In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many academics, think tank analysts, journalists, and government officials came to perceive India as a de facto nuclear weapons power. The consensus among U.S. policymakers was that normative, rather than technical or organizational hurdles, prevented India from transforming its latent nuclear capability into an operational one. New evidence shows, however, that India lacked technical means to deliver nuclear weapons reliably and safely until 1994–95. Further, until the outbreak of the Kargil War in the summer of 1999, political leaders refrained from embedding the weapons within organizational and procedural routines that would have rendered them operational in the military sense of the term. These deficiencies can be traced to a regime of secrecy that prevented information sharing and coordination among the relevant actors. This secrecy stemmed from risk aversion among Indian decisionmakers, who feared international pressures for nuclear rollback, particularly from the United States.


Having a nuclear device is not the same as having an operational nuclear capability. It can take a long time to weaponize, which is the process of building compact reliable rugged weapons and mating them with delivery vehicles. Unlike first-tier nuclear weapon powers, recent nuclear weapon powers are taking much longer. For example, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (P5) took up to two years to make the transition from exploding a test device to building weaponized versions of them. In comparison the process of weaponization in South Africa, India, and Pakistan took eight, fifteen and ten years, a nearly twenty-eight-fold increase on average.

It is also uncertain whether states that build prototype test devices succeed in weaponizing them. For example, seven years after North Korea's first nuclear test, the quality and reliability of its deliverable weapons remains uncertain.1 Likewise, the gap in operational capabilities (i.e., the soft institutional, organizational, and training routines essential to using military hardware instrumentally) has increased severalfold between the pre- and post-Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) nuclear weapon powers.2 Whereas it took the P5 on average five months to achieve operational status, in the latter cases it took nearly four years. In South Africa's case, it is unclear if its operational capability extended beyond firing a nuclear demonstration shot or two.3 As Jacques Hymans points out in his recent work, proliferation theories in international relations literature in general seek to explain the causes of proliferation, but they say little about the quality of those outcomes. The bulk of the literature focuses on the causes of proliferation and not the process or quality of those proliferation outcomes.”4 Waltzian realism, for example, baldly assumes that states capable of developing nuclear devices should have no trouble either weaponizing them or developing an operational force.5 Prestige explanations make no distinction between the development of a device, weaponization, and soft operational routines. Likewise, organizational theories that attribute nuclear proliferation to actor networks consisting of scientific and civil-military bureaucratic enclaves do not explain the slow transition from incipient to mature nuclear capabilities.6

Similarly, in the policy world, there is a tendency to oversimplify proliferation threats. Policymakers and think tank analysts often collapse the ability of a state to enrich fissile material to weapons-grade and build a nuclear test device with the existence of weapons. States with minimally proven nuclear and doubtful operational capabilities such as North Korea currently and India and Pakistan prior to 1998 are considered a serious nuclear menace. Analysts often believe that the mere possession of nuclear weapons by a state brings into operation a regime of “existential” deterrence, even when a state may lack the means for delivering those weapons reliably. Alternatively, analysts and policymakers infer from the existence of nuclear weapons the prevalence of corresponding soft institutional and organizational routines that would render those weapons militarily employable in war.

It is important to draw distinctions between the development of a nuclear device, a weapon, the process of weaponization, and operationalization because of the gaps between them. A device is an apparatus that presents proof of scientific principle that a nuclear explosion will occur. The weapon is a rugged and miniaturized version of the device. It usually incorporates arming and safing mechanisms to prevent unauthorized or inadvertent use. Weaponization is the process of integrating the weapon with delivery systems. Operationalization entails the development of soft institutional and organizational routines. It refers to command and control mechanisms, coordination procedures between scientific and military agencies, and training protocols in the military to deploy and explode weapons (stockpile to target sequence). If the weapon systems constitute the hardware, operational routines make up the software that enables use of weapons during war.

Weaponization and soft organizational routines represent a continuum on the path to operationalization. The likelihood of an emerging nuclear power succeeding in actualizing its arsenal for military use is nearly always as important as its developing that arsenal. For all its political bluster, a nuclear possessor state that is unable to accomplish the latter two steps in the aftermath of developing a nuclear device will not pose a credible military threat to its neighbors. Likewise, a nuclear possessor state that lacks operational means opens a diplomatic window to the international community to cap its capabilities short of instrumental means to wield credible military threats.

In this article, I use India during the years 1989–99 as a case study and present new empirical evidence to highlight some of the challenges that proliferating states face in developing operational nuclear forces under the hostile gaze of the nonproliferation regime's lead enforcer, the United States. This case study is a plausibility probe because India constitutes an example of a class of states that long possessed the technical and organizational means to develop an operational nuclear capability and yet achieved that capability over an excruciatingly long span of time. For example, India acquired nuclear weapons in 1989–90, but it lacked the capacity to deliver them reliably and safely until 1994–95 or possibly 1996. More significant, even after Indian scientists and engineers solved the technical challenges of delivery, political leaders refrained from embedding the weapons within organizational and procedural routines that would render them operational in the military sense of the term. In the process, they opened a vast operational gap that left the Indian state vulnerable to a nuclear attack with doubtful means for successful retaliation.

I argue that secrecy stymied India's operational advances in the 1990s, both the refinement of nuclear hardware and the development of soft operational routines. The secrecy in turn grew out of a fear of the nonproliferation regime, which otherwise proved far too weak in preventing Indian leaders from developing nuclear weapons. At the same time, Indian political leaders feared pressures for nuclear rollback from the United States. These pressures pushed the weaponization process underground, deep into the bowels of the state. To safeguard secrecy, policy planning was weakly institutionalized. Sensitive nuclear weapons–related information was tightly compartmentalized and hived off within an informal social network consisting of a small number of scientists and civilian bureaucrats. Secrecy concerns prevented decisionmakers and policy planners from decomposing problem sets and parceling them out simultaneously for resolution to multiple bureaucratic actors, including the military.

This hoarding and compartmentalization of information not only prevented India from coordinating the weapons development and weaponization programs efficiently, but also encouraged sequential decisionmaking. In the absence of holistic planning stretching back to the 1980s, many technical problems, particularly those related to the integration of weapons with combat aircraft, were only partially anticipated. In other instances, policy planners remained unaware of the technical challenges until they demanded resolution. All of these factors became roadblocks on the path to weaponization. Secrecy concerns similarly prevented policy planners from institutionalizing the soft organizational and training routines between the scientific and military agencies necessary to move weapons from the stockpile to the target, in effect attenuating the state's capacity to make good on its insinuated threat to punish a nuclear aggressor via a retaliatory response.

Secrecy also had the pernicious effect of compounding management problems common to all principal-agent relationships in organizations. In most complex organizations, leaders (principals) typically use three mechanisms to manage their subordinates (agents). The first is institutional oversight mechanisms that bring a version of the “wisdom of the crowds” to vet the quality of the subordinates’ actions and performance. A second mechanism is transparency, which reduces the cost of monitoring and oversight for principals. Third, principals often institute competition among their agents so that conflicting information about program choices and actions can percolate up the decisionmaking chain. In India's case, internal secrecy and political risk aversion prevented top decisionmakers from using all three institutional mechanisms effectively. The net consequence of such information scarcity within the state was that a regime of relative ignorance cocooned the top political decisionmakers. They were generally unaware of the quality and reliability problems that afflicted the weaponization program in the 1990s. Equally significant, they remained oblivious to the demands and significance of soft routines for military operations.

In existing international relations, proliferation, and area studies literature, four explanations for the slow pace of Indian weaponization and operational planning during the 1990s are widely accepted. The first explanation attributes Indian restraint to fence sitting, which stemmed from the normative beliefs of decisionmakers who pitted their moral aversion of nuclear weapons against more prosaic realist national security concerns.7 The second is that Indian decisionmakers elected to institutionalize a regime of existential deterrence out of normative concerns for strategic stability in South Asia.8 A third explanation attributes restraint to a unique Indian strategic culture of restraint in which the political symbolism associated with nuclear weapons overrides any prospective military use.9 A fourth explanation identifies the dysfunctional nature of Indian civil-military institutions as the likely cause for India's slow transition from developing nuclear weapons to operationalizing them.10

The evidence I present in this article contradicts all four explanations. I show that the private actions of Indian decisionmakers in the 1990s undermined claims of normative restraint. All Indian prime ministers in this period favored and authorized advances in weaponization. The alleged restraint out of an appreciation for what George Perkovich in the early 1990s described as the “nuclear third way” actually stemmed from the absence of hard technological capabilities. Likewise, the furious attempt on the part of Indian defense scientists in this period to integrate nuclear weapons with combat aircraft for purposes of reliable and safe delivery contradicts the assertions of cultural theorists. I also present evidence to show that Indian planners’ obsession with secrecy, not civil-military tensions, was the reason for the slow pace of weaponization and operations planning. In addition to the existing arguments in the literature, some scholars have proposed India's bureaucratic malaise as a possible explanation for its nuclear pathologies. Others have argued that Indian planners’ obsession with secrecy probably had as much to do with shielding Indian vulnerabilities from China and Pakistan as the United States. Because evidence for both proposed explanations does not yet exist in the literature, I appraise them preemptively.

The rest of this article proceeds in four sections. I begin by highlighting the alarmist assumptions about India and Pakistan that dominated the thinking of many U.S. proliferation scholars, think tank analysts, senior government bureaucrats, and decisionmakers during the 1990s. In the second section, I contrast these prevailing beliefs against the sequential and haphazard unfolding of India's weaponization program from 1980 to 1999. In the third section, I present new evidence to show how the process of hiding in the nuclear closet retarded the development of India's operational capabilities during the 1990s. In the fourth section, I evaluate six alternative explanations to the secrecy argument I develop in this article. I conclude by fleshing out some of the policy implications that flow from this article's empirical findings.

My methodology combines historical process tracing through open source literature with extensive elite interviews that I conducted in the field in 2009 and 2010 with policy planners and decisionmakers, both civil and military, at the highest levels of the Indian state. Given the sensitivity of some of the data, many of the interviews are non-attributable. Based on the unique operational details presented in this article, the reader should draw the reasonable inference that many of my sources were intimate participants in India's weaponization program during the 1990s and beyond.

South Asia: The “Most Dangerous” Place on Earth

Throughout much of the 1990s, India and Pakistan engaged in a game of nuclear shadow boxing by insinuating the existence of nuclear weapons-in-the-basement. Outside South Asia and especially in the United States, most academics, think tank analysts, journalists, and government officials assumed that India and Pakistan were de facto nuclear weapon powers, meaning they possessed the technical capability to assemble and deploy nuclear weapons and the organizational capacity to use them instrumentally.

In his history of the Indian nuclear weapons program, for example, Perkovich cited evidence that during 1988–90, India readied “at least two dozen nuclear weapons for quick assembly and dispersal to airbases for delivery by aircraft for retaliatory attacks against Pakistan.”11 Writing in 1992, George Quester downplayed the challenges of weaponization and declared the issue of nuclear delivery a minor one.12 Both Perkovich and Quester claimed that whatever nuclear weapons India possessed at the time were readily deliverable via its fleet of Mirage, Jaguar, and MiG combat aircraft.13 Leonard Spector echoed these claims independently.14 Summing up the prevailing view of the state of Indian nuclear capabilities at the time, Steve Coll reported in 1991 that, “while the exact status of the military nuclear programs in India and Pakistan is being kept secret, U.S. officials believe both countries have acquired the ability to produce and deploy quickly a small number of nuclear weapons. [B]oth countries possess sophisticated fighter aircraft that could conceivably penetrate air defenses while carrying one or more nuclear bombs.”15

These prevailing views were reinforced by U.S. government officials who never tired in public of pointing to the immediacy and severity of the proliferation threat in South Asia. For example, during the 1989–90 Indo-Pakistani crisis over Kashmir,16 a senior U.S. defense official suggested, “If readiness is measured on a scale of one to 10 and the Indians are normally at six, they have now moved to nine.”17 U.S. intelligence sources estimated that India was capable of building nuclear weapons within a matter of days and that weapons could be delivered by combat aircraft, a point reinforced by Lynn Davis, the U.S. undersecretary of state for international security affairs.18 In a February 1993 hearing on proliferation threats before the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey stated: “The arms race between India and Pakistan poses perhaps the most probable prospect for the future use of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. Both nations have nuclear weapons development programs and could, on short notice, assemble nuclear weapons. [A]dvanced aircraft are often the delivery system of choice for weapons of mass destruction, and they are now commonplace among proliferating countries. [T]he aircraft available to these countries are fully capable of delivering nuclear weapons.”19

These claims and statements are explicit in their assumptions of India's technical capability to build and deploy nuclear weapons. Equally significant, they imply the existence of the state's institutional and organizational capacity to use them. Such consensual views notwithstanding, however, the evidence I present in this article suggests that 1994–95 was the earliest date when India actually achieved the technical capability to air-deliver nuclear weapons.20 Furthermore, although India elected to build weaponized nuclear devices in 1989, the process of integrating them with aircraft-based delivery systems stretched out for nearly seven years, until 1994–95 (see figure 1).21 More puzzling, even after weaponized devices and aircraft-based delivery systems became available in the mid-1990s, the Indian government did not develop the soft institutional and organizational capacity to manage its nuclear hardware in any instrumentally meaningful way until a year after it had conducted nuclear tests and formally claimed nuclear power status. The term “institutional capacity” here refers to the civil-military chain of command, standard operating procedures, practice drills, and ground rehearsals to coordinate action within and across the various agencies tasked with responding to a nuclear emergency.22 It also refers to operational planning in the military's meaning of the term.23 This state of affairs continued until the summer of 1999, when India suddenly found itself at war with Pakistan over the Kargil Heights in Kashmir.24 This, the Kargil War, was the historical moment when the Indian government initiated nuclear operational planning with the air force.25

India's Weaponization Program in Practice

In May 1974, India exploded a nuclear device and dubbed it a “peaceful nuclear explosion.” In its wake, India did not declare itself a nuclear weapon state, nor did it seek such legal recognition internationally. Bucking the trend of other nuclear weapon powers until then, and somewhat paradoxically, India did not follow up this lone test with other tests. This single nuclear test spawned the legend that India was not motivated by national security concerns.26 The very likely answer to the riddle of India's lone 1974 test, however, was the manageable risk of Chinese nuclear blackmail in the short term,27 its resource constraints, the lack of a diversified industrial infrastructure,28 and Western nonproliferation pressures.29 By the late 1970s, the balance of threat in South Asia had begun to change for the worse, as clear indicators emerged of Pakistan's nuclear quest. In the case of Pakistan, the Himalayas did not present a geographic barrier as they did in the north vis-$aG-vis China. India's struggle against Pakistan was also an ideological and existential one. Pakistan's revanchism became evident after India helped catalyze its breakup on ideological grounds in the 1971 Bangladesh War. Pakistan similarly hoped to reopen the Kashmir dispute with India after developing a nuclear capability.30

Figure 1.

Nuclear Device Development and Weaponization Time Lines

Figure 1.

Nuclear Device Development and Weaponization Time Lines

In a classic internal balancing act to counter the emerging Pakistani threat, India revived its nuclear weapons program after Indira Gandhi was reelected prime minister in 1980.31 Gandhi's government also instituted a ballistic missile program in 1983. The Indian air force purchased dual-use combat aircraft capable of performing nuclear missions. These programs were ostensibly part of a balancing response against Pakistan's nuclear developments. India's “option” strategy, as it became known, was interpreted as an attempt to develop a threshold nuclear capability. The strategy entailed assembling all the components of a working nuclear arsenal that would give New Delhi the means to develop and deploy nuclear weapons rapidly. The option strategy was also thought more economically manageable and far less likely to attract international “negative” balancing efforts in the form of sanctions.

The problem was that India's nuclear weapons program was never clearly tied to the development of delivery systems. Tasking orders for weapons and delivery systems proceeded on parallel tracks. Time lines for the development of nuclear weapons and the ballistic missile program did not match. The air force purchased combat aircraft without thinking through the challenges of weaponization. Similarly, the nuclear weapons developed in the late 1980s did not fit onto the dual-use combat aircraft in the inventory of the Indian air force. Indian planners also did not anticipate the formidable technical challenges of ensuring reliable and safe delivery of nuclear munitions via combat aircraft. And even after these challenges were overcome, howsoever unreliably, planners did not implement coordination and training routines between the scientific and military user to move weapons from the stockpile to target. Put bluntly, the process of weaponization and operational planning within the Indian state in this period was characterized by inefficiency, delay, and dysfunction.

How did India, a country with a proven capability to build a nuclear device and a large nuclear estate and scientific-industrial infrastructure, tie itself up in knots? I answer this question by showing that the institution of secrecy disrupted parallel coordination among India's nuclear estate, its defense research and development agencies, and the military. Furthermore, Indian decisionmakers’ political hesitancy in confronting the nuclear nonproliferation regime, especially its lead enforcer, the United States, caused them to select narrow and static goals. These goals were strictly technical and followed a sequential logic. Institutional and organizational breaks inside the state compartmentalized weapon development from weaponization. They also separated hardware development from procedural, planning, and training sequences, the software that makes up operational military routines. All of the nodal developments in the proliferation chain, particularly the decisions concerning weaponization and operational planning, were event-based outcomes. They were neither driven by decisionmaking economy nor deduced by decisionmakers’ concern for aggregate and holistic planning.


As India instituted a weapons research and development program in the early 1980s, all nuclear decisionmaking was concentrated in the prime minister's office. The entire policy planning and decisionmaking apparatus comprised a loose social network of nuclear and defense scientists. It also sometimes included prime ministers’ principal and cabinet secretaries; and from 1989 onward, a specially designated coordinator, then Defense Secretary Naresh Chandra.32 This small network of civilian and scientific personnel advised successive prime ministers and liaised between the prime minister's office and the defense scientific agencies. Within this social network, the mode of communication was largely oral. Little was committed to paper, and, by extension, little was recorded in the institutional memory of the state. At any given juncture, only one or two individuals within the network enjoyed the proverbial “God's eye” view of the nuclear program.33

Several scholars attribute the strategic direction, pace, and scope of India's nuclear weapons program to a powerful network of nuclear and defense scientists. Itty Abraham coined the term “strategic enclave,” which continues to be used generally to describe the nuclear, defense, and space sectors in India, which enjoy substantial autonomy and are believed to constitute a proverbial “state within a state.”34 Regardless of the power of the strategic enclave in giving strategic direction to the nuclear weapons program, its power to determine the program's scope and pace in the 1980s and 1990s was highly constrained. Scientist-bureaucrats from the two most powerful agencies within the strategic enclave, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), enjoyed careers that spanned successive governments, sometimes as long as three decades. Nuclear scientists such as R. Ramanna, P.K. Iyengar, R. Chidambaram, A. Kakodkar, S.K. Sikka, and their DRDO counterparts including B.D. Nagchaudhuri, V.S. Arunachalam, K. Santhanam, and A.P.J. Kalam leveraged their status and continuity in government to build close personal ties with the prime minister's office, the nerve center for all strategic defense and foreign policy decisions.

For example, R. Ramanna, the leader of the 1974 nuclear explosion team went on to become the chief scientific adviser to the defense minister from 1978 to 1981, the head of Atomic Energy Commission in 1983, and minister of state for defense in 1990. V.S. Arunachalam, from DRDO, continued for a decade as the scientific adviser to the defense minister and the lead adviser on the weaponization program to five prime ministers from 1982 until 1992. K. Santhanam, who became involved in the weaponization program in the mid-1980s, served as the coordinator between DRDO and the Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC) in his position as chief technology adviser to the defense minister's scientific adviser at the time of the 1998 tests.35 Their individually powerful positions as members of the strategic enclave notwithstanding, as a group the scientists were not institutionalized within any agency such as a national security council or a secretariat that could provide them a structured platform to advance their views.

As an advisory group, therefore, the scientists and technologists existed largely as an informal social network. There were no established legal or even quasi-legal administrative rules of business to guide their interaction, and they did not have independent access to other government agencies such as the cabinet or parliament. In the absence of legal and administrative authority, entr$eAe and continued participation in the network depended on a personal relationship with prime ministerial incumbents or with their coordinating agents. In addition, the internal regime of secrecy had the consequence of fragmenting and compartmentalizing all weapons-related information. The strategic enclave's weak state of institutionalization as a group and the process of information monopolization by a few exacerbated coordination problems and produced a dysfunctional state of planning.


This institutional fragility left the strategic enclave in a weak position to extract commitments from key political decisionmakers to undertake holistic planning. Indeed, the deconstruction of every major episode pertaining to the nuclear weapon development program during the 1980–98 period—the canceled 1982–83 tests; precursor programs to weaponization in 1986; the 1989 decision to build weapons and integrate them with combat aircraft; preliminary nuclear posture plans in 1990 and the implementation of dispersal, storage, and concealment routines in 1995; the aborted plans for nuclear tests in 1996—shows that decision goals were largely technical, limited, and loosely coupled.36 Above all, the technical goals were decoupled from any organizational imperatives of operational planning.

In 1982–83 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, although fearful of U.S. economic sanctions, approved nuclear tests in response to Pakistan's nuclear advances. To win the prime minister's approval, however, the scientists presented the tests to her as experiments, not the start of a test-series of a weapons development program.37 Even this proved insufficient to prevent the prime minister from retracting her approval within hours of granting it.38 Next, in 1986, after it became clear during the Brasstacks crisis with Pakistan that Islamabad was close to acquiring or had acquired the capability to build nuclear weapons,39 Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi authorized DRDO to start development of rugged, miniaturized, safer, and more reliable components and subsystems for what might eventually be a weapon system. His mandate was to “keep the country's nuclear capability at least at a minimum state of readiness.”40 It stopped short of ordering the building of a weapon or integrating it into a delivery platform. Eventually, in 1989 Gandhi approved weaponization in the wake of the failure of his global disarmament plan and menacing Indian intelligence reports, which concluded in March 1988 that “Pakistan was in possession of at least three nuclear devices of 15–20 kiloton yield.”41 Once again, however, the prime minister's office restricted the program's scope to building air-deliverable devices and the certification of an air-delivery platform for safe and reliable delivery.42 In essence, as former Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister B.G. Deshmukh revealed subsequently, the program was reduced to “bar charts” detailing “when the (bomb) trigger would be ready, what type of platform would carry the bomb, how the bomb was to be mated to a delivery vehicle, the type of electronic checks,” with the prime minister retaining veto over the passage of every technical threshold.43

Holistic decisionmakers would have probably ordered policy planners to simultaneously think through command and control, posture, and operational planning, especially after electing to commence weaponization. This is not what happened in India, however. During the Kashmir crisis in the winter and spring of 1989–90, the Indian government found itself without a nuclear command and control system. Worse, it had no guidelines and procedures to respond to a nuclear emergency.44 A secret committee, the Arun Singh Committee, sat in the summer of 1990, in the aftermath of the subcontinent's first serious nuclear crisis, to plan India's nuclear emergency response measures.45 The committee subsequently prepared emergency response procedures and command and control mechanisms, but it did not delve into operational planning.46 The committee's “only specific recommendation,” recalled K. Subrahmanyam, who participated in its deliberations, was to “to create separate storage for missiles and warheads … what should be the drill for them being brought together … and then … the communications from command and control.”47 As Perkovich reports in his history of the Indian nuclear weapons program, “[T]he group called for designating air force units to receive nuclear devices and deliver them according to previously prepared orders that base commanders would possess under seal.”48

The piecemeal nature of decisionmaking at the prime minister's office can be inferred from the fact that the committee's key recommendation was not implemented until certification of the air-delivery platform in 1994–95. Only subsequently, in 1995, did Prime Minister Narasimha Rao approve the enactment of dispersal and concealment routines planned for safeguarding fissile cores and nonfissile trigger assemblies from a preemptive attack.49 Meanwhile, wartime operations planning to coordinate action between the air force and scientific agencies and to enable the air force to plan nuclear missions was delayed still further.50


Because the political goals during the 1980s and 1990s largely concerned weaponization, those most often consulted were the scientists and technologists, particularly the heads of the DAE and DRDO. Alarmed at the disaggregation and dysfunctional planning within India's nuclear program, two successive army chiefs in the 1980s, General K. Rao and General K. Sundarji, exploited their excellent personal relations with Prime Ministers Indira and Rajiv Gandhi to lobby them to institutionalize nuclear coordination within government;51 in Sundarji's case, with such clamor that it aroused the consternation of Cabinet Secretary B.G. Deshmukh.52 Although distrust of the military is the oft-attributed reason for its exclusion from nuclear decisionmaking in this period, according to India's nuclear coordinator in the 1990s, Ambassador Naresh Chandra, it had more to do with the civilians’ attempt to safeguard the program's secrecy.53 Then Foreign Minister Narasimha Rao's response to Subrahmanyam's suggestion in the mid-1980s to leverage the rise of General Sundarji, by then the army's preeminent nuclear theorist, to educate the army and the military in general on nuclear issues is telling: “No … no … we shouldn't do that … because that will suggest to the outside world that we are developing nuclear weapons.”54

Beginning in the early 1980s, however, despite lacking any directive from the government, the Indian army began debating and experimenting with a mobile defense and offense-in-depth conventional war strategy based on mechanization. The army leadership believed the new strategy necessary for conducting successful operations against Pakistan. In the Army's College of Combat at Mhow, Lieutenant General Sundarji held a series of seminars on conventional operations under conditions of nuclear asymmetry, which became the basis of the “Mhow (Combat) Papers” and the core of his subsequent nuclear advocacy and strategy for India.55 Scholars such as W.P.S. Sidhu drew on the army's doctrinal debates and restructuring from this period to argue subsequently that Army Headquarters had autonomously developed a nuclear doctrine tacitly endorsed by the government.56 Those claims in retrospect are overstated.

As former Army Vice Chief Lt. Gen. Vijay Oberoi clarified to the author, “From the early 1980s, the army created structures and commenced with the formulation of policy so far as nuclear protective measures were concerned … given nuclear developments in Pakistan. However, there was no offensive planning (nuclear) at that stage because the army leadership was not privy to India's nuclear weapons capability.”57 Confirming that assessment, an officer from the army's Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Warfare Directorate explained to the author in 2009, “Sundarji did think about it … Combat Papers 1 and 2, especially 1 … and there were some published pamphlets used in the Indian army … but those were straight out of Western literature, copied literally … and therefore had limited use for the subcontinent because the data based on demography, geography, and meteorology varied so substantially.”58

Until 1998, the air force was the only military service with any knowledge of the weaponization program because of its role in delivering the weapons. But even as the user service tasked with delivery, until the early 1990s, it only participated in the weaponization program at the margins. The DRDO first conducted trials in the early 1980s to test the Jaguar combat aircraft, which India had purchased from Britain in the late 1970s, as a potential delivery vehicle. Of this interaction between DRDO and the air force, a test pilot on the team had this to say: “We were groping in the dark. We had no interaction with the scientists who were actually making the bombs. They had never flown an aircraft and we were not involved in the bomb's development.… [W]e argued that unless we knew what the left hand is doing how can the right hand bring it together.”59 Having found the Jaguar unsuitable because of the low ground clearance between the aircraft and the nuclear weapon container, DRDO next identified the Mirage 2000 as its choice for a delivery system.

Even in the aftermath of that decision, the interaction between DRDO and the air force during the 1990s was primarily technical. It was strictly confined to the modification of the Mirage 2000 for nuclear missions and the training of a handful of pilots to deliver nuclear weapons using dummy bombs. Until 1996, when Prime Minister Narasimha Rao privately confided to Air Chief Marshal S.K. Sareen that India possessed nuclear weapons, no air chief had “official” knowledge of the program.60 The air force's role, in the memorable words of another air chief who served in the 1990s, was simply that of a “delivery boy.”61 The same air chief brutally summed up the institutional constraints of his office by stating that “no air chief wants to approach the prime minister about nuclear issues only to be told to go mind his own business!”62

In the mid-1990s, a small number of civilian officials working with the scientific agencies drew up “paper plans” for an assured retaliation posture, but they did not develop operational plans with Air Headquarters to move the weapons from the stockpile to target.63 As the air force's nuclear air delivery system came online at the end of 1995, principals within DRDO such as Santhanam supported operational planning with the air force. Senior air force officials who interacted with them concluded, however, that the scientists lacked the political clout to force operational planning on the political leadership.64 “Force synthesis,” as India's former and longtime weaponization manager V.S. Arunachalam informed the author, “the integration of technical, organizational, and ideational elements is a political decision, which must be coordinated from the top. Scientific bureaucracies working on the technical parts of a weapon system cannot on their own undertake such decisions.”65

The Operational Consequences of Institutionalized Secrecy

The organizational dysfunction associated with the regime of internal opacity had the cumulative effect of stymieing India's operational nuclear capabilities throughout the 1990s. Some of the problems related to operationalization were technical, but the lack of advanced institutional cooperation between the scientific and military agencies gave the technical issues even greater salience. Further, India's skeletal and tenuously institutionalized command and control system and the near-total absence of operational planning between the scientific and military agencies to move nuclear weapons from the stockpile to target during these years were clearly institutional and organizational issues. This meant that although India possessed nuclear weapons, its institutional and organizational capacity to press them into military operations was far from assured. Evidence shows that although the Indian state from the mid-1990s onward was theoretically capable of mounting limited nuclear strikes, the internal regime of secrecy left the technical and organizational likelihood of their success questionable. Further, for the most part, the political decisionmakers seemed unaware of the technical reliability and organizational challenges of operational planning.


When thinking of nuclear operationalization, it is generally useful to draw distinctions between a “device” and a “weapon.” A device, as Chuck Hansen defines it, can commonly be understood as “[f]ission and fusion materials, together with their arming, fusing, firing, chemical high explosive, and effects-measuring components, that have not yet reached the development status of an operational weapon … system designed to produce a nuclear explosion for purposes of testing the design, for verifying nuclear theory, or for gathering information on system performance.”66 A weapon system is considerably different, however. It involves “the conversion or modification of a nuclear test device into a combat-ready warhead,” which “includes the design and production of a ballistic casing (and any required retardation and impact-absorption or shock-mitigation devices) as well as special fuses, power sources, and arming and safing systems or equipment.”67

If one uses the above definitions as the base for measurement, then India did not possess a nuclear weapon until at least 1990. To be sure, Indian nuclear scientists were working on advanced boosted-fission and perhaps even thermonuclear weapon designs by the late 1980s. As early as 1982–83, they may have planned to test a lighter and more sophisticated version of the 1974 device, but the sequential nature of planning ensured that it was not until 1985–86 that Rajiv Gandhi's government put in motion a plan to develop a weapon system of reduced weight and size that was safe, reliable, and deliverable. India did not possess such a weapon system in 1986–87 when the Brasstacks crisis erupted with Pakistan. Nor did it possess such a weapon at the time of the Kashmir crisis in 1989–90. Indeed, the doyen of Indian strategists and nuclear consultant to nearly all prime ministers since the late 1970s, K. Subrahmanyam, subsequently disclosed that “in the period between 1987–1990 India was totally vulnerable to a Pakistani nuclear threat.”68

Further, until Prime Minster Rajiv Gandhi reached a decision in the late 1980s to commence weaponization, the scientific agencies did not seriously engage the air force to resolve the technics of nuclear delivery. Many observers in the 1990s assumed that India's Jaguar and Mirage combat aircraft were capable of performing nuclear missions from the late 1980s. The grounds for such claims, however, are suppositions, not facts. In India's case, Prime Minister V.P. Singh recalls DRDO Chief Arunachalam briefing him in 1989 that “India could then only assemble nuclear weapons but not deliver them.”69 As he put it, “[W]e could laboratory test everything … but the bomb delivery was still in progress.”70 More evidence of the lack of a delivery capability comes from Chief of Air Staff S. Mehra, who used the occasion of the 1989–90 Kashmir crisis and the prime minister's concerns about a potential Pakistani nuclear strike to lobby for the removal of internal firewalls between the civilian development and military user agencies.71 The prototype Indian nuclear device under development had until then not been shown to the air force.72 But because no positive response was forthcoming from the prime minister or the scientists, Mehra and the two other service chiefs concluded that India did not possess a ready arsenal at the time.


The modification of aircraft for safe and reliable delivery of a nuclear weapon turned out to be a huge technical and managerial challenge that consumed the DRDO's attention for six years and perhaps more. There was a major problem integrating the nuclear weapon with the Mirage. Senior Indian air force officials recall that DRDO's original intent may have been to arm ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads and circumvent the air force entirely. The warhead developed was too large and heavy, however, for ballistic missile carriage at the time.73 The trouble, recalls another senior air force officer who served at the time, was that “the boffins developed it independently without reference to the delivery platform.74 There was a problem with carriage because the weapon was too long.”75 This was cause for concern especially during the “rotation maneuver during the takeoff stage. A skilled Mirage pilot could have pulled it off … but not just any pilot,” a senior air force officer with an intimate view of the program told the author.76 The “size of the weapon itself, its length and weight upset the aerodynamics and center of gravity of the aircraft.”77 Other aspects that needed resolution were the aircraft's electronic interface and sighting systems to enable the arming and release of the weapon.78 The electronic interface could not be reconfigured without what one air force officer described as access to the “manufacturer's database” and computer source codes. The aircraft also required extensive rewiring for electrical connectivity to enable the bomb's functions.79 The Mirages that India had acquired from France in the mid–1980s were not nuclear certified. There were thus concerns that a post-detonation electromagnetic pulse could interfere with the aircraft's computer-controlled fly-by-wire, communications, and other electronic systems. According to one senior air force official, “In the early 1990s, the air force was thinking of one-way missions.… [I]t was unlikely that the pilot deployed on a nuclear attack mission would have made it back.”80

Resolution of these technical bottlenecks took six years. Until 1994, DRDO conducted experimental modifications on just one Mirage 2000 with a single test pilot. There was no backup.81 But even after 1994, the internal feedback Air Headquarters received from its “boys” was that the plane's modified systems had not achieved the degree of reliability considered de rigueur for performing sensitive nuclear missions.82 A senior participant in the certification of the air platform observed that there was a “hand-hammered quality” to the aircraft that were modified for nuclear missions. There were several failures, but with the passage of time and some introspection, the system was further refined. There were, however, “limitations” in the final product. It was “less capable, less reliable, and generated less confidence.”83 This same individual with insider knowledge of the program volunteered to the author that one should assume that “India could have acquired an air delivery capability by 1996.” Prior to that date, the deterrent was a “paper tiger.” To be sure, nuclear weapons existed. He emphasized, however, that “capability is a function not just of the weapon but what you can actually do with that weapon.” If a nuclear emergency had arisen in 1994–95, the air force “may have been forced to do something.” But “given the large number of unresolved issues … the so many imponderables,” it was difficult to estimate the likelihood of success.84


Given the compartmentalized and sequential nature of planning, political leaders did not think through command and control simultaneously with the development of the weapon itself. Command and control simply refers to means that enable the exercise of authority and direction by a group of civilian and military leaders in pursuit of military missions. There are two components to any nuclear command and control system: organizational and technical. The organizational aspects entail the creation of a hierarchy of individuals and procedures to transform political directions into military operations. The technical aspects involve the deployment of special communications equipment to transmit directives from the relevant authorities. In the absence of a command and control system, strategic connectivity between scientific agencies that develop nuclear weapons, the military that trains in their use and the political authorities who direct their use is broken.

India, however, lacked both the organizational and technical capacities until the early 1990s. During the Kashmir crisis, for example, command and control consisted only of the prime minister, his principal secretary, and the scientific adviser to the defense minister.85 The ruffled prime minister conveyed his concerns to his principal secretary saying, “[T]his is scary. This matter cannot just be between the prime minister and the scientific advisor. Supposing someone attacks Delhi, there is no formal procedure as to who then decides what to do. We have to institutionalize it.”86 Arun Singh, the former minister of state for defense who the prime minister appointed in the wake of the crisis to review India's nuclear preparedness and make recommendations for a command control system, expressed shock at the bureaucratic chaos inside government. He thought “it … crazy that BARC didn't know where DRDO stood or vice versa. Nothing had been worked out as to who was to control the weapons and under what circumstances and time frame we would strike back.”87

A senior official who served at the highest levels of the Indian government during the Kashmir crisis claims that it would be reasonable to assume that the government had prepared emergency action and coordination protocols by the mid-1990s. If a nuclear explosion occurred, it would be the DAE's task to make an assessment. The DAE, which held custody of the fissile cores, would then pass them on to DRDO, which in turn would assemble nuclear weapons and hand them over to the air force. The planners believed that seventy-two hours would be a reasonable time to constitute a nuclear force and launch retaliation. In the event of the prime minister's incapacitation, power would devolve upon the Cabinet Committee on Security,88 but the likelihood of that event happening was thought low. A Pakistani nuclear attack, the officials believed, would be limited and symbolic and leave the functioning of the federal government relatively undisturbed. But in the worst-case “bolt-out-of-the blue” scenario in which Delhi did go up in a mushroom cloud, power would devolve upon a hierarchy of state governors and principals in the state civil service who would assume responsibilities of the federal government, while the military would function under a reconstituted civilian authority. India, the leaders of the nuclear network believed, was a “big country. It would survive!”89 But how, they could not tell.

The trouble with the above protocols was that they remained a secret even within the loose network of officials who constituted India's principal policy planners during the 1990s. Above all, they remained “paper exercises.”90 There were no written documents or standard operating procedures, a “red book,” for individuals to follow. Barring the special coordinator and the scientific adviser to the defense minister, who knew of them in their entirety, other members of the nuclear network, never more than a dozen senior officials in any case, knew only fragments of them. Because little was committed to paper, the institutional memory of the state beyond this network of officials remained a blank slate.91 Furthermore, the DAE and DRDO did not practice any emergency drills on the ground to test their coordination and response.92 From the mid-1990s onward, air chiefs inferred that such protocols likely existed,93 but they were told nothing of their content. The president, as the constitutional head of state, was privy to some of this nuclear knowledge.94 Similarly, a spare oral brief was made to new holders of the prime minister's office. If, however, they were deemed disinterested, and at least three incumbents in the 1990s were,95 their principal secretaries were briefed instead.96 Beyond prime ministers and their principal secretaries, no information was shared with ministers on the Cabinet Committee on Security or with federal governors and provincial civil service chiefs who might be called to assume responsibilities of the federal government. The military leadership was equally clueless about how it was to function under a new civilian dispensation. As the senior government official with the God's eye view of the program at the time put it to the author: “Command and control essentially meant gathering all the members of the group (nuclear network) under one roof as quickly as possible.”97


Finally, the military's operational planning constitutes the critical component of any planned nuclear use. Operational planning essentially involves three layers. The first concerns procedures to coordinate action among the scientific and user agencies. To this category belong time lines for the movement of aircraft, the identification of weapon storage sites, the training of ground crews in weapon storage, and weapon movement and loading procedures. Other routines concern safety and security checks on the aircraft and the weapon. To the second category belong target identification and mission planning. Geography, meteorology, demography, and cultural factors all go into target selection. Among other things, the air force would have to identify air bases for potential deployments and experiment with combinations of electronic jamming and escort aircraft for different mission targets. It would also have to plan decoy missions to divert attention and increase the chances of penetrating a heavily defended airspace in a country on high alert in anticipation of a second strike. For example, an Indian air force study conducted in the early 2000s highlighted the logistical challenges of planning nuclear missions against Pakistan. It showed that a single mission alone could tie up as many as sixty aircraft to assist the penetrating nuclear aircraft.98 In the third category are pilot communications protocols to abort missions in response to geostrategic changes and technical emergencies as well as procedures for weapon jettisoning and retrieval in the event of an accident or flight diversion. Also included in this category are protocols to fuse and arm the weapon just before release over a target to minimize the risk of explosion over friendly territory or off target.99

Senior Indian air force officers point to three major challenges of nuclear mission planning that were left unaddressed prior to 1999. First, a nuclear mission would have involved a “nap-of-the-earth” flight profile. During such missions, attacking aircraft typically hug the ground to escape detection by enemy radar, but the Indian Mirages were not equipped with terrain clearance radars.100 Hence targets and mission routes would have needed careful identification and mapping in advance. No target lists were provided to the air force, however.101 Second, real-time communications are difficult when combat aircraft execute nap-of-the-earth flight profiles because the earth's curvature renders the aircraft invisible to both enemy and friendly radar. Advanced air forces typically overcome the problem of command and control by communicating with pilots via satellite or airborne surveillance and command posts perched at high altitudes. Because India lacked both at the time, it would have had to rely on relay aircraft to keep the political leadership in constant touch with the pilot during the length of a nuclear mission. The use of relay aircraft complicates logistics and mission planning, however. More problematic, the process requires written procedures so that all parties share a common understanding of what those procedures are. If such procedures existed at all prior to 1999, the air force was unaware of them.102 Third, prior to 1999, the air force did not know who possessed the codes for arming nuclear weapons and how those codes were to be deployed during a mission. Indian weapons at this time did not incorporate permissive action links that would enable arming the weapons at will. The assumption in the air force was that the task of arming the weapon would fall on the pilot at a designated time during flight. The air force and the scientific agencies, however, did not conduct practice drills to test the communication and weapon arming protocols during a potential nuclear mission.103

A number of senior air force officials, including those who served at the highest levels, are unanimous in their account that operational plans and procedures to execute nuclear missions are a post-1998 phenomenon. They concede that civilian officials and the scientific agencies had likely thought some of these issues through before, but did not share them with the air force. Nor was the air force given tasking orders to prepare internal procedures to program its own response to a nuclear emergency. Former DRDO chief Arunachalam's view was “the numbers are so small … the system could be beautifully worked out.”104 A principal staff officer at Air Headquarters estimated, however, that the chances of mission success in the first half of the decade “at less than 50 percent.”105 Another senior air force officer, who participated in the air delivery platform's certification trials and left office in the latter half of the 1990s, demurred from even speculating on the probability of mission success. According to him, nuclear missions were the “nightmare scenario” because so little was “shown to the air force on the ground.”106

The negative path-dependent effects of such institutional legacies continued even after India conducted nuclear tests in May 1998 and formally claimed nuclear weapons power status. In the summer of 1999, India suddenly found itself at war with Pakistan over the latter's occupation of Indian territory along the Kargil mountain ridges in Kashmir. As the Indian government secretly prepared for an all-out war with Pakistan, the spotlight turned to the nuclear aspect and the lack of operational planning with the Indian military. A senior Indian defense official privy to this effort disclosed to the author that, until then, the air force had no idea (1) what types of weapons were available; (2) in how many numbers; and (3) what it was expected to do with the weapons. All the air force had was delivery capability in the form of a few modified Mirage 2000s. At that point, only the air chief, the vice air chief, and two other individuals at Air Headquarters had knowledge of the program.107 The official went on: “My educated guess is that a directive to bring the military in the loop may have been issued by the prime minister's office. However, given that nuclear decisionmaking until then was confined to the prime minister and a small set of officials in BARC and DRDO, the directive may have languished. Or alternatively, the prime minister and his top aides may have been told that the air force was in the know … without their understanding that tactical operational planning requires information sharing, coordination, and planning on an entirely different level. Politicians sometimes focus on the big picture and don't pay sufficient attention to details.”108

As Carl von Clausewitz famously observed, “Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.” Indeed, the 1999 Kargil War demonstrated just how complex the task of nuclear force reconstitution and employment readiness was in the absence of well-developed interagency management structures and protocols.109 Until 1999, the scientific agencies and the air force had not rehearsed any emergency drills on the ground. The scientific agencies had assumed, for example, that seventy-two hours was a reasonable window within which the nuclear force could transition from recessed to employment mode. According to a senior participant in the planning process, however, it took “nearly a week” before the air force and the agencies were able to ready the weapons.”110 Members of the nuclear network, the senior defense official explained, had to orally ratify all actions in the absence of institutionalized standard operating procedures, a process that added to the logistical friction.111 The Kargil War began in early May 1999, but only toward the end of June did the air force achieve a modicum of operational readiness to commence nuclear operations against Pakistan.

The data in this section confirm that India's capacity to explode a nuclear weapon during the 1990s was not in doubt. Prior to the summer of 1999, however, its institutional capacity to explode nuclear weapons instrumentally over a target in pursuit of political goals remained very much so.

Alternative Explanations

There are four alternative explanations in the literature for India's disaggregated operational nuclear posture in the 1990s. The first three flow from a normative understanding of India's nuclear behavior in the pre-1998 era. The fourth argument is institutional and centers on civil-military relations. In addition, scholars have speculated on two other arguments as plausible explanations for India's dysfunctionalism. Because data and literature to support these latter arguments do not yet exist, I appraise them preemptively.

The leading explanation for the slow pace of Indian weaponization and operational planning during the 1990s is the normative one that Indian leaders sought prestige by abjuring what would be considered the normal behavior of security-seeking states in the international system. Scholars maintain that Indian leaders prior to 1998 sought to position India as a moral exemplar; as a country that stood aloof and above the security maximizing states in the international system.112 Indeed, Indian prime ministers until the late 1970s—Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, and Morarji Desai—had a strong aversion to nuclear weapons and institutionalized their preferences through the state's public advocacy of global nuclear arms control and disarmament as well as by rejecting domestic pressures for nuclear armament.113 There is also evidence to show that Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi opposed weaponization on normative grounds during the mid-1980s.

The evidence, however, is muddied. Although senior policy planners who interacted with Rajiv Gandhi have described him a “reluctant believer” in the nuclear cause,114 his mother and immediate predecessor's motives appear to be a mixed bag of economic realism and political risk-aversion.115 But even Rajiv Gandhi followed a Janus-faced approach, which coupled moralism with an insurance strategy of allowing work on the weapon program to proceed.116 More substantially, however, prime ministers who succeeded the Gandhis after 1989 do not appear to have shared their normative predilections. India had a succession of six prime ministers in the period 1989–98. At least three among them, V.P. Singh, Narasimha Rao, and Deve Gowda, cited economic constraints for not conducting nuclear tests.117 Further, all prime ministers from 1989 onward, including Rajiv Gandhi, privately supported the weaponization program. Thus the historical evidence shows variation between decisionmakers’ public statements and private actions.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, scholars added an institutional twist to the above normative argument and developed what might be characterized as a normative-institutional explanation for Indian restraint. For example, Neil Joeck maintained that India and Pakistan were engaged in a regime of “tacit bargaining” and cooperation,118 whose central objective was to maximize “security and prestige” while minimizing the likelihood of “an unrestricted arms race that could more fundamentally jeopardize their security.”119 Indian nuclear restraint, he explained, was tied to both strategic-realist and moral-Gandhian anchors. Devin Hagerty seconded Joeck's claim that India and Pakistan were locked in a tacit regime of cooperative restraint.120 The restraining element in this competition according to Hagerty was the conscious avoidance of crossing the threshold of assembly and deployment of nuclear weapons. Its tacit element was the insinuation of nuclear capabilities to each other, which was indirectly confirmed by the United States and other independent third parties.121 Similarly, Perkovich popularized the concept of “nonweaponized deterrence” in the early 1990s by arguing that, although India was capable of building an operational arsenal, it had consciously adopted what he described as a “nuclear third way,” which was a halfway house between a deployed force and nuclear rollback.122

Historical evidence that has surfaced since 1999 shows that Indian policy planners were acutely aware by the spring of 1988 that the window of opportunity for preventing Pakistani nuclearization had closed.123 And instead of practiced restraint, there was urgency among them to bring weapons online.124 The difficulty with these normative-institutional arguments is their presumed functionalism. Joeck, Hagerty, and Perkovich imagine a liberal regime of restraint and cooperation, treat it as an end point, and then work their way backward to inject it with norms and instrumental rationality. They assume that, because the regime appears to be performing some function or serving the interests of the actors, it must be designed to do so. They do not consider the alternatives: that the regime was perhaps never the consequence of rational or normative design or that the actors may have unwittingly stumbled onto an unstable equilibrium that was transitional. It is necessary to ask why actors engaged in tacit cooperation did not elect to make that commitment explicit and lock in the gains of cooperation.

Alongside normative reasons for India's restraint, several scholars have argued that India's normatively freighted strategic culture exercises explicit and tacit restraints on military maximalism.125 Although this argument is generally popular with academics and policymakers, considerable confusion abounds on whether the sources of cultural preferences that inform Indian strategic thinking are institutional or normative. It is also unclear if the strategic culture argument applies to grand strategy, which is the “purposeful employment of all instruments of power available to a security community,”126 or the narrower military strategy, which pertains to the planning and execution by military organizations of strategic goals.127 In the absence of such specifications, the usefulness of the strategic culture argument is unclear.

To date, Rajesh Basrur has applied the strategic cultural argument to the nuclear question most rigorously. Basrur restricts his argument to a select historical window, narrows its scope to nuclear weapons excluding all other strategic questions, and develops a credible methodology of specified open-source content analysis and elite interviews to support his case.128 Basrur identifies three elements in Indian strategic culture that he argues are the basis for the continuing nuclear minimalism and restraint from the late 1970s until the early 2000s. These are (1) a limited acceptance of nuclear weapons as a source of national security; (2) political as against the technical/operational understanding of nuclear weapons; and (3) incremental responses to systemic-level structural pressures to expand nuclear capabilities.129 It is this restrained strategic culture, the “habits of mind, traditions, and preferred methods of operation,” argues Basrur, that explains the slow institutional changes in India's nuclear responses: the options posture in the 1980s; the recessed posture in the 1990s; and the overt posture post-1998.130 Thus, cultural preferences in his view are the connective thread that tie three nuclear institutional postures and explain overall restraint.

Basrur's methodology, however, unearths something entirely at odds with his argument. It shows that the Indian elite's nuclear beliefs and preferences are dichotomized along two lines: between the politicians who view nuclear weapons as political weapons and the strategic experts and the military who lean in the direction of espousing an operational framework for those same weapons.131 In essence, Basrur's methodology reveals evidence of the existence of two competing subcultures within the Indian state that uneasily cohabit a common political space. Although Basrur's data are restricted to the post-1998 years, his methodology when applied to earlier historical periods—the decades of the “option” and “recessed” posture—shows a similar cultural dichotomy between the political generalists and the professional military.132

In advancing the cultural argument, Basrur ignores the obvious institutional and organizational ones. In a regime of competing subcultures, which conditions enable one set of cultural beliefs to prevail in the policy marketplace? Similarly, in a system characterized by cultural differences, why is there a systemic bias in favor of the status quo? Basrur indirectly answers these questions by showing that pre-1998 nuclear decisionmaking in India was the preserve of the prime minister, to the exclusion of parliament, the civilian bureaucracy, the military, and public opinion. By his own admission, India's strategic culture is reduced to a set of cultural preferences held by prime ministerial incumbents,133 a process that black boxes the state. Culture tends to be sticky and cannot explain India's tectonic shift in favor of operational nuclear forces in the last decade.

Finally, scholars including Stephen Rosen have pointed to institutional factors such as the distrust that pervades India's civil-military institutions as a possible cause for the lack of nuclear planning with the military.134 If civil-military institutional tensions were the cause, however, one would see greater aggregation of information among civilians, but the regime of information scarcity operated with nearly equal severity on both the civilian and military sides of the nuclear equation. As a senior Indian defense official at the heart of the nuclear network put it:

Yes, the military was kept out of the information loop. There were no serious reasons to bring the military into the loop because of the danger of secrecy being compromised. The chiefs of staff are trustworthy. But who can vouch for the trustworthiness of their staff, their drivers? The latter could be spies and the weak link in the chain. The military's complaints have more to with a sense of privilege and pride. Why should they be told? The cabinet ministers weren't told, the defense minister, their political boss was not told. So why should the armed services chiefs be told? Until the system is to be put into operational practice, the services don't come into the picture. There were no reasons to share India's most precious secrets.135

Further, if distrust of the military were the cause, it would also manifest itself through other observables, especially in conventional war operations and in military aid to civilian authorities. One observes contrary trends in both cases, however. The Indian military enjoys near-total autonomy in conventional war operations. The exception to this was the 1962 border war with China when civilians directly interfered in operations, with disastrous results. In its aftermath, the military demanded and obtained operational autonomy, and this state of affairs has obtained since then. In all wars that followed, civilians set strategic goals allowing the military autonomy to plan and execute operations.136 India's civilian leadership has also not hesitated to use the military to manage India's internal crisis of governability. Successive Indian governments have in the past used the military and now increasingly paramilitary forces to quell domestic insurgencies and rebellions. As Shashank Joshi points out, of the seventeen major military campaigns the Indian military has conducted in post-independent India's history, twelve were domestic in nature. From 1982 to 1989, for example, the army deployed 721 times to assist civilian authorities.137 Surely, these data do not indicate civilian distrust of the military. More significant, India's civilian leaders have shown little hesitation in institutionalizing the military's role in nuclear planning post-1998, once India stepped out of the nuclear closet. This change has occurred without any fundamental rewrite in the DNA of India's civil-military relations. The evidence therefore undermines civil-military distrust as the cause for the lack of operationalization argument.

Beyond these cultural and institutional explanations in the literature on South Asia and nuclear proliferation, some scholars speculate that India's slow pace of weaponization and operationalization emanated from a bureaucratic malaise specific to India. One way of testing this argument is by looking for weaponization and operational observables prior to 1998, the period of secrecy, and the post-1998 decade, the period when India stepped out of the nuclear closet and claimed nuclear power status. Secrecy, or its lack thereof in this case, serves as the determining condition for a natural experiment in state planning. The data from the last decade show rapid technical advances in the development and deployment of delivery systems, the creation of new organizations to manage nuclear forces, and new institutional routines to flex operational muscle.138 Indeed, so startling are the differences between then and now that proliferation scholars such as Vipin Narang believe that many Indian technical developments, postures, and operational changes have begun to mimic the worst U.S. examples from the Cold War and will likely trigger deterrence, crisis, and arms control instability in South Asia and the Asia-Pacific.139

Other scholars do not doubt secrecy as the cause for India's dysfunction argument. What they doubt is the cause for Indian secrecy, which they believe was conditioned by the need to hide the program not only from the prying eyes of the United States but also from China and Pakistan, India's regional nuclear b$eCtes noires. Their assumption is logical and entirely plausible. The evidence to support the claim that China and Pakistan were the cause for India's secrecy, however, has not yet surfaced in the open source domain. Nor did it emerge during interviews the author conducted in the field for this article. The plausibility of this reasoning would be higher if Indian decisionmakers and policy planners believed that China's and Pakistan's intelligence-gathering capabilities were equivalent to or of a higher order than those of the United States. Further, the focus of India's weaponization program through the 1980s and 1990s was Pakistan, not China. With a single nuclear test and no known means of nuclear delivery to attack China, it is doubtful whether Indian planners believed that China took their nuclear capabilities seriously. Pakistan was another matter. India had reason to hide its vulnerability from a nuclear Pakistan. India's window of vulnerability remained open from 1988 until about 1995, however. It is hard to fathom why, once technical hurdles of delivery were resolved in the mid-1990s, Pakistan's discovery of any potential Indian operational planning would endanger Indian security.


Five implications arise from this study. The first pertains to the normative versus realist basis of India's nuclear policy. The second concerns scholars’ understanding of the sources of slow weaponization in India and proliferating states in general. Related to this is the more subtle attenuating effect of the nonproliferation regime on the technical and organizational quality of nuclear weapon programs in clandestinely proliferating states. A fourth implication has to do with the link between the attenuated quality of secret nuclear weapon programs and the robustness of regional deterrence. And finally, from an international relations theory perspective, there is a question whether observations of secrecy from India's weaponization program are transportable to other states in the international system.

Scholars have generally sought to explain India's slow pace of weaponization in the 1990s as resulting from the normative beliefs of its leaders and a state elite culture of restraint. The evidence presented in this article clearly shows that Indian leaders in the 1990s followed a Janus-faced strategy. While citing normative reasons for restraint in public, they secretly authorized a weaponization program. It is also evident that India's political leaders and national security managers understood that the significance of nuclear weapons went beyond political symbolism. This is the reason why they devoted inordinate attention to developing mechanisms for the safe and reliable delivery of nuclear weapons. The lack of soft operational routines had little to do with the socialization of India's scientists and national security managers into best institutional practices drawn from the lessons of the Cold War. Rather, it had a lot to do with managing India's relationship with the United States. The conclusion that emerges is that India's long road to weaponization was the consequence of technological challenges that stemmed from secrecy-induced organizational pathologies as well as the difficulties of persuading the United States to accept its de facto nuclear status. These are realist and not normative or cultural reasons for restraint. Indeed, India's case is a cautionary tale of the perils of making compelling explanations when data are scarce.

This leads to the inevitable question: What implications does India's slow pace of weaponization have for emerging nuclear weapon powers such as North Korea and possibly Iran in the future? Scholars and analysts generally cite structural reasons for their lack of technical progress. These include weaknesses in industrial capacity, the quality of scientific personnel, and insufficient economic resources. India's case suggests, however, that causes for delay are often institutional and organizational. It shows that secrecy hinders weaponization and operationalization in covertly proliferating states. Top decisionmakers tend to hoard and compartmentalize information. They also hesitate in delegating tasks across multiple actors and agencies. Both conditions work against holistic planning and parallel processing within the state. They create institutional incentives for sequential decisionmaking, which slows the program's progress. Further, information scarcity, which is the inevitable consequence of secrecy, exacerbates principal-agent management dilemmas, often leaving top decisionmakers unaware of the technical and organizational challenges of developing an operational nuclear force. The Indian case also shows that a state possessing nuclear devices might lack the means of delivering them reliably and safely. Further, in the absence of soft operational routines, the state might even lack the means to use existing weapons instrumentally.

This means that the nuclear nonproliferation regime has a far greater restraining effect on the activities of proliferating states than is normally understood. These effects are more subtle and go beyond the legal and normative fetters that are generally considered the principal constraints imposed by the regime. Both signatory and nonsignatory states to the NPT are aware of the logic of consequences that are likely to follow from their quest for nuclear weapons. That potential logic of consequences is negative and has worsened with the passage of time. Technology denials and export controls from the 1970s and 1980s have made way for more aggressive counterproliferation strategies that involve a spectrum of actions from cyber and physical sabotage to the assassination of scientists. Hence the demand for secrecy with its debilitating consequences for institutional and organizational efficiency has expanded. This does not mean that the nonproliferation regime will necessarily prevent states from acquiring nuclear weapons, but it does seem to have the effect of stretching out the weaponization and operationalization processes. The longer development time span in turn creates opportunities for changing a state's course of action through diplomatic means, through sabotage, sanctions, or simply a turn of fortune resulting from changes in the targeted state's leadership. Hence, just the act of maintaining consistent and intense scrutiny on a state can have retarding effects on its proliferation effort. The United States and the international community have far greater leverage in preventing negative proliferation outcomes than they imagine.

The other implication is that “existential” deterrence is a blanket concept for minimal capabilities with virtually no operational military value. This raises the question: How can the mere existence of weapons deter if a state lacks the means to transport and explode them reliably? Similarly, how can deterrence operate if the nuclear possessor state lacks the soft organizational routines to use weapons instrumentally? The argument in support of existential deterrence is that weaponization and operational capabilities or the lack thereof on the part of possessor states do not matter because deterrence is a mind game. No adversary is likely to run the risk of testing a nuclear possessor's credibility because of the catastrophic risk and consequences of a potential nuclear event.

The irony of such thinking is that emerging nuclear weapon powers do not appear to believe that existential deterrence has much purchase. If they did, they would sit tight on their plateau of crude devices and feel little compulsion to resume the hard upward climb toward more sophisticated operational capabilities. The data from India, Pakistan, and North Korea show compellingly that states care about sophisticated and reliable delivery systems. The Indian and Pakistani cases also show that emerging nuclear powers believe that soft institutional and organizational capabilities are imperative for deterring adversaries credibly. One therefore needs to rethink notions of “existential” deterrence and whether setting the conceptual bar low for potential proliferators actually encourages proliferation. On the other hand, if “existential” capabilities do not actually threaten in the military sense, one ought also to rethink whether they could become an acceptable compromise with states such as North Korea or possibly with Iran in the future, if a viable inspection regime ensures no further development in hard and soft capabilities.

This subject of soft routines is also one that is routinely ignored in the assessment of proliferation threats. In the study of proliferation cases, the focus is generally on the nuclear fuel cycle and the development of the weapon itself. Scholars and analysts pay far lesser attention to the human and organizational dimensions of proliferation. The former are relatively easy to identify and measure. The latter are subtler and often poorly visible, but their general invisibility should not be cause to ignore them. Hardware and weapons on their own are incapable of giving agency to a nuclear possessor state. Agency is a condition of the human and organizational element. The issue of agency is also central to understanding why states seek nuclear weapons and also how they propose to leverage them in the international system. Material objects are mute. They imply power, but they cannot exercise it on their own.

Finally, from a theory development perspective, the challenge of generalizing the secrecy argument from the Indian case to other cases in the international system is a vexing one. Secrecy is a characteristic of all nuclear weapon programs. The data do, however, show that the gap between device development and weaponization has expanded significantly in the post-NPT era. Jacques Hymans's recent work also highlights the high failure rate of proliferation programs in this period.140 In Iraq's case, data suggest that the pall of secrecy that shrouded the uranium enrichment effort in the wake of Israel's destruction of the Osiraq reactor, especially constraints on horizontal communications within teams working on different uranium enrichment processes, caused those programs to stall.141 Further, secrecy-induced weak oversight mechanisms within Iraq kept Saddam Hussein and his henchmen in the dark about the true state of Iraq's progress toward obtaining a nuclear weapon. It is still unclear whether secrecy produced similar disruptive effects within Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, but that is because granular data on Pakistan's weaponization program are still unavailable.142 There is new evidence, however, to suggest that Pakistan lacked the means to deliver weapons until 1994–95,143 far beyond the date many analysts believed. In Iran's case, the linkage between secrecy and sequential planning has become increasingly salient. International scrutiny, fears of assassination of nuclear scientists, and cyberattacks have all narrowed the focus of the program to primarily uranium enrichment. No credible data have emerged after the early 2000s of a parallel Iranian nuclear weapon design and weaponization program. At the very least, therefore, scholars and analysts need to pay more attention to the process of proliferation beyond simply proliferation outcomes and their imagined consequences.


The author would like to thank Matthew Evangelista, Sumit Ganguly, Peter Katzenstein, and Christopher Way for working very closely with him in producing the first draft of this article. Manjari Chatterjee, Aaron Friedberg, Bharath Gopalaswamy, Devesh Kapur, Anit Mukherjee, Vipin Narang, Srinath Raghavan, and Stephen Rosen commented on an earlier draft at a conference at the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania. Finally, critical feedback from the anonymous reviewers helped give this article its final shape.



Jacques E.C. Hymans, Achieving Nuclear Ambitions: Scientists, Politicians, and Proliferation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 41–75, 248–255; and Jacques E.C. Hymans, “North Korea's Lessons for Not Building an Atomic Bomb,” Foreign Affairs, April 16, 2012, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/137408/jacques-e-c-hymans/north-koreas-lessons-for-not-building-an-atomic-bomb.


The term “instrumental” here refers to deliberate agency.


Peter Liberman, “The Rise and Fall of the South African Bomb,” International Security, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Fall 2001), pp. 55–57.


Hymans's work Achieving Nuclear Ambitions constitutes the first serious attempt to explore the process of nuclear proliferation and the lengthening gap in the success rate of pre- and post-NPT nuclear proliferators. It too, however, focuses on the development process of a nuclear device, not weaponization and operational capabilities.


Scott D. Sagan and Kenneth N. Waltz, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012), pp. 17–26.


Scott D. Sagan, “Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons? Three Models in Search of a Bomb,” International Security, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Winter 1996/97), pp. 54–86.


For variations of this argument, see, for example, Neil Joeck, “Tacit Bargaining and Stable Proliferation in South Asia,” in Avner Cohen and Benjamin Frankel, eds., Opaque Nuclear Proliferation: Methodological and Policy Implications (Portland, Ore.: Frank Cass, 1991), pp. 78–80; Jacques E.C. Hymans, The Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation: Identity, Emotions, and Foreign Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 195–203; and George Perkovich, India's Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), pp. 448–449.


George Perkovich, “A Nuclear Third Way in South Asia,” Foreign Policy, No. 91 (Summer 1993), pp. 85–104.


Rajesh M. Basrur, “Nuclear Weapons and Indian Strategic Culture,” Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 38, No. 2 (March 2001), pp. 181–198.


Stephen P. Rosen, Societies and Military Power: India and Its Armies (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996), pp. 251–253.


Perkovich, India's Nuclear Bomb, p. 293.


George H. Quester, “Nuclear Pakistan and Nuclear India: Stable Deterrent or Proliferation Challenge” (Carlisle, Pa.: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 1992), pp. 5, 7–10.


Perkovich, India's Nuclear Bomb, p. 295.


Leonard Spector with Jacqueline R. Smith, Nuclear Ambitions: The Spread of Nuclear Weapons, 1989–1990 (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1990), p. 79.


Steve Coll, “South Asia Retains Its Nuclear Option: India and Pakistan Pose Dual Risk as Potential Flash Points,” Washington Post, September 30, 1991.


India and Pakistan faced a dangerous military standoff during the winter of 1989 and spring of 1990. The crisis resulted from the outbreak of an insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir that was actively supported by Pakistani military and intelligence agencies. During the crisis, Pakistan allegedly sought to catalyze U.S. support and intervention by signaling that it might use nuclear weapons if the crisis turned to war; the United States believed that Pakistan might have assembled and possibly deployed a nuclear weapon. In January 1990, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shahabzada Yakub Khan traveled to Delhi and delivered what Indian political leaders perceived as a veiled nuclear threat. The crisis was ultimately defused with the help of U.S. diplomatic intervention. See Kargil Review Committee, From Surprise to Reckoning: The Kargil Review Committee Report (New Delhi: Sage, 1999), pp. 65, 204; P.R. Chari, Pervaiz Iqbal Cheema, and Stephen P. Cohen, The Compound Crisis of 1990: Perception, Politics, and Insecurity (London: Routledge, 2003); Seymour M. Hersh, “On the Nuclear Edge,” New Yorker, March 29, 1993, http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1993/03/29/1993_03_29_056_TNY_CARDS_000363214; and William E. Burrows and Robert Windrem, Critical Mass: The Dangerous Race for Superweapons in a Fragmenting World (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994).


James Adams, “Pakistan Nuclear War Threat,” Sunday Times (London), May 27, 1990.


Michael R. Gordon, “South Asian Lands Pressed on Nuclear Arms,” New York Times, March 23, 1994.


R. James Woolsey, testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, Proliferation Threats of the 1990s: Hearing before the Committee on Governmental Affairs, 102nd Cong., 1st sess., February 24, 1993 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1993), pp. 14–15.


According to the testimony of Scientific Adviser to the Defense Minister A.P.J. Abdul Kalam before the Kargil Review Committee, weaponization was completed from 1992 to 1994. The records of this and other conversations pertaining to India's nuclear weapons program from the early 1980s until 1998 are contained in the annexure to the report, which has not been declassified. See Kargil Review Committee, From Surprise to Reckoning, p. 205. The author's interviews with several senior retired Indian air force officers at the highest levels suggest that India achieved an air-deliverable capability sometime in 1995. See also Raj Chengappa, Weapons of Peace: The Secret Story of India's Quest to Be a Nuclear Power (New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2000), pp. 382–383.


Chengappa, Weapons of Peace, pp. 332–333.


Interviews with senior Indian defense official “X,” New Delhi, India, October/November 2009.


Interviews with senior Indian air force officer “Z,” Gurgaon, India, February 2010.


The Kargil War between India and Pakistan was triggered by the latter's incursion into and occupation of mountain ridgelines on the Indian side of the line of control (LoC) in Kashmir. The war lasted from May to July 1999, and ended with Pakistan's withdrawal from all positions on the Indian side of the LoC. See Jasjit E. Singh, ed., Kargil 1999: Pakistan's Fourth War for Kashmir (New Delhi: South Asia, 1999); and Peter R. Lavoy, ed., Asymmetric Warfare in South Asia: The Causes and Consequences of the Kargil Conflict (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).


Interviews with senior Indian defense official “A,” New Delhi, India, July/August 2010.




L.K. Jha, “Nuclear Policy,” Prime Minister's Secretariat, May 3, 1967, P.N. Haksar Files, Sub. F.-111, Nehru Memorial Library, New Delhi, India.


Perkovich, India's Nuclear Bomb, pp. 121, 173–174.


Ibid., pp. 173–174.


Kargil Review Committee, From Surprise to Reckoning, pp. 185–187.


Ibid., pp. 199–206.


Interviews with senior Indian defense official “X.”


I borrow this characterization from Ashley J. Tellis's India's Emerging Nuclear Posture: Between Recessed Deterrent and Ready Arsenal (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 2001); and interviews with senior Indian defense official “X.”


Itty Abraham, “India's ‘Strategic Enclave’: Civilian Scientists and Military Technologies,” Armed Forces & Society, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Winter 1992), pp. 232–252.


The BARC is the nerve center of India's nuclear weapons design and development program. For career trajectories of these officials, see Chengappa, Weapons of Peace.


For an overview of technical developments during the 1980s and 1990s, see ibid.


Perkovich, India's Nuclear Bomb, p. 243.


Interview with V.S. Arunachalam (science adviser to the defense minister/secretary, Defense Research and Development Organization, 1983–92), Bangalore, India, May 2009.


Brasstacks was a large military exercise held by the Indian army in the Rajasthan desert facing Pakistan during the winter of 1986–87. The exercise triggered a Pakistani military counter-mobilization and almost drove the two countries to war. According to the Indian government's Kargil Review Committee report, during the crisis, Pakistan conveyed a nuclear threat to the Indian government through India's high commissioner (S.K. Singh) in Islamabad. See Kargil Review Committee, From Surprise to Reckoning, p. 191; and P.R. Chari et al., Brasstacks and Beyond: Perception and Management of Crisis in South Asia (New Delhi: Manohar, 1995), pp. 23–67.


Chengappa, Weapons of Peace, pp. 303–305, at p. 303.


Kargil Review Committee, From Surprise to Reckoning, p. 190. The committee reported that estimates of the “number of cores/devices/weapons in Pakistan's possession” varied in different intelligence reports and assessments prepared for the government.


B.G. Deshmukh, From Poona to the Prime Minister's Office: A Cabinet Secretary Looks Back (New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2004), pp. 170–171; and Chengappa, Weapons of Peace, pp. 331–332.


Deshmukh, From Poona to the Prime Minister's Office, p. 171; and Chengappa, Weapons of Peace, p. 335.


Chengappa, Weapons of Peace, pp. 353–356.


Perkovich, India's Nuclear Bomb, pp. 313–314.


Interviews with K. Subrahmanyam, Noida, India, October 2009.




Perkovich, India's Nuclear Bomb, p. 313.


Chengappa, Weapons of Peace, p. 391.


Interviews with senior Indian defense official “X.”


Chengappa, Weapons of Peace, pp. 253–255, 260.


Deshmukh, From Poona to the Prime Minister's Office, pp. 163–166.


Interview with Ambassador Naresh Chandra, New Delhi, India, November 2009.


Interview with Subrahmanyam.


K. Sundarji, ed., “Effects of Nuclear Asymmetry on Conventional Deterrence,” Combat Paper, No.1, Mhow, April 1981.


W.P.S. Sidhu, The Development of an Indian Nuclear Doctrine since 1980, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Cambridge, 1997, pp. 303–316.


Interview with Vijay Oberoi (vice chief of army staff, 2001–02), Chandigarh, India, July 2010.


Interview with senior army officer “Q” (NBC Warfare Directorate: Army Headquarters), New Delhi, India, May 2009.


Quoted in Chengappa, Weapons of Peace, p. 327.


Interview with S.K. Sareen (chief of air staff, 1995–98), Gurgaon, India, January 2010.


Interview with “O” (retired chief of air staff), New Delhi, India, December 2009.




Interviews with senior Indian defense official “X.”


Interviews with senior air force officer “Z.”


Interview with Arunachalam.


Chuck Hansen, U.S. Nuclear Weapons: The Secret History (New York: Orion, 1988), p. 13.


Ibid., p. 17.


K. Subrahmanyam, “Indian Nuclear Policy, 1964–98 (A Personal Recollection),” in Jasjit E. Singh, ed., Nuclear India (New Delhi: Knowledge World, 1998), p. 44.


Chengappa, Weapons of Peace, p. 354.




Perkovich, India's Nuclear Bomb, p. 305; and Shekhar Gupta, “Know What They Did That Summer,” Indian Express, August 12, 2006, http://www.indianexpress.com/news/know-what-they-did-that-summer/10366/.


Gupta, “Know What They Did That Summer.”


India began developing the short-range Prithvi ballistic missile as part of its Integrated Guided Missile Program in 1983. The maiden launch of the missile occurred in 1987. Flight trials or the Prithvi continued until the late 1990s. There is evidence to suggest that Indian defense agencies were able to modify warheads for ballistic missile delivery by 1996–97. It is uncertain if the systems met operational standards of reliability, however. According to a former commander in chief, Strategic Forces Command, who spoke to the author on the condition of anonymity, even as late as 2003–04, combat aircraft were the most flexible and reliable nuclear delivery systems India possessed. See Chengappa, Weapons of Peace, p. 418; and interview with “P,” (commander in chief, Strategic Forces Command), New Delhi, India, April 2009.


Interviews with senior Indian air force officer “Z.”




Interviews with retired air marshal “N,” New Delhi, India, January 2010.


Interviews with senior Indian air force officer “S,” New Delhi, India, December 2009/January 2010.




Interviews with senior Indian air force officer “Z.”


Interviews with senior Indian air force officer “S.”


Interviews with senior Indian air force officer “Z.”








Chengappa, Weapons of Peace, pp. 354–355.




Ibid., p. 356.


The committee is composed of the ministers of external affairs, defense, home, and finance.


Interviews with senior Indian defense official “X.”






Interviews with senior Indian air force officer “Z.”




Interviews with senior Indian defense official “X.”


The three prime ministers were Chandrashekhar, Gujral, and Gowda. See interview with Arunachalam; and interviews with senior defense official “X.”


Perkovich, India's Nuclear Bomb, p. 377.


Interviews with senior defense official “X.”


For example, a typical nuclear task force would include two nuclear-armed aircraft, three to four electronic countermeasures escort aircraft, three to four aircraft for air defense, and a similar number to suppress enemy ground defenses. A single mission would comprise fifteen to twenty aircraft, and at least two or three decoy missions would be planned simultaneously. See Pravin Sawhney, “Bombed,” Force, February 2004, p. 8.


Interviews with senior Indian defense official “A.”


Interview with retired air marshal “N.”


Interviews with senior Indian defense official “A.”


Interview with Ajit Bhavnani (air marshal and commander in chief, Strategic Forces Command), New Delhi, India, February 2010.




Interview with Arunachalam.


Interviews with retired air marshal “N.”


Interviews with senior Indian Air Force officer “Z.”


Interviews with senior defense official “A.”






Interviews with senior defense official “A.”


For example, Air Marshal Krishnaswamy, the lead test pilot in the DRDO's nuclear air delivery program in the 1990s, was not authorized to share information about the technical aspects of nuclear operations with his superiors at Air Headquarters. When the Kargil War broke out in May 1999, Krishnaswamy was commander in chief of the air force's southwestern command facing Pakistan. He was summoned from his headquarters in Gandhinagar (Gujarat) to New Delhi to personally vouch for the chief of air staff's designated representatives before DRDO liaison K. Santhanam prior to the commencement of joint operations planning between the two agencies. Air Marshal Krishnaswamy went on to serve as India's chief of air staff from 2001 to 2004. See ibid.


Perkovich, India's Nuclear Bomb, pp. 448–449.


Rajesh M. Basrur, Minimum Deterrence and India's Nuclear Security (Redwood City, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2006), pp. 60–62; and Perkovich, India's Nuclear Bomb, pp. 83–85, 199–204, 209–216.


Chengappa, Weapons of Peace, pp. 291–305.


Perkovich, India's Nuclear Bomb, pp. 242–244; and Chengappa, Weapons of Peace, pp. 246–261.


Chengappa, Weapons of Peace, pp. 303–305.


Ibid., pp. 353–361, 367–371, 396–400; and H.D. Deve Gowda, “Dear Prime Minister Sri Vajpayeeji,” Rediff on the Net, May 22, 1998, http://www.rediff.com/news/1998/may/22deve.htm.


Joeck, “Tacit Bargaining and Stable Proliferation in South Asia,” pp. 78–80.




Devin T. Hagerty, “Nuclear Deterrence in South Asia: The 1990 Indo-Pakistani Nuclear Crisis,” International Security, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Winter 1995/96), pp. 79–114.


Devin T. Hagerty, The Consequences of Nuclear Proliferation: Lessons from South Asia (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998), pp. 53–56.


Perkovich, “A Nuclear Third Way in South Asia.”


Kargil Review Committee, From Surprise to Reckoning, p. 190.


Chengappa, Weapons of Peace, p. 336.


The most recent articulation of this argument is contained in Stephen P. Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta, Arming without Aiming: India's Military Modernization (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2010).


Colin S. Gray, War, Peace, and International Relations: An Introduction to Strategic History (Oxford: Routledge, 2007), p. 283.


Scott Sigmund Gartner, Strategic Assessment in War (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 163.


Basrur, Minimum Deterrence and India's Nuclear Security, pp. 57–59.


Ibid., p. 58.


Ibid., pp. 60–65.


Ibid., pp. 67–73.


See, for example, K. Sundarji, Blind Men of Hindoostan (New Delhi: UBS, 1993).


Ibid., pp. 66–67.


Rosen, Societies and Military Power, pp. 251–253.


Interviews with senior Indian defense official “X.”


Srinath Raghavan, “Soldiers, Statesmen, and India's Security Policy,” India Review, Vol. 11, No. 2 (May 2012), pp. 116–133.


Shashank Joshi, “The Indian Mutiny That Wasn't,” Foreign Policy, April 5, 2012, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/04/05/the_indian_mutiny_that_wasn_t.


See Bharath Karnad, India's Nuclear Policy (Westport, Conn.: Praeger Security International, 2008).


Vipin Narang, “Five Myths about India's Nuclear Posture,” Washington Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 3 (September 2013), pp. 143–157, http://web.mit.edu/polisci/news/pdf/NarangFiveMyths.pdf.


Hymans, Achieving Nuclear Ambitions.


Mahdi Obeidi and Kurt Pitzer, “The Centrifuge,” The Bomb in My Garden: The Secrets of Saddam's Nuclear Mastermind (Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley and Sons, 2004), p. 53; Hymans, Achieving Nuclear Ambitions, p. 99; and Imad Khadduri, Iraq's Nuclear Mirage: Memoirs and Delusions (Toronto: Springhead, 2003), p. 74.


Khadduri, Iraq's Nuclear Mirage, p. 82.


Feroz Khan's Eating Grass is the first serious data-collection effort on Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, but it paints the program in the best possible light (i.e., as a linear series of progressions). It does not provide a critical historical narrative similar to Perkovich's work on India or Avner Cohen's history of the Israeli program. Khan, Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb (Redwood City, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2012), pp. 185–186, 229–232.