India’s Strategic Nuclear and Missile Programmes – A Baseline Study

Click here to access the report –  Alpha in Depth (India) Public Release – final

What is the report?

This ‘Alpha in Depth’ report uses open-source research to identify and characterise entities involved in India’s strategic weapons programme. Relatively little analysis has been conducted since the US normalised relations with India and lifted the majority of sanctions by 2005 – 2008. This report aims to update the record on Indian entities and will be of interest to government and private sector customers dealing with proliferation issues, particularly with regards to sensitive and dual-use items headed for end-users in India.

This baseline study examines the visible activity of 243 entities that have contributed to India’s strategic nuclear and missile programmes as key weapon stakeholders, unsafeguarded nuclear fuel cycle entities, defence supply chain entities, developers of auxiliary systems such as vehicles, and entities conducted dual-use research of concern. In many cases, entities are openly known to be  major stakeholders in strategic weapons programmes. However, this report finds a wider  and deeper network of suppliers and researchers involved in this system. The extent of this network is laid  bare in this report, and includes more than the original list of entities designated as involved in nuclear and missile activities by the US in 1998 – 2001.

The Restricted version of the report includes the full range of entity profiles sorted by Governmental department, major and minor industry suppliers, and entities conducted dual-use research of concern. An accompanying data file in table format provides a collated record of identifying information such as phone numbers, fax numbers, addresses and key individual names.

The Public version of this report includes the key findings, contextual overview, and informational charts.

Why does India warrant examination?

India is a burgeoning, de facto nuclear weapons power which is beginning to achieve force modernisation through a triad of delivery systems (air, ground and sea) designed to deter through assured retaliation.  In line with this, the Indian arsenal has been increasing, and has diversified to utilise highly enriched uranium, previously the product of enrichment facilities serving the civil energy programme and submarine reactor needs. However, there are multiple areas of concern, some of which might destabilise the intended path towards a stable mutually deterrent relationship between India and its neighbours. Furthermore, an acute nuclear crisis in South Asia would see India mobilise its science and technology potential to undergo a new massive expansion of nuclear capabilities (a ‘third breakout’).

What are the key points of this report?

First, India’s unique nuclear status mimics that of a Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) recognised nuclear weapon state. India has a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), permitting trade without requiring it to have NPT membership. India has chosen to selectively engage with international non-proliferation agreements, such as the NSG, whilst eschewing others,  such as the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Continued special treatment threatens to erode the interlinked non-proliferation regime by demonstrating the viability of achieving nuclear weapon state status outside the NPT and the possibility of Indian reintegration without significant concessions.

India’s continued efforts to join the NSG are primarily based on a desire to secure nuclear trade for its ambitious three-stage fuel cycle (which allows them to harness thorium as fuel). Admission to the NSG will necessitate a delicate balancing act between India’s national interest and commercial value of on one hand, and the concerns of India’s neighbours about proliferation and the second-stage of the fuel cycle. The second stage of Fast Breeder Reactors could be utilised to produce plutonium, and goods provided under an NSG membership waiver could enable India to pursue nuclear proliferation.

Second, India’s strategic weapons complex has the potential to push India’s nuclear capabilities to a full spectrum of weapon systems. India has so far focused on the establishment and enhancement of its ground and sea-based delivery systems:  the construction of four nuclear-powered ballistic submarines for continuous at-sea deterrent and ground-based intercontinental range capable missiles. Beyond this, this report highlights that India’s strategic weapons complex has explored and developed additional weapons systems that could be made nuclear-capable should there be political will. Historically, periods of capability breakout occurred around India’s milestone nuclear tests (1974 and 1998). In such instances, the initiative of the strategic weapons complex in developing ‘technology demonstrators’ (science feasibility projects that scale-up to a potential system), has pre-empted political decision making to adopt such technologies as military capabilities. The development pathway of the Agni is one such example wherein the decision to adopt ground-based long-range missiles as a nuclear delivery system was taken after scientists had demonstrated the feasibility of an indigenous nuclear‑capable ballistic missile, rather than the science and technology sector being directed by decision making authority.

The process of Indian science developments taking the lead over policy direction is why India’s technological latency should raise concerns. Beyond the establishment and further enhancement of India’s existing triad capabilities, new technologies developed into  capabilities in line with the capabilities of major nuclear weapons powers would allow India to drift towards a ‘maximalist’ nuclear arsenal utilising both tactical and strategic nuclear weapons in a graduated escalation posture. For example, air-launched supersonic/hypersonic cruise missiles, tipped with low-yield nuclear warheads, and coupled with new fifth generation fighter aircraft  could be considered by Indian policy makers in the near future as a means to conclusively end conventional conflict. India’s commitment to ‘No First Use’ and to a maximum retaliation-only posture would be eroded by these new possible capabilities.

This report also highlights the possible erosion of political control of the nuclear arsenal. Generally, the Indian interpretation of a nuclear weapon includes the mating of the fissile material pit with the warhead and delivery system itself .Traditionally, India’s nuclear weapons have been kept de-mated and under the control of different bodies, necessitating an inter-agency system commanded firmly by a political body (the Nuclear Command Authority chaired by the Prime Minister) to assemble and deploy the nuclear arsenal. The Agni V intercontinental range capable ballistic missile is pre-mated in the same manner as the pre-mated ballistic missiles used on-board Arihant-class SSBNs. This will have a significant impact on nuclear policy and command and control

Third, India’s scientific complexes (nuclear, missile, and space) are poorly separated. The nuclear programme in India has been partially submitted to international safeguards, but this remains limited and allows India to exercise de facto nuclear weapons state privileges regarding the production of special fissile material. India has invested in new special fissile material production facilities. This large unsafeguarded nuclear fuel cycle encompasses a number of entities performing dual civil and military functions.

India’s space programme is dedicated to civil and peaceful purposes, and for the most part this remains the case. Instances of historical technology transfer from civil rocketry to military missile programmes is perhaps no longer an active concern as  missile programmes are self-sustaining and have achieved key milestones. An inverse technology flow, from military to civilian sector, remains a possibility. Military and civil scientists and engineers continue to meet discreetly in forums and conferences, which should raise concerns about cross-field blurring. Domestic students and international guests are frequent attendees and these science and technology spaces are a proliferation risk.

Fourth, poor separation in these strategic sectors should sharpen the need for tight export controls on intangible transfers and tangible trade to India. Whilst end-user monitoring agreements are in effect for some entities, this report drives forward the imperative for sensitive industries to adopt ‘Know Your Customer’ best practices. This report highlights the complex relationships of India’s domestic technological base, and provides information on the degree of complicity to the nuclear weapons programme.

Fifth, Indian entities are at onward-proliferation risk. The potential danger lies with the re/export of sensitive items and knowledge out of India to foreign powers. The domestic industry supplying India’s  strategic weapons complex and the country’s nuclear programme have reached sufficient technical maturity to export expertise and tangible nuclear and missile-related goods. The Indian government’s support for its domestic industry in the face of international sanctions and technology denial has continued since the normalisation of trade relations in 2008. A science and technology culture of self-reliance and import substitution has formed, and although India’s strategic sectors remain reliant on imports, the balance of domestic supplied goods and foreign imports will tend towards domestic provisions in the coming years. This is one compelling reason why drawing India into firm non-proliferation commitments would enhance international security for the longer term. India has taken strong steps towards implementing a control list (SCOMET), synchronising it with key control regimes, and adopting best practices for businesses; this effort must be sustained.

In sum, greater care and attention needs to be paid to the current issues with India’s nuclear power while also anticipating a future shift in India’s capabilities. Looking forward, there remains room for India to be drawn into firm non-proliferation compliance.