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Nuclear Weapons


India's nuclear weapons program was started at the Bhabha Atomic Research Center in Trombay. In the mid-1950s India acquired dual-use technologies under the "Atoms for Peace" non-proliferation program, which aimed to encourage the civil use of nuclear technologies in exchange for assurances that they would not be used for military purposes. There was little evidence in the 1950s that India had any interest in a nuclear weapons program, according to Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (1). Under the "Atoms for Peace" program, India acquired a Cirus 40 MWt heavy-water-moderated research reactor from Canada and purchased from the U.S. the heavy water required for its operation. In 1964, India commissioned a reprocessing facility at Trombay, which was used to separate out the plutonium produced by the Cirus research reactor. This plutonium was used in India's first nuclear test on May 18, 1974, described by the Indian government as a "peaceful nuclear explosion."

According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, India began work on a thermonuclear weapon in the 1980s. In 1989, William H. Webster, director of the CIA, testified before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee that "indicators that tell us India is interested in thermonuclear weapons capability." India was purifying lithium, producing tritium and separating lithium isotopes. India had also obtained pure beryllium metal from West Germany (2).


After 24 years without testing India resumed nuclear testing with a series of nuclear explosions known as "Operation Shatki." Prime Minister Vajpayee authorized the tests on April 8, 1998, two days after the Ghauri missile test-firing in Pakistan.

On May 11, 1998, India tested three devices at the Pokhran underground testing site, followed by two more tests on May 13, 1998. The nuclear tests carried out at 3:45 pm on May 11th were claimed by the Indian government to be a simultaneous detonation of three different devices - a fission device with a yield of about 12 kilotons (KT), a thermonuclear device with a yield of about 43 KT, and a sub-kiloton device. The two tests carried out at 12:21 pm on May 13th were also detonated simultaneously with reported yields in the range of 0.2 to 0.6 KT.

However, there is some controversy about these claims. Based on seismic data, U.S. government sources and independent experts estimated the yield of the so-called thermonuclear test in the range of 12-25 kilotons, as opposed to the 43-60 kiloton yield claimed by India. This lower yield raised skepticism about India's claims to have detonated a thermonuclear device.

Observers initially suggested that the test could have been a boosted fission device, rather than a true multi-stage thermonuclear device. By late 1998 analysts at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory had concluded that the India had attempted to detonate a thermonuclear device, but that the second stage of the two-stage bomb failed to ignite as planned.

Fission device   18 May 1974 12-15 kiloton 4-6 kiloton
Shakti 1 Thermonuclear device   11 May 1998 43-60 kiloton 12-25 kiloton
Shakti 2 Fission device 11 May 1998 12 kiloton ??
Shakti 3 Low-yield device 11 May 1998 0.2 kiloton low
Shakti 4 Low-yield device 13 May 1998 0.5 kiloton low
Shakti 5 Low-yield device 13 May 1998 0.3 kiloton low

India's Nuclear Arsenal

Though India has not made any official statements about the size of it nuclear arsenal, the NRDC estimates that India has a stockpile of approximately 30-35 nuclear warheads and claims that India is producing additional nuclear materials. Joseph Cirincione at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (3) estimates that India has produced enough weapons-grade plutonium for 50-90 nuclear weapons and a smaller but unknown quantity of weapons-grade uranium. Weapons-grade plutonium production takes place at the Bhabha Atomic Research Center, which is home to the Cirus reactor acquired from Canada, to the indigenous Dhruva reactor, and to a plutonium separation facility.

According to a Jan. 2001 Department of Defense report, "India probably has a small stockpile of nuclear weapon components and could assemble and deploy a few nuclear weapons within a few days to a week." A 2001 RAND study by Ashley Tellis asserts that India does not have or seek to deploy a ready nuclear arsenal.

According to a report in Jane's Intelligence Review (4), India's objective is to have a nuclear arsenal that is "strategically active but operationally dormant", which would allow India to maintain its retaliatory capability "within a matter of hours to weeks, while simultaneously exhibiting restraint." However, the report also maintains that, in the future, India may face increasing institutional pressure to shift its nuclear arsenal to a fully deployed status.


India has a declared nuclear no-first-use policy and is in the process of developing a nuclear doctrine based on "credible minimum deterrence." In August 1999, the Indian government released a draft of the doctrine which asserts that nuclear weapons are solely for deterrence and that India will pursue a policy of "retaliation only." The document also maintains that India "will not be the first to initiate a nuclear first strike, but will respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail" and that decisions to authorize the use of nuclear weapons would be made by the Prime Minister or his 'designated successor(s).'"

According to the NRDC, despite the escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan in 2001-2002, India remains committed to its nuclear no-first-use policy. But an Indian foreign ministry official told Defense News in 2000 that a "'no-first-strike' policy does not mean India will not have a first-strike capability."

India has not signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) or the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). India is a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and four of its 13 nuclear reactors are subject to IAEA safeguards.

Despite promoting a test ban treaty for decades, India voted against the UN General Assembly resolution endorsing the CTBT, which was adopted on September 10, 1996. India objected to the lack of provision for universal nuclear disarmament "within a time-bound framework." India also demanded that the treaty ban laboratory simulations. In addition, India opposed the provision in Article XIV of the CTBT that requires India's ratification for the treaty to enter into force, which India argued was a violation of its sovereign right to choose whether it would sign the treaty. In early February 1997, Foreign Minister Gujral reiterated India's opposition to the treaty, saying that "India favors any step aimed at destroying nuclear weapons, but considers that the treaty in its current form is not comprehensive and bans only certain types of tests."

Sources and Resources


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Maintained by the Strategic Security Project
Updated Friday, November 8, 2002 2:48:14 PM