India’s nuclear do-nothing policy

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(At the 1998 Pokhran test-site, prime minister Vajpayee, defence minister George Fernandes, head of DRDO Abdul Kalam, and chairman, AEC, R Chidambaram)

The Shakti series of underground tests 20 years ago were the last, stifled, hurrah of the Indian nuclear weapons programme. Stifled because the thermonuclear device tested on May 11, 1998 was a dud, and the last hurrah because the weapons unit at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Trombay, thereafter, went into eclipse, its best and brightest abandoning it. After all what scientific and technological challenge is there when there are no advanced fission, fusion and tailored-yield armaments to design and develop? Worse, official Indian thinking on deterrence is contradictory. Mired in minimalism, it has relied on threats of “massive retaliation”. This mandates the use of a large number of nuclear bombs to dissuade Pakistan from nuclear “first use” and, therefore, an extensive nuclear armoury of our own. So, the nuclear deterrent cannot be “minimum”.

The confused nuclear milieu has been obtained by the Indian government under three Prime Ministers – Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh, and Narendra Modi. With the ‘no testing’ pre-condition of the 2008 nuclear deal with the United States in mind, it has decided that, the country’s strategic arsenal is perfectly adequate now and in the future with just the 20 kiloton (KT) weapon/warhead, the only tested and proven weapon in the inventory. Also, under American pressure, the Indian government has put the brakes on the 12,000km-range inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) project and the testing of the indigenous MIRV (multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles) technology to launch several warheads from a single missile that’s been available for the last 15 years.

In this period, countries who prize their strategic security accelerated their capability build-up. North Korea shrugged off US pressure, answered American bullying with brinksmanship of its own, successfully tested a two-stage 250-350 KT hydrogen bomb, for good measure acquired the Hwasong ICBMs able to hit US cities, and silenced President Donald Trump. Nearer home, Pakistan, ahead of India with 130 nuclear weapons/warheads and counting, boasts of the most rapidly growing nuclear arsenal. It has four 50MW weapon-grade plutonium (WgPu) producing reactors operating in Khushab. Meanwhile, India has yet to build the second 100MW Dhruva WgPu reactor sanctioned in the mid-Nineties. North Korea and Pakistan are where they are courtesy the active “rogue nuclear triad” run by China which guarantees that Islamabad too will brandish thermonuclear weapons of Chinese provenance.

Delhi eschews anything similarly disruptive (like nuclear missile-arming Vietnam) because Indian leaders are more intent on polishing the country’s reputation as “responsible power” and winning plaudits from the US for showing “restraint” than in advancing national interest. So the country’s strategic options end up being hostage to the interests of foreign powers. India’s do-nothing policy has eroded its relative security, and its stature in Asia and the world as a strategically autonomous and independent-minded country.

India can recover its strategic policy freedom by taking several steps. It should fast forward the second Dhruva military reactor and ICBM development, and test-fire MIRV-ed Agni-5s. In lieu of nuclear testing, which Indian Prime Ministers have lacked the guts to resume, two things need to be done to configure and laboratory-test sophisticated thermonuclear weapons designs. The laser inertial confinement fusion facility at the Centre for Advanced Technology, Indore, needs to be refurbished on a war-footing, and a dual-axis radiographic hydrodynamic test facility constructed.

As regards the software of hard nuclear power, the nuclear doctrine has to be revised – something promised in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s 2014 election manifesto but so far ignored by the Modi regime. Without much ado the newly founded Defence Planning Committee should re-work the doctrine to stress flexible response, with ambiguity enhanced by publicizing the fact of doctrinal revision and the jettisoning of the “No First Use” principle, but nothing else. India will thus join the rest of the nuclear weapons crowd in keeping every aspect of its nuclear policy, doctrine and strategy opaque. There are good reasons why, other than in India, there’s no enthusiasm for nuclear “transparency”.

In keeping, moreover, with the passive-defensive mindset of the government and expressly to throttle aggression by a militarily superior China, technologically simple, easy-to-produce, atomic demolition munitions have to be quickly developed for placement in the Himalayan passes that the Chinese Liberation Army is likely to use, backed by forward-deployed canisterised Agni-5 missiles for launch on warning. The onus for India’s nuclear first use will thus rest entirely with China.


[Published in the Hindustan Times, May 11, 2018; in the net edition entitled “India must revise its nuclear policy and keep its strategy opaque”, at







About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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11 Responses to India’s nuclear do-nothing policy

  1. Vishnugupt says:

    Prof. i completely agree with your when you say India needs to project hard power to remain relevant.

    Having said that, i should point out that this article brings out only the “bird’s eye view” of a hawk and does not even consider the view of a dove, i say so because,

    1) You haven’t suggested any means to counter economic sanctions and the resultant economic disruption that would cause to the Indian economy should Modi decides to go thermo nuclear.(Indian economy is way too integrated to the global economy than it was in 1998 and there for more susceptible to disruptions).

    With 70% of its population under 30 yrs of age, economic sanctions would destroy their aspirations for a job and there is no bigger threat to a country/government that a disgruntled youth population that runs in to 700 million. ( This is a perfect recipe for a revolution against the state)
    They are already jobless now, but atleast they have “hope”. Which is a big pacifier. Sanctions would take that away for them.

    2) In these scenarios i think it is unfair to belittled the dilemma of the Prime Minister of the day, after all unlike N.Korea,Pakistan and China, India is a democracy and the government’s stability and continued rule lies in providing jobs and economic security and not just in protecting its borders and sphere of influence.

    I don’t think no Indian PM can and should ignore economic realities of India and test thermo nuclear devices without having a game plan to tackle the above mentioned very serious issues.

    • Karthik S P says:

      Rightly put. Bharat sir isn’t being realistic – ignoring the costs attached with resuming tests. We should of course resume testing, but now’s not the time.

      Our economy should grow manifold and integrate itself with the world economy so tightly that any country imposing sanctions would hurt the global economy and its own economy as well. And getting there would need at least a decade of double-digit growth.

      We can then resume testing without fear of any adverse consequences. Until then, we should maintain the status quo.

  2. Rupam says:

    Bharatji iss samasya ka kya upaaye hai, apart from expecting that Mota bhai overnight grows a head and actually does the needful.

  3. Dhruv says:

    In lieu of nuclear testing, which Indian Prime Ministers have lacked the guts to resume, two things need to be done to configure and laboratory-test sophisticated thermonuclear weapons designs’

    When India could not get Cray supercomputer from the USA it developed its own and in 1991, PARAM8000 was released with mere 64 CPU’s, currently latest iteration of PARAM ISHAN released in 2016, stands at 250 TFLOPS, and 2017 iteration of PARAM YUVA2 is rumored to stand at 532 TFLOPS.PARAMnet was also developed and PARAMnet 2 has high bandwidth with low latency.

    So is it possible that simulation have already been carried out, given that such powerful super computers are already present?Could it be that Indian scientists did a test in 1974, collected data.Used the data acquired in 1974, tested multiple designs, including improved design from 1974 and found them successful in 1998?.Does this mean simulations were working and all of the required testing and data gathering for Trigger designs and explosives is complete?

    From what I understand fuel and explosives are relatively easy, its the trigger design that requires a huge amount of calculations to understand and implement .Since trigger is the mechanism to start a nuclear chain reaction.This is also the limiting factor, in terms of size for a Nuclear and Thermonuclear device.Development of small trigger, can usually cost more than acquisition and enrichment of Uranium.

    • No, the atomic bomb trigger for the hydrogen bomb is the easy part. There are other aspects of the thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb that went fzzz that are harder to configure into reliable staged fusion weapons without further testing.

    • &^%$#@! says:

      “ould it be that Indian scientists did a test in 1974, collected data.Used the data acquired in 1974, tested multiple designs, including improved design from 1974 and found them successful in 1998?.Does this mean simulations were working and all of the required testing and data gathering for Trigger designs and explosives is complete?”

  4. sir i asked you earlier as well, can India do an underground N-test,without letting the Yankees know about it via testings done by Vietnam & then deploy our own scientists to perfect out own design by that ? Sir please can you answer about this ? PLEASE ??

  5. Nuclear testing can be conducted underwater. But this is banned by the PTBT that India is signatory to.

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