Hans M Kristensen, top nuclear scientist, speaks at length on ‘India’s Nuclear Forces 2020 and ahead’

New Delhi: India’s nuclear doctrine and its strategic force posture have been evolving with a rapidly changing threat environment as perceived by New Delhi. Questions of targeting and no-first-use policy are now being discussed more critically with rising belligerence from China. While Indian nuclear posture has traditionally been geared towards handling Pakistan, according to a new research, there are indications that India is now focusing more on managing threats from China and as such, strengthening its ability to bring entire Chinese territory within its nuclear strike range. Inducting deep strike capable fighters, longer-range ballistic missiles and sea-based ballistic missiles (SSBNs) are indicative of this trend. Such increased delivery capability, incidentally, also has implications for India’s nuclear dynamics with Pakistan, by widening the nuclear power gap between New Delhi and Islamabad. Agni V missiles and Rafale jets will be game changer for India’s new defence strength, hints a latest report authored by Hans M. Kristensen, Director of the Nuclear Information Project in the Federation of American Scientists. In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Guardian, the top nuclear scientist spoke at length on “India’s Nuclear Forces 2020 and ahead”. Excerpts:

Q: Your research paper, “India’s Nuclear Forces 2020”, conveys strongly the point that India is out to re-strategise its nuclear arsenal and thrust. What are the compelling needs and what has India done to realise the new nuclear capacity it wants to build on?

A: The point we’re making in the paper is not that there is a major shift in India’s nuclear strategy, but that its capabilities are evolving to bring all of China within reach for the first time. We’re not assessing what India should or should not do but simply describing its nuclear posture to the extent we can. The reality is that the focus of India’s current missile development is range—to have enough range to hold targets at risk throughout China. Agni III has this capability if launched from the very north-eastern part of India. Agni IV will give more flexibility, but not until Agni V becomes operational and deployed will India be able to overcome the geographical constraints and allow it to base its missile force further back from the Chinese border.

Q: Will Agni missile mission be the game-changer for India in countering China?

A: India can already hold many Chinese cities and military bases at risk with its nuclear forces, so to that extent I don’t think Agni V will necessarily be a “game changer”. That said, Agni V will enable India to hold targets at risk throughout China—not least the leadership in Beijing—and allow Indian planners to base the missiles further back from the Chinese border. How that will affect Chinese thinking and planning is difficult to predict not least because China already has the capability to target facilities throughout India.

Q: The emerging geo-political dynamics wants India to be a major player in the new defence and security churning, the epicentre of which is the Indo-Pacific region. As a nuclear and security expert, how do you see this panning out for India?

A: For the foreseeable future, India’s strategic (I’m not a general military expert so I’ll focus this answer on the nuclear issue) influence will almost entirely be Pakistan and China. But longer-range capabilities such as the Agni V will also bring other nuclear-armed states within reach: Russia, Israel, part of NATO. Although there’s no indication that India would include those areas in its nuclear strategy, it can potentially influence how those countries view security issues involving India. It can also influence how those countries describe the outlook their nuclear planning has to take into account.

Q: Your research paper specifically mentions India’s steady change in its nuclear thrust towards China and not Pakistan anymore. Is this strategic shift since Doklam or further triggered by the recent LAC (border) standoff with Beijing?

A: The evolution of India’s current and foreseeable arsenal we’re describing is neither recent nor in response to Doklam, but has much deeper roots and is part of a general strategic modernisation to build a Triad that can cover both Pakistan and China. The nuclear strategy and capabilities can certainly be influenced by such border disputes, not least if India concludes that such incidents mean its potential nuclear adversaries are going to be more aggressive or provocative in the future. In the short term, however, I suspect the border disputes will more directly influence India’s conventional military planning.

Q: The recent LAC clash with Chinese forces proved one point that India is no more the country of 1962. How do western experts see India’s tough resolve?

A: My impression is that Western defence experts saw both China and India playing tough and that this will influence how the two countries behave from now on and how they plan their military posturing along the border. While each side saw itself as standing up to the other, the bigger picture is that both sides have ramped up activities and that this will affect the future security situation along the border.

Q: How far the comprehensive security and defence partnership, including in maritime security, between the US and India will be a factor in boosting India’s new nuclear armoury?

A: The US security assistance is focused on non-nuclear issues. The United States is not interested in supporting a further nuclear build-up of countries in the region. The US sees India as a growing nuclear power in the region that can influence the US nuclear relationship with China, which is currently a major and increasing factor in US military and nuclear planning. The US is concerned about the Chinese military modernisation and it is concerned that an increasing Chinese-India military competition will result in additional increases in both countries’ nuclear arsenals, which could further destabilise the region.

Q: You have listed in detail about India’s nuclear forces in operation and some in the production stage. To reach the level India is aspiring, how much more is required from New Delhi? What could be the critical forces to give India an edge in ensuring security and countering threat from China?

A: The Indian government hasn’t described how much is enough. For national security, nuclear capabilities are probably more important than numbers. The main driver of India’s nuclear modernisation is to ensure it has a force that is capable of responding to a nuclear attack and cannot be decapitated in a surprise first strike. That is the only role that nuclear weapons can realistically serve. Short of that strategic objective, it becomes an endless game of justifying more and better capabilities for limited scenarios and war-fighting that can actually undermine national security. This was one of the important lessons of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Q: Will the Rafale jets be a factor to boost India’s defence status and its strength in Asia, including against China?

A: Yes. The Rafale is a very capable aircraft. If India equips it to carry nuclear bombs, it will represent an increased strike capability in the air-leg of the nuclear Triad.

Q: India has managed well so far between the US and Russia when it comes to defence buying. How do you see this going out for India? Do you see India’s reliance on Russia as a strategic tactic to keep Kremlin neutral against China?

A: India has always based its defence acquisition on a number of countries: Britain, Russia, France, US. It will probably continue to do so. I do not see Indian reliance on Russian equipment as an effort to keep Russia “neutral against China”. Russia has its own historical reasons for the relationship it has with China, and these days those factors are more dominated by an interest in teaming up with Beijing against Washington.

Q: India’s sea strength, both in missiles and ammunition, need a stronger push and capacity building, particularly if India is focusing on China. Your comments?

A: India has long been the most powerful local military in the Indian Ocean. After the Soviet Union disintegrated, the Russian presence disappeared and the US (and to a smaller extent Britain and France) was the major foreign power. With its growing general military capabilities and increasing foreign affairs activities in the Middle East and Africa, China’s presence in the India Ocean is increasing and will likely increase further. As such, we’re seeing efforts to strengthen India’s presence in the area and beef up its military capabilities. It remains to be seen, however, whether—or to what extent—New Delhi has the appetite or capacity to significantly increase its military presence in the Indian Ocean. As such, it may end up relying more on partnering with the United States.