May 29, 2024

Re-evaluating India’s Second-Strike Capability: Rethinking India’s Nuclear Doctrine

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By: Sourishree Ghosh, Research Analyst, GSDN

Nuclear submarine: source Internet

Strategic Importance of India’s Second-Strike Capability

The sea-based nuclear weapons in South Asia have received less priority than their land-based counterparts. But, of late, there has been increased proliferation of nuclear submarines which might potentially increase the accidental nuclear escalation and instability in the South Asian region. And for maintaining credible nuclear deterrence, a country needs to have an invulnerable second-strike capability.  The success of a sea-based deterrent also depends on the assurance of an invulnerable second-strike capability. The South Asian nuclear competition for India is characterised by Pakistan on one side and China on the other side. (As popularly called the two-front war of India) India’s national security concerns lay in the strategic (im)balance with China in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and Pakistan’s stability vis-a-vis India as the former maintains Full Spectrum Deterrence (FSD). The submarine-launched ballistic missiles have been considered as the most suitable and survival delivery system as the ocean depths are largely opaque in nature. The possession of the nuclear-powered submarines not only have enhanced endurance but also enhanced India’s tactical and strategic capabilities. One of the conclusions that can be drawn from these concerns is the strategic importance of the nuclear deterrence and how it plays an important role in stabilising the relations between the two countries. One of the reasons for India going nuclear is to maintain a strategic balance of power in South Asia. 

In India’s neighbourhood, only China has SSBNs which had been deployed for “counter-piracy patrols” off the east coast of Africa. In November 2017, India launched the second of four Arihant class submarines and it notably came in a few months post the Doklam standoff. Post the absence of the INS Arihant from its operations, it also became clear that the India-China relations would be less cooperative in nature. This has also pushed India to heavily invest in the nuclear submarines for ensuring the survivability of its deterrent.

The submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) have been the Achilles Heel for India’s nuclear deterrence. Major powers of the world have nuclear powered submarines which are capable of deploying SLBMs well over the range of 5000 kilometres. India has been pursuing K4 missiles with a strike range of 3.500 kilometres. The launch of the submarine nuclear weapons has great strategic significance in the context of achieving a nuclear triad. There is no doubt that these sea-bird underwater nuclear capable assets have also validated India’s nuclear deterrence.  The Agni-5 MIRV (Multiple Independently-Targetable Re-entry Vehicles) missile test also underlines India’s second-strike capability, which has improved India’s nuclear deterrence. The test happened on Abdul Kalam Island in the Bay of Bengal Region, off India’s northeast coast. This is also a step towards self-reliant Bharat. This milestone development has propelled India into the elite group of nuclear powers with MIRV technology.

The timing of these tests is significant given the ongoing border tensions with China and India’s strategic rivalry and tensions with Pakistan. A credible and sustainable second-strike capability also underscores the crucial role of the missiles in India’s national security. The integration of MIRVs into India’s missile arsenal will also significantly alter the region’s strategic balance and increase the complexity of calculations of the adversary’s missile defence. India’s MIRV program will ensure its national security against China’s improved military capabilities. Some analysts point out that this would escalate the risks which would negatively impact the crisis stability in this region. Many also point out that the technological advancements also sometimes supersede strategic doctrinal clarity. Another argument of peace and stability under the Atom can be analysed as the absence of symmetries of power in case of possession of nuclear weapons, which would bring more stabilisation in the region. Moreover, China’s evolving missile defences and Pakistan’s pursuit of MIRV Technology has made it urgent for India to expedite its MIRV missile program. The MIRV missiles can significantly destroy the adversary nation’s second-strike capability. The domestic drivers include India’s MIRV program includes the interplay between civilian oversight of India’s nuclear weapons program and against a minimalist nuclear deterrence posture.

Current Status of India’s Second-Strike Capabilities

Technology gave India an advantage of more flexible deterrence vis-a-vis its two aggressive nuclear powered neighbours – China and Pakistan. India currently has two nuclear powered ballistic submarines (SSBNs), dubbed Advanced Technology Vessels (ATV), namely INS Arihant completed its first deterrence patrol in November 2019. The Indian Government also announced the establishment of the country’s “survivable nuclear triad” which is referred to as the capability of launching nuclear strikes from land, air and sea platforms. The first successful deterrence patrol by INS Arihant also places the country among a league of a few countries that can design, construct and operate Strategic Strike Nuclear Submarines. Moreover, INS Arihant has been the outcome of India’s successful indigenization efforts in the defence sector. There is also a major Research & Development programme in place since 2005. The K15 missiles fitted on INS Arihant have a range of 750 km which is woefully short of hitting China in any significant manner.  The SSBNs provide us with the effective and invulnerable second-strike capability. The range of its nuclear tipped K-15 missiles was just 750 kilometres which was woefully inadequate and only has southern Pakistan regions in its target range. Moreover, the lack of at least three operational submarines does not maintain India’s nuclear deterrence. In case of a nuclear conflict, the highest chances of survivability lie with equipping nuclear-powered submarines with ballistic missiles with provision of sufficient ranges.

India began working on its nuclear submarine program during the 1970s, the development of India’s Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) submarine program began in 1984. The ATV Program aims to achieve quick deep diving, nuclear powered attack submarines. Additionally, the Arihant class submarines are able to remain under water for at least 50 days, thereby decreasing their chances of detection and increasing survivability. Indi’s renewed attention to the submarines can also be attributed to frequent sightings of Chinese submarines that escorted Chinese anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden, however India has dismissed these claims arguing that nuclear submarines are not required for tackling pirate skiffs. The Chinese submarine movements in the IOR have also reduced significantly since October 2017. China’s ‘submarine diplomacy’ including the docking of a SSBN in Sri Lanka and supplying two diesel electric attack submarines to Bangladesh show the increased Chinese influence in the region.

India is currently overhauling its Strategic Forces Command (SFC) known as the Strategic Nuclear Command. In the latest test, its new generation Agni-Prime ballistic Missile has a 2,000-kilometre range which would counter threats from Pakistan. India also tested the canister technology for the first time on Agni-V in 2015 which gives the SFC its required flexibility for swiftly transporting and firing the ballistic missiles from preferable locations. The first two launches of the Agni-V were done using a rail launcher. Since 2015, all the launches have launched from a road-mobile launcher. It has a very short reaction and is highly survivable which gives full teeth to our policy of deterrence, in terms of an assured retaliatory strike capability. The Agni-V was touted as the most formidable missile in India’s arsenal which brought the whole of China into its strike envelope. Another successful development is the Canister Launch technology which will be operationalised across its suite of land-based nuclear delivery systems which encompasses both shorter- and longer-range missiles. This sums up the present status of India’s Second-Strike Capability

Revisiting India’s Nuclear Doctrine with Regard to Second Strike Capability

India’s nuclear policy has evolved over a period of nearly three decades and this was mainly driven by changing external security environments. The testing of the nuclear weapon by China in 1964 was one of the major drivers of India’s nuclear programme. This pursuit of strategic capability was intrinsically linked to India’s security. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968) and the unwelcoming Sino-Pakistan axis which targeted India during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. Moreover, Pakistan is the only nuclear-armed state where the military is in effective control over its nuclear arsenals. If India had not acquired the nuclear weapons, it would have been in the state of strategic vulnerability to nuclear state (nuclear blackmail). So, as some analysts point out that India lacks a strategic culture in its foreign policy, one also needs to consider India’s pressing situation in the past. Since January 2003, India adopts its nuclear doctrine formally at a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) has put in place a triad of land-based, air-delivered and submarine-based nuclear forces and delivery assets to conform to its declared doctrine of ‘No First Use’. India built a command-and-control infrastructure which could survive the first strike and a fully secure and reliable communication system which is hardened against electronic interference. India’s acquisition of nuclear weapons capability also points to the fact that India’s ambition of being an important player in world affairs as well as in achieving self-reliance in the defence sector.

The National Command Authority is in charge and in command of India’s nuclear deterrent. The alternative National Command Authority has access to the radiation hardened and fully secured communication systems including the backup facilities. The very nature of nuclear deterrence as practised by an Indian civilian democracy dictates that the crucial decisions regarding nuclear weapons are taken by the civil leadership, anchoring it in the larger architecture of democratic governance. There are democratic restrains which deter the nation from pursuing an aggressive nuclear buildup. This also, however, established India as a responsible nuclear power in the first place.

India’s effort to build a credible nuclear deterrence has been a secret state affair of the Indian government. In 1999, India’s Draft Nuclear Doctrine underscored the ability to field a credible second-strike capability by providing impetus for India’s quest for acquiring a sea-based deterrent. Therefore, the submarines became an integral component of India’s nuclear policy as well as guarantors of a second-strike. Based on the threat assessments, India is focused on developing its nuclear deterrence. India’s current nuclear policy is based upon the ‘credible minimum deterrence’ which means that India would only develop the nuclear weapons for deterring adversaries. India has no first use policy with regard to the usage of nuclear weapons.

China’s 2019 Defense White Paper also aims at keeping its nuclear capabilities at a minimum level which is required for national security, but this “minimum level” is completely based on China’s threat perception. Moreover, its expansion of nuclear capabilities to match its deterrence capabilities with the United States (popularly called Cold War 2.0) has also increased threat perception of New Delhi. The disparity between China’s successful thermonuclear explosion in 1967 and India’s reported thermonuclear fizzle in 1998 also marks an arena of weakness.

Meanwhile, Pakistan maintains a first use policy of nuclear weapons. The AGNI-V with Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV)  technology and the capability to strike targets at a 5,000 kilometre range has been developed with China. Pakistan maintains a multidimensional security risk to India as the former currently possesses more plutonium production reactors and a larger nuclear arsenal and a more developed nuclear weapons production complex. Another source of limitation on India’s rapid nuclear arsenal expansion is the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement. India’s missile development also indicates its willingness to expand its deterrent capabilities.

The threats at present include China’s expanding nuclear arsenal and uncertainty of India’s thermonuclear capacity which has put India at a strategic disadvantage with regard to missile count and warhead reliability. This unequal relationship has offset the Sino-Indian power symmetry. The scrapping of India’s nuclear doctrine in favour of strategic ambiguity poses serious risks for strategic stability in South Asia and should be the last resort only when India’s own threshold for acceptable risks is crossed. Moreover, there is an asymmetrical balance of the arms race between India and China which has implications for the whole of Southern Asia. Under the current circumstances, New Delhi should not limit efforts for enhancing its deterrent credibility by accelerating warhead acquisition.


One of the complex challenges of achieving Second Strike Capability is the sea leg of nuclear deterrence as an underwater vertical launch system is the most sophisticated and complex weapon as it demands sophistication, speed and accuracy in a twin medium (water as well as atmosphere).

Manpreet Sethi, a nuclear expert for the Centre for Air Power Studies adds that unless the SLBMs (Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles) have a range that can help in the deployment of the submarine out of harm’s way, the vessel would be constrained for deployment. This would make the system a liability more than an asset. Secondly, India faces strategic constraints in strengthening its nuclear deterrent posture vis-a-vis China. These include the economic interdependence on China and China’s relative political and economic advantage.  There are restraints on India’s flexibility and nuclear posturing. In November, 2023, Pakistan also conducted its second test launch of the Ababeel MRBM like the Agni-5 is designed to carry MIRVs with the aim of penetrating India’s new missile defence system.

Secondly, India’s Agni-5 may still have to overcome significant reliability concerns and also raises questions about the effectiveness of India’s nuclear warheads and the country’s capabilities for producing enough fissile material for a MIRV nuclear arsenal. Ashely Tellis in his book “Striking Asymmetries: Nuclear Transitions in South Asia” points out that India’s nuclear warheads small yields are the most significant constraints as the Indian Navy Officers point out that for achieving nuclear deterrence, at least three to four SSBNs are required so that the patrolling continues throughout the year.

One must also remember that sustenance is one of the crucial points of effective deterrence. The UK has the longest sustained military operations ever referred to as the 52 years of Continuous Sea Deterrent (CASD). A total of six SSBNs have been planned for the future as a part of India’s survivable second-strike capability. India is yet to develop those missiles with adequate ranges. Efforts are underway for the development of K4 submarine launched ballistic missiles with a 3500-kilometre range. The need for the long-range submarine launched missiles are also due to the rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific region, wherein India has its high stakes. So, there are major national security reasons for India to have an effective second-strike capability in case of a potential nuclear strife in the region.

To conclude, India should not abandon its current nuclear doctrine. The international community views India as a responsible nuclear power given its moderation in its nuclear build up and NFU (No-First Use). There should be a balancing act between acquisition of nuclear warhead acquisitions in balance with international thresholds will be India’s response given China’s aggressive nuclear build up and border incursions. So, the nuclear threat cannot be ignored at any cost.  Moreover, there should be more focus on improving the civil-military relations in order to build an effective deterrence through credible second-strike capabilities.   


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