by Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd)

April 2012 had seen two important developments, within days of each other, which served to enhance India’s strategic profile – the commissioning of nuclear attack submarine INS Chakra, leased from Russia, and the successful test-firing of the 5,000-km ballistic missile, Agni-V. The long-legged Chakra, with its cruise-missiles could be a maritime game-changer, and the Agni-V could target cities deep in China, from launch pads in central/south India.

This created expectations that these two events would convey messages of deterrence to China, about its hegemonic behaviour and to Pakistan about cross-border adventurism. However, neither of India’s adversaries seemed to have taken the hint, and it would take the events of Balakot 2019 and Galwan 2020 to convey India’s resolve in the conventional domain.

Much has changed, concurrently, in the status of India’s nuclear deterrent, which now comprises a “triad”. The airborne component was bolstered by the induction of the 5th generation Rafale strike-fighter in 2019. The underwater leg became operational when the nuclear submarine (SSBN), INS Arihant, went on its first patrol in 2018, armed with ballistic missiles. And now, the land-based component has acquired a new dimension with the successful test-firing of an Agni-V, armed with multiple, independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV).

While dubbing it, expectedly, as “as a warning sign of an emerging arms race”, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) comments that India’s action has only followed China’s deployment of MIRVs and Pakistan’s test of a MIRV capable “Ababeel” missile in 2017. FAS also notes that Russia and the United States (US), having reneged from the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) ban on land-based MIRVs, are replacing single warheads with MIRVs. India’s late start in this, as in other aspects of nuclear deterrence, is due, more likely, to lethargic decision-making than to capability deficit.

In order to grasp the significance of this development for India, we need to remind ourselves of its 2003 nuclear doctrine that aimed to: (a) prevent an attack with nuclear or chemical/biological weapons on “Indian territory or Indian forces, anywhere” and; (b) to threaten the attacker with “massive retaliation designed to inflict unacceptable damage”. Espousing a posture of “no first use” (NFU), the doctrine pledged to maintain a “credible minimum deterrent”, leading many senior politicians to declare that “a few” or “a few tens” of nuclear weapons would be sufficient to deter a nuclear adversary.


Such beliefs were delusionary since the restraint imposed by NFU would require India to absorb the loss of a proportion of its warheads to an enemy “first-strike”, and then to launch a response that would inflict “unacceptable damage” with surviving warheads. Clearly, for deterrence to be credible, India needed to possess more nuclear warheads than the enemy could destroy in a first strike. This brings us to adversary nuclear capabilities and intentions.

Driven by different motivations, both our neighbours are actively engaged in expanding and diversifying their nuclear arsenals. While Pakistan is reported to have about 170 nuclear warheads and is adding to this stockpile at the rate of 5-10 annually, it is estimated that China possesses an arsenal of 500 warheads, which is forecast to grow to 1,500 by 2035. Against this backdrop, it is obvious that India, without entering an “arms race,” will need to maintain some kind of parity/correspondence with adversaries for its deterrent to remain credible.

The dramatic growth of China’s nuclear arsenal is, undoubtedly, motivated by its competition for global influence with the US. But the assumption that Beijing ignores or is dismissive of India as a threat is controverted by two facts. First, ever since the 1974 nuclear test, China has been targeting Indian cities with nuclear-tipped missiles; and second, China has propped up Pakistan as a proxy for the sole purpose of checkmating India, arming it with nuclear and conventional weaponry. Where Pakistan is concerned, it sees the threat of nuclear first use not only as guaranteeing protection against India’s conventional military superiority but also as a cover for waging a sub-conventional war.

It is in this context that MIRV capability assumes significance because it enhances the effectiveness and credibility of a deterrent by enabling a single re-entry vehicle (perched atop the missile’s last stage) to carry multiple warheads. Not only can a single MIRV deliver many live warheads on the same or dispersed enemy targets, it can also deceive and defeat enemy anti-ballistic missile defences with dummy warheads. However, since the missile payload capacity remains constant, MIRV capability demands expertise to miniaturise warheads in weight/size while retaining adequate explosive yield. Herein lies a problem.

China, after extensive testing, has operationalised a set of nuclear warheads with yields ranging from a few hundred kilotons to a few megatons, which can be deployed to inflict enormous casualties on counter-value targets. In India’s case, given the controversy about the yield and efficacy of the thermonuclear device tested in May 1998 and the ill-advised commitment to forgo further testing, ambiguity has persisted about its ability to deliver punishment by “massive retaliation” through high-yield weapons.

Bypassing this debate, Indian scientists have steadfastly maintained that one or more of their “boosted fission” warheads with a yield of 300-400 kilotons is adequate to inflict “unacceptable” damage/destruction on Pakistani or Chinese cities targeted. India must, therefore, persevere with this programme and install MIRVs on as many land-based missiles as required. Far more urgent is the need to expedite the MIRV-enabled K-series of long-range submarine-launched missiles, given the future salience of the triad’s underwater leg.

China’s 2023 defence policy reaffirmed its commitment to NFU “at any time and under any circumstances,” a pledge that India has always stood by. This, combined with their mutual belief that nukes are “political” rather than “warfighting” weapons, undergirds India-China deterrence stability.

In the case of persistent India-Pakistan deterrence instability, it has been India’s restraint that has often circumvented crisis situations. However, Pakistan’s transition to a new policy of “full spectrum deterrence” and possible targeting of India’s nuclear arsenal with non-nuclear missiles would add a new dimension to the India-Pakistan nuclear equation. This would call for deep reflection by our decision-makers.

Arun Prakash is a former chief of naval staff. The views expressed are personal