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Reshaping the U.S.-Indian Nuclear Deal to Lessen the Nonproliferation Losses
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Charles D. Ferguson

For decades, India’s nuclear programs have been defined by two contradictory forces: the country’s vast ambitions and its limited uranium reserves. Its ambitions have led New Delhi to establish a significant civilian nuclear enterprise, to refuse to sign the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and to develop and test nuclear weapons. Its limited uranium reserves, on the other hand, have clearly slowed India’s nuclear energy development, most likely hampered its nuclear weapons program, and intertwined the two efforts to a high degree.

The tension between India’s goals and resources has grown much stronger in the past decade. By bringing India’s nuclear weapons programs into the open, the country’s 1998 nuclear tests fueled calls to develop the full panoply of nuclear capabilities, including a nuclear triad. India’s recent impressive economic growth has strained the country’s energy system, increasing interest in nuclear energy. In particular, India would like to quintuple the production of electricity through nuclear energy by 2020.

To the Indian government, the civil nuclear cooperation agreement it signed with the United States last year looks like a way for New Delhi to escape this dilemma, giving it access to global uranium reserves without imposing limits on its nuclear weapons program. India’s right and left wings may claim the Congress-led government has somehow shortchanged their country. The truth is that, without the deal, New Delhi will be forced to confront painful trade-offs between its energy and national security goals, as a series of January interviews I conducted in India of nuclear scientists, policy experts, and energy and defense analysts made clear.

For the deal to go forward, the 45 members of the voluntary Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) must first agree to carve out an exception for India to its guidelines. These currently require a non-nuclear-weapon state, as India is legally defined under the NPT, to have comprehensive safeguards on all nuclear facilities before receiving civilian nuclear assistance from NSG countries.

The U.S. Congress too must sign off on the final nuclear cooperation agreement, meaning that it and the NSG will retain considerable leverage over India. They should use this power to condition the agreement in a way that does less damage to the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

The NSG has an opportunity to condition this exception on India’s behaviors, including continuing to refrain from testing nuclear explosives and placing permanent safeguards on any foreign technologies and fuel, as well as designated indigenous facilities. Moreover, the NSG should hold back on transferring enrichment and reprocessing technologies, which could further enhance India’s weapons production capabilities, and only supply as much reserve fuel as needed for reasonable power plant requirements. U.S. leadership could also influence India to become a more responsible nuclear-armed state through signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and committing to a cutoff of weapons-usable fissile material in addition to adhering to conditions on civilian nuclear commerce.

Two Intertwined Visions

The roots of the current controversy over the nuclear deal go back to India’s emergence as an independent nation in the late 1940s. At that time, Dr. Homi Bhabha, widely viewed as a father of India’s nuclear programs, sought to develop these efforts in a way that exploited indigenous resources. He was well aware that India’s uranium resources were only sufficient to power a modest nuclear energy program of about 10,000 megawatts per year and even less would be available if some were used for weapons. To compensate, Bhabha laid out a three-stage plan for India to hoard these limited indigenous uranium deposits and to leverage its abundant thorium deposits to bootstrap itself to a massive production of electricity through nuclear energy and to produce weapons-grade plutonium.

This vision of self-sufficiency, which arose in part from India’s desire to escape its colonial heritage, has remained a guiding vision for India’s nuclear establishment even as its practical fulfillment has receded further into the future. India’s positions in the discussions on a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States in many ways reflect a compromise between those who want to be self-reliant and stick almost exclusively with Bhabha’s three-stage plan, which one interviewee called “a sacred cow,” and those who are willing to bring in outside foreign suppliers. India’s preference for autarky was reinforced by its isolation from international nuclear trade after a 1974 nuclear test, which relied on U.S. and Canadian technology and nuclear materials. This is also reflected in India’s current negotiating posture, which seeks to ensure that foreign suppliers cannot shut off access to fuel and reactors if New Delhi tests nuclear explosives or commits some other proliferation transgression, such as transferring nuclear technologies to states of concern.

Moreover, while Bhabha sought to ensure that fissile materials would be available for a nuclear weapons program, India in recent years has fleshed out what it means when it says that it seeks a “credible minimal deterrent.” In its draft nuclear doctrine published soon after the 1998 tests, New Delhi explicitly stated its objective was to deploy a triad of nuclear forces. The triad would consist of land-based ballistic missiles, nuclear-capable aircraft, and nuclear-armed submarines. As with the U.S.-Soviet experience during the Cold War, such a triad is designed to provide India with survivable nuclear forces and a second-strike capability. It would also mean that India’s arsenal would increase from an estimated few dozen operational warheads today to as many as 200 or more, a level akin to China and the United Kingdom. The nuclear deal would not prevent India from building up to these projected operational and reserve capacities within several years.[1]

The Deal and India’s Fissile Material

To produce enough weapons-usable fissile material (highly enriched uranium or plutonium), India needs sufficient uranium. This uranium would have to come from the country’s limited indigenous sources because foreign suppliers would not give permission to have their uranium used to make weapons. Currently, the military has to share these scarce uranium resources with the civilian sector as nearly all of India’s thermal reactors, are fueled with indigenous uranium. All told, the current total annual uranium demand is about 475 tons. The military reactors require about 45 metric tons of uranium annually:  The CIRUS and Dhruva weapons-grade plutonium-production reactors require about 35 metric tons and another military program to make fuel for nuclear-powered submarines, the uranium-enrichment facility at Mysore, uses an estimated 10 metric tons of uranium annually. By contrast,  the civilian thermal reactor fleet currently requires about 430 metric tons of uranium per year to be fully fueled.[2] The uranium demands of the civilian sector have grown since the late 1990s more reactors came online in the late 1990s and the India was able to operate its reactors at a higher pitch.

Indigenous supplies have not kept up with this rising demand. Estimated uranium mining has fallen to around 300 tons per year because of poor planning in the uranium mining and milling sectors and opposition from an emerging environmental movement. Notably, New Delhi has kept its two weapons-grade plutonium-production reactors fully fueled during the last several years while curtailing electricity production.

This energy crunch could not have come at a worse time. Indian electricity demand is soaring to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding economy. According to the Indian government and the International Energy Agency, India’s electricity demand will increase at a rate of 6 to 8 percent annually at least through 2020.

India’s nuclear energy boosters, such as Subhinder Thakur, the head strategist for the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), an enterprise of the government of India, claim “the mismatch is temporary.” Thakur said the Uranium Corporation of India, the Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research, and the Nuclear Fuel Complex are working together to resolve the uranium shortage within the next few years.

Despite this optimistic assessment from the NPCIL, India confronts continued resistance from environmentalists about opening new mines or expanding old ones, especially in the northeastern part of the country. Also, India’s plans to increase its thermal reactor power production within the next five to six years would drive up the demand for domestically mined uranium in the near term. In particular, to keep the newest indigenous reactors fully fueled would require about 140 tons of uranium per year. Adding this to the current uranium demands means that if the plants were run at full capacity, India annually would consume an estimated 600 tons of uranium.

Therefore, if the political conflicts surrounding mining were not resolved by the time these plants were built and if the nuclear deal were to fall through, India would be forced to stop running about half of its indigenously fueled reactors or only operate this fleet at approximately 50 percent capacity. With the deal, India has plans to place enough reactors under safeguards to reduce the demand for domestically mined uranium to just more than 300 tons for the unsafeguarded power production reactors by 2014—the amount that it is mining today. Assuming that India could import the uranium for the safeguarded reactors, the deal could reduce pressure on India to open up new or expand existing uranium mines. From the perspectives of the NSG and the United States, this significant difference between the deal and no deal scenarios offers tremendous leverage.

Still, the United States and the other NSG countries have not yet taken advantage of this opportunity to extract crucial concessions that would reduce the deal’s damage to the nonproliferation system. Instead, the deal would permit India to reach its goal of 20,000 megawatts of nuclear-generated electricity by 2020, if foreign suppliers could build enough reactors, and to fulfill its nuclear weapons aspirations. If the deal goes through, about one-half of India’s nuclear-generated electricity would come from indigenously produced and currently operating foreign-supplied reactors and the other half would come from additional foreign-supplied reactors, including the two 1,000-megawatt reactors Russia is completing at Kudankulam. Therefore, the Indian government has asked foreign suppliers to bid on building up to eight large reactors by 2020.[3] Current and former government officials, however, admitted to me that this planning scenario is ambitious and faces significant financial and construction hurdles.

Plutonium Production

To be sure, Indian officials I interviewed, as well as some deal supporters in the United States, contend that whether or not the deal goes through will not significantly affect India’s weapons-grade plutonium production.[4] Given New Delhi’s dedication to maintaining such production at full capacity, the deal’s potential impact in this regard is indeed murky.

New Delhi has neither published its weapons-usable fissile material holdings nor indicated how large a nuclear arsenal it intends to make. Unofficial estimates by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) indicate that India may have amassed 575 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium as of the end of 2004.[5] ISIS has also estimated that India may have consumed about 131 kilograms of this plutonium in nuclear weapons tests, as reactor fuel, and in processing losses. The CIRUS reactor could produce about 9 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium annually, and Dhruva could make about 23 kilograms annually. If these estimates are accurate, India may have had available 540 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium as of the end of 2007. Using the conservative International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates that 8 kilograms of plutonium are needed to make a nuclear bomb, the stockpiled Indian plutonium could fuel a minimum of 67 first-generation fission bombs. Some analysts have argued that more advanced designs could use as little as a few kilograms of plutonium.[6] Therefore, the upper bound estimate for India’s current warhead capacity is somewhat more than 100 nuclear weapons.

It does appear that, in at least one respect, the deal could stimulate near-term growth in weapons-grade plutonium production. Under the deal, India has pledged to shut down the aging CIRUS reactor by 2010. CIRUS is contentious because India obtained it from Canada in the late 1950s and gave assurances “that the reactor would be used only for peaceful uses.” The United States had provided the heavy water for the reactor. This reactor, however, produced plutonium for India’s 1974 “peaceful” nuclear test, which spurred the United States and other countries to form the NSG. India has considered replacing this 40-megawatt thermal (MWth) reactor with a larger capacity 100 MWth reactor.[7] This replacement reactor could produce about two-and-a-half times the amount of plutonium produced annually by CIRUS, or about 23 kilograms compared to 9 kilograms.

In addition to its weapons-grade plutonium stockpile, with or without the deal, India can make hundreds of nuclear weapons from several tons of unsafeguarded reactor-grade plutonium in spent nuclear fuel it has already accumulated, although the deal could somewhat affect future production. It is unknown how much reactor-grade plutonium India has separated from spent fuel, but the unsafeguarded reactors have produced more than 20 times the amount of plutonium that India has obtained from the two weapons-plutonium-production reactors. The deal did not place any of this past production under safeguards.

The most direct and immediate means of using this material would be as fissile material in nuclear weapons. Although weapons-grade plutonium is ideal for weapons use, reactor-grade plutonium can also serve this purpose.[8] Reportedly, India may have used reactor-grade plutonium in one of its May 1998 tests.[9]

Moreover, this feedstock of unsafeguarded plutonium could fuel India’s planned breeder reactor program (the second stage of Bhabha’s three-stage plan), which will remain outside of safeguards. The five planned breeder reactors by 2020 would require two initial cores of plutonium before recycling of plutonium would make the breeders more than self-sufficient. If only the first 500-megawatt electric Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor were dedicated to weapons production, it could produce up to 140 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium each year, more than four times the current rate of production from CIRUS and Dhruva.[10]

It should be noted that, in a few years, the deal might lower the future rate of production of reactor-grade plutonium. Without the deal, India would have only six reactors under safeguards: the U.S.-built Tarapur 1 and 2, the Canadian-built Rajasthan 1 and 2, and the two Russian reactors under construction at Kudankulam. With the deal, India has agreed to place eight additional indigenously made reactors under safeguards, meaning that eight pressurized heavy-water reactors and their produced plutonium would remain outside of safeguards. Over the course of the next seven years, the net result would be that the annual production rate of unsafeguarded plutonium would be set to peak at about 2,000 kilograms per year in the next two years and fall to about 1,250 kilograms per year by 2015, when safeguards would be applied to all of the reactors subject to the deal.

Therefore, the deal would serve to lower India’s future unsafeguarded plutonium production rate by about one-third.[11] In that respect, the deal is arguably positive for nonproliferation as long as permanent safeguards are applied. Nonetheless, existing and future stocks of spent fuel would be more than sufficient to fuel the breeder program or to provide direct fissile material for nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the deal as structured has given implicit U.S. approval to India’s nuclear weapons program under the guise of bringing India into “the nonproliferation mainstream.”

Directing India Onto a More Responsible Path

To truly bring India into the nonproliferation mainstream, the NSG and Congress must insist on certain conditions. These conditions are minimal in the sense that they would not roll back India’s nuclear weapons program and would not significantly curtail India’s weapons-usable fissile material production capabilities. In that sense, India will have won what it has most sought, recognition of its nuclear weapons program. Even if the deal dies, the United States in effect has already bestowed that recognition. Nonetheless, as a price for that acknowledgement, India should be willing to accept more responsible behavior that would lessen the damage to the nonproliferation regime.

Nuclear trade should be contingent on India refraining from nuclear testing. Also, such commerce should depend on maintenance of permanent safeguards on all designated nuclear facilities. Moreover, the NSG should hold back on transferring enrichment, reprocessing, and heavy-water technologies that could further enhance India’s weapons production capabilities. In addition, the United States should press for India to sign the CTBT and adhere to a weapons-usable fissile material cap. Fully implementing these measures, however, will depend on Chinese and Pakistani actions.

Although most Indian policymakers and analysts have supported the country’s unilateral testing moratorium since 1998, all interviewees agreed that India’s accession to the CTBT has become increasingly tied to the U.S. position on the treaty. India will not ratify the treaty unless the United States does so. Although there is no direct nuclear threat between India and the United States, Indian analysts have made a direct connection between U.S. nuclear actions and India’s place in the world. Summing up this view, Professor Pratap Mehta, the executive director of the Center for Policy Research, based in New Delhi, said India “cannot support a world order that gives into the U.S. maintaining its nuclear primacy.” Moreover, he said that “as long as the U.S. holds out on modernizing its arsenal, India will not sign the FMCT [fissile material cutoff treaty] or the CTBT.”

Acknowledging U.S. influence, top defense expert K. Santhanam, who had a leadership role during the 1998 tests, drew a more direct connection to China and Pakistan. He expressed willingness for India to continue indefinitely the testing moratorium as long as China and Pakistan refrain from testing.

All of the five original nuclear-weapon states, including China, have signed the CTBT. Even if ratification by the United States remains out of reach for the time being, India should be encouraged in tandem with Pakistan to take a step beyond the moratorium and sign the treaty.

Similarly, fissile material production depends crucially on Chinese and Pakistani production. All of the five legally recognized nuclear-weapon states but China have committed to stop making fissile material for weapons. China is believed to have stopped weapons-usable fissile material production, but Beijing has never officially said so. If China would make a public pledge not to make fissile material for weapons, it would put added pressure on India to specify when it would stop stockpiling nuclear weapons material. To bring Pakistan into this arrangement, India could offer a series of alternating unilateral moves. For example, India could verifiably shut down one of its plutonium-production reactors for a period of time. Pakistan could take a similar step with one of its production reactors. Verification could be achieved through third-party commercial satellite monitoring of the status of the reactors.

Although turning back the growth in India’s nuclear arsenal appears unlikely for the foreseeable future, the NSG and the United States have opportunities to shape the future direction of India’s strategic weapons program. They should take it.

India’s Nuclear Energy Program: Ambitious Dreams, Sober Realities

Charles D. Ferguson

New Delhi’s nuclear planners can never be accused of thinking small. Even at the very beginning of India’s nuclear efforts, Homi Bhabha proposed an ambitious three-stage plan for Indian nuclear development that sought to develop original technology that would allow the country to compensate for its insufficient uranium reserves.

Thermal reactors—today’s typical power reactors—represented the first part of Bhabha’s vision. Thermal reactors use slow or thermal energy neutrons to fission uranium-235, a naturally occurring fissile isotope of uranium.

Bhabha envisioned that, in a second stage, spent fuel from these thermal reactors would be reprocessed to separate plutonium for fueling breeder reactors, which would “breed” more plutonium.

In the third and final stage, this plutonium would fuel reactors that would irradiate thorium to make uranium-233. India has about one-third of the world’s known supply of thorium, which is not useful by itself but can transform into the fissile material U-233. U-233 can power nuclear reactors and provide the fissile material for nuclear weapons. This material could therefore provide additional fuel for India’s electrical power production reactors and additional material for nuclear weapons.

If India were able to develop the thorium fuel cycle, it could have available as much as 155,502 gigawatt-years of electrical energy (GWe-yr), in comparison to the potential for 328 GWe-yr from indigenously fueled thermal reactors; 10,660 GWe-yr from indigenous coal (which now provides 69 percent of Indian electricity); and 42,231 GWe-yr from plutonium breeder reactors.[1] Currently, India has an installed electrical generating capacity of about 140 GWe, and the rate of electricity demand is expected to increase by 6 to 8 percent per year through 2020 during this period of projected ambitious economic growth.[2] Thus, the thorium cycle holds out the potential to provide a huge portion of India’s projected electricity needs for several hundred years.

Indian engineers have recognized, however, that significant hurdles block the way toward commercializing the thorium fuel cycle. High costs and major technical problems are likely to delay full commercialization of the thorium cycle until at least 2050, according to Indian energy experts.

To fully realize the thorium cycle, Indian engineers first face the mainly financial challenge of proving the commercial viability of the plutonium breeder program. India has operated a small 40-megawatt pilot-scale breeder reactor since 1985.Although India is building a commercial-scale breeder reactor, which is projected to be completed in 2011, and is planning to build four more of these reactors by 2020, ramping up to a fleet of breeder reactors will likely take decades, and it is uncertain if this program will succeed commercially. Thus, full realization of India’s civilian nuclear energy vision appears blurry, and this program could remain stuck at a low level for the next few decades.

Indeed, after nearly half a century of investment, nuclear energy provides only about 4,000 megawatts of electricity, or 3 percent of India’s electricity needs. That compares to about 20 percent in the United States. Even if the nuclear deal were to go through and India were to meet all of its goals for nuclear power generation, nuclear-generated electricity would only account for about 5 percent of India’s projected electricity demands in 2020. —CHARLES D. FERGUSON


1. Subhinder Thakur, Interview with author, Mumbai, January 4, 2008. Similar estimates appear in R. B. Grover and Subhash Chandra, “Scenario for Growth of Electricity in India,” Energy Policy, November 2006, pp. 2834-2847. For data on coal use, see World Coal Institute, www.worldcoal.org/pages/content/index.asp?PageID=402.

2. John Stephenson and Peter Tynan, “Will the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative Light India?” in Gauging U.S. Indian Strategic Cooperation, Henry Sokolski, editor (Strategic Studies Institute, 2007), p. 24.

India’s Planned Nuclear Triad: Seeking a “Credible Deterrent”

Charles D. Ferguson

If the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal were to move forward without any conditions, it would allow India to achieve its goal of deploying a triad of land-, sea-, and air-based nuclear weapons without hampering its nuclear energy ambitions.

India’s desire for a nuclear triad arises out of its stated need for a “credible minimal deterrent.” Exactly what that means is still being debated within the country, although the emphasis is clearly on “credibility” not minimalism. “Minimal” has been dropped at times from government pronouncements, but Indian analysts have consistently underscored the notion of credibility.[1] Even those who are strong supporters of eventual nuclear disarmament generally agree that credibility requires a second-strike capability.

Second-strike capability demands survivable nuclear forces. To achieve this, Indian analysts have borrowed from the U.S.-Soviet experience during the Cold War and have sought to acquire nuclear-armed submarines. In late February, India took a decisive step toward a sea-based nuclear capability by conducting a test of the K-15 ballistic missile from a submerged pontoon. The K-15 has a reported top range of 700 kilometers, allowing it to strike many targets in Pakistan. Deployed K-15 missiles on submarines could also target high-value sites in China.

The Indian military has been less successful in building nuclear submarines from which to launch such missiles. India’s nuclear-powered submarine program has limped along since 1985, although the Indian navy is trying to ready its first nuclear submarine for sea trials next year. India also received some experience in nuclear submarine operations from 1988 to 1991 when it leased a nuclear-powered attack submarine from the Soviet Union. A Russian crew manned this submarine while training Indian sailors. Presently, Russia is building an Akula-class nuclear submarine for lease to India.

Despite the substantial delays in deploying nuclear-powered submarines, these types of warships are not essential for deploying nuclear-armed forces at sea. India could use conventionally powered submarines as missile carriers, surface ships carrying nuclear-armed cruise missiles, or aircraft carriers with nuclear-capable bombers. Russia is refitting an aircraft carrier for India. Having fallen behind schedule, Moscow will likely complete the refit by late 2010. India has renamed the Admiral Gorshkov carrier as the Vikramaditya, which would be capable of helping protect India’s submarine fleet as well as launching fighter-bomber aircraft.[2] Of these platforms, Indian defense planners prefer the submarine force, whether nuclear or conventionally powered, to optimize survivability of this leg of the envisioned triad.

At this stage, India has not indicated how large its nuclear-armed submarine force could become. Submarines are least vulnerable to a pre-emptive attack when deployed; in port, a submarine is more exposed to attack. Even when deployed, a small submarine force could be vulnerable to anti-submarine warfare. If Pakistan develops effective anti-submarine capabilities, Indian defense planners would feel pressure to build a larger fleet of submarines, thereby increasing the perceived need for more weapons-usable fissile material and more nuclear weapons.

The other two legs of the triad would also require ready-to-deploy nuclear weapons. In the absence of clarifying information from the Indian government, there has been considerable debate about the deployment status of India’s nuclear weapons. Estimates of weapons that are fully assembled or can be fully assembled within days to weeks vary from a few to up to 100 with many analysts settling on about 30 to 50.[3]

There is even more certainty about the numbers of aircraft India has. India has more than 300 nuclear-capable planes, but it is uncertain how many are devoted to the nuclear mission. The most likely nuclear delivery systems are the Jaguar IS and Mirage 2000H fighter-bombers. Russian-acquired older MiG-27 and newer Su-30MKI fighter-bombers might also have a nuclear role.[4] India plans to upgrade its military aircraft within the next few years by purchasing 126 multipurpose planes for up to $12 billion. During a late February 2008 official visit to India, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reportedly promoted sales of U.S.-made aircraft.[5] It is uncertain how many aircraft India has armed or would consider arming with nuclear weapons.

Although the number of nuclear-armed land-based missiles is also uncertain, tests of these missiles are easier to track. The Prithvi I, with a range of 150 kilometers and a payload of 1,000 kilograms, has been approved for the Indian army. The Dhanush is the naval version of the Prithvi II, which is under development and has a range of approximately 350 kilometers. In addition, India has been developing longer-range Agni missiles. Although the Agni I with a 700-kilometer range and the Agni II with a range greater than 2,000 kilometers have reportedly been “inducted” into the army’s missile groups, their operational status is uncertain. In addition, the Agni III with a range greater than 3,000 kilometers is still under development and was test-launched on April 12, 2007. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that the Agni I and II will become fully operational in the next two years. Both can be deployed on road or rail launchers.[6] Once operational, these missile systems would significantly enhance India’s nuclear strike capabilities and could strike parts of China. India is estimated to have up to 100 ballistic missiles with more than half of those in the longer-range Agni class, but it is uncertain how many of these could be armed with nuclear warheads.[7]

Perceived pressures to deter China as well as Pakistan could increase the numbers of deployed and reserve Indian nuclear weapons. Although the actual size of the Indian arsenal is unknown, accounting for even modestly sized bomber, land-based missile, and submarine legs in a triad can give a rough estimate of the potential future size. For aircraft, India may choose to have a few dozen nuclear bombs. Presently, for example, India has about 48 Mirage 2000H planes and about 70 Jaguar ISs, but probably only a portion would have nuclear bombs devoted to them. In the missile leg, a few dozen Prithvi and Agni missiles could be devoted to nuclear missions. In the submarine leg, to ensure survivable forces, India would likely plan at a minimum for one submarine in the shipyard, one in port readying for deployment, and one or two at sea. Assuming up to a dozen missiles per submarine, India may have at least a few dozen warheads for the submarine force. If multiple warheads are placed on the missiles, the warhead numbers could expand by three or more times.

In sum, India’s triad including a single-warhead missile force based on land and underwater and a bomber fleet could exceed more than 100 operational weapons in the coming years. In addition, this warhead amount could increase by a factor of two or more depending on the size of a reserve fissile material stockpile. —CHARLES D. FERGUSON


1. For an extensive, recent Indian report on this issue, see “India’s Credible Minimum Deterrence: A Report,” IPCS Special Report, No. 13, February 2006.

2. Viktor Litovkin, “India to Get Renamed Aircraft Carrier From Russia,” RIA Novosti, June 11, 2007.

3. Arms Control Association, “Arms Control and Proliferation Profile: India,” Fact Sheet, November 2007; Sharon Squassoni, “Indian and Pakistani Nuclear Weapons,” CRS Report for Congress, RS21237, February 17, 2005.

4. Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, “India’s Nuclear Forces, 2007,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2007, pp. 74-78.

5. Ken Fireman, “Gates Says U.S.-India Ties to Expand Regardless of Nuclear Deal,” Bloomberg, February 26, 2008.

6. Norris and Kristensen, “India’s Nuclear Forces, 2007,” p. 76.

7. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Nuclear Forces: India 2005,” www.carnegieendowment.org/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=19273&prog=zgp&proj=znpp; Natural Resources Defense Council, “Nuclear Notebook,” July/August 2007.

Charles D. Ferguson is a fellow for science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations. He co-authored The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism (Monterey Institute of International Studies and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, 2004).


1. For a different analysis that reaches similar conclusions, see Raja Menon, “Nuclear Stability, Deterrence and Separation of India’s Civil and Weapon Facilities,” Strategic Analysis, Vol. 29, No. 4 (October-December 2005).

2. Zia Mian et al.,“Plutonium Production in India and the U.S.-India Nuclear Deal,” in Gauging U.S.-Indian Strategic Cooperation, ed. Henry Sokolski (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2007), p. 109.

3. Note that there is a discrepancy between NPCIL and Government of India Planning Commission estimates of the number of foreign-supplied reactors by 2020. The NPCIL cites up to eight 1,000-megawatt reactors from foreign suppliers while the commission cites six of these reactors. The difference is accounted for by the NPCIL’s more ambitious projections of 23,180 megawatts of electricity (including contributions from a few breeder reactors); the commission calls for 20,000 megawatts, which it characterizes as “optimistic.” Government of India Planning Commission, “Integrated Energy Policy: Report of the Expert Committee,” August 2006, p. 47.

4. Ashley J. Tellis, “Atoms for War?: U.S.-Indian Civilian Nuclear Cooperation and India’s Nuclear Arsenal,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2006.

5. David Albright, “India’s Military Plutonium Inventory, End-2004,” Institute for Science and International Security, May 7, 2005.

6. Thomas B. Cochran and Christopher E. Paine, “The Amount of Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium Needed for Pure Fission Nuclear Weapons,” Natural Resources Defense Council, April 13, 1995.

7. The thermal power rating (MWth) specifies the power that is produced by the reactor core. Knowing this number, one can estimate the plutonium production capacity. By contrast, the electric power rating (MWe) tells the electrical power production capacity. Because of energy conversion loses, MWe is always less than MWth.

8. U.S. Department of Energy, “Nonproliferation and Arms Control Assessment of Weapons-Usable Fissile Material Storage and Excess Plutonium Disposition Alternatives,” 1997.

9. George Perkovich, India’s Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999), pp. 428-430.

10. Alexander Glaser and M. V. Ramana, “Weapon-Grade Plutonium Production Potential in the Indian Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor,” Science and Global Security, Vol. 15, No. 2 (2007), pp. 85-105.

11. Mian et al., “Plutonium Production in India and the U.S.-India Nuclear Deal,” p. 115.

Posted: April 1, 2008