India's nuclear strategy focus shifts from Pakistan to China: Report

New Delhi Written By: Praphul SinghUpdated: Jul 23, 2020, 04:07 PM IST

File photo of the Rafale fighter jet. Photograph:(Reuters)

Story highlights

The analysis was done by authors Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda which further suggest that the change in posture was reinforced after the 2017 Doklam standoff. 

Án analysis done by Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists suggests how India's nuclear strategy, which has traditionally focused on Pakistan, now appears to place its emphasis on China, with Beijing in range of Indian missiles.

The analysis was done by authors Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda which further suggest that the change in posture was reinforced after the 2017 Doklam standoff. 

Hans M. Kristensen is the director of the Nuclear Information Project with the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) in Washington, DC. His work focuses on researching and writing about the status of nuclear weapons and the policies that direct them. His co-author for India Nuclear Forces, 2020, Matt Korda is a research associate for the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, where he co-authors the Bulletin‘s Nuclear Notebook with Hans Kristensen. 

The authors further note that "While India’s primary deterrence relationship is with Pakistan, its nuclear modernization indicates that it is putting increased emphasis on its future strategic relationship with China."

According to the report, the change in posture resulted in all-new Agni missiles having ranges that indicate their primary target as China. 

It goes on to say that the expansion of India's nuclear posture to take a conventionally and nuclear superior China into account will result in significantly new capabilities being deployed over the next decade, which could potentially also influence how India views the role of its nuclear weapons against Pakistan. 

India, in-order-to achieve the posturing against China, will have to pursue more aggressive strategies- such as escalation dominance or a 'splendid first strike'- against Pakistan. 

The authors pointed to India's efforts to counter China's aggressive development of its defence forces. The report claims that India continues to modernise its nuclear arsenal, with at least three new weapon systems now under developments to complement or replace existing nuclear-capable aircraft, land-based delivery systems, and sea-based systems. 

Several of these systems are nearing completion and will soon be combat-ready. India is estimated to have produced enough military plutonium for 150 to 200 nuclear warheads but has likely produced only 150. 

Nonetheless, additional plutonium will be required to produce warheads for missiles now under development, and India is reportedly building several new plutonium production facilities.

According to the authors, China is not the only country which should be bothered with India's approach enhancing its nuclear capabilities. The efforts will significantly influence how India views the role of its nuclear weapons against Pakistan.

According to one scholar, “we may be witnessing what I call a ‘decoupling’ of Indian nuclear strategy between China and Pakistan."

The study further predicts that India continues to modernize its nuclear weapons arsenal and operationalize its nascent triad.

The authors estimate that India currently operates eight nuclear-capable systems: two aircraft, four land-based ballistic missiles, and two sea-based ballistic missiles. At least three more systems are in development, of which several are nearing completion and will soon be combat-ready. 

Beijing is now in the range of Indian ballistic missiles.

India on air front

On-air front, India will soon be adding Rafale Fighter Jets that India has purchased from France. In fact, recent reports suggest that Indian Air Force will be inducting 5 Rafale Jets at Ambala Airbase on July 29th.

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. 

Rafale will be joined by Mirage 2000H and Jaguar IS aircraft. According to an estimate in the report, three or four squadrons of Mirage 2000H and Jaguar IS aircraft at three bases are assigned nuclear strike missions against Pakistan and China. 

The Indian Mirage 2000H is undergoing upgrades to extend its service life and enhance its capabilities; the modernized version is called Mirage 2000I. The induction of Rafale comes at a time when the Indian Air Force (IAF) is planning to phase out its Jaguar fleet over the next 15 years. 

India on land-based ballistic missile front

India has four types of land-based, nuclear-capable ballistic missiles that appear to be operational: the short-range Prithvi-II and Agni-I, the medium-range Agni-II, and the intermediate-range Agni-III.

At least two other longer-range Agni missiles are in development and nearing completion: the Agni-IV and Agni-V. Agni-III, when deployed from the very northeastern corner of India, would bring Beijing within the range of Indian nuclear warheads. 

India is also developing the Agni-IV missile, an intermediate-range ballistic missile with the capability to deliver a single nuclear warhead up to 3,500-plus kilometres (2,175-plus miles); the Ministry of Defence has listed the range as 4,000 kilometres (2,485 miles) (Ministry of Defence 2014. 

Although the Agni-IV 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-V, near-intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of delivering a warhead more than 5,000 kilometres (3,100-plus miles). 

The extra range will allow the Indian military to establish Agni-V bases in central and southern India, further away from the Chinese border.

India on sea front

India operates a ship-launched and a submarine-launched, nuclear-capable ballistic missile and is developing a second submarine-launched ballistic missile for eventual deployment on a small fleet of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. 

To arm the SSBNs, India has developed one nuclear-capable sea-launched ballistic missile and is working on another: the current K-15 (also known as Sagarika or B-05) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) with a range of 700 kilometres and the future K-4 SLBM with a range of about 3,500 kilometres. 

The relatively short range of the K-15 would not allow the SSBNs to target Islamabad, only southern Pakistan, and the submarines would not be able to target China at all unless they sailed through the Singapore Strait, deep into the South China Sea. 

The K-4 has undergone six test launches, two of which took place only five days apart in January 2020, and is reported “virtually ready” for serial production. 

Rumours about the K-4 claim that it is highly accurate, reaching “near-zero circular error probability,” according to the Defence Research and Development Organisation. 

Additionally, senior defence officials have stated that the Defence Research and Development Organisation is reportedly planning to develop a 5,000-kilometre range SLBM that matches the design of the land-based Agni-V and would allow Indian submarines to target all of Asia, parts of Africa, Europe, and the Indo-Pacific region, including the South China Sea.