Bombs Galore: India’s Nuclear Weapons Stockpile Keeps Growing

Here’s What You Need to Remember: India’s nuclear missile force is only fifteen years old, but it already has four types of land-based ballistic missiles: the short-range Prithvi-II and Agni-I, the medium-range Agni-II and the intermediate-range Agni-III.

India has 130 to 140 nuclear warheads—and more are coming, according to a recent 2018 report.

“India is estimated to have produced enough military plutonium for 150 to 200 nuclear warheads, but has likely produced only 130 to 140,” according to Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists back in 2018. “Nonetheless, additional plutonium will be required to produce warheads for missiles now under development, and India is reportedly building several new plutonium production facilities.”

In addition, “India continues to modernize its nuclear arsenal, with at least five new weapon systems now under development to complement or replace existing nuclear-capable aircraft, land-based delivery systems, and sea-based systems.”

Unlike the missile-centric U.S. and Russian nuclear forces, India still heavily relies on bombers, perhaps not unexpected for a nation that fielded its first nuclear-capable ballistic missile in 2003. Kristensen and Korda estimate India maintains three or four nuclear strike squadrons of Cold War-vintage, French-made Mirage 2000H and Jaguar IS/IB aircraft targeted at Pakistan and China.

“Despite the upgrades, the original nuclear bombers are getting old and India is probably searching for a modern fighter-bomber that could potentially take over the air-based nuclear strike role in the future,” the report notes. India is buying thirty-six French Rafale fighters that carry nuclear weapons in French service, and presumably could do for India.

India’s nuclear missile force is only fifteen years old, but it already has four types of land-based ballistic missiles: the short-range Prithvi-II and Agni-I, the medium-range Agni-II and the intermediate-range Agni-III. “At least two other longer-range Agni missiles are under development: the Agni-IV and Agni-V,” says the report. “It remains to be seen how many of these missile types India plans to fully develop and keep in its arsenal. Some may serve as technology development programs toward longer-range missiles.”

“Although the Indian government has made no statements about the future size or composition of its land-based missile force, short-range and redundant missile types could potentially be discontinued, Files with only medium- and long-range missiles deployed in the future to provide a mix of strike options against near and distant targets,” the report noted.

India is also developing the Nirbhay ground-launched cruise missile, similar to the U.S. Tomahawk. In addition, there is Dhanush sea-based, short-range ballistic missile, which is fired from two specially-configured patrol vessels. The report estimates that India is building three or four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, which will be equipped with a short-range missile, or a bigger missile with a range of 2,000 miles.

It’s an ambitious program. “The government appears to be planning to field a diverse missile force that will be expensive to maintain and operate,” the report points out.

What remains to be seen is what will be the command and control system to make sure these missiles are fired when—and only when—they should be. And, of course, since Pakistan and China also have nuclear weapons, Indian leaders may find that more nukes only lead to an arms race that paradoxically leaves their nation less secure.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook. This article first appeared in 2018 and is reprinted here due to reader interest.

Image: Reuters.





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Why India Risked Everything to Build Nuclear Weapons

Here’s What You Need to Know: India’s nuclear triad is a mix of capabilities—free-falling bombs, long-range and quite sophisticated missiles, and sub-launched missiles of unclear capabilities and likely limited range.

India’s indigenously developed technology—and a lot of Russian hardware and help—all keep Pakistan and China at bay.

No-First-Use

“An NFU policy essentially constitutes a promise, backed by a survivable nuclear arsenal, to only use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack,” explained a Carnegie publication. “The logic is simple and effective: you don’t nuke me, and I won’t nuke you. India and China both have declared no-first-use policies, whereas Pakistan and the United States, among others, do not rule out the first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict.” 

Despite India’s formidable nuclear arsenal, India had since 2003 maintained it will not use said weapons of mass destruction first, but strictly in a retaliatory manner for deterrence. 

However, 2019, India called their no first use policy into question when Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh said that “Till today, our nuclear policy is ‘no first use’. What happens in future depends on the circumstances.” This curious statement is perhaps an example of deliberate strategic ambiguity.

Triad

India maintains a nuclear triad—that is a three-pronged nuclear weapon delivery system that utilizes a diverse array of means for delivering nuclear payload on target. New Delhi has air-launched nuclear missiles, land-based nuclear missiles, and most recently submarine-launched missiles. 

Air

Air delivery was India’s original nuclear delivery prong. Although speculative, it is believed that Indian SEPECAT Jaguars and Dassault Mirage 2000s are the primary (perhaps only) vehicles capable of delivering nuclear bombs from the air. It is also possible that Indian nuclear bombs are non-precision munitions that rely on impact to detonate. 

Land

From land, India has a formidable missile launch capability intended to deter both China and Pakistan—though China especially rarely acknowledges India’s nuclear missile capability. 

In order to maintain a credible threat against China, India has pursued a strategy of improving their nuclear inter-continental ballistic missiles. This has been often done in tandem with Russia, despite the latter’s partnership with China in other defense-related areas.

The Agni missile family forms the backbone of the land-based nuclear triad. Although the Agni-IV and Agni-V are still in development, once deployed they would comfortably be able to strike Beijing, though the Agni-II and Agni-III are very likely already capable of doing so. 

The jointly Russian-Indian developed BrahMos hypersonic missile may also otentially be able to carry nuclear payload in the future, although this remains unconcrete and speculative. 

Sea

According to a quoted CIA report, “Russia has significantly supported in developing India’s nuclear programmes with technology and equipment, and become a main source of arms for the country,” especially regarding the sea-based part of the triad. 

What India’s sea-based nuclear prong looks like is somewhat speculative as well, although the range of submarine-based missiles will likely be limited to below-1,000 kilometers, or approximately 620 miles. 

Armed and Dangerous

Over all, India’s nuclear triad is a mix of capabilities—free-falling bombs, long-range and quite sophisticated missiles, and sub-launched missiles of unclear capabilities and likely limited range. Still, India is one of the preeminent nuclear powers in the region, behind China. Look to Russia for more developmental help in the future. 

Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.

This article first appeared in April 2020.

Image: Reuters



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India’s Third Aircraft Carrier Is Most Likely a Waste of Money

Here’s What You Need to Know: Indian carriers would be relatively vulnerable in any future conflict.The Indian Navy has put out a proposal for its third aircraft carrier, tentatively titled the Vishal due to enter service in the latter 2020s. The 65,000-ton Vishal will be significantly larger than India’s sole current carrier, the Vikramaditya known formerly as the ex-Soviet Admiral Gorshkov, and the incoming second one, the domestically-built Vikrantwhich is expected to enter service later in 2018.

To see why Vishal is a big deal for the Indian Navy, one needs only to look at her proposed air wing — some 57 fighters, more than Vikramaditya — 24 MiG-29Ks — and Vikrant‘s wing of around 30 MiG-29Ks. While below the 75+ aircraft aboard a U.S. Navy Gerald R. Ford-class supercarrier, Vishal will be a proper full-size carrier and India’s first, as the preceding two are really small-deck carriers and limited in several significant ways.

The Indian Navy is also looking at an electromagnetic launch system for its third carrier, similar to the one aboard the Ford class. India’s first two carriers have STOBAR configurations, in which aircraft launch with the assistance of a ski-jump, which limits the maximum weight a plane can lift into the air. Typically this means that fighters must sacrifice weapons, or fuel thus limiting range, or a combination of both.

The Indian Navy is searching for a foreign-sourced twin-engine fighter for the Vishal, with the U.S. F/A-18 and French Rafale in the running, and India has already ordered 36 multi-role Rafales for its air force. This is a blow to advocates of an Indian-made fighter for the carrier such as naval version of the delta-wing HAL Tejas, which is too heavy for carrier work.

(This article first appeared in January 2018.)

But regardless of what kind of fighters Vishal uses, the question is whether India really needs a third carrier, which will cost billions of dollars over its lifetime. To be sure, a third and much larger carrier will free up the burden on the Vikramaditya and Vikrant, only one of which is likely to be battle-ready at any given time.

These smaller carriers probably have fewer operational fighters than they do on paper, given that the air wings likely have serviceability rates below 100 percent. Vikramaditya by itself could have significantly less than 24 MiGs capable of flying — and fighting.

Now imagine a scenario in which these carriers go to battle.

Most likely, India would attempt to enforce a blockade of Pakistan and use its carriers to strike land-based targets. But Pakistan has several means to attack Indian carriers — with near-undetectable submarines and anti-ship missiles — which must also operate relatively far from India itself in the western and northern Arabian Sea. China does not have a similar disadvantage, as the PLAN would likely keep its carriers close and within the “first island chain” including Taiwan, closer to shore where supporting aircraft and ground-based missile launchers can help out.

Thus, Indian carriers would be relatively vulnerable and only one of them will have aircraft capable of launching with standard ordnance and fuel. And that is after Vishal sets sail in the next decade.

To directly threaten Pakistan, the small-deck carriers will have to maneuver nearer to shore — and thereby closer to “anti-access / area denial” weapons which could sink them. And even with a third carrier, the threat of land-based Pakistani aircraft will force the Indian Navy to dedicate a large proportion of its own air wings to defense — perhaps half of its available fighters, according to 2017 paper by Ben Wan Beng Ho for the Naval War College Review.

“Therefore, it is doubtful that any attack force launched from an Indian carrier would pack a significant punch,” Ho writes. “With aircraft available for strike duties barely numbering into the double digits, the Indian carrier simply cannot deliver a substantial ‘pulse’ of combat power against its adversary.”

Essentially, this makes Indian carriers’ self-defeating, with the flattops existing primarily to defend themselves from attack rather than taking the fight to their enemy. Carriers are also expensive symbols of national prestige, and it is unlikely the Indian Navy will want to risk losing one, two or all three. Under the circumstances, India’s investment in carriers makes more sense symbolically, and primarily as a way of keeping shipyards busy and shipyard workers employed.

However, this is not to entirely rule out a carrier-centric naval strategy. Ho notes that Indian carriers could be useful when operating far out at sea and in the western Arabian Sea, effectively as escort ships for commercial shipping and to harass Pakistani trade. Nevertheless, this strategy comes with a similar set of problems.

“In any attempt to impose sea control in the northern Arabian Sea and to interdict Pakistani seaborne commerce by enforcing a blockade of major Pakistani maritime nodes, Indian carrier forces would have to devote a portion of their already meager airpower to attacking Pakistani vessels, thereby exacerbating the conundrum alluded to earlier,” Ho added. “What is more, Pakistani ships are likely to operate relatively close to their nation’s coast, to be protected by Islamabad’s considerable access-denial barrier.”

Another possibility is India massing its carriers in the later stages of a war after the Army and Air Force pummel and degrade the Pakistani military.

But this raises the question as to whether India strictly needs carriers at all if it cannot use them during the decisive periods of a conflict — as opposed to, say, less-expensive warships, and more of them, equipped with long-range missiles.

Image: The Indian Navy’s INS Vikramaditya / REUTERS



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Was the Russian MiG-27 Too Powerful for Its Own Good?

Here’s What You Need to Know: Despite problems with its cannon, the MiG-27 was reportedly deemed a reliable, smooth-handling aircraft.

On December 27, 2019, the Indian Air Force bade farewell to the last of the beefy MiG-27 attack jets it had dubbed the Bahadur (“Valiant”) in a ceremony held by No. 29 squadron at Jodhpur air station.

The powerful swing-wing jets were a Soviet warplanes license-built by India and upgraded with 2000s-era avionics. Armed with unguided bombs, rockets and an earth-shattering six barreled Gatling guns, the type had seen extensive action during the 1999 Kargil War, blasting Pakistani troops on Himalayan peaks at 18,000 feet above sea level.

Distinguished by its flattened ‘duck bill’ nose leading some pilots to nickname it ‘the Platypus,’ the MiG-27 was not widely exported like the MiG-23 fighter it was spun off from. But aside from combat service in India and Sri Lanka, perhaps it best ought to be remembered for mounting a huge Gatling cannon that threatened to shake the armored warplane apart.

Supersonic Shturmovik

Despite having mass-produced the legendary Il-2 Shturmovik attack plane during World War II, early Soviet Su-7 attacks jets exhibited decidedly lackluster performance and payload—a shortcoming the Soviet Union decided to rectify in the late 1960s. 

While the Sukhoi design bureau developed the improved Su-17/Su-20/Su-22 “Fitter” family of supersonic attack jets and the armored, subsonic Su-25 Frogfoot, rival Mikoyan-i-Gurevich opted to create ground-attack model of its forthcoming MiG-23 ‘Flogger’ single-engine fighter. A late-coming Soviet response to the American F-4 Phantom, the MiG-23 was a fast but temperamental beast due to the trickiness of its swing-wing mechanisms.

The first ground attack variant was the MiG-23B, codenamed the Flogger-F by NATO. This had a down-sloped nose for better visibility, steel and aluminum armor fitted around the cockpit and engines, and a then-sophisticated jamming and radio navigation system. It ditched the MiG-23’s air search radar for a laser-rangefinder. The production MiG-23BN model also used a Tumansky R-29 turbojet with superior low-speed performance.

This was a Flogger meant to get down and dirty at high speeds, unleashing 23-millimeter cannon shells, unguided bombs and rockets on enemy troops. The MiG-23BN could also make use of radio-command guided Kh-23 missiles and radar-seeking weapons, as well as short-range K-13 or R-60 heat-seeking air-to-air missiles for self-defense.

However, the MiG bureau followed the MiG-23BN with a more extensive redesign rebranded the MiG-27 (Flogger-D) with modified engine intakes and ruggedized landing gear, decreasing maximum speed to Mach 1.7 at 26,000 feet, but increasing the Flogger’s maximum weapons load to 8,800 pounds mounted on five hardpoints (or seven hardpoints at the expense of swing-wing capability).

The MiG-27’s hydraulically-actuated swing wings allowed it to tailor performance to the situation: fully extended at 16 degrees, they afforded it superior lift and low-speed handling. Fully swept-back at 72 degrees, they allowed excellent supersonic performance for making a fast getaway after unloading weapons. An intermediate 45-degree sweep was standard for routine flying.

The MiG-27 also swapped out the MiG-23’s twin-barrel 23-millimeter cannon for a monstrous six-barrel 30-millimeter GSh-6-30 cannon slung in an under-fuselage gondola at a 1.3 degree offset, drawing from 300 rounds stored in the fuselage. 

The huge Shipunov gun had a cyclic fire-rate of 5,000 rounds per minute (see this video), and its gas-operated system spun to maximum firing rate faster than the hydraulic mechanism on the famous 30-millimeter GAU-8 Avenger cannon on American A-10 aircraft.

Indian pilot Anshuman Mainkar described what it was like to fire the huge gun in an interview by Hushkit.net:

“The aircraft seemingly came to a stand-still, engrossed with its target – tracers creating an illusion of morse communication. Smoke and the smell of cordite entered the cockpit, and in a flash it was all over…the airframe shuddered during the trigger pull, and surge was a possibility, hence the exit had to be smooth and deliberate.”

Indeed, the two-meter long cannon produced a whopping 6 tons of recoil that produced vibrations powerful enough to crack fuel tanks, break avionics systems, and reliably cause landing lights to fly off their mountings—not a good thing for pilots hoping to make a night time landing! Even landing gear doors sometimes tore from firing, resulting in accidents.

The VVS Frontal Aviation took in 360 MiG-27s through 1977 before 197 modernized MiG-27K and 162 slightly simplified MiG-27M models (Flogger-J2 and J) were phased in with new avionics including improved jammers, radar warning systems, and a lock-maintaining laser targeter compatible with laser- and TV-guided KAB-500 bombs and Kh-25 and -29 missiles.

Despite the problems with the cannon, the MiG-27 reportedly otherwise deemed a reliable, smooth-handling aircraft. Though not particularly agile, it was both fast and a stable firing platform with good low-speed performance.

Unlike MiG-23s of all stripes or its rival the Su-17/20/22, the MiG-27s issuing from Soviet factories were reserved for Soviet tactical air force (VVS)—with the notable exception of 165 license-assembled by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited in India. 

In the end, only a single regiment of Soviet MiG-27s saw action during the Cold War, deployed to Shindand airbase in Afghanistan in 1988 through February 1989. They were principally used in high-altitude raids and reportedly made effective use of ODAB-500P fuel air explosives with a deadly blast radius extending as far 400 meters. However, many of the MiG-27’s advanced capabilities were judged to be overkill for counter-insurgency operations.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia swiftly phased the type out of service by the mid-1990s.

MiGs versus Tigers Over Sri Lanka

However, both Ukraine and Kazakhstan inherited MiG-27s from the Soviet Union. The latter sold six MiG-27s and a MiG-23UB two-seat trainer to Sri Lanka, ostensibly to launch fast, low-altitude attacks against Tamil Tiger (LTTE) rebels potentially armed with heat-seeking missiles. 

As in Afghanistan, a supersonic jet was probably overkill for a counter-insurgency war, and leaked documents suggest the purchase may have arisen from a corrupt backroom deal.

An article by Shamindra Ferdinando details the jet’s rocky career in Sri Lankan service. MiG-27s arrived in June 2000 and began to see action in No. 12 squadron two months later, initially piloted by Ukrainian mercenaries in strike and close air support missions. You can see some footage of Sri Lankan MiG-27s here.

The MiG-27s, however, suffered heavy attrition: First, one crashed into a house near Colombo in August 2000 near the Colombo airport, killing its Ukrainian pilot. Another was destroyed in an LTTE commando raid on Katunayake airbase in July 2001. A third crashed into the Indian Ocean in 2004, and a fourth was damaged by ground fire. All of the surviving jets swiftly fell into disrepair following a ceasefire. 

When a lengthy ceasefire broke down in 2006, the Sri Lankan government had the remaining jets overhauled and purchased enough new aircraft from Ukraine to again field a force of seven MiG-27s. It also received pilot training assistance from India.

These reportedly flew 854 sorties in the fourth and final Eelam War, releasing 1,180 tons of munitions. At times MiG-27s dropped parachute-retarded anti-runway bombs to crater airstrips used by the rebel army’s peculiar air force.

According to interviews by Shamindra, a MiG-27 also teamed up with an Israeli-built Kfir jet in the targeted killing of LTTE political wing leader Subbayya Thamilselvan in his bunker at 6:20 AM on the morning of November 2, 2007, using four 1,100-pound bombs.

Following the conclusion of the so-called Eelam War IV in May 2009, the Sri Lankan MiGs continued flying for a few years, with one crashing in 2012. However, the aircraft then fell into disrepair again and were finally retired.

Check out a companion to read about the combat experience of Indian MiG-27s during the Kargil War.

Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.

This article first appeared in January 2020.

Image: Reuters



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