India's Nuclear Weapons Program:
A Historical and Strategic Perspective
By: Arjun Makhijani
[ Acknowledgement: This article will appear in the July/August 1998 issue of
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.]
On May 11, Buddha's birthday, the new coalition
government in New Delhi, led by the Bharatiya Janata
Party (BJP), put the finishing touch to more than three
decades of erosion of Gandhi's legacy by conducting three
nuclear tests. Two days later there were two more tests.
Prime Minister Vajpayee declared that India, which had
championed nuclear disarmament for four decades, to be a
nuclear weapons state and staked its claim as a world power.
India has thrown away a rarer and incomparably finer
claim to great-power status. More than 50 years ago, it
became a great power because it had given life during its
independence movement to the philosophy of non-violent but
militant action. The May tests marked the end of moralism as
the basis of global politics for India. In its place:
"realism." The deadly hangover from that realism is already
beginning to set in with the five tests conducted by
Pakistan on May 28, 1998.
China goes nuclear
The development of Indian nuclear-weapons program has
had the support of every government since 1964, a
watershed year in Indian politics. In May of that year,
Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister and a bearer
of the torch of nuclear disarmament on behalf of India and
the non-aligned movement, died. And in October, China
conducted its first nuclear test.
While China's nuclear weapons program was a response to U.S.
nuclear threats and to the pullout of Soviet support in the
late 1950s, the test reverberated in India, which had lost a
short border war with China in 1962.1 The Chinese test gave
India's nuclear establishment the opening it needed to
successfully argue for a nuclear-weapons program.
U.S. policies and actions also tilted the political
balance in India in favor of nuclear-weapons
development. In 1971, for instance, India militarily
intervened in Bangladesh, which was then a part of
Pakistan, in its struggle for independence.
Pakistan was a bifurcated country in 1971. The
politically dominant part of Pakistan lay on India's
northwestern frontier; East Pakistan -- now
Bangladesh-- was a thousand miles away, with India in
between. India explained its intervention as helping
the Bangladeshi people free themselves from Pakistani
military dictatorship and repression. In Pakistan, the
intervention was seen as assisting in the dismemberment of
The United States sent an aircraft carrier, presumably
nuclear-armed into the Bay of Bengal to show its
support for Pakistan during the December 1971 war in
South Asia. This implicit threat, and the shift in the
strategic balance it implied, did not go unnoticed in
New Delhi. Further, the Sino-US rapprochement in 1972
created by President Nixon's visit to China led the
United States to end its opposition to China becoming a
permanent member of the Security Council.
The US aircraft carrier did not help Pakistan
militarily during the 1971 war. After Pakistan lost, it
pursued a nuclear-weapons program with determination.
Pakistan, which has far fewer conventional military forces
than India, saw its nuclear capacity as a deterrent to an
Indian conventional attack. Its general position has been
that it would give up its nuclear weapons program if India
did the same. But India has consistently pointed not only to
the Pakistan but also to China as the rationale for its
In the 1970s and '80s, India and Pakistan developed
their nuclear capability to the point that both
reportedly had warheads ready to assemble. (India is
widely assumed to have enough plutonium for 80 to 100
warheads. Pakistan is thought to have enough highly
enriched uranium for about ten warheads.)
Nevertheless, neither India nor Pakistan chose to
actually assemble the weapons and mount them on
delivery vehicles such as bombers or missiles. The
nuclear doctrine in South Asia was one of
"non-weaponized" or "existential" deterrence.
Meanwhile, both countries embarked on missile
development programs, which continue. Pakistan's April
6 test of the Ghauri, a missile capable of reaching
Delhi, Mumbai (formerly called Bombay), and other major
Indian cities, was the most recent escalation of the South
Asian arms race prior to India's testing.
While its nuclear -weapons program was developed in an
Asian context, India has long had global political
ambitions. It has long wanted, for instance, a
permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
But despite the fact that it is the world's most
populous democracy, it has not been able to obtain it.
The five permanent members of the Security Council are
all nuclear -weapons states; therefore, goes the
reasoning in New Delhi, obtaining global political
clout has long been associated in India with one of two
roads. Either India would be a leader in nuclear disarmament
-- or it would become a nuclear-weapons state.
India has refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation
Treaty since its creation in 1968, because the treaty
allowed the give nuclear-weapon states to retain nuclear
weapons without a specific schedule for nuclear disarmament.
The treaty, said India, was discriminatory; it created two
classes of states -- the nuclear "haves" and the
"have-nots." But India's entreaties and initiatives in the
direction of nuclear disarmament never attracted support or
even serious attention from the nuclear-weapons states.
New Delhi repeatedly urged that the NPT's nuclear
apartheid be remedied by a serious commitment to
nuclear disarmament by the five declared weapons
states, as required by Article VI of the treaty. India
was repeatedly ignored or rebuffed.
Until the mid-1990s India exercised considerable
restraint in its own nuclear affairs, maintained some
ambiguity about its program, and did not actually build
nuclear warheads. But this restraint was, as President
Clinton remarked after the May tests, "under-appreciated."
Pakistan's comparable restraint was punished with U.S.
But things changed rapidly in the 1990s. In 1992, both
France and China signed the NPT as "declared"
nuclear-weapon states. Until then, their policies had
been that countries had the right to develop nuclear
weapons in their own national security interests - a
position similar to that of India's.
When France and China signed, the NPT became a more
viable instrument for U.S. non-proliferation policy.
That policy has been to hold onto nuclear weapons for
an indefinite period, to maintain a first use
prerogative, and to prevent the overt expansion of the
number of nuclear-weapons states beyond the five
declared powers --with a wink (and much silence) about
Israel's ambitious but clandestine nuclear arsenal.
The next major turn of events came in 1995, when the
NPT was up for review and extension. The non-nuclear
-weapons states that were parties to that treaty could
have insisted on a limited extension as a way of
pressuring the nuclear weapons states to create a
practical plan for disarmament. Despite much discussion in
non-aligned forums that the occasion be used to create a
road to disarmament, the non-aligned signatory states caved
in to U.S. pressure. The NPT was indefinitely extended
without any meaningful disarmament measures other than a
commitment to achieve a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)
by the end of 1996.
The indefinite extension of the NPT isolated India for
the first time in the Non-Aligned Movement, an
organization it had helped found.
The next blow came in September 1996 with the CTBT. The
final treaty, the product of more than two years of
negotiation, contained a provision that it could not enter
into force unless India signed it and ratified it, along
with 43 other countries.
India was included in the 44-country list against its
express, repeated, and emphatic statements that it
would never sign the CTBT unless it was accompanied by
"time-bound" commitment to complete nuclear
disarmament. That this demand was unrealistic in the
context of the CTBT did not seem to matter to India.
The violation of its sovereignty by its inclusion in a
treaty against its will incensed the Indian government, and
set the stage for the May tests.
Moreover, the United States, France, and other nuclear
weapons states put in place "stewardship" programs to
continue to modernize their arsenals, in part by
conducting computer simulations and laboratory
experiments, including laboratory-scale thermonuclear
explosions. The nuclear- weapons states had finally
succeeded in converting the CTBT from a tool for
nuclear disarmament -- as originally envisioned in 1954 by
Prime Minister Nehru -- into nothing more than a
The entry-into-force provision of the CTBT, which would
force India to sign and ratify the treaty before it could
come into force, isolated India almost completely. Pakistan
did not sign, but said it would if India did. (The remaining
nuclear-capable state that has not yet signed: North Korea.)
Since September 1996 there have been widespread
discussions of a possible CTBT review conference in
September 1999 at which parties that had ratified it by then
would pressure India by various means, including sanctions,
to sign and ratify the treaty.
By the time the BJP-led coalition came to power in
March 1998, the Indian political scene had already
shifted favor of nuclear weapons. Because India had
lost global political clout both in non-aligned forums
and in the United Nations Conference on Disarmament,
and because it was facing the prospect of CTBT
sanctions by the turn of the century, there were no
incentives not to test.
Indeed, all signs seemed to point to the road that
France and China took during the CTBT negotiations.
They conducted test series in 1995 and 1996, and when
they had enough data to insure that they could
modernize their arsenals and carry out their own
stockpile stewardship programs, they stopped testing
and signed the CTBT.
After India had conducted its five tests, it said it
was ready to consider abiding by some of the provisions of
the CTBT and to participate in treaty negotiations for a
cut-off of fissile -materials production.
It also has announced that it would have its own
stockpile stewardship program. For now, at least, India has
abandoned the road of nuclear disarmament as a dead end and
it has followed the path laid down by the five declared
weapons states. Moreover, because it had not signed the NPT
or the CTBT, it did so without violating any treaties.
The economic cost
India's nuclear weapons have been developed in reaction to
local, regional and global nuclear and political
developments. As is common with policies based on reaction
to external pressures or events, the program has little
internal strategic coherence. India already possesses
overwhelming conventional superiority with respect to
Pakistan, which it has demonstrated in wartime.
The nuclear tests have not added materially to India's
actual military strength relative to Pakistan,
especially since nuclear weapons are politically
unusable, as U.S. and Soviet experience during the Cold War
had already shown. On the contrary, India's program has
provoked a reaction in Pakistan and has opened up India to
the possibility of nuclear attack, however unlikely.
Moreover, it allows China a cheap way to keep India off
balance by providing more military assistance to Pakistan.
India may aspire to match China in the size and variety of
its arsenal (estimated to be about 400 warheads), but it
will have to expend enormous resources to do so. Most of the
cost of nuclear weapons programs is not for the warheads
themselves, but for delivery systems, command and control,
security, and related programs dealing with deployment and
potential use of weapons. Moreover, since India does not
have submarine-based long- or medium-range missiles, which
are among the most expensive of systems, India's weapons
will be relatively vulnerable to pre-emptive attack.
Moreover, India simply cannot match the industrial and
economic infrastructure of China, although they have
comparable populations. For instance, India's installed
electric power capacity as of January 1996 was about 92,000
megawatts; China's was about 204,000 megawatts. China runs
balance of payments surpluses; India runs deficits. China
has foreign exchange reserves many times those of India.
Further, China is relatively invulnerable to sanctions,
since many large multinational corporations derive
substantial portions of their profits from export-oriented
manufacturing based in China, which means they have become,
in effect, advocates for China. China's 1996 gross domestic
product, adjusted for purchasing power, was about $4
trillion; India's was about $1.5 trillion.
If it were to try to approach China's nuclear arsenal
in size and sophistication, India would fall farther
behind in industrial infrastructure, economic growth,
and consumer goods, even if one ignores the effect of
The security costs
Trying to create a substantial nuclear arsenal would
complicate rather than promote solutions to India's two main
border disputes with its neighbors: that with China in two
sectors and that with Pakistan in Kashmir.
The implicit we-are-going-to-get-tough threats that
Indian Home Minister L.K. Advani has made to Pakistan
since May 11 will not resolve the Kashmir dispute.
Instead it has given a deadly nuclear edge to the
problem. Nor will the tests affect the outcome of the
border dispute with China. Indeed, negotiations, the
only practical way to solve these disputes, are less
likely to be successful in the atmosphere of heightened
tensions created by India's tests.
Finally and ironically, by conducting nuclear weapons
tests when world opinion strongly favors banning them,
India has hurt rather than helped its chances of
becoming a permanent member of the Security Council.
In this context, a look at the utter lack of utility of the
U.S. nuclear arsenal is intriguing. U.S. expenditures on
nuclear weapons since World War II, in today's dollars, have
been equivalent to 600 years of India's entire annual
military budget on an exchange rate basis. Nevertheless, the
United States was not able to use nuclear weapons to resolve
wars in Korea or Vietnam, and for that matter nuclear
weapons did not prevent its military barracks in Saudi
Arabia from being attacked.
Nuclear weapons were similarly useless in preventing
the bombing of the World Trade Center or the Alfred P.
Murrah building in Oklahoma City. In fact, the
possibility of black-market nuclear weapons and
smuggled nuclear materials suggest that some such
terror bombings in the future might be carried out with a
nuclear weapon. There is also the possibility of accidental
all-out nuclear war, which is greater today than during the
cold war. Far from solving security problems, the existence
of nuclear weapons presents the United States with its only
major risk of utter devastation.
In Russia, the situation is, if anything, worse because the
nuclear infrastructure is deteriorating, and the threat of
accidental nuclear detonations and nuclear black markets is
If India has spurned the legacy of Gandhi by testing
nuclear weapons, it is absurd for other nuclear weapons
states to try to lecture India and Pakistan or impose
sanctions upon them. After all, they are violating Article
VI of the NPT by refusing to create a practical path to
nuclear disarmament, despite the unanimous interpretation of
the World Court that they are obligated to do so.
Even Japan, which has suffered nuclear weapons use, has not
seen fit to renounce its nuclear alliance with the United
States or to declare that it does not want nuclear weapons
to be used its defense. All NATO allies are in the same
A considerable majority of the world's population now
lives in a nuclear weapons state, in an allied country, or
in a country that wants to be allied with a weapons state.
Widespread reliance on nuclear weapons is at the heart of
the proliferation problem and of persistent nuclear dangers.
Now India's tests have been followed by Pakistani tests.
They have heightened the risk of actual nuclear weapons use
in South Asia.
But if there is a silver lining to the tests by India
and Pakistan, it is to expose the double standard of
the nuclear weapons states and to create a sense of
urgency among the world's people about the need for
complete nuclear disarmament.
Short-term Steps to Nuclear Disarmament
The legacy of Gandhi can only be reclaimed by
popular actions and demands upon recalcitrant
powers that have grown too used to wielding
weapons of terror and mass destruction. For a
start we can demand:
1. That India and Pakistan sign the CTBT.
2. That India and Pakistan make unilateral
commitments to not assembling or
deploying nuclear weapons, in order to
decrease tensions and invite mutual,
bilateral verification of this
3. That India and Pakistan release all
environmental data relating to these
tests. Specifically, India should release
all data relating to the dust cloud
generated by the May 11, 1998 tests,
residual radioactivity in the crater, and
any groundwater radioactivity
measurements that have been made since
4. That the five nuclear weapons states take
at least one substantial measure to
dealert all nuclear weapons as soon as
5. That the five declared nuclear weapons
states immediately declare their
readiness to remove all nuclear weapons
from deployment (sequestration) and to
put them under multilateral monitoring as
a first step in the fulfillment of
Article VI of the NPT.
6. That the nuclear weapons states take no
measures that would destabilize
sequestration of all nuclear warheads, as
would occur, for instance, if ballistic
missile defense systems were deployed.
7. That all nuclear weapons states transfer
all nuclear weapons based abroad to their
own territories. Currently only the
United States has nuclear weapons based
8. That all nuclear weapons states,
including Israel, India and Pakistan,
unilaterally declare a no-first-use
policy and give reality to that policy by
dealerting and sequestration measures.
9. That all nuclear weapons states renounce
design and production of new or modified
nuclear weapons, such as the B61-11
warhead, and stop all associated
activities. In addition, all nuclear
weapons states should permanently close
their test sites and focus on
environmental remediation of these sites.
10. That all non-nuclear weapons states,
notably those aligned with the United
States, declare that their security
interests are compatible with a
no-first-use policy on the part of the
weapons states and that the latter should
unilaterally adopt such policies.
11. That all nuclear weapons states,
including Israel, India and Pakistan,
declare the numbers of nuclear warheads
and amounts of nuclear weapons-usable
materials in their possession, including
all military and commercial stocks.
12. That all nuclear weapons states,
including Israel, India and Pakistan,
make public all data relating to the
health and environmental effects of their
nuclear weapons production and testing
activities with due regard for the
privacy of individuals.
1. For concise histories of the nuclear weapons programs of various
countries, see Makhijani et al., eds., Nuclear Wastelands: A Global
Guide to Nuclear Weapons Production and Its Health and Environmental
Effects. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995, Chapters 6 through 11.
Arjun Makhijani is president of the Institute for Energy
Environmental Research. (Takoma Park, Maryland,
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