Does India underreport its nuclear weapons capabilities?
India has had a known nuclear weapon capability since 1974. In that year India conducted its first nuclear test, under the code name ‘Smiling Buddha.’ The test was of an atomic bomb design with a plutonium core, and it exploded with a force of between 12–15 kilotons, roughly equaling the power of the Hiroshima bomb.
Since that time, 45 years ago, India has developed what it calls its ‘Credible Minimum Deterrent.’ Per data from the Arms Control Association, June 2019, this is a force estimated at some 140 warheads. The warheads range in size from a reported 25 kiloton yield for its airborne or gravity dropped nuclear weapons, all to way to a reputed 200 to 300 kiloton yield for either a boosted (fission-fusion-fission) or thermonuclear warhead for its Agni ballistic missiles and K-15/K-4 sea launched ballistic missiles. (Pixabay photo)
In 2005 , Zia Mian and MV Ramana estimated India to have a total of 8000 kilogram of reactor grade plutonium . They took a conservative factor value of 0.3 , denoting that if India converted just about a third of their stockpile to weapons grade plutonium , it will leave India north of 2400 Kgs of weapons grade Plutonium . As it take just about 4 Kgs of plutonium to manufacture a nuclear weapon , It gave India 600 plus warheads capacity in 2005 from reactor grade Plutonium alone .
Most of India’s weapons grade plutonium comes from CIRUS and Dhruva reactors which went operational in 1963 and 1988 respectively . Till CIRUS’s decommissioning in 2010 , it produced 4–7 Kgs of weapons grade Plutonium annually , while Dhruva is said to be producing 11–18 Kg of the same . These two reactors alone would have provided enough material to place India in the vicinity of 200 weapons till date . Apart from that India is working on six fast breeder reactors , which will further increase India’s weapons building capacity if so desired . And no one can say with certainty about India’s Highly enriched Uranium (HEU ) program , as it completely shrouded in secrecy . International Panel on Fissile Materials, and South Asian Voices estimated India to have about 2400 to 2900 Kgs of HEU , which is enough to build about 160–190 nuclear weapons . Though it is also true that part of HEU goes towards India’s nuclear submarine program , of which 2nd submarine is having trials as of now and will be added to Indian navy in a year or so .
Even the 2005 estimate put Indian total weapons capacity in three digits , Its been a long time since then and we can safely assume that if pushed to wall , India can field much more than that and can make any adversary experience a very bad day .
India could also greatly expand the range of its ballistic missiles. The Agni 5 is rumored to have a design range of up to 8000 km, as opposed to its tested range of 5000+ km. As a space power India could also launch warheads in an emergency using its satellite launch vehicles, enabling them to hit targets around the world using what is known a ‘fractional orbital bombardment system,’ first pioneered by the Russians in the 1960’s. (Any nuclear armed space capable power can do this as an emergency measure)
So India has far more capabilities than it publically states. Of course every single power does this! No great power goes around and details for the world all its capabilities and potentials.
India seems to be quite satisfied with its nuclear triad and 140+ warheads. This force will undoubtedly grow incrementally, perhaps reaching 200 operational warheads, similar to the UK’s force.
India clearly wishes to signal its determination to protect and insulate itself from threats ranging from subconventional all the way up to full spectrum nuclear war. But its ‘No First Use’ (NFU) policy, slow buildup, and clear desire not to weaponize all its stockpile points to an India seeking to peacefully coexist, trade, and conduct its internal affairs as it sees fit from a position of strength, free from coercion even from superpower level threats.
India today, with its growing economy, excellent relations with practically every major power, and hardworking citizens, seems to be well on its way to achieving its goal.