by Air Marshal Rajesh Kumar (Retd) 

On May 18, 1974, India conducted a Peaceful Nuclear Explosion at Pokhran. Almost a quarter century later, it conducted five nuclear tests of advanced weapon designs, once again at the Pokhran range, catapulting the country into the nuclear club with the ability to weaponize and maintain a nuclear arsenal.

The process of weaponization and operationalisation was not smooth. Because of the need to maintain secrecy and also because of the long gap between the first and the second tests, the military was kept out of the loop for a long time. Even before the 1998 tests, General K. Sundarji (Retd), former Army chief, had written that the “really big secret is that India has no coherent nuclear weapon policy and worse still, she does not have an institutionalised system for analysing and throwing up policy options in this regard”.

Despite the obvious disadvantage in keeping the programme outside the military, India had to move fast to operationalise its nuclear deterrent as pressure was building up from various quarters. Post the tests, India faced sanctions and there was pressure to roll back the nuclear programme and sign the CTBT (Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty). The UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1172 condemning the tests. India stood firm and released its Draft Nuclear Doctrine (DND) in August 1999, showcasing itself as a responsible nuclear power.

The expanding Chinese arsenal combined with the development and deployment of Beijing’s ballistic missile defence may force India to adjust the number of its warheads to retain an assured second strike capability.

The objective of putting the nuclear doctrine in the public domain was four fold. It signalled India’s resolve to retain its nuclear weapons programme despite international condemnation of its tests. Second, it projected India as a ‘responsible’ nuclear state that had voluntarily placed its nuclear cards on the table. Third, as a political declaration of intent directed at potential adversaries, it established India’s overall deterrence posture. Finally, it demonstrated to the public that the government is committed to safeguarding national security and is able to provide guidance to officials who would be expected to act in the event of a crisis. The draft doctrine was followed by a press note on the operationalisation of the nuclear doctrine issued on January 4, 2003, the same day India’s Strategic Forces Command (SFC) was created.


India’s nuclear doctrine rests on three major pillars―credible minimum deterrent, no first use and massive retaliation in case of attack by nuclear weapons. In order to have a credible nuclear deterrent, a force structure that can ensure a second strike capability needed to be developed. The task was not easy, but was taken up in earnest. The current force structure has evolved from the guidance in the draft doctrine which states that “India’s nuclear forces will be effective, enduring, diverse, flexible and responsive to the requirements in accordance with the concept of minimum credible deterrence. These forces will be based on a triad of aircraft, mobile land-based missiles and sea-based assets in keeping with the objectives outlined above. Survivability of the forces will be enhanced by a combination of multiple redundant systems, mobility, dispersion and deception.”

As soon as the SFC was formed, a command and control structure was created along with the physical handing over of necessary assets. The first arm to operationalise was the air arm followed quickly by the land-based missile forces that began with the Prithvi-II missiles followed by the Agni series. The sea-based deterrent was created with Dhanush missiles on surface platforms that were supplemented with the underwater arm led by INS Arihant. While operationalising its nuclear delivery vehicles and warheads, India has had to contend with an aggressive Pakistani nuclear doctrine. Pakistan claims that its nuclear weapons are solely aimed at India and has vigorously expanded its warhead count vis-à-vis India and has developed tactical nuclear weapons. It claims to have “full spectrum deterrence” and has ruled out ‘no-first-use’ policy.

There is also the expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal, as Beijing is locked in a nuclear arms race with the US. These factors are putting pressure on India’s desire to have an arsenal it describes as a minimum credible deterrent. While India has so far resisted the temptation to match Pakistan warhead for warhead, the expanding Chinese arsenal combined with the development and deployment of China’s ballistic missile defence may force India to adjust the number of its warheads to retain an assured second strike capability.

The new technical developments in the last couple of years that have led to the cannisterised Agni P and Agni-V missiles are a step in the right direction. These missiles are more amenable to enhanced mobility and faster response times and are inherently more survivable. The launching of INS Arihant also strengthens the sea-based deterrent. India needs to quickly operationalise a longer-range sea-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) as well as develop an air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) to further bolster its nuclear arsenal.

Following the Pokhran tests, India has operationalised a credible deterrent that the nation should be justifiably proud of. As newer threats and technologies abound among our adversaries, the ability to keep our nuclear deterrent relevant is well within the reach of our homegrown solutions.

(With Reporting by The Week)