is to be fired from India’s first nuclear submarine, Arihant. India has also other naval nuclear capable missiles, including the 350-kilometer range surface-launched Dhanush, which was tested in February 2018.16


India is also expanding its fleet of nuclear submarines. In addition to the Arihant nuclear submarine that has been commissioned, a second one is reportedly close to launch for tests.17 Two larger nuclear submarines are under construction and there are plans for even larger sized ones that can launch more missiles.18




The expansion of India’s nuclear and missile arsenals are part of a larger military build-up and consistently-increasing military spending. However, there is no reliable public estimate on nuclear weapon spending in India. In February 2018, India overtook the United Kingdom to become the country with the fifth largest expenditure on defence.19




The elite in India has largely supported the country’s nuclear development and modernization activities. Much of the discussion about India’s nuclear arsenal in mainstream media and in official statements involves exultation about joining an exclusive group of countries with massive destructive capabilities. A growing influence in the rapid expansion of India’s military capabilities is competition with China on multiple spheres, including an expanding military role in the Indian Ocean, whose latest manifestation is India’s plan to construct a military base in the Seychelles.20 The long-standing military confrontation with Pakistan, and the complex relationships that the United States has with India, China, and Pakistan also complicate this picture.


Although Indian officials talk about the importance of disarmament, it has been largely hypocritical and primarily focused on measures that would have no impact on India’s own programs. India did not sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (or Ban Treaty) that was adopted at the United Nations in July 2017. The official explanation said that while India was committed to “the goal of a nuclear weapon free world” it “believes that this goal can be achieved through a step-by-step process underwritten by a universal commitment and an agreed global and non-discriminatory multilateral framework”.21


[This is part of a larger report, which is available at]


1 Kumar Sundaram and M. V. Ramana, “India and the Policy of No First Use of Nuclear Weapons,” Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament 0, no. 0 (2018): 1–17,

2 Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S Norris, “Indian Nuclear Forces, 2017,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 73, no. 4 (2017): 205–9.

3 IPFM, “Global Fissile Material Report 2018” (Princeton: International Panel on Fissile Materials, 2018). The figure is relatively low because the main plutonium production reactors seem to have operated at relatively low levels of efficiency.

4 Kristensen and Norris, “Indian Nuclear Forces, 2017.”

5 Ahyousha Khan, “Five Missile Tests In Two Months: India’s Attempt To Create Credible Minimum Deterrence In South Asia,” Eurasia Review (blog), March 18, 2018,

6 Rajat Pandit, “India Successfully Test-Fires Supersonic Interceptor Missile,” The Times of India, December 29, 2017,

7 Ashok Sharma, “India’s Missile Defence Programme: Threat Perceptions and Technological Evolution” (New Delhi: Centre for Land Warfare Studies, 2009),

8 Sushant Singh, “Interceptor Missile Tested 7 Times, DRDO’s Rajinikanth Moment Still Far,” The Indian Express (blog), May 4, 2015,

9 Vivek Raghuvanshi, “India’s MoD Demands Early Induction of Ballistic Missile Defense System,” Defense News, August 8, 2017,

10 Shaurya Karanbir Gurung, “India Successfully Test-Fires Nuclear-Capable Agni-5 Ballistic Missile,” The Economic Times, January 18, 2018,; PIB, “Successful Fifth Flight Test of Agni-5 Ballistic Missile,” Press Information Bureau, Government of India, January 18, 2018,

11 Ajai Shukla, “Advanced Agni-6 Missile with Multiple Warheads Likely by 2017,” Business Standard, May 8, 2013, There is no official confirmation of the range.

12 M. Somasekhar, “Agni-V: A Game Changer in India’s Missile Technology,” The Hindu Business Line, 31 January 2015,

13 Saurav Jha, “Agni-V, Boosting Missile Power,” Deccan Herald, December 28, 2016,

14 Harsh V Pant, “India’s Nuclear Doctrine and Command Structure: Implications for Civil-Military Relations in India,” Armed Forces & Society 33, no. 2 (2007): 256.

15 Manu Pubby, “Indian Missile Programme: Two Failures in a Week, Submarine Version Stuck,” ThePrint (blog), December 24, 2017,

16 Hemant Kumar Rout, “Indian Navy Successfully Test Fires Nuclear-Capable Ballistic Missile ‘Dhanush’ from Sea,” The New Indian Express, February 23, 2018,

17 Dinakar Peri and Josy Joseph, “A Bigger Nuclear Submarine Is Coming,” The Hindu, October 14, 2017, sec. National,

18 Sandeep Unnithan, “A Peek into India’s Top Secret and Costliest Defence Project, Nuclear Submarines,” India Today, December 10, 2017,

19 PTI, “India’s Defence Budget Breaks into World’s Top 5: UK Report,” The Economic Times, February 15, 2018,

20 Sanjeev Miglani and George Thande, “India Boosts Maritime Reach with Seychelles Pact to Build Naval…,” Reuters, January 31, 2018,

21 HT Correspondent, “Committed to Nuclear Disarmament but Can’t Be Party to UN Treaty, Says India,” Hindustan Times, July 18, 2017,

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