India Moves Closer to Nuclear Triad

Kelsey Davenport

India announced the successful development of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) in July, bringing the country one step closer to completing the strategic nuclear triad, which also includes the ability to deliver warheads via land-based missiles and bombers.

On July 31, at a yearly awards ceremony for the defense sector, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh presented an award to A.K. Chakrabarti of India’s Defence Research and Development Laboratory for the “successful development” of India’s first SLBM system. India has been working on producing its first SLBM, the K-15, for a number of years, conducting the first undersea trial of the weapon in February 2008, although tests of components probably began much earlier. (See ACT, April 2008.)

The K-15 has a range of at least 290 kilometers and can carry a 1,000-kilogram payload, according to a 2009 report by the U.S. Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center. Media accounts from the 2008 test place the range closer to 750 kilometers.

Only four other countries—China, France, Russia, and the United States—have the capability to produce SLBMs. Although the United Kingdom deploys such missiles, they are produced in the United States.

The K-15 is likely to require further testing before becoming fully operational, according to Indian defense officials. The missile has been tested from submerged vessels, but not from the nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines that India is developing as a delivery platform for its sea-based deterrent. The ballistic missile submarines have been subject to numerous delays, but according to a May 8 statement by Defense Minister A.K. Antony, the first in the fleet of at least three submarines should go into service by mid-2013.

A week after the K-15 announcement, in an Aug. 7 speech marking his retirement, Adm. Nirmal Verma, India’s chief of naval staff, said that the Indian navy is “poised to complete the triad” and that the first submarine platform for the K-15, the INS Arihant, will “commence sea trials in the coming months.”

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In a June 25 speech, Verma had said a sea-based deterrent that is “credible and invulnerable is an imperative” for India, given New Delhi’s no-first-use commitment. New Delhi’s ability to deploy SLBMs will align India’s naval capabilities with its nuclear doctrine, according to Verma. In a 1999 publicly released draft of its nuclear doctrine, New Delhi stated its intention to develop a “triad of aircraft, mobile land-based missiles and sea-based assets” and said it required “sufficient, survivable, and operationally prepared nuclear forces” for deterrence.

Indian, Pakistani, and U.S. experts are concerned that India’s pursuit of the triad could lead Pakistan to develop its own SLBM capability. Abhijit Singh, a research fellow at New Delhi’s National Maritime Foundation, argued in a June 29 article that the expansion of India’s navy has “become an excuse” for Pakistan to expand its own capabilities to include naval nuclear missiles.

Although Pakistan did not respond to India’s announcement on the K-15, Adm. Asif Sandila, Pakistan’s chief of naval staff, said in a Feb. 20 interview with Defense News that the “nuclearization of the Indian Ocean” would not contribute to regional stability and that Pakistan would be taking “necessary measures to restore the strategic balance.” In a May 19 press release, Sandila announced the establishment of Pakistan’s Naval Strategic Force Command, which he said would oversee a sea-based second-strike capability that will “ensure regional stability.”

India already possesses the capabilities to deliver nuclear warheads using land-based missiles and bombers (fig. 1).

New Delhi is working to improve the range and accuracy of its nuclear-capable land-based missiles, which currently comprise primarily the short-range Prithvi-1 and Agni-1 systems. India has deployed two medium-range solid-fueled missiles, the Agni-2 and the Agni-3, although some experts question whether both systems are fully operational. The Agni-2, which has a 2,000-kilometer range, was tested successfully Aug. 9. According to a Defence Ministry statement, all systems “functioned fully.” The Agni-3 was last tested in February 2010.

India also is developing longer-range systems and successfully tested the Agni-5 on April 19. This three-stage solid-fueled ballistic missile has a tested range of 5,000 kilometers. Under the most commonly used classification system, 5,500 kilometers is the dividing line between intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The Indian air force is believed to have three types of bombers capable of flying nuclear missions. In January, the Indian government announced it would be buying a fourth type of nuclear-capable fighter plane, the Rafale, from France.