20 years after the Shakti tests
India became a nuclear-armed state—albeit covertly—most likely in 1985-86, more than a decade before the Shakti test, during the early tenure of Rajiv Gandhi’s premiership
The five nuclear tests conducted at Pokhran on 11 and 13 May 1998 were not the first—nor did they make India a nuclear-armed state. India’s first test was conducted on 18 May 1974—twenty-four years before the Shakti tests; its 40th anniversary in the same month that Narendra Modi became prime minister went practically unnoticed.
India became a nuclear-armed state—albeit covertly—most likely in 1985-86, more than a decade before the Shakti test, during the early tenure of Rajiv Gandhi’s premiership. Indeed, at least one of the weapons tested in 1998 was of 1980s vintage.
Yet, the Shakti tests were epochal for many reasons. First, India deliberately and overtly crossed the Rubicon by declaring itself a nuclear weapon state. Second, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s letter to US President Bill Clinton categorically identified China as the primary and Pakistan (which received crucial nuclear weapon technology and material) as the secondary nuclear threat. Third, in the wake of the Shakti tests India released a draft nuclear doctrine in 1999.
Although this first doctrine was full of contradictions, India’s second iteration in 2003, coupled with the establishment of the tri-service Strategic Forces Command (SFC) in 2008 was somewhat more credible. The doctrine elaborated the role of these weapons and made a qualified “no-first use” commitment.
The SFC allowed for closer operational integration between defence and nuclear scientists, and the armed forces, who would eventually have to deploy these weapons.
Twenty years after the 1998 tests, India’s calculated gamble of proclaiming itself a nuclear weapon state has paid off. Today India is recognized as a de facto state with nuclear weapons if not a de jure nuclear weapon state (which according to the 1970 Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, is a country that “detonated a nuclear explosive device prior to 1 January 1967”). This is evident in the bilateral nuclear agreements between India and all the NPT nuclear weapon states (US, Russia, Britain, and France), except China, and membership of various informal non-proliferation groups, such as the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Wassenaar Arrangement.
However, this recognition was significantly driven by India’s growing global economic and political clout; India is the only non-NPT member of the G20 countries. Had India not emerged among the top 10 nations in terms of GDP, this nuclear recognition would have been doubtful.
Similarly, while Vajpayee was criticized for specifying the China-Pakistan threat in 1998, this was a crucial harbinger of the unfolding geopolitics, in terms of the US-India strategic partnership and their contestation with the China-Pakistan axis.
Indeed, a resurgent China under Xi Jinping, coupled with a rudderless US led by Donald Trump, has prompted the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the US. India’s nuclear prowess—once considered a liability—is now seen as a vital asset for the Quad.
Moreover, while the exponential growth of India’s nuclear capabilities in the last two decades has led some to describe it as the fastest growing arsenal, in reality the development lags behind China and Pakistan. For instance, India has yet to field an entirely reliable hydrogen bomb.
In contrast, North Korea’s successful hydrogen bomb test last year had an estimated yield of between 100 to 250 kilotons. Additionally, while in theory India now possesses a nuclear triad—air, land, and sea deliverable nuclear weapons—in reality the sea leg is still a technology demonstrator and India’s “boomer”, INS Arihant, has faced numerous operational problems. Along with the arsenal India’s nuclear doctrine also needs to be updated.
Finally, India faces two additional serious nuclear challenges. First, while most deterrence relations are based on a dyad, India has to contend with a triad involving China and Pakistan. Second, Pakistan’s dangerous posture of using its nuclear cover to launch sub-conventional cross-border attacks, such as the devastating one on Mumbai in 2008 and other more recent ones, is extremely escalatory.
So far India has not found an entirely satisfactory response. Hopefully, New Delhi will be able to prevent and, if necessary, respond against such attacks before the 25th anniversary of the Shakti tests.
W.P.S. Sidhu is professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
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