Country Profiles: India

India flagNPT: not signed
CTBT: not signed
First Test: 1974 (Peaceful Nuclear Explosive), 1998 (bomb)

First Hydrogen Bomb: none
Current number of nuclear warheads:
Strategic: 0
Tactical: ~80
Total: ~80

Last Updated: 2/27/02

India’s nuclear weapons program started in 1944, three years before independence, and has been driven primarily by three factors: India’s desire to be respected as a world power (both politically and in the scientific establishment), its relations with China, and its relations with Pakistan.

India’s program began in 1944, under the oversight of Dr. Homi Jehangir Bhabha, who along with other Indian scientists was anxious to prove India’s capacity for scientific advancement. The program’s initial impetus was also due to another recurring theme in India’s nuclear weapons development: India’s desire for global prestige concurrent with its size and place in world history. Although it was almost the same size as China, India was not given a seat on the UN Security Council. Indian leaders have commented that a nuclear program was one way India could assert its claim to major power status.

India’s weapons program proceeded in fits and starts, driven forward by external events, but held back by a lack of consistent political will and the country’s Gandhian tradition of nonviolence. In 1954 India built the Atomic Energy Establishment Trombay (AEET), often called the Indian Los Alamos. Although India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was not a strong proponent of nuclear weapons development, a defeat in a 1962 Indo-Chinese border war led India to make a public declaration of its intent to develop nuclear weapons. Pressure mounted after China detonated its first nuclear weapon in 1964. Although Nehru’s successor, Shri Lal Bahudur Shastri, was a follower of Gandhi and opposed to developing nuclear weapons, he agreed to push forward with the development of Peaceful Nuclear Explosives (PNEs) after Bhabha conducted a very public lobbying campaign. This campaign was accelerated after the 1971 war in which India invaded East Pakistan, which broke off from West Pakistan as a result of the war and became Bangladesh. During the war, the United States sent an aircraft carrier to threaten India – a direct affront to its global prestige. In 1974, India exploded a test Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (dubbed “Smiling Buddha”) with a yield of 8 – 14kt. PNEs do not differ greatly from nuclear weapons, and the program was designed with nuclear weapons production in mind. After the test, India received international condemnation and nuclear sanctions; Pakistan also stepped up its nuclear program.

The program proceeded slowly for the rest of the 1970s, but by the mid to late 1980s, India was capable of delivering nuclear weapons and was practicing nuclear bombing runs. A ballistic missile program began in 1983. After clashes with Pakistan involving the disputed Kashmir region, India began in the 1990s to compile a nuclear arsenal of complete, ready-to-assemble weapons. In 1998, India set off a series of five nuclear tests in order to demonstrate its nuclear power status. The tests were immediately followed by international condemnation, United States sanctions, and six nuclear tests by Pakistan. The tests, however, were immensely popular at home: a Times of India poll showed 91 percent approval.

In August of 1999, India released a document clarifying its nuclear doctrine, which asserted India’s right to possess nuclear weapons and outlined its policy of “minimum deterrence”.

The size and status of India’s current arsenal is unknown. Most observers place it at between 60 and 80 weapons at varying states of readiness, but estimates range as high as 200. David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security estimates that at the end of 1999, India possessed 240-395 kg of weapons grade plutonium, enough for 45-90 nuclear weapons. He also notes that India has enough unsafeguarded less-than-weapons-grade plutonium for about 1000 nuclear weapons, should they decide to develop that material for weapons.

India’s nuclear doctrine envisions a nuclear “triad” of air-, land-, and sea-based forces. It currently has two nuclear capable missiles, the Prithvi (range 250 km, payload 500 kg), and the Agni-II (range 2500 km, payload 1000 kg). It has Mirage 2000 jets (purchased from France) outfitted for nuclear delivery, and is working on a nuclear submarine.

The 1998 nuclear tests by India and Pakistan signaled to the world the extent of the conflict in the South Asia region and emphasized the danger should this conflict escalate. In the face of this situation, international actors have pressured India to renounce its nuclear weapons and accede to the NPT. However, India has refused to sign the NPT because it views the treaty as officially dividing the world into two classes: the nuclear “haves” and “have-nots.” India has often noted that the five permanent members of the Security Council are also the five declared nuclear weapons states under the NPT, and refuses to resign itself to being a lower-level nuclear have-not. In 1996, India refused to sign the CTBT unless it was tied to a real pledge for disarmament. India’s needs for international respect and border security will continue to provide impetus for further nuclear weapons development as long as these issues remain unresolved.


India’s Nuclear Weapons Program, from the High Energy Weapons Archive

India’s Nuclear Weapons Program: A Historical and Strategic Perspective

Draft Report of National Security Advisory Board on Indian Nuclear Doctrine