Nuclear Hotspot: India, Pakistan’s Growing Nuclear Capabilities

India and Pakistan's opaque nuclear weapons programs, driven by border tensions and evolving nuclear doctrines, are fueling an arms race with expanding missile, submarine, and aircraft capabilities that risk lowering the threshold for potential nuclear conflict in the volatile South Asian region.

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

India and Pakistan conducted their first nuclear tests after the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) entered into force in 1970. As a result, they formally belong to the states prohibited from possessing such weapons by NPT states. However, they primarily need nuclear weapons to deter each other.

India conducted its first test explosion, code-named “Smiling Buddha,” in the Pokhran Range in 1974, describing it as a peaceful nuclear explosion with no military purpose. The test claimed to apply the technologies and devices to industrial tasks like resource exploration and canal construction. After the adoption of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), Pakistan conducted its first test in 1998. In that year alone, Delhi and Islamabad each conducted two test explosions before imposing unilateral moratoriums on such tests. These countries do not participate in either the NPT or the CTBT.

Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), and Matt Korda, a senior research associate at FAS, who compile arsenal reviews of all nine nuclear-armed states for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), call India and Pakistan some of the most opaque countries regarding nuclear weapons. Their authorities do not publicly disclose information on this matter and rarely make public statements on the topic. Therefore, experts rely on satellite images, parliamentary inquiries, budget documents from these countries, photos from military parades, and information gleaned from private conversations with military personnel. Experts emphasize that their assessments are highly approximate.

“Due to the tension between India and Pakistan, this region represents one of the most alarming nuclear hotspots on the planet,” write the experts, mentioning several armed clashes between them in recent years. For example, in February 2019, Indian military aircraft crossed the Line of Control in Kashmir (the de facto border between India and Pakistan) and struck the city of Balakot, where, according to Delhi’s estimates, a terrorist training camp was located. India responded to a terrorist attack in Kashmir two weeks earlier, carried out by a Pakistani suicide bomber, resulting in the deaths of several dozen Indian policemen. The strike on Balakot was the first instance of the Indian Air Force crossing the Line of Control after India and Pakistan became nuclear-armed.

In November 2020, mutual artillery shelling followed along the Line of Control, and in March 2022, India launched a supersonic cruise missile, BrahMos, towards Pakistan, causing damage to civilian infrastructure. Later, the Indian Ministry of Defense stated that the launch was accidental, occurring during routine maintenance due to an equipment malfunction. Experts suggest that if the accidental launch occurred during a period of heightened tensions between the countries, there is a possibility that the incident could escalate into a highly dangerous phase.

Under what conditions can India use nuclear weapons?

In 1998, after its two last nuclear tests, India adopted a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons. “The primary goal of Indian nuclear weapons is to deter the use and threat of nuclear weapons… against India and its armed forces.” The Indian Nuclear Doctrine Advisory Council report from 1999 stated that India would not be the first to use nuclear weapons but would respond with punitive retaliation if deterrence fails.

Later, New Delhi clarified its nuclear doctrine. In 2003, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs published its updated provisions, stating, among other things, that India would not use nuclear weapons against countries that do not possess such weapons. However, in the event of an attack on India or its forces using other types of weapons of mass destruction (biological or chemical), India reserves the right to retaliate with nuclear weapons. In the same document, New Delhi declared its commitment to building a “world free of nuclear weapons” through global, verifiable, and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament.

SIPRI has raised concerns in recent years that India may deviate from its no-first-use policy. The basis for this is evidence that some parts of its nuclear arsenal are in a much higher state of readiness than previously assumed.

The limited range of Indian weaponry until the early 2010s led to the belief that its sole purpose was to deter Pakistan. However, experts write that the development of longer-range capabilities capable of reaching China indicates that Delhi’s plans also include deterring Beijing. India and China also have border disputes, and armed clashes have occurred between them in recent years. In December 2022, a recent clash took place in the Tawang district of the western Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), resulting in minor injuries to several soldiers from both sides. The largest standoff took place in 2020, lasting from May to September, in the disputed Aksai Chin region on the border of India, Pakistan, and China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. This conflict began after clashes between patrols.

Statements from Indian authorities also indicate that China is now also a focus of Indian nuclear deterrence. For example, in 2021, India’s Chief of Defense Staff, Bipin Rawat, stated that China had become the biggest security threat to the country. He asserts that a lack of “trust” and growing “suspicion” are impeding the resolution of the border dispute between New Delhi and Beijing.

What nuclear weapons does India have?

According to SIPRI estimates, as of January 2023, India’s arsenal comprised 164 nuclear warheads, with the country possessing delivery systems including land-based ballistic missiles, SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles), and aircraft. Its nuclear triad, however, is not considered strategic due to the limited yield of its warheads.

India possesses four types of land-based ballistic missiles. In 2003, India first deployed the Prithvi-II, a single-stage liquid-fueled missile on a mobile launcher, which has an estimated range of 250 to 350 km and a warhead yield of 12 kilotons. The single-stage solid-fueled Agni-I, deployed since 2007, can deliver warheads ranging from 10 to 40 kilotons over approximately 700 km.

Medium-range missiles include the two-stage Agni-II and Agni-III, deployed in 2011 and 2018, with 2,000 km and 3,200 km ranges, respectively. They also carry warheads ranging from 10 to 40 kilotons. India is developing the Agni IV, a two-stage solid-fueled missile with a range of 3,500 km, and the Agni V, a three-stage missile with a range of 5,000 km, potentially capable of carrying multiple warheads and becoming intercontinental. India recently said it tested Agni V with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) capabilities.

India is also developing new medium- and short-range missiles—the nuclear-capable Agni-P with a range of 1,000 to 2,000 km and the conventional Pralay with similar characteristics. Experts suggest that abandoning the concept of dual-use missiles, capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear weapons, may help prevent misunderstandings during conflicts and prevent them from escalating into nuclear confrontations.

India’s maritime component consists of two Sukanya-class ships (Subhadra and Suvarna) and one SSBN (Nuclear-Powered Ballistic Missile Submarine), INS Arihant, capable of carrying up to 14 nuclear missiles. The ships can carry two Dhanush missiles (the naval variant of the Prithvi-III missile), capable of delivering 12-kiloton warheads over a distance of 400 km. The submarine can carry K-15 ballistic missiles (also known as B-05 and Sagarika) with a range of 700 km and a yield of 12 kilotons.

New Delhi plans to build a fleet including four to six SSBNs. Trials for the second such submarine, INS Arighat, took place in 2022, while the launch of the third, known as S4, in 2021 remains unclear. India is also developing the K-4, a two-stage ballistic missile with specifications similar to the Agni-III, intended for deployment on submarines. India is known to have conducted six tests of the K-4 by 2023.

The aerial component, consisting of fighter-bombers, is the first and primary striking force in India’s nuclear arsenal. India has three types of such aircraft, totaling 84 (in terms of those capable of nuclear deployment). The first is the multirole French Mirage 2000H fighter, developed in the 1970s, which Paris used in its nuclear role for 30 years until its retirement in 2018. India has had Mirage 2000Hs since 1985, with 32 currently in service. Delhi is currently modernizing them, with plans to purchase old aircraft from France to use their parts to extend the service life of its planes. The Mirage 2000H has a range of 1,850 km and can carry 12-kiloton bombs.

The second type is the British-French Jaguar IS fighter bomber, which has been in service in India since 1981. It has a range of 1,600 km and can deliver 12-kiloton bombs (one bomb per aircraft). India has 16 of these aircraft. Experts believe the retirement of these aircraft is imminent due to their obsolescence, and this process may already be in progress.

The third type of aircraft is the French multirole Rafale fighter, with a range of 2,000 km. In 2016, India and France agreed to deliver 36 of these aircraft. France uses them for nuclear missions, and India is likely to do the same. By 2022, France had delivered all 36 aircraft.

Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons

Pakistan adheres to the concept of “credible minimum deterrence,” implying that the country needs nuclear weapons solely for defense and on a limited scale. However, Islamabad characterizes its nuclear doctrine as “full-spectrum deterrence.” It does not accept the concept of not using nuclear weapons first.

In May 2023, Khalid Kidwai, an advisor to Pakistan’s National Command Authority, spoke at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad and clarified what “full-spectrum deterrence” means.

Firstly, Pakistan possesses the entire spectrum of nuclear weapons—strategic, operational, and tactical. Its delivery systems cover the entire territory of its neighbor—there’s “no place to hide for Indian strategic assets.”

Secondly, Pakistan’s nuclear warheads have a wide range of yields, and their numbers can deter the “declared policy of massive retaliation” by the adversary. Thus, Pakistan’s “counter-value retaliation” can be as severe, if not more so.

Thirdly, Pakistan reserves the right to choose targets in “India’s target-rich environment,” despite Indian ballistic missile defense or Delhi’s possession of Russian S-400 systems.

Islamabad acknowledges the existence of tactical nuclear weapons. This and the development of Pakistan’s nuclear program greatly concern other countries, particularly the United States, which fears that Islamabad’s policy lowers the threshold for using nuclear weapons in a conflict with India, according to experts in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. In 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden stated that Pakistan is “one of the most dangerous countries in the world” because it possesses nuclear weapons but lacks cohesion. Islamabad has criticized and rejected this viewpoint.

Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal as of early 2023, according to SIPRI, consisted of 170 nuclear warheads. Islamabad is also developing its nuclear triad, consisting of land-based ballistic and cruise missiles, sea-based cruise missiles, and aviation-based systems. In the coming years, Pakistan, like India, will continue to expand its arsenal, albeit at an uncertain pace, according to experts. Analysts observe that Islamabad conducted significantly fewer missile launches in 2022 and 2023 compared to previous years, which they attribute to political instability in the country, particularly the arrest of Prime Minister Imran Khan in mid-2022.

In January 2023, Pakistan’s land-based component comprised 126 short- and medium-range missiles. It includes four types of solid-fuel mobile ballistic missiles: ten Abdali (or Hatf-2) missiles with a range of 200 km and yields ranging from 5 to 12 kilotons; 16 Ghaznavi (Hatf-3) missiles with a range of 300 km and the same yield; 16 Shaheen-I and Shaheen-IA missiles with ranges of 750 km and 900 km, respectively (with the same yield); and 24 Nasr (Hatf-9) missiles with a range of 70 km and the same yield.

Among the medium-range missiles, experts highlight two: the liquid-fueled mobile Ghauri (Hatf-5) with a range of 1,250 km and yields ranging from 10 to 40 kilotons (Islamabad has 24 of these missiles), and the two-stage liquid-fueled mobile Shaheen-II (Hatf-6), which can deliver a warhead of the same yield over a distance of 2,000 km. The Ababeel systems, which have multiple warheads on a single missile with a range of 2,200 km, and the Shaheen-III, which can deliver warheads ranging from 10 to 40 kilotons over a distance of 2,750 km, are currently under development. The Shaheen-III can potentially cover India’s entire mainland territory despite its likely development for broader purposes. Islamabad is also developing the ground-launched cruise missile Babur (Hatf-7). Depending on the modification, its range is 350 to 900 km, and it is likely already deployed.

Pakistan is trying to develop its maritime component. Its arsenal consists of three 1970s French-built Agosta diesel-electric submarines. Islamabad plans to deploy Babur-III submarine-launched cruise missiles on them, with an estimated range of 450 km and yields ranging from 5 to 12 kilotons. Once these missiles are deployed, Pakistan can say that it has created its own nuclear triad, comparable to India’s.

Pakistan’s air force possesses 36 French multirole Mirage III and Mirage V fighter jets capable of carrying nuclear weapons. These aircraft have been in service since 1998; they can deliver bombs with yields ranging from 5 to 12 kilotons over a distance of up to 2,100 km. Pakistan is also developing air-launched cruise missiles, Ra’ad, which can be deployed on these aircraft; depending on the modification, their range is from 350 to 600 km. The most recent test flight of Ra’ad-II occurred in 2020, yet there is no proof of their deployment.


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