18 July 2017

Indian nuclear forces, 2017

Hans M. Kristensen; Robert S. Norris

India continues to modernize its nuclear arsenal, with at least four new weapon systems now under development to complement or replace existing nuclear-capable aircraft, land-based delivery systems, and sea-based systems. India is estimated to have produced enough plutonium for 150–200 nuclear warheads but has likely produced only 120–130. Nonetheless, additional plutonium will be required to produce warheads for missiles now under development, and India is reportedly building two new plutonium production facilities. India’s nuclear strategy, which has traditionally focused on Pakistan, now appears to place increased emphasis on China. 

India continues to modernize its nuclear arsenal with development of several new nuclear weapon systems. We estimate India currently operates seven nuclear-capable systems: two aircraft, four land-based ballistic missiles, and one sea-based ballistic missile. At least four more systems are in development. The development program is in a dynamic phase, with long-range land- and sea-based missiles emerging for possible deployment within the next decade.

India is estimated to have produced approximately 600 kilograms of weapon-grade plutonium (International Panel on Fissile Materials 2015International Panel on Fissile Materials. 2015. Global Fissile Material Report 2013: Nuclear Weapon and Fissile Material Stockpiles and Production.http://fissilematerials.org/library/gfmr15.pdf [Google Scholar]), sufficient for 150–200 nuclear warheads; however, not all the material has been converted into nuclear warheads. Based on available information about its nuclear-capable delivery force structure and strategy, we estimate that India has produced 120–130 nuclear warheads (Table 1). It will need more warheads to arm the new missiles it is currently developing. In addition to the Dhruva plutonium production reactor near Mumbai, India reportedly is building two new plutonium production reactors (International Panel on Fissile Materials 2015International Panel on Fissile Materials. 2015. Global Fissile Material Report 2013: Nuclear Weapon and Fissile Material Stockpiles and Production.http://fissilematerials.org/library/gfmr15.pdf [Google Scholar]). The unsafeguarded Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor under construction at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research near Kalpakkam could potentially increase India’s plutonium production capacity significantly in the future, although the reactor is continuing to experience delays.

Table 1. Indian nuclear forces, 2017. 

While India has traditionally been focused on deterring Pakistan, its nuclear modernization indicates that it is putting increased emphasis on its future strategic relationship with China. That adjustment will result in significantly new capabilities being deployed over the next decade that may influence how India views nuclear weapons’ role against Pakistan. According to one scholar,

we may be witnessing what I call a ‘decoupling’ of Indian nuclear strategy between China and Pakistan. The force requirements India needs in order to credibly threaten assured retaliation against China may allow it, according to this scholar, to pursue more aggressive strategies – such as escalation dominance or a ‘splendid first strike’ – against Pakistan. (Narang 2017Narang, V. 2017. Remarks by Professor Vipin Narang, Department of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference. Washington, DC. March 20.https://fbfy83yid9j1dqsev3zq0w8n-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Vipin-Narang-Remarks-Carnegie-Nukefest-2017.pdf [Google Scholar])

This issue was highlighted in 2016 during yet another border dispute between Indian and Pakistan. India has long adhered to a nuclear no-first-use policy, even though the policy was weakened by India’s decision to potentially use nuclear weapons in response to chemical or biological attacks (such use would be first use even it were in retaliation). Yet amid the 2016 dispute with Pakistan, then-Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar indicated that India should not “bind” itself to that policy (Som 2016Som, V. 2016. “Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s Nuclear Remark Stressed As ‘Personal Opinion.’” NDTV, November 10.http://www.ndtv.com/india-news/defence-minister-manohar-parrikars-nuclear-remark-stressed-as-personal-opinion-1623952. [Google Scholar]). Although the Indian government later explained that the minister’s remarks represented his personal opinion, the debate highlighted the conditions under which India would consider using nuclear weapons.


Fighter-bombers were India’s first and only nuclear strike force until 2003, when the first nuclear-capable ballistic missile was fielded. Despite considerable progress since then in building a diverse arsenal of land- and sea-based ballistic missiles, bombers continue to serve a prominent role as a flexible strike force in India’s nuclear posture. We estimate that three or four squadrons of Mirage 2000H and Jaguar IS/IB (and possibly also MiG-27) aircraft, at three bases, are assigned nuclear strike missions against Pakistan and China.

The Mirage 2000H Vajra (“divine thunder”) fighter-bombers are deployed with the 1st and 7th squadrons of the 40th Wing at Gwalior (Maharajpur) Air Force Station in northern Madhya Pradesh. We estimate that one (or potentially both) of these squadrons has a secondary nuclear mission. Indian Mirage aircraft also frequently operate from the Nal (Bikaner) Air Force Station in western Rajasthan.

The French-supplied Mirage 2000 has served a nuclear strike role in the French Air Force for many years (the two-seated Mirage 2000N). The Indian Mirage 2000 is undergoing upgrades to extend its service life and enhance its capabilities; the modernized version is called Mirage 2000I.

The Indian Air Force also operates five squadrons of Jaguar IS/IB Shamsher (“sword of justice”) aircraft at three bases. These include the 5th and 14th squadrons of the 7th Wing at Ambala Air Force Station in northwestern Haryana, the 16th and 27th squadrons of the 17th Wing at Gorakhpur Air Force Station in northeastern Uttar Pradesh, and the 224th squadron of the 33rd Wing at Jamnagar Air Force Station in southwestern Gujarat. We estimate that two of the squadrons at Ambala and Gorakhpur (one at each base) are assigned a secondary nuclear strike mission. Jaguar aircraft also frequently operate from the Nal (Bikaner) Air Force Station in western Rajasthan.

The Jaguar, designed jointly by France and Britain, was nuclear-capable when deployed by those countries. The so-called Darin III precision-attack and avionics upgrade of half of India’s Jaguar fleet achieved initial operational capability in November 2016 and Air Force operations were approved in December 2016 (Ministry of Defence 2017Ministry of Defence. 2017. Annual Report 2016–17: 38.http://mod.nic.in/writereaddata/AnnualReport1617.pdf. [Google Scholar]). The upgrade, which also gives about 60 Jaguars a more powerful engine, will enable the nuclear bomber to operate for another 20 years.

Other domestically manufactured aircraft, such as the Soviet-origin Su-30MKI and MiG-27 fleets, are sometimes rumored to be nuclear-capable as well. We have found no evidence to support this and believe more than two nuclear-capable aircraft types would be excessive for India’s relatively limited nuclear force posture.

Despite the upgrades, the original nuclear bombers are getting old and India is probably searching for a modern fighter-bomber that could potentially take over the air-based nuclear strike role in the future. On September 23, 2016, India and France signed an agreement for delivery of 36 Rafale aircraft (Ministry of Defence 2017Ministry of Defence. 2017. Annual Report 2016–17: 38.http://mod.nic.in/writereaddata/AnnualReport1617.pdf. [Google Scholar]). The order is considerably reduced from initial plans to buy 126 Rafales. The Rafale is used for the nuclear mission in the French Air Force and India could potentially convert it to serve a similar role in the Indian Air Force.

Land-based missiles

India has four types of land-based nuclear-capable ballistic missiles that appear to be operational: the short-range Prithvi-2 and Agni-1, the medium-range Agni-2, and the intermediate-range Agni-3. At least two other longer-range Agni missiles are under development: the Agni-4 and Agni-5.

It remains to be seen how many of these missile types India plans to fully develop and keep in its arsenal. Some may serve as technology development programs toward longer-range missiles. Although the Indian government has made no statements about the future size or composition of its land-based missile force, intermediate-range and short-range missiles could potentially be discontinued, with only medium- and long-range missiles deployed in the future to provide a mix of strike options against near and distant targets. Otherwise, the government appears to plan a diverse missile force that will be expensive to maintain and operate.

The Prithvi-2 missile was “the first missile to be developed” under India’s Integrated Guided Missile Development Program for “India’s nuclear deterrence,” according to the government (Press Information Bureau 2013Press Information Bureau. 2013. “Prithvi Does It Again.” October 8.http://pib.nic.in/newsite/erelease.aspx?relid=99911. [Google Scholar]). The Prithvi-2 can deliver a nuclear or conventional warhead to a range of 250 kilometers (155 miles). Given the relatively small size of the Prithvi missile (nine meters long and one meter in diameter), the launcher is difficult to spot in satellite images and therefore little is known about its deployment locations. Possible locations include Jalandhar in Punjab, as well as Banar, Bikaner, and Jodhpur in Rajasthan. The Strategic Forces Command conducted three user trials of the Prithvi-2 in 2016, potentially one for each missile group.

The two-stage, solid-fuel, road-mobile Agni-1 missile became operational in 2007, three years after induction into the armed forces began. The short-range missile is capable of delivering a nuclear or conventional warhead to a distance of approximately 700 kilometers (435 miles). The mission of Agni-1 is thought to be focused on targeting Pakistan and we estimate that roughly 20 launchers are deployed in western India, possibly including the 334 Missile Group. Strategic Forces Command conducted two user trials of the Agni-1 in 2016.

The two-stage, solid-fuel, rail-mobile Agni-2, an improvement on the Agni-1, can deliver a nuclear or conventional warhead more than 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles). The missile possibly began induction into the armed forces in 2004 but technical issues delayed operational capability until 2011. Fewer than 20 launchers are thought to be deployed in northern India, possibly including the 335 Missile Group. Targeting is probably focused on western, central, and southern China. There were no Agni-2 tests in 2016 or 2015 and a test on May 4, 2017 reportedly failed (Pandit 2017Pandit, R. 2017. “Trial of Agni-II Ballistic Missile Fails: Sources.” Times of India, May 4.http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/trial-of-agni-ii-ballistic-missile-fails-sources/articleshow/58519987.cms. [Google Scholar]), indicating possible technical issues with the Agni-2.

The Agni-3 – a two-stage, solid-fuel, rail-mobile, intermediate-range ballistic missile – is capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to 3,200-plus kilometers (1,988-plus miles). The Indian Ministry of Defence declared in 2014 that the Agni-3 (Ministry of Defence 2014Ministry of Defence. 2014. Annual Report 2013–14: 86.http://mod.nic.in/writereaddata/AnnualReport2013-14-ENG.pdf. [Google Scholar]) is “in the arsenal of the armed forces,” and the Strategic Forces Command conducted its fourth user trial on April 27, 2017 from Abdul Kalam Island on India’s east coast.

It is still early in the Agni-3 deployment; there are probably fewer than 10 launchers and the full operational status is uncertain. The additional range potentially allows India to deploy the Agni-3 units further back from the Pakistani and Chinese borders. Several years ago, an army spokesperson remarked, “With this missile, India can even strike Shanghai” (India Today 2008India Today. 2008. “Agni-III not targeted at any particular country: Army.” May 8.indiatoday.intoday.in/story/Agni-III+not+targeted+at+any+particular+country:+Army/1/7972.html. [Google Scholar]), but this would require launching the Agni-3 from the very northeastern corner of India.

India is also developing the Agni-4 missile, a two-stage, solid-fuel, rail-mobile intermediate-range ballistic missile with the capability to deliver a single nuclear warhead to 3,500-plus kilometers (2,175-plus miles); the Ministry of Defence (2014Ministry of Defence. 2014. Annual Report 2013–14: 86.http://mod.nic.in/writereaddata/AnnualReport2013-14-ENG.pdf. [Google Scholar]) lists the range as 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles). Following the final development test in 2014, the ministry declared that Agni-4 “serial production will begin shortly.” Since then, three user launches have been conducted by Strategic Forces Command, the most recent on January 2, 2017, but the missile is not yet operational.

Although the Agni-4 will be capable of striking targets in nearly all of China from northeastern India (including Beijing and Shanghai), India is also developing the longer-range Agni-5, a three-stage, solid-fuel, rail-mobile, near-intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of delivering a warhead more than 5,000 kilometers (3,100-plus miles). The extra range will allow the Indian military to establish Agni-5 bases in central and southern India, further away from China.

The most recent Agni-5 flight test, on December 26, 2016, was the second time the missile was launched from a sealed canister on a road-mobile launcher. The launcher, which is known as the Transport-cum-Tilting vehicle-5, is a 140-ton, 30-meter, 7-axle trailer pulled by a 3-axle Volvo truck (DRDO Newsletter 2014DRDO Newsletter. 2014. “TCT-5 Performs Excellently in Missile Ejection Test.” June2014.http://drdo.gov.in/drdo/pub/newsletter/2014/june_14.pdf [Google Scholar]). The canister design “will reduce the reaction time drastically … just a few minutes from ‘stop-to-launch,’” to the former head of India’s Defense Research and Development Organization said in 2013 (Times of India 2013Times of India. 2013. “India Can Develop 10,000km Range Missile: DRDO.” September16.articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2013-09-16/india/42113319_1_agni-vi-missile-defence-nuclear-capable-missile [Google Scholar]).

Despite widespread speculation in news media articles and on social media that the Agni-5 will be equipped with multiple warheads – even multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs)11. For a review of Indian discussion about MIRV, see Kristensen (2013Kristensen, H. M. 2013. India’s Missile Modernization Beyond Minimum Deterrence. FAS Strategic Security Blog. October 4.https://fas.org/blogs/security/2013/10/indianmirv/ [Google Scholar]).View all notes – there is good reason to doubt that India can or will add MIRVs to its missiles in the near future. There are no reports of MIRV technologies, and loading multiple warheads on the Agni-5 would reduce its extra range – a key purpose of developing the missile in the first place. The Agni-5 is estimated to be capable of delivering a payload of 1.5 tons (the same as the Agni-3 and 4), and India’s first- and second-generation warheads, even modified versions, are relatively heavy compared with warheads developed by other nuclear weapon states that deploy MIRVs. It took the Soviet Union and the United States hundreds of nuclear tests and 25 years of effort to develop reentry vehicles small enough to equip a ballistic missile with MIRVs. Moreover, deploying missiles with multiple warheads would invite serious questions about the credibility of India’s minimum deterrent doctrine; using MIRVs would reflect a strategy to quickly strike multiple targets and would also run the risk of triggering a warhead race with adversaries.

It seems likely, though, that China’s recent decision to equip some of its ICBMs with MIRVs, and Pakistan’s announcement in January 2017 that it had test-launched a new Ababeel ICBM with MIRVs, will strengthen the hand of those in the Indian military–industrial complex who favor development of a MIRV capability.

India apparently has also begun development of a true ICBM, known as Agni-6. Official data is scarce but an article posted on the government’s Press Information Bureau website in December 2016 claimed the Agni-6 “will have a strike-range of 8,000–10,000 km” and “be capable of being launched from submarines as well as from land” (Ghosh 2016Ghosh, D. 2016. “Successful Test Launch of AGNI V.” Press Information Bureau, Government of India, December 27.http://pib.nic.in/newsite/printrelease.aspx?relid=155897 [Google Scholar]). Whether these claims are accurate remains to be seen; a range improvement of roughly 50 percent to nearly 100 percent that of the Agni-5 seems exaggerated.

Naval nuclear weapons

India operates a ship-launched nuclear-capable ballistic missile and is developing two submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

The ship-based ballistic missile is the Dhanush, a 400-kilometer (249-mile) single-stage, liquid-fuel, short-range ballistic missile designed to launch from the back of two specially configured Sukanya-class patrol vessels (Subhadra and Suvarna); each ship can carry two missiles. There were two user test launches in 2016. The utility of the Dhanush as a strategic deterrence weapon is severely limited by its relatively short range; the ships carrying it would have to sail dangerously close to the Pakistani or Chinese coasts to target facilities in those countries, making them vulnerable to counterattack. We suspect the Dhanush will be retired once the Arihant ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) becomes operational.

Four years after its reactor first went critical, India’s first indigenous nuclear-powered SSBN, the Arihant, is still undergoing sea trials. The Arihant is equipped with 12 launch tubes designed to launch the K-15 (Sagarika) SLBM, whose range is 700 kilometers (435 miles). A second SSBN, the Aridhaman, is under construction, and India might have plans to build a total of three or four SSBNs. Previous rumors about six SSBNs appear to have been confused by plans to build six nuclear attack submarines. A base for the SSBNs is rumored to be under construction near Rambilli on the Indian east coast (Pandit 2013Pandit, R. 2013. “India Readies Hi-Tech Naval Base to Keep Eye on China.” The Times of India, March 26.http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/India-readies-hi-tech-naval-base-to-keep-eye-on-China/articleshow/19203910.cms. [Google Scholar]).

To arm the SSBNs, India is developing two weapons: first, the K-15 SLBM, with a range of 700 kilometers, and second, the K-4, with a range of about 3,000 kilometers. The relatively short range of the K-15 would not allow the SSBNs to target Islamabad, only southern Pakistan; and the subs would not be able to target China at all, unless they sailed through the Singapore Strait, deep into the South China Sea. So, the K-15 SLBM should be seen as a stopgap program intended to develop the technology for more capable missiles. The K-15 was last test-launched in November 2015, probably from a submerged platform. The K-4 has been test-launched four times from submerged platforms, most recently on March 31, 2016. The Arihant will be capable of carrying four K-4s but subsequent SSBNs will probably be able to carry eight. As is usual with nuclear programs, there are rumors and speculation that each K-4 SLBM will be capable of carrying more than one warhead, but that remains to be seen.

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