Indian nuclear forces, 2018

by on 24 February 2019

ndia 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. India is estimated to have produced enough military plutonium for 150 to 200 nuclear warheads, but has likely produced only 130 to 140. Nonetheless, additional plutonium will be required to produce warheads for missiles now under development, and India is reportedly building several new plutonium production facilities. India’s nuclear strategy, which has traditionally focused on Pakistan, now appears to place increased emphasis on China.

India continues to modernize its nuclear arsenal with development of several new nuclear weapon systems. We estimate that India currently operates seven nuclear-capable systems: two aircraft, four land-based ballistic missiles, and one sea-based ballistic missile. At least five more systems are in development. The development program is in a dynamic phase, with long-range land- and sea-based missiles emerging for possible deployment within the next decade.

India is estimated to have produced at least 600 kilograms of weapon-grade plutonium (International Panel on Fissile Materials 2015International Panel on Fissile Materials. 2015. Global Fissile Material Report 2013: Nuclear Weapon and Fissile Material Stockpiles and Production. [Google Scholar]), sufficient for 150–200 nuclear warheads; however, not all the material has been converted into nuclear warheads. Based on available information about its nuclear-capable delivery force structure and strategy, we estimate that India has produced 130–140 nuclear warheads (see Table 1). It will need more warheads to arm the new missiles that it is currently developing. In addition to the operational Dhruva plutonium production reactor near Mumbai, India has plans to build at least one more plutonium production reactor. Moreover, the unsafeguarded Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor under construction at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) near Kalpakkam could potentially increase India’s plutonium production capacity significantly in the near future if it achieves criticality as planned. The director of IGCAR has additionally stated that six more fast breeder reactors will come online within the next 15 years. Construction of the first two, to be located at IGCAR, would reportedly begin in 2021 and be ready for commercial power production by the early 2030s (Kumar 2018Kumar, P. 2018. “Kalpakkam Fast Breeder Test Reactor Achieves 30 MW Power Production.” Times of India, March 27.[Google Scholar]).

While India has traditionally focused on deterring Pakistan, its nuclear modernization indicates that it is putting increased emphasis on its future strategic relationship with China. This posture is likely to be reinforced after the 2017 Doklam standoff, during which Chinese and Indian troops were placed on high alert over a dispute near the Bhutanese border. The expansion of India’s nuclear posture to take China into account will result in significantly new capabilities being deployed over the next decade, which may influence how India views the role of its nuclear weapons against Pakistan. According to one scholar, “we may be witnessing what I call a ‘decoupling’ of Indian nuclear strategy between China and Pakistan. The force requirements India needs in order to credibly threaten assured retaliation against China may allow it, according to this scholar, to pursue more aggressive strategies – such as escalation dominance or a ‘splendid first strike’ – against Pakistan” (Narang 2017Narang, V. 2017. Remarks by Professor Vipin Narang, Department of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, Washington, D.C., March 20. [Google Scholar]).

This issue was highlighted in 2016 during a previous border dispute between India and Pakistan. India has long adhered to a nuclear no-first-use policy, even though the policy was weakened by India’s 2003 declaration that it could potentially use nuclear weapons in response to chemical or biological attacks (which would therefore constitute nuclear first use, even if it were in retaliation). Yet amid the 2016 dispute with Pakistan, then–Indian defense minister Manohar Parrikar indicated that India should not “bind” itself to that policy (Som 2016Som, V. 2016. “Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s Nuclear Remark Stressed As ‘Personal Opinion’.” NDTV, November 10.[Google Scholar]). Although the Indian government later explained that the minister’s remarks represented his personal opinion, the debate highlighted the conditions under which India would consider using nuclear weapons. Recent scholarship has further called India’s commitment to its no-first-use policy into question, with some analysts asserting that “India’s NFU policy is neither a stable nor a reliable predictor of how the Indian military and political leadership might actually use nuclear weapons” (Sundaram and Ramana 2018Sundaram, K., and M. V. Ramana. 2018. “India and the Policy of No First Use of Nuclear Weapons.” Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament 1 (1): 152–168. p.153.[Taylor & Francis Online], , [Google Scholar]).


Fighter-bombers were India’s first and only nuclear strike force until 2003, when the first nuclear-capable ballistic missile was fielded. Despite considerable progress since then in building a diverse arsenal of land- and sea-based ballistic missiles, bombers continue to serve a prominent role as a flexible strike force in India’s nuclear posture. We estimate that three or four squadrons of Mirage 2000H and Jaguar IS/IB aircraft, at three bases, are assigned nuclear strike missions against Pakistan and China.

The Mirage 2000H Vajra (“divine thunder”) fighter-bombers are deployed with the 1st, 7th, and possibly the 9th squadrons of the 40th Wing at Maharajpur (Gwalior) Air Force Station in northern Madhya Pradesh. We estimate that one or two of these squadrons has a secondary nuclear mission. Indian Mirage aircraft also occasionally operate from the Nal (Bikaner) Air Force Station in western Rajasthan.

The Indian Mirage 2000H was originally supplied by France, which used its domestic version (Mirage 2000N) in a nuclear strike role for 30 years, until its retirement in the summer of 2018.  The Indian Mirage 2000H is undergoing upgrades to extend its service life and enhance its capabilities; the modernized version is called Mirage 2000I.

The Indian Air Force also operates five squadrons of Jaguar IS/IB Shamsher (“sword of justice”) aircraft at three bases. These include the 5th and 14th squadrons of the 7th Wing at Ambala Air Force Station in northwestern Haryana, the 16th and 27th squadrons of the 17th Wing at Gorakhpur Air Force Station in northeastern Uttar Pradesh, and the 6th and 224th squadrons of the 33rd Wing at Jamnagar Air Force Station in southwestern Gudjarat. We estimate that two of the squadrons at Ambala and Gorakhpur (one at each base) are assigned a secondary nuclear strike mission. Jaguar aircraft also occasionally operate from the Nal (Bikaner) Air Force Station in western Rajasthan.

The Jaguar, designed jointly by France and Britain, was nuclear-capable when deployed by those countries. The so-called Darin III precision-attack and avionics upgrade of half of India’s Jaguar fleet achieved initial operational capability in November 2016 and Air Force operations were approved in December 2016 (Ministry of Defence 2017Ministry of Defence. 2017. Annual Report 2016–17: 38.[Google Scholar]). The upgrade, which also gives about 60 Jaguars a more powerful engine, will enable the nuclear bomber to operate for another 20 years.

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. On September 23 2016, India and France signed an agreement for delivery of 36 Rafale aircraft (Ministry of Defence 2017Ministry of Defence. 2017. Annual Report 2016–17: 38.[Google Scholar]). The order is considerably reduced from initial plans to buy 126 Rafales. The Rafale is used for the nuclear mission in the French Air Force, and India could potentially convert it to serve a similar role in the Indian Air Force. Delivery of the Rafales is scheduled to begin in September 2019 and will be completed by April 2022. The Rafales will reportedly be deployed in two equally-sized squadrons: one at Ambala Air Base Station – located only 220 kilometers from the Pakistani border – and the other at Hasimara base in West Bengal. New infrastructure developments to accommodate the planes are being constructed at both bases, and are expected to be completed by the end of 2018 (Times of India 2017Times of India. 2017. “Ambala, Hasimara IAF Bases Being Readied for Rafale Fighter Jets.” October 1.[Google Scholar]).

Land-based missiles

India has four types of land-based, nuclear-capable ballistic missiles that appear to be operational: 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.

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, with only medium- and long-range missiles deployed in the future to provide a mix of strike options against near and distant targets. Otherwise, the government appears to be planning to field a diverse missile force that will be expensive to maintain and operate.

The Prithvi-II missile was “the first missile to be developed” under India’s Integrated Guided Missile Development Program for “India’s nuclear deterrence,” according to the government (Press Information Bureau 2013Press Information Bureau. 2013. “Prithvi Does it Again.” October 8.[Google Scholar]). The Prithvi-II can deliver a nuclear or conventional warhead to a range of 250 kilometers (155 miles). Given the relatively small size of the Prithvi missile (nine meters long and one meter in diameter), the launcher is difficult to spot in satellite images and therefore little is known about its deployment locations. Possible locations include Jalandhar in Punjab, as well as Banar, Bikaner, and Jodhpur in Rajasthan. The Strategic Forces Command conducted three user trials of the Prithvi-II in 2016 – potentially one for each missile group – and further trials in June 2017 and February 2018, the latter during nighttime (The Hindu 2018The Hindu. 2018. “India Successfully Test-fires Nuclear Capable Prithvi-II.” February 7.[Google Scholar]).

The two-stage, solid-fuel, road-mobile Agni-I missile became operational in 2007, three years after induction into the armed forces began. The short-range missile is capable of delivering a nuclear or conventional warhead to a distance of approximately 700 kilometers (435 miles). The mission of Agni-I is thought to be focused on targeting Pakistan;  we estimate that up to 20 launchers are deployed in western India, possibly including the 334 Missile Group. Strategic Forces Command conducted two user trials of the Agni-I in 2016, and another test on 6 February 2018.

The two-stage, solid-fuel, rail-mobile Agni-II, an improvement on the Agni-I, can deliver a nuclear or conventional warhead more than 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles). The missile possibly began induction into the armed forces in 2004 but technical issues delayed operational capability until 2011. Around 10 launchers are thought to be deployed in northern India, possibly including the 335 Missile Group. Targeting is probably focused on western, central, and southern China. There were no Agni-II tests in 2015 or 2016 and a test on May 4 2017 reportedly failed (Pandit 2017bPandit, R. 2017b. “India Successfully Tests its First Nuclear-Capable Cruise Missile.” Times of India, November 8.[Google Scholar]); however, a successful test on 20 February 2018 could indicate that previous technical issues with the Agni-II have since been resolved.

The Agni-III – a two-stage, solid-fuel, rail-mobile, intermediate-range ballistic missile – is capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to 3,200-plus kilometers (1,988-plus miles). The Indian Ministry of Defence declared in 2014 that the Agni-III is “in the arsenal of the armed forces,” (Ministry of Defense 2014Ministry of Defence. 2014. Annual Report 2013–14: 86.[Google Scholar]) and the Strategic Forces Command conducted its fourth user trial on April 27 2017 from Abdul Kalam Island on India’s east coast.

It is still early in the Agni-III deployment; there are probably fewer than 10 launchers deployed in northern India, and the full operational status is uncertain. The additional range potentially allows India to deploy the Agni-III units further back from the Pakistani and Chinese borders. Several years ago an army spokesperson remarked, “With this missile, India can even strike Shanghai” (India Today 2008India Today. 2008. “Agni-III Not Targeted at any Particular Country: Army.” May[Google Scholar]), but this would require launching the Agni-III from the very northeastern corner of India.

India is also developing the Agni-IV missile, a two-stage, solid-fuel, road- and rail-mobile intermediate-range ballistic missile with the capability to deliver a single nuclear warhead up to 3,500-plus kilometers (2,175-plus miles); the Ministry of Defence (2014Ministry of Defence. 2014. Annual Report 2013–14: 86.[Google Scholar]) listed the range as 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles). Following the final development test in 2014, the ministry declared that Agni-IV “serial production will begin shortly.” Since then, three user launches have been conducted by Strategic Forces Command, the most recent on January 2 2017, but the missile is not yet fully operational.

Although the Agni-IV will be capable of striking targets in nearly all of China from northeastern India (including Beijing and Shanghai), India is also developing the longer-range Agni-V, a three-stage, solid-fuel, rail-mobile, near-intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of delivering a warhead more than 5,000 kilometers (3,100-plus miles). The extra range will allow the Indian military to establish Agni-V bases in central and southern India, further away from the Chinese border.

The Agni-V has been successfully flight tested six times in total, with two tests occurring in 2018. After the most recent test in June, senior officials from India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) indicated that only one more flight test would be needed before the Agni-V could be “inducted” into the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) – the branch of India’s Nuclear Command Authority responsible for the country’s nuclear deterrent. Senior Ministry of Defence officials have recently stated that this test might take place as early as October, so that the missile is ready for induction in December 2018. Upon induction into the armed forces, the Agni-V will likely require at least two tests at the unit level to achieve full operational status. (Gupta 2018Gupta, S. 2018. “Agni-V Set to be Inducted by December After one More Test.” Hindustan Times, August 14.[Google Scholar])

Unlike other Indian land-based ballistic missiles, the Agni-V is carried in a sealed canister on the launcher. The four most recent Agni-V tests took place from canisters. The launcher, which is known as the Transport-cum-Tilting vehicle-5 (TCT-5), is a 140-ton, 30-meter, 7–axle trailer pulled by a 3-axle Volvo truck (DRDO Newsletter 2014DRDO Newsletter. 2014. “TCT-5 Performs Excellently in Missile Ejection Test.” June.[Google Scholar]). The canister design “will reduce the reaction time drastically … just a few minutes from ‘stop-to-launch,’” the former head of DRDO said in 2013 (Times of India 2013Times of India. 2013. “India can Develop 10,000 km Range Missile: DRDO.” September[Google Scholar]).

Despite widespread speculation in news media articles and on social media that the Agni-V will be equipped with multiple warheads – even multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) – there is good reason to doubt that India can or will add MIRVs to its missiles in the near future. There are no official reports that the Indian government has approved a MIRV program, and loading multiple warheads on the Agni-V would reduce its extra range – a key purpose of developing the missile in the first place. The Agni-V is estimated to be capable of delivering a payload of 1.5 tons (the same as the Agni-III and -IV), and India’s first- and second-generation warheads, even modified versions, are relatively heavy compared with warheads developed by other nuclear weapon states that deploy MIRVs. It took the Soviet Union and the United States hundreds of nuclear tests and 25 years of effort to develop reentry vehicles small enough to equip a ballistic missile with MIRVs. Moreover, deploying missiles with multiple warheads would invite serious questions about the credibility of India’s minimum deterrent doctrine; using MIRVs would reflect a strategy to quickly strike multiple targets and would also run the risk of triggering a warhead race with adversaries. Unless China develops an efficient missile defense system with capability against intermediate-range ballistic missiles, there seems to be no military need forMIRVs on Indian missiles (Kristensen 2013Kristensen, H. M. 2013. “India’s Missile Modernization Beyond Minimum Deterrence.” FAS Strategic Security Blog, October 4.[Google Scholar]).

It seems likely, though, that China’s recent decision to equip some of its ICBMs with MIRVs, and Pakistan’s announcement in January 2017 that it had test-launched a new Ababeel ICBM with MIRVs, will strengthen the hand of those in the Indian military-industrial complex who favor development of a MIRV capability, if for no other reason than to avoid falling behind in MIRV technology.

Although Ministry of Defence officials have recently indicated that India’s strategic missile force will be “capped for the present with the Agni-V, with no successor or next series on the horizon or even on the drawing board” (Gupta 2018Gupta, S. 2018. “Agni-V Set to be Inducted by December After one More Test.” Hindustan Times, August 14.[Google Scholar]), India apparently has also begun development of a true ICBM, known as Agni-VI. Official data is scarce, but an article posted on the government’s Press Information Bureau website in December 2016 claimed the Agni-VI “will have a strike-range of 8,000–10,000 kilometers” and will “be capable of being launched from submarines as well as from land” (Ghosh 2016Ghosh, D. 2016. “Successful Test launch of AGNI V.” Press Information Bureau, Government of India, December 27.[Google Scholar]). Whether these claims are accurate remains to be seen; a range improvement of roughly 50 percent to nearly 100 percent of that of the Agni-V seems exaggerated. The US Air Force, National Air and Space Intelligence Center estimates the range is closer to 6,000 kilometer (3,730 miles) (US Air Force, National Air and Space Intelligence Center 2017US Air Force, National Air and Space Intelligence Center. 2017. “Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat.” NASIC-1031-0985-17, July. Available at:[Google Scholar]).

Cruise missiles

India is developing a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) – the Nirbhay. The missile looks similar to the American Tomahawk or the Pakistani Babur and might also be intended for air- and sea-based deployment. After a series of failed tests dating back to 2013, a successful flight test close to 700 kilometers (435 miles) in November 2017 indicated that some of the technical challenges have been resolved. Although there are many rumors that the Nirbhay is dual-capable, neither the Indian government nor the US Intelligence Community has publicly stated as such (Pandit 2017aPandit, R. 2017a. “Trial of Agni-II Ballistic Missile Fails: Sources.” Times of India, May 4.[Google Scholar]).

Sea-based missiles

India operates a ship-launched, nuclear-capable ballistic missile and is developing two submarine-launched ballistic missiles for eventual deployment on a small fleet of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines.

The ship-based ballistic missile is the Dhanush, a 400-kilometer (249-mile) single-stage, liquid-fuel, short-range ballistic missile designed to launch from the back of two specially configured Sukanya-class patrol vessels (Subhadra and Suvarna); each ship can carry two missiles. The Dhanush is a ship-based variant of the Prithvi-II SRBM. There were two user test launches in 2016, and another in February 2018. The utility of the Dhanush as a strategic deterrence weapon is severely limited by its relatively short range; the ships carrying it would have to sail dangerously close to the Pakistani or Chinese coasts to target facilities in those countries, making them vulnerable to counterattack. The two Sukaya-class ships are homeported at the Karwa naval base on the Indian west coast. We suspect the Dhanush will be retired once one or two of the Arihant nuclear submarines become fully operational.

India’s first indigenous nuclear-powered SSBN, the IHS Arihant, was commissioned in August 2016, but spent most of 2017 and the first half of 2018 undergoing repairs after its propulsion system was crippled by water damage (Peri and Joseph 2018Peri, D., and J. Joseph. 2018. “INS Arihant Left Crippled After ‘Accident’ 10 Months Ago.” The Hindu, January 8.[Google Scholar]). Although the Arihant conducted two submerged unit trials of nuclear-capable K-15 missiles as recently as August 2018, sources indicate that the Arihant will primarily serve as a training vessel and technology demonstrator and will not be deployed for nuclear deterrence patrols (Gady 2018Gady, F.-S. 2018. “India Test Fires Short-Range Ballistic Missiles From Submerged Sub.” The Diplomat, August 22.[Google Scholar]). A second SSBN, the IHS Arighat (previously intended to be named Aridhaman), was launched on November 19 2017 and will be commissioned in 2020–2021. The Arighat will reportedly be followed by two more SSBNs, temporarily designated S4 and S4* (Bedi 2017Bedi, R. 2017. “India Quietly Launches Second SSBN.” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, December 11.[Google Scholar]). India might have plans to build a total of three or four SSBNs. Previous rumors about six SSBNs appear to have been confused by plans to build six nuclear attack submarines. A naval base for the SSBNs, named INS Varsha, is currently under construction near Rambilli on the Indian east coast (Pandit 2013Pandit, R. 2013. “India Readies Hi-tech Naval Base to Keep Eye on China.” The Times of India, March26.[Google Scholar]), and will reportedly be located near a facility associated with the Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC) – India’s primary nuclear research institution, which is also tied to its nuclear weapons program.

To arm the SSBNs, India is developing two nuclear-capable weapons: first, the K-15 (Sagarika) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), with a range of 700 kilometers, and second, the K-4 SLBM, with a range of about 3,500 kilometers. The relatively short range of the K-15 would not allow the SSBNs to target Islamabad, only southern Pakistan, and the subs would not be able to target China at all unless they sailed through the Singapore Strait, deep into the South China Sea. Therefore, despite its induction during the summer of 2018, the K-15 should primarily be seen as an intermediate program intended to develop the technology for more capable missiles.

The K-4 has undergone four test launches, the most recent of which was fired from a submerged platform on March 31 2016. A test launch on December 17 2017 reportedly failed (Pubby 2017Pubby, M. 2017. “Setback for Indian Missile Programme: Two Failures in a Week, Submarine Version Stuck.” The Print, December 24.[Google Scholar]). Rumors about the K-4 claim that it is highly accurate, reaching “near zero circular error probability,” according to DRDO (Panda 2016Panda, A. 2016. “India Successfully Test Indermediate-Range Nuclear-Capable Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile.” The Diplomat, April 10.[Google Scholar]). The Arihant’s four launch tubes will be capable of carrying four K-4s or 12 K-15s (three per tube), but subsequent SSBNs will likely have eight launch tubes. As is usual with nuclear programs, there are rumors and speculation that each K-4 SLBM will be capable of carrying more than one warhead, but that remains to be seen.


Research for this publication was carried out with funding support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, and the Ploughshares Fund.

Additional information

Author information

Hans M. Kristensen

Hans M. Kristensen is the director of the Nuclear Information Project with the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, DC. His work focuses on researching and writing about the status of nuclear weapons and the policies that direct them. Kristensen is a co-author of the world nuclear forces overview in the SIPRI Yearbook (Oxford University Press) and a frequent adviser to the news media on nuclear weapons policy and operations. Inquiries should be directed to FAS, 1112 16th St. NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC, 20036 USA; +1 (202) 546-3300.

Matt Korda

Matt Korda is a Research Associate for the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. Previously, he worked for the Arms Control, Disarmament, and WMD Non-Proliferation Centre at NATO headquarters in Brussels. He received his MA in International Peace & Security from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, where he subsequently worked as a Research Assistant on nuclear deterrence and strategic stability. Matt’s research interests and recent publications focus on nuclear deterrence, missile proliferation, gender mainstreaming, and alliance management, with regional concentrations on Russia and the Korean Peninsula.


Research for this publication was carried out with funding support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, and the Ploughshares Fund.