In 1998, the world woke up to the new reality of India having tested its nuclear weapons in complete secrecy. On May 11, 2023, India marked a key milestone of 25 years as a nuclear weapons state.
On June 1, 2023, India’s Strategic Forces Command (SFC) launched an Agni-I medium-range ballistic missile with nuclear warhead-carrying capability from the APJ Abdul Kalam Island off its eastern coast in Odisha province. It was a successful training launch of Agni-I, the Ministry of Defense said in a Press Information Bureau statement.
“The missile is a proven system, capable of striking targets with a very high degree of precision. The user training launch successfully validated all operational and technical parameters of the missile,” the statement said.
The test is a message from India to the world, particularly its enemies in the region, namely China and Pakistan, coming just about 20 days after India celebrated the 25th year of its declaration as a nuclear weapons state.
India’s Benign Nuclear Doctrine
On May 13, 1998, after conducting five nuclear tests, Prime Minister Vajpayee declared, “India is now a nuclear weapon state.” The presentation of a draft nuclear doctrine in August 1999 helped India’s case as a responsible nuclear weapons state.
The doctrine was a statement that pointed out that nuclear weapons were, for India, a political tool, not just a military weapon. The doctrine spelled out this through its concepts of credible minimum deterrence, no first use, no attack on non-nuclear weapons state, etc.
Concurrently, India pledged itself to nuclear non-proliferation and universal disarmament. India has used this doctrine over the last 25 years to guide itself to stay a responsible nuclear weapons state and to build its arsenal and nuclear command and control structures, both in the civilian and military domains.
In the 25 years since its nuclear weapons tests, India has displayed great restraint despite serious provocations, especially by its western neighbor Pakistan, through terrorist attacks as part of the state policy.
This includes the 2008 Mumbai strikes, when 10 Pakistani terrorists infiltrated the megalopolis and unleashed a dance of death on both locals and visitors to the city, including foreign nations, hitting key locations and iconic landmarks such as the Taj Hotel on the seafront and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station, among many others.
In this quarter of a century, India has built on its credible minimum deterrence strategy by developing and validating delivery platforms and stockpiling nuclear warheads that have been limited in numbers.
Seeking Universal Disarmament
India had sought capabilities to deliver nuclear weapons deep inside its enemy territory, both on its western and northern borders, and that has been achieved in the last 25 years through continuous development of the nuclear triad – the capability to rain nuclear weapons on its enemy from the land, air, and submarine.
With this capability achieved, India has behaved responsibly by staying committed to nuclear non-proliferation principles. It is only justified on India’s part to seek universal disarmament, as existing of even one nuclear weapon state in the world order today tends to tilt the multi-polarity towards a unipolar superpower, which is not ideal for the world.
India has also submitted itself to the nuclear safeguards as expected of any responsible state by the existing nuclear export control regimes, apart from safety regulations accepted internationally.
It won the recognition of the global community for its responsible behavior through its near universal acceptance as a member of three of the four global export control regimes, including the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), in June 2016.
The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) that controls nuclear exports has provided waivers for India as a recognition of its being a responsible nuclear weapons state and its commitment and adherence to non-proliferation principles. The only final crown pending is full membership of the NSG, which is opposed by India’s bete noire China for reasons only Beijing would know.
India’s Nuclear Security Concerns
India sought nuclear weapons to deter its regional adversaries from using or threatening to use them against it and to meet its aspirations to emerge as a global power.
The 1990s development of an increasingly nuclearized neighborhood in Asia and increasingly discriminatory non-proliferation regimes globally were India’s primary concerns while taking the difficult decision to go nuclear regarding its ability to tackle its security concerns.
By the time India conducted its nuclear weapons tests in May 1998, India’s ambivalence on the nuke option had been compromised by its rivals China and Pakistan collaborating on the nuclear front.
China had already conducted 45 nuclear tests and developed delivery systems that could hit India anywhere Beijing desired. Pakistan, too, got a shot in its arm when China helped it, reportedly in May 1990, by carrying out a nuclear test on the former’s behalf.
This had encouraged Pakistan to foment trouble for India in its border states of Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab, where in its unstated state policy of salami slicing of India, Islamabad was carrying out a proxy war through insurgency movements for a Free Kashmir and Khalistan, by ceding from the Indian union.
Unipolar World Left India With Not Many Options
On the other hand, the world order was turning increasingly unipolar, with the US as the only superpower left after the collapse of the USSR. The US used this situation, which was disadvantaged by the disintegration of the USSR, that had strategically supported India’s big defense-related projects.
As part of its plans to get all non-nuclear weapons states to join the NPT, the US was pressuring India to shed its ambitions for nuclear weapons and sign the NPT.
Moreover, the CTBT was opened up for signing by nation-states and member-states of the United Nations Organisation (UNO). India was now caught between the devil and the deep sea.
New Delhi felt it was being put in a bind over the non-proliferation and disarmament agenda of the big powers. With Pakistan and China claiming its territories and rival nations pursuing their respective nuclear ambitions, India was now forced to develop, test, and validate its nuclear weapons and delivery systems to repel any nuclear coercion or blackmail by its regional rivals.
Avoiding A Nuclear Escalation
It is not as though all security threats faced by India have vanished after India declared itself as a nuclear weapons state in May 1998. Pakistan continues to push terrorists into Jammu and Kashmir and is fanning cross-border terrorism in the border states of India.
It also uses its resources to train terrorists, arm them, and fund their propaganda against India internationally. China has not given up on its territorial claims over the Ladakh region and the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh in India’s North-East.
Both the LOC and the LAC on India’s western and northern borders have been hot from time to time in the last 25 years. However, the deterrence for such local, conventional military, and non-conventional threats from Pakistan and China have been tackled and handled locally, through conventional military and diplomatic means, and not through a nuclear option.
It is like striking a mosquito with an artillery canon, whereas a swatter would do the job more efficiently and cost-effectively. But by keeping the nuclear option out of the equation, India ensures no escalation of minor conflicts along its de facto borders with its rival nations.
For example, India’s September 2016 surgical strike across the LOC inside Pakistan-controlled Kashmir or the February 2019 air strikes on Balakot in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region have blown the bluff of Pakistan’s nuclear posture against India.
Wise To Deter, Wiser To Prevent
Even Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons did not come in handy for the Pakistan Army to counter the surgical or air strikes mentioned previously.
Even in the case of the eastern Ladakh military conflict between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) since 2020 that has continued till today, both sides have not escalated the conflict to an all-out war and continue to keep it a localized confrontation, or just a pinprick.
Though for the first time in 45 years, gunshots were fired on the LAC between India and China, apart from the loss of lives of soldiers in hand-to-hand combat in Galwan Valley, the two sides have continued to engage in diplomatic and military commander-level talks to defuse the volatile situation and have in many ways succeeded in lowering the heat on the LAC in eastern Ladakh, and the minor conflicts in other areas of the LAC.
It is only wise on India’s part, and that of both Pakistan and China, to never let the LOC and LAC military conflicts degenerate into an all-out, still worse, nuclear war.
As a serving Indian military official told the EurAsian Times off-record, while keeping the conflicts localized, New Delhi must significantly boost its nuclear and conventional firepower to keep China at bay. For now, Pakistan’s strategic nuclear weapons and China’s bulging military presents a substantial threat to India.
- NC Bipindra is a 30-year veteran in journalism specializing in strategic affairs, geopolitics, aerospace, defense, and diplomacy. He has written extensively for the Times of India, New Indian Express, Press Trust of India, and Bloomberg News. He can be reached at ncbipindra (at) gmail.com
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