Author : Manoj Joshi

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jun 21, 2024 Updated 3 Days ago

The latest SIPRI report indicates the concerning trend of modernisation and growth of arsenals across the globe.

Rising global nuclear arsenals and the call for strategic stability

The release of the 2024 Yearbook of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has been widely reported in India but for the wrong reasons. Its chapter on the increase in the types and numbers of nuclear weapons says that it estimates that the Indian nuclear arsenal is now larger than that of Pakistan, i.e., at 172 warheads, it is ahead by just two weapons. 

What needs real attention is the report’s observation that there has been a continuing modernisation and growth of arsenals across the globe. There has been a steady increase in nuclear rhetoric by Russia and NATO. The Russians have been rattling the nuclear sabre for a while, and now NATO says that it may need to take out nuclear weapons for storage and put them on standby. 

Far more important for India, though is the revelation that perhaps the sharpest growth in both quality and numbers has been in China. Although the Chinese arsenal is smaller than that of the United States (US) and Russia, it is now nearly three times the size of the Indian one.  

Nuclear forces of select countries January 2024

Deployed warheads

Stored warheads

Military stockpile

Total 

United States

1,770

1,938

3,708 (retired 1,336)

5,044

Russia

1,710

2,670

4,380 retired 1,200)

5,500

China

24

476

500

500

India

-

172

172

172

Pakistan

-

170

170

170

Source: SIPRI Yearbook 2024 p.272

SIPRI’s estimate of China’s nuclear arsenal has increased from 410 warheads in January 2023 to 500 in January 2024 and “is expected to keep growing.” China may also now be actually deploying some two dozen warheads on missiles on operational alert at all times. Most of the Chinese warheads, including all of those from Pakistan and India, are stored in a controlled environment. 

India’s arsenal

India’s arsenal increased from 164 in 2023 to 172, representing a slight increase that has given it the two-warhead advantage over Pakistan. India’s main effort seems to be to develop longer-range and more capable missiles targeting China.

India’s arsenal increased from 164 in 2023 to 172, representing a slight increase that has given it the two-warhead advantage over Pakistan. India's main effort seems to be to develop longer-range and more capable missiles targeting China.

On 11 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced India’s entry into a club of the few countries capable of delivering multiple nuclear warheads on a single missile through the multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle technology (MIRV). This was accomplished with the maiden test flight of Agni-V, India’s longest-range ballistic missile with a range of more than 5,000 km. 

The Indian arsenal, according to SIPRI, remains in storage, whether it is also “de-mated where the warhead and the fissile material may be kept separate, is not clear. But this may only be a temporary measure as India is also developing canisterised missiles like the Agni-P where the entire missile and warhead are stored in a canister, ready for launch. But de-mating has been used by countries like India to maintain political control over the nuclear arsenal, so whether India actually decides to possess ready-to-fire deployments remains to be seen. 

This has special relevance to the sea leg of the nuclear triad. Recall that it was in November 2018, that India formally declared its nuclear triad operational, after the country’s first ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), INS Arihant, completed its first deterrence patrol. This would mean Arihant has begun patrols at sea carrying ballistic missiles equipped with nuclear warheads.

The de-mating strategy of control cannot work with a nuclear-powered missile out at sea which when submerged is difficult to communicate with. It must have ready-to-use missiles at all times, and there needs to be pre-delegation of launch authority to the captain and/or the executive officer. 

The Indian nuclear weapons doctrine revealed through a press release in 2003 calls for a “credible minimum deterrent” with a commitment of no first use. Indian weapons will only be employed in retaliation against a nuclear, chemical or biological weapons attack on Indian territory or forces. “Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.” 

Over the years, issues have been raised over the credibility of the “no-first use” pledge. Many believe that the capabilities it was developing and the statements by its officials suggested that India was moving away from NFU. In 2014, shortly after his appointment, National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, suggested at the Munich Security Conference that India was shifting its posture from “credible minimum deterrent” to simply “credible deterrent.”

But 10 years down the line, it would appear that India’s arsenal remains a small one and is still at a stage where it is impractical for India to adopt what nuclear theorists term as a “counter-force” strategy, of targeting military and economic targets only. 

In short, the threat of “massive retaliation” remains central to the Indian doctrine. 

China: A growing concern for India

The biggest concern to India is the development of the Chinese arsenal and a possible shift away from its “minimum deterrence” and “no first use” posture. In recent years, the world has been intrigued by satellite images showing hundreds of missile silos being constructed by China in two areas of northern China.
In their assessment of the Chinese arsenal in January 2024, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists noted that the modernisation of the Chinese nuclear arsenal has “both accelerated and expanded in recent years.” 

Their estimate is that China has produced a stockpile of approximately 440 nuclear warheads for delivery by land-based and sea-based missiles and bombers, as well as 60 more warheads, have been produced and more are in production to arm additional road-mobile and silo-based missiles. 

China has reiterated its “no first use” policy in a 2023 statement and said that its arsenal is at a minimum level needed for self-defence. Further, it asserted that it will not use nuclear weapons or threaten to use them against non-nuclear weapons states. Also, it will not get involved in any nuclear arms race. However, the report notes that China has not quite clarified as to what “minimum” capability is, or what constitutes an “arms race.” 

There is a problem for India here. In 2010, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists estimated that China had some 175 warheads for ballistic missiles, submarine-launched missiles and bombers. In 2015, they estimated Indian nuclear forces to have nearly 118 warheads for bombers and ballistic missiles with some warheads fabricated for submarine launch.   

The Chinese are now headed towards an even larger arsenal, perhaps 1,000 warheads. This could easily overwhelm any Indian capability. That is taking into account the various other systems like cyber and electronic warfare and anti-ballistic missiles and possibly conventional ballistic missile attacks on Indian ballistic missile storage areas and silos as well as the fact of the India-oriented Pakistani arsenal. 

The Chinese are now headed towards an even larger arsenal, perhaps 1,000 warheads. This could easily overwhelm any Indian capability.

Even this could have been handled had India not faced another problem—the failure of our thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb test in 1998. Three or four thermonuclear weapons can devastate a large city but they must have energy yields of 100-200 kilotons. The 1998 Indian tests a thermonuclear device whose yield could go up to 200 kT, but as we noted, it failed. Another orthodox device with a yield of 12 kT was successful, as well as several experimental devices, including a boosted fission weapon     

With the increased arsenal, there are worries about a surprise attack that could leave India defenceless. 

“MIRVing” is a partial solution, since it increases the chances of warheads getting through to their targets. Second, MIRVs would ensure that India can deliver sufficient firepower to destroy a target, in other words, five warheads could make up for the lack of a single thermonuclear bomb. 

A fuller solution is for India to expand its arsenal whose basic delivery system against China will be MIRV missiles. They should have sufficient numbers to deter China by convincing it that no “bolt from the blue” strike will work. 

A fuller solution is for India to expand its arsenal whose basic delivery system against China will be MIRV missiles. They should have sufficient numbers to deter China by convincing it that no “bolt from the blue” strike will work. 

But an Indian expansion will almost certainly lead to an expansion of the Pakistani one. There is, therefore, a need to think of restricting nuclear weapons on a global scale. Although the US and Russia have reduced their weapons drastically, their arsenals are still 10 times the current Chinese estimate. And the process of further reduction seems to have come to a standstill. 

A way forward

The way out is global negotiations which would seek to define a concept of “minimum deterrence”— which essentially means “unacceptable damage” to the attackers' civil and national infrastructure—thus promoting strategic stability rather than destabilising it as the present situation seems to be doing. 

This would require multilateral conversations on arriving at answers to just what a country would want of its arsenal and then seeking to address those issues. The issues here are not easy; some countries have single adversaries, others multiple. 

It is possible to think of setting upper limits on arsenals at between 500-1000 warheads. This, however, may be something that only the big powers would seek, the smaller ones like Israel, France, the United Kingdom, North Korea, and Pakistan may be satisfied with smaller numbers. But if we can sharply bring down the higher numbers, we could begin a process that could lead to a lowering of arsenals around the world over a period of time. 


Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

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Author

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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