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Nuclear India
September 2, 2008, 11:19 am
Filed under: India

Nuclear India at the Crossroads

Rajesh M. Basrur

Five years after first publicly testing nuclear weapons, India stands at a critical point in its strategic path. It faces today a crucial choice between maintaining a minimal deterrent and expanding its arsenal so as to sustain a Cold War-style posture toward its nuclear adversaries. Two factors are likely to shape its decision: its selection of a deterrence “model” based on two very diverse experiences with China and Pakistan and, more crucially, its own ability to comprehend and articulate the assumptions and ramifications of “minimum deterrence.”
The 1998 tests broke with a history of leisurely, covert, and often hesitant weaponization and forced on Indian leaders important issues relating to doctrine and organization. Yet, the Indian government has truly to grapple with these concerns. The Draft Nuclear Doctrine floated in 1999 was widely debated but yielded no detailed follow-up. After a long gap, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government in January 2003 released a short statement reiterating its commitment to “building and maintaining a credible minimum deterrent.” (See ACT, January/February 2003.) It emphasized that India will not be the first to use nuclear weapons (except against biological or chemical weapons) but promised massive retaliation in response to a nuclear attack to inflict “unacceptable damage” on the enemy. It also announced the existence of a Nuclear Command Authority under civilian control and the appointment of a commander-in-chief of the Strategic Forces Command as the apex military decision-maker.1 Apart from gradual organizational consolidation, India has demonstrated its deterrent capabilities in two ways: through the range of tests carried out in 1998 and through the array of missiles undergoing various stages of development and induction into its forces.2

Still, India’s nuclear doctrine has yet to crystallize fully in the form of a clearly thought-out and articulated posture. On the one hand, there is a strong element of restraint in the fact that nuclear warheads have not been deployed on missiles but are stored in an unassembled state. On the other, the quest for a triad of launch platforms invites a continually expanding arsenal. As the organization of India’s nuclear assets proceeds, pressures to stretch capability beyond the confines of minimum deterrence—or simply to redefine “minimum” to encompass more—are likely to increase. The persistence of high-level threat perceptions will also encourage an expansionary process. Which path will India’s leaders take? Its relationships with China and Pakistan offer very different possibilities.

India and China: Oligopolistic Competition

It is often forgotten that India faces not one but two nuclear adversaries: China and Pakistan. With both rival nuclear powers, India must contend with territorial disputes, a history of war, and perceptions of nuclear threat. Yet, its relations with China and Pakistan are very different in tenor. India’s stable relationship with China is conducive to a relaxed and minimalistic nuclear posture; its tense and crisis-ridden confrontation with Pakistan facilitates a volatile and expansionary one.

The China factor was central to Indian nuclear strategic thinking from as far back as 1964, when China tested its first nuclear bomb just two years after it had inflicted a serious military defeat on India. The war left unsettled a territorial dispute over their long border that still engages the two countries in endless talks. It also left Indians distrustful of the Chinese for having “betrayed” their friendship. The threat of a Sino-Indian war has since arisen on more than one occasion, most significantly in 1986-1987 in the Sumdorong Chu valley in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, an area which China to this day does not recognize as part of India. China threatened to “teach India a lesson,” and both sides mobilized several divisions.3 Eventually, a political compromise was reached, although full withdrawal of forces took place only in August 1995.

China was a primary cause for India’s decision to go nuclear, even though from the Indian standpoint, the Chinese threat was not direct or immediate. New Delhi viewed evidence of China’s assistance to Pakistan’s missile and nuclear programs as strong indication of less-than-benign Chinese intent.4 In a 1998 letter to President Bill Clinton, Vajpayee justified his decision to test a nuclear weapon openly by pointing to the threat from China, which Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes more bluntly characterized as “potential threat number one.”5 Indian concerns about China’s nuclear aid to Pakistan and the larger issue of its efforts to contain India (through an enhanced presence in Myanmar, for example) are yet to be assuaged. Chinese concerns about India’s steadily expanding missile reach are likewise growing.6

Despite the persistence of sources of tension, India and China have managed their relationship remarkably well. The border problem has been kept in abeyance through the mechanism of annual talks since the early 1980s, and a Joint Working Group was established in 1988. Meanwhile, other aspects of the relationship have flourished. Trade grew from $1.1 billion in 1995 to nearly $3.5 billion in 2001.7 In April 2003, Fernandes visited China and expressed “a deep sense of satisfaction and the conviction that this visit will be the beginning for drawing a road map for the near future.”8 In July and August 2003, a confrontation between border patrols at the Line of Actual Control in the region of Arunachal Pradesh was met with a diplomatic rather than a military response.9

The overall picture that emerges is akin to “oligopolistic competition,” in which large rivals compete but do so in a stable market. India and China appear to have reached an understanding that their persistent differences on the border and on the nature of the Chinese-Pakistani relationship should not be allowed to prevent the stabilization of their strategic relationship as a whole. A measure of this stability is India’s disinterest in attempting to catch up with China’s nuclear arsenal either in qualitative or quantitative terms, although there is an ongoing effort to ensure its ability to reach additional Chinese targets through the development of the Agni-III missile, which has a range of more than 3,000 kilometers.10 Notably, while Indian and U.S. critics have fretted that the planned U.S. ballistic missile defense system will have a “cascading” effect on China, India, and Pakistan, generating expanding arsenals and consequent tensions, Indian officials have expressed no such fears.

India and Pakistan: Spiraling Hostility

The Indo-Pakistani relationship stands in stark contrast. The rising tensions accompanying the process of nuclearization have fed on a history of violent partition in 1947, which was followed by three wars in 1947-1948, 1965, and 1971. During the 1980s, the covert development of nuclear weapons by both countries brought increased tensions and what some have termed the “stability-instability paradox”—the persistence of low-level conflict between the two South Asian nuclear rivals.11 Pakistan encouraged the militant Khalistan movement in India’s Punjab state, and major crises involving the amassing of troops on both sides of the border occurred in 1986-1987 and 1990. An insurgency in the Indian-held portion of Kashmir obtained Pakistani support, and tensions escalated in the 1990s.

The 1998 nuclear tests, besides confirming a process of weaponization already well under way, ratcheted up tensions still further. Like other nuclear rivals before them, India and Pakistan attempted and failed to gain advantage over each other through coercive diplomacy.12 In 1999, Pakistan’s clandestine seizure of several mountain peaks in the Kargil region of Kashmir brought a short, sharp military clash that many regard as a war. Persistent terrorist violence in Kashmir culminating in an attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001 generated a fresh crisis. Indian leaders, blaming Pakistan for supporting the militants, responded with a massive mobilization of conventional forces, threatening an unspecified form of “limited war.” The crisis subsided only after a prolonged confrontation that endured until October 2002. Both events aroused global pressures for peace but brought no bilateral concessions. Rather, they left the belligerents dissatisfied, intimating the possibility of more to come.

In contrast with the Indo-Chinese case, the Indo-Pakistani relationship has been marked by a secular trend of rising confrontation, although interspersed with high-level attempts to negotiate (the summits of 1988, 1999, and 2000). Despite some successes in the past, such as the 1960 Indus Water Treaty and formal and informal nuclear confidence- building measures agreed on in 1988 and 1999, the trend has not been positive.13 Tit-for-tat nuclear and missile testing and contentious rhetoric have remained the most striking feature of the relationship. Trade links are marginal, cultural exchanges have all but dried up, and regional collaboration has suffered. The outlook for positive change is uncertain at best. Neither India nor Pakistan has a strong government or is likely to. Power will likely continue to be distributed between groups jostling uncertainly for control. With the religious right on the rise in both countries, there is much skepticism as to whether the most recent effort to cut the Gordian knot will yield results. The scope for compromise on Kashmir, which would require substantial concessions by both sides, seems limited. In contrast with the Indo-Chinese relationship, the Indo-Pakistani one presents a picture of spiraling competition, with the prospect of crises and arms racing ever hovering in the background.

India’s choices about the path ahead are likely to be pulled in different directions by the two kinds of strategic relationships it faces. New Delhi’s relationship with Beijing encourages a combination of restrained competition and limited but growing cooperation. The relatively smooth ties between the two countries will allow India to maintain a fairly stable nuclear force even if the Chinese force expands, while resisting arms racing, fears about vulnerability, and the risk-taking that tends toward recurrent crises. The Indo-Pakistani “spiral model,” on the other hand, is inherently unstable. It is highly competitive; thrives on a zero-sum view of the adversary; and encourages arms acquisition, concerns about vulnerability, and the direct or indirect manipulation of nuclear capability for coercive diplomacy.

At present, the Indian posture lies somewhere in between these two approaches. India has chosen not to have its nuclear forces deployed for immediate launch and has not expressed many public worries about the balance of forces vis-à-vis China. Also, the aggressive nuclear rhetoric in which India and Pakistan have periodically engaged has not been paralleled by threat and counter-threat in terms of deployed strategic forces. At the same time, in other ways, India has favored an expansionary nuclear weapons policy, supporting open-ended development of its nuclear force, notably the long-term drive for a diversely constituted nuclear triad. New Delhi has also continued to try to practice coercive diplomacy under the nuclear shadow. Should this dichotomy persist, the “realist” outlook of those who press for an expansionary nuclear policy is likely to prove triumphant, as it is hard to resist the apparent security of greater numbers and technological sophistication in an environment of high tension. The redirection of nuclear strategy by India in this way would almost inevitably be followed by a replication by India and Pakistan of Cold War postures and politics on an “affordable” but still risk-laden scale.

The key question then is, How might such a shift be prevented? There are two ways in which this could be done. India’s and Pakistan’s bitter competition could be transformed into a more manageable relationship like the one New Delhi enjoys with Beijing. If that does not prove possible, restraint and stability might still be induced by means of a clearer understanding of minimum deterrence and its basic assumptions. In the first case, the United States can play a valuable role. In the second, it cannot.

Common Interests and Behavioral Restraint

One key to tamping down nuclear tensions between India and Pakistan is to focus on vital interests that are common to both countries. In a nuclear relationship, nothing can be more vital than the necessity of preventing war and nuclear catastrophe. India and Pakistan have to arrive at the understanding that, although Kashmir might be central to their respective identities as nations, avoiding nuclear conflict comes first. This means separating the dispute over Kashmir from the larger nuclear relationship so as to maintain a broad stability in the way that India and China have done.

India needs to comprehend that large-scale mobilizations such as the one it carried out during 2001 and 2002 significantly raise nuclear risks. The fact that war did not break out is hardly reassuring, because one could just as well occur in the next crisis, and although Pakistan might view supporting terrorist groups active in India as a low-cost strategy, it is actually counterproductive to Islamabad’s broader security interests. Many of the “freedom fighters” of Kashmir have links with al Qaeda and the larger objective of global Islamic revolution, which includes overthrowing the Pakistani state.14 In addition, they have already come close to triggering a subcontinental war through the attack on India’s parliament. Their capacity to do so again remains undiminished, particularly by means of an act of nuclear or radiological terrorism.

Maintaining the present posture of deterrence without active deployment of nuclear weapons is in the interests of both countries. If India and Pakistan choose to deploy their weapons, tensions would inevitably rise. The possibility of an accidental war triggered by a false alarm of nuclear attack would go up sharply. Nuclear weapons are also targets for terrorists. A terrorist attack on either side’s nuclear forces could be misinterpreted as an enemy assault, which would further raise the risk of nuclear war. The coexistence of terrorism and nuclear infrastructures on both sides of the border creates a common interest between the two states, because neither would like the region’s terror groups or al Qaeda to acquire nuclear capability. A strategy of minimum deterrence also has a built-in advantage if an arsenal is kept down to small numbers. The smaller the number of weapons, the less the likelihood of “normal accidents,” and the fewer the targets for terrorists.15

The United States has played both a catalyzing and a dampening role in the complex nuclear politics of the region. U.S. intervention has reduced the likelihood of an actual war, but its propensity to intervene in the continual conflicts of the region has enabled India and Pakistan to employ a novel strategy: the generation of crises to invite U.S. intervention and put its adversary under pressure. This has worked in part; the Kargil conflict, although a serious diplomatic reverse for Pakistan, did give Kashmir a prominent place on the global agenda of the United States. Similarly, although India did not succeed in ending cross-border terrorism in Kashmir, it did place Pakistan under an intense and diplomatically disadvantageous spotlight. The United States has astutely avoided becoming entangled in an attempt to resolve the Kashmir issue, but it could do more to separate the political problem of Kashmir from the military-strategic problem of nuclear instability.

Unlike the United States and the Soviet Union, India and Pakistan have shown an inclination for arms control fairly early in their development as nuclear powers. As far back as 1988, Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto agreed to exchange lists of nuclear facilities annually and promised not to attack them in case of war. Soon after the 1998 nuclear tests, under the 1999 Lahore Memorandum of Understanding, India and Pakistan agreed, among other things, to notify each other of impending missile tests. By and large, they have adhered to these agreements even at the height of tension and crisis. The key is to persuade them to go further.

The United States can play a significant role in at least three ways. First, its active presence in the region acts as a restraining factor in times of high tension. Second, it can promote organizational “best practices” in weapons safety and security during storage and transportation. Third, electronic systems such as permissive action links (PALS) to prevent unauthorized launch or sabotage can be offered. The most common objections to providing such assistance are that it would violate the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), that it will amount to “rewarding” proliferators, and that the possession of electronic safety locks will encourage active deployment and increase the element of risk. The first argument misinterprets the NPT. Article I of the treaty, which obliges its signatories not to “transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly,” cannot be understood to proscribe anything which contributes to its own stress on the dangers of nuclear war to “all mankind” and the “need to make every effort to avert the danger of such a war.” The term “control,” within the meaning of the treaty, clearly refers to enabling functions, not restrictive ones designed to prevent war. The second argument rests on the facile assumption that states’ decisions to proliferate are affected by the prospect of reward. There is no evidence to support this. The third fails to weigh the benefits of more effective command and control against the risks, undoubtedly real, of false confidence derived from technical sophistication. In volatile situations involving armed confrontation amid a high level of terrorist activity, the former should take precedence.

Understanding Minimum Deterrence

At the same time, the concept of “minimum deterrence” has not been adequately spelled out and hence might be undermined by pressures emanating from perceived threats or by groups with vested interests. For instance, India’s stress on the “credibility” of deterrence reflects a lack of clarity as to what exactly constitutes deterrence. Because of the enormity of their effects, nuclear weapons need not be certain to inflict massive damage. Even a small risk of large-scale devastation suffices to deter. Beyond creating that risk, an emphasis on credibility serves only to try and reassure oneself that one’s weapons will “work.” If we go a step further and consider that any decision to go to war presumes the weighing of potential costs against potential benefits, then it becomes very difficult in most cases, including the Indo-Pakistani case, to consider war as rationally desirable: it is hard to conceive of potential benefits that might outweigh even a small risk of nuclear attack.

In short, deterrence is sufficiently “credible” if it creates a small risk in the adversary’s mind. This central assumption generates a wide array of strategic rules: a few nuclear weapons are adequate for deterrence to be effective; deployment is not necessary except under conditions of grave threat; numerical balances or imbalances are meaningless; one “leg” of a potential triad is enough to deter; and the risk of escalation makes a counterforce-countervalue distinction irrelevant. Missile defense is not problematic for two reasons: minimum deterrence is tolerant of numerical imbalances in forces, and the risk of some missiles penetrating a defense shield can never be eliminated.16 Above all, second-strike capability, which is the basis of stable deterrence, does not require large, invulnerable forces that can certainly strike back. A small force that might be able to strike back creates a sufficient risk in the mind of the adversary to deter a first-strike decision.

This implies that, even if strategic relations with a particular adversary take a turn for the worse, there is no need for a change in nuclear posture. A rational adversary will invariably try to avoid nuclear conflict, even when threatening it. A study of Indo-Pakistani conflicts shows just this. In Kargil, Pakistan bore the humiliation of retreat; in 2002, India accepted failure by eventually “redeploying” (read, withdrawing) its troops. Neither wanted to risk war when the other responded with the threat of force. Likewise, President John F. Kennedy did not risk a strike on Cuba, where the “balance” of forces appeared to be tilted overwhelmingly in his favor. The last is a striking example of how minimum deterrence actually operates even under a very different doctrine and force posture. Logically, even if Pakistan were to develop a sizably larger force than India, this would not change the strategic equation between them. It would be no more significant than the numerical “imbalance” between Indian and Chinese forces.

Yet, Indian thinking in many ways contradicts the rules of minimum deterrence. Apart from the unnecessary emphasis on credibility, the officially stated threat of massive retaliation against a first strike is superfluous, because the adversary cannot know where India will strike and with what result but must assume as much because of the scale of the risk. Similarly, the quest for a triad is an exercise in superfluity. The risk of massive damage posed by any leg of the triad is sufficient to deter. The Indian emphasis on being able to target Beijing in order to deter China effectively is also hard to fathom. It assumes that the Chinese would tolerate the loss of thousands of their citizens residing in smaller cities. The simple test of assessing the requirements of minimum deterrence is to ask, What would it take to deter me/us? The requirements for credibility are quickly brought down.

In this sphere, the role of the United States is at best negligible, at worst seriously problematic. U.S. doctrine, still struggling to divest itself of the Cold War doctrine of assured destruction, provides no basis for a stable minimum deterrence posture. On the contrary, it might actually be a hindrance to stability in the region. For instance, although minimum deterrence allows large quantitative and qualitative gaps of the kind that exist between India and China, American thinking would tend to focus on the vulnerability associated with such gaps. Indian strategic thinkers would do well not to think like most of their American counterparts.17

Room for Optimism

What, one might ask, if Pakistan does not respond appropriately? So far, Pakistan too has shown a mix of the two strategic models outlined above. It has shown caution in the deployment of its conventional forces and in the nondeployment of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, it has demonstrated risktaking and belligerence in its clandestine Kargil operation and in its support for terrorists operating in Kashmir. The possibility of inducing a shift in Pakistani thinking lies in the diplomatic realm—in persuading it of the risks associated with its current strategy and of the minimal loss involved in a gradual shift to negotiation on nuclear issues without backtracking on political commitments. This would be more feasible than attempting to devise a full solution when the political ground for it is infertile.

A little appreciated aspect of the Indo-Pakistani relationship is that Indians and Pakistanis think and behave in remarkably similar ways. Both have minimalistic strategic cultures characterized by long, slow, and covert weapons development; a history of military targeting in war that eschews indiscriminate destruction; an unwillingness to be overly exercised by numerical differences in nuclear weaponry; and a belief that deployment is not a prerequisite for deterrence to be effective.18 Above all, both countries tend to treat nuclear weapons more as political instruments than as military ones. A disadvantage of this is their tendency to generate crises in order to obtain strategic benefit. A positive aspect is that arms control is likely to be much easier to accomplish, unburdened by the operational minutiae that dogged negotiators during the Cold War.

Indian diplomacy needs to focus on transforming the Indo-Pakistani relationship into something resembling the Indo-Chinese one. The Vajpayee government’s sustained commitment to its current peace initiative in spite of a series of terrorist assaults provides ground for optimism. Even if Pakistan were to balk, an Indian commitment to minimum deterrence in the sense described here would in no way affect the strategic relationship to India’s fresh disadvantage. Equally, a sizeable expansion of India’s nuclear arsenal would not benefit India because it would bring economic and political costs, not to speak of strategic risks. Minimum deterrence is an absolute concept, not a relative one. India would do well to shape its deterrence posture accordingly and avail of its benefits while minimizing its costs and risks.


Table 1.
150 km/ 1,000 kg
250 km/ 500 kg
Dhanush/ Prithvi-3
350 km/ 1,000 kg
Agni-1 Variant
725 km/ ~1,000 kg
1,500 km/ 1,000 kg
Serial Production
2,000+ km/ 1,000 kg
3,000-5,000 km/ ?kg
5,500+ km/ 2,000 kg Indigenous/Russia
Sagarika (SLBM)
350 km/ 500 kg
Note: Some uncertainty in range estimates are inevitable given the direct relationship between range and payload for ballistic missiles. For example, reductions in payload can increase range.

Sources: ACA, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, U.S. Department of the Air Force, National Air Intelligence Center, U.S. Department of Defense


1. Indian Ministry of External Affairs, “The Cabinet Committee on Security Reviews Operationalization of India’s Nuclear Doctrine,” January 4, 2003,

2. Anthony H. Cordesman, The India-Pakistan Military Balance (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 2002), pp. 27-34. India’s missile program includes short-, medium-, and intermediate-range missiles utilizing land-, air-, and sea-based platforms, although the last are in a relatively early phase of development.

3. V. Natarajan, “The Sumdorong Chu Incident,” Bharat Rakshak Monitor, 3, no. 3 (November-December 2000),

4. John W. Garver, Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century (Seattle & London: University of Washington Press, 2001), pp. 324-331.

5. Ibid., pp. 336-337.

6. Jing-dong Yuan, “India’s Rise after Pokhran II: Chinese Analyses and Assessments,” Asian Survey 41, no. 6 (November-December 2000), pp. 978-1001.

7. Indian Ministry of External Affairs, “India-China Trade Statistics, Table 1: India-China Trade (1995-2001),

8. “China, India Should Enhance Ties: Jiang Zemin,” Times of India, April 26, 2003.

9. Amit Baruah, “Indian, Chinese Foreign Ministers to Meet Later This Year,” Hindu, August 8, 2003.

10. The Agni-III is scheduled for initial test launching in 2003. “India Preparing to Test-fire Agni-III: Fernandes,” Times of India, April 6, 2003.

11. Michael Krepon and Chris Gagné, eds., The Stability-Instability Paradox: Nuclear Weapons and Brinkmanship in South Asia (Washington, DC: Henry L. Stimson Center, June 2001).

12. Verghese Koithara, Coercion and Risk-Taking in Nuclear South Asia (Stanford University: Center for International Security and Cooperation, March 2003).

13. The Indus Water Treaty provides for the sharing of the waters of the transborder Indus river basin. For a detailed review of confidence-building measures between India and Pakistan, see Michael Krepon et al. A Handbook of Confidence Building Measures for Regional Security, 3rd ed. (Washington, DC: Henry L. Stimson Center, March 1998), pp. 129-200.

14. Rohan Gunaratna, Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), pp. 208-209.

15. Scott D. Sagan, The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents and Nuclear Weapons (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 28-45.

16. In addition, India need not worry about an expansionary Chinese response to U.S. missile defense; that would take the form of a larger inventory of long-range missiles, whereas China targets India with intermediate-range missiles.

17. There are certainly powerful arguments in American writings that are in accord with minimum doctrine, but these are largely ignored by the policy-making community.

18. On India, see Rajesh M. Basrur, “Nuclear Weapons and Indian Strategic Culture,” Journal of Peace Research, 38, no. 2 (March 2001), pp. 181-198.


Rajesh M. Basrur is Director of the Center for Global Studies in Mumbai, India. At the time he wrote this article, he was a Visiting Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.

Isha  Khan


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