Ten years ago, after conducting five nuclear tests on 11 and 13 May 1998, India declared itself a state with nuclear weapons. While many reasons like a quest for world power status were attributed to former Prime Minister Vajpayee's decision to bring India's nuclear weapons out of the closet, the primary motivation clearly stemmed from living in a dangerous nuclear neighbourhood with two inimical nuclear powers, China and Pakistan, colluding with each other to destabilise India through a nuclear warhead-ballistic missile nexus and a long-drawn proxy war under the nuclear shadow.
India's nuclear doctrine professing 'credible minimum deterrence' is built around a policy of 'no first use'. As a corollary, India is willing to absorb a 'first strike' and has declared its intention of inflicting massive punitive retaliation to cause unacceptable damage if attacked with nuclear weapons. Though there is some criticism, there is a broad national consensus that no first use is a viable policy. Consequently, India follows a 'counter value' targeting strategy aimed at destroying high-value cities and industrial centres, as against a 'counter force' strategy aimed at destroying the adversary's nuclear forces.
India's nuclear force structure is based on a triad: Surface-to-Surface missiles (Prithvi, Agni-I and Agni-II) with nuclear warheads manned by personnel of the artillery regiment of the Indian Army; nuclear glide bombs under slung on Jaguar, Mirage 2000 and SU-30 MKI fighter-bomber aircraft of the Indian Air Force; and, in due course, SLBMs on SSBNs (nuclear-powered submarines) of the Indian Navy. India has abjured the use of 'tactical' and 'theatre' nuclear weapons as these are mainly employed against battlefield targets and India does not believe in nuclear 'warfighting'. These weapons also require complex command and control mechanisms, enhance the risk of unauthorised and accidental launches and are difficult and costly to manufacture and maintain.
A retaliatory strike capability to destroy eight to 10 major population and industrial centres of the adversary would be adequate to meet the requirements of nuclear deterrence, irrespective of the number of warheads that the adversary may have stockpiled. The number of warheads must take into account the probable error (CEP) of the Agni IRBM delivery systems, the overall reliability of India's nuclear delivery system, which could be taken to be between 0.5 and 0.6 (50 to 60 per cent), the fact that up to 50 per cent of the nuclear warheads and delivery systems may be destroyed in a first strike by the adversary and reserves to allow for larger than anticipated damage to own nuclear forces in a first strike, escalation control, war termination strategies and unforeseen eventualities. Given these parameters, India needs 200 nuclear warheads for a minimum deterrence doctrine with a no first use strategy. These would be adequate to deter India's nuclear-armed adversaries.
India is generally estimated to have approximately 50 to 60 nuclear warheads and enough plutonium to manufacture 40-50 more. Hence, additional fissile material is necessary before the proposed FMCT comes into play if India's reactor-grade fissile material reserves that are susceptible to sub-optimal yields are not to be utilised. During peace time, the nuclear cores are reported to be in the custody of scientists of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the high explosive triggers in the custody of the Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). Hence, India's nuclear warheads are not kept mated with the launchers, which are held by the armed forces. These measures together reduce the risk of accidental and inadvertent launch and enhance strategic stability.
India's nuclear weapons are firmly under civilian control. The National Command Authority (NCA) guides India's nuclear command and control system. The Prime Minister heads the Political Council of the NCA and the National Security Advisor heads the Executive Council. All policy decisions, including the decision to employ nuclear weapons, are vested in the Political Council. The Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Forces Command, advises the Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee and exercises operational and technical control over the nuclear forces. A chain of succession has been formulated. India has a National Command Post (NCP) that will act as a tri-Service operations centre. Rehearsals and joint exercises involving simulated retaliatory nuclear strikes are carried out periodically.
Besides the protection that a Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system provides, the quality of India's nuclear deterrence will be substantially enhanced. Hence, India should opt for a BMD system to destroy incoming missiles. Except for the fact that the Agni series of ballistic missiles require further testing and nuclear-powered submarines with SLBMs are still a long way from being deployed, India's nuclear deterrence is credible and fully operational.
India has been a strong advocate of total universal nuclear disarmament. Despite not having signed the NPT and the CTBT, India has voluntarily complied with all the key provisions of these treaties. India has renounced further nuclear testing and has an unblemished non-proliferation record among the nuclear weapons powers. It is in India's interest to work towards total nuclear disarmament.