NEW DELHI: China continues to rapidly expand its nuclear weapons arsenal, as does Pakistan albeit slowly, but India remains confident of its strategic deterrence capabilities with induction of new-generation Agni ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable Rafale fighter jets.
China now has 410 nuclear warheads, up from 350 in January 2022, while Pakistan has 170 and India 164, as per the latest assessment of the Stockholm International Peace Institute (SIPRI) released on Monday.
“Depending on how it decides to structure its forces, China could potentially have at least as many intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) as either the US or Russia by the turn of the decade,” it said.The Pentagon’s latest report on China’s military capabilities has also warned that the country will field a stockpile of about 1,500 warheads by 2035 if it continues with the ongoing acceleration in its nuclear programme.
The SIPRI report said both India and Pakistan also appear to be expanding their nuclear arsenals, with the two introducing and continuing to develop new types of delivery systems in the shape of missiles.
“While Pakistan remains the main focus of India’s nuclear deterrent, India appears to be placing growing emphasis on longer-range weapons, including those capable of reaching targets across China,” it said.
Overall, all the nine nuclear-armed states continue to modernize their nuclear arsenals. Russia and the USA, of course, together possess 90% of the global inventory of an estimated 12,512 nuclear warheads. The numbers are Russia (5,889), US (5,244), France (290), UK (225), Israel (90) and North Korea (30), as per SIPRI.
Nuclear deterrence, of course, cannot be reduced to simplistic counting of the number of warheads, which themselves are just estimates, though well-informed ones, because countries keep them closely-guarded.
With long unresolved “active” borders with both China and Pakistan, which are expanding their nuclear arsenals, India needs robust and assured “second-strike capabilities” in keeping with its declared policy of “no first-use” of nuclear weapons.
India has been taking steps to consolidate its nuclear delivery systems, especially the Agni series of ballistic missiles. Just last week, the first “pre-induction night launch” of the new-generation Agni-Prime, which has a strike range from 1,000 to 2,000-km, was undertaken by the Strategic Forces Command (SFC).
The two-stage, solid propellant fuelled Agni-Prime is the smallest and lightest among all Agni missiles. Crucially, it is also a canister-launch system like the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the over 5,000-km Agni-V, which is now in the process of being inducted by the SFC.
A canister-launch missile — with the warhead already mated with the missile — gives the armed forces the requisite operational flexibility to store it for long periods, swiftly transport it through rail or road when required, and fire it from wherever they want.
The Agni-Prime will gradually replace the Agni-I (700-km) missiles in the arsenal of SFC, which also has the Prithvi-II (350-km), Agni-II (2,000-km), Agni-III (3,000-km) and Agni-4 (4,000-km) ballistic missiles.
The third leg of the “nuclear triad”, however, remains a major concern. India currently has only one fully-operational nuclear-powered submarine armed with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, called a SSBN in naval parlance, in INS Arihant. Moreover, it’s armed only with the 750-km range K-15 nuclear missiles. In contrast, countries like the US, Russia and China have a fleet of much larger SSBNs armed with well over 5,000-km range missiles.

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