Updated: Jun 18
A comprehensive review of developments in the field of strategic capabilities including nuclear warheads and delivery capabilities of India, China and Pakistan based on the details provided by SIPRI Year Book 2022, U.S. Department of Defence annual China military power report 2021 and International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons Report on spending on nuclear weapons for 2021 has been carried out.
General Global Trends
Trends in nuclear arms development have seen a decline in number of warheads as per SIPRI mainly due to retiring of older generation by the United States and Russia. These are being replaced by modern delivery systems as well as weapons production facilities with possibly higher destructive power.
‘All of the nuclear-armed states are increasing or upgrading their arsenals and most are sharpening nuclear rhetoric and the role nuclear weapons play in their military strategies,’ said Wilfred Wan, Director of SIPRI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Programme. ‘This is a very worrying trend,’ Wan is quoted in the media release by SIPRI.
[SOURCE - SIPRI YEAR BOOK 2022]
In the India China Pakistan context retirement of older versions of warheads is not evident but modernization, development and deployment has been noted by SIPRI.
China is said to be constructing over 300 new missile silos while India and Pakistan, “also seem to be increasing the size of their nuclear weapon inventories”, as per SIPRI.
Overall SIPRI acknowledges that the level of information available on nuclear arsenals across the board is limited for the three countries as China Pakistan and India are said to provide information only selectively.
India and Pakistan appear to be expanding their nuclear arsenals, and both countries introduced and continued to develop new types of nuclear delivery system in 2021.
Here is a detailed review of the Developments in China, India and Pakistan to include number of warheads, role of nuclear weapons and doctrines, level of readiness, air, land and sea based missile systems.
SIPRI’s estimate of China based on publicly available information is 350 warheads which the US Department of Defence has estimated to go up to 1000 by 2030. This will however be based on an assessment of China’s future force posture and the level of plutonium production.
India is estimated to have 160 warheads the numbers going up by 4 only from 2021 even though SIPRI estimates that India has the capacity to increase enrichment to provide for greater numbers. However, given the doctrine, these are sufficient to cater for, “minimum credible nuclear deterrence”.
Pakistan is expected to have 165 warheads with the numbers remaining same as in 2021. SIPRI believes that with additional fissile material being available these numbers could expand in the years to come.
Warheads is one metrics, how far assessment of capabilities should be based on the same is open to debate and thus other facets have also been covered herein.
Role and Doctrine of Nuclear Weapons.
China’s objective of nuclear weapons is focused on goal which is ‘deterring other countries from using or threatening to use nuclearweapons against China’.
SIPRI estimates that China continues with the No First Use policy but quotes US officials as indicating that China may have moved a portion of forces on to Launch on Warning (LOW) posture which is also supported by a dedicated satellite now in orbit for providing early warning.
India’s doctrine is also assessed to continue to be nuclear no-first use. SIPRI highlights the debate in and outside of India on continued commitment of New Delhi to NFU with some parts of the arsenal at a higher level of readiness. India’s declaratory policy including a recent assertion indicates that there is no change to the NFU.
Pakistan doctrine for use of nuclear weapons is unpublished and is also more complex than that of China and India given that nuclear weapons are seen not just as strategic or political but as tool for tactical deployment for what is said to be ‘full spectrum deterrence posture’ vis a vis India.
Thus Pakistan has also developed battlefield nuclear armed rockets the Nasr with a 60 kms range.
An important factor to note with reference to the role of all three countries is that while China is looking at deterrence vis a vis the United States, Russia and India also fall into the spectrum. India on the other hand has China and Pakistan within the nuclear weapons framework, while Pakistan is exclusively focused on New Delhi.
If two weapon states – China and Pakistan have a common “enemy,” India, synergy in capability development in nuclear field can assume importance.
Level of Readiness
The level of readiness reported of the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) by the U.S. Department of Defence (DOD) remains high with drills for “ready to launch,” being held regularly. Mating of warheads with systems however is not evident. There are no reports of readiness of the Indian and Pakistan missile and rocket forces, however periodic exercises have been reported from time to time.
An accident concerning a non nuclear missile the BrahMos in March this year which involved an Indian Air Force testing team has raised some concerns as the cruise missile landed in Pakistan and was discovered to be inert. While this shows some laxity in operating the system, could also be an indicator of rehearsals of readiness.
Air Delivery Systems
While India and Pakistan have relied on air delivery of nuclear weapons, China is said to have returned to this path in 2019 as per the SIPRI quoting the US DOD 2021 Report.
H-6N (B-6N) bomber is said to be now fielded by the PLA Air Force. The bomber is refuelable, thus the range of operations could be extended which was a drawback in the platform in the past. China has also developed two new air-launched ballistic missiles (ALBMs) as per SIPRI one of which is assessed by the US DOD as nuclear capable which can be carried on H-6N bomber, designated as CH-AS-X-13 a variant of the possibly the DF-15, which has led to the conclusion of establishment of a triad.
PLAAF has also developed the H-20 (B-20) with a range of at least 8500 kilometres and a stealthy design as per U.S. DOD.
SIPRI Report marks Mirage 2000H, Jaguar IS and Rafale as possible air delivery platforms for India. SIPRI has noted however that only the Mirage 2000H is confirmed in the nuclear strike role in open media. 48 bombs are expected to be allocated to the Indian Air Force for this purpose. Jaguar is also said to be able to perform this role, while induction of Rafale had led to a conclusion that finally this may replace the Mirage 2000 H which is on an extended life cycle span with upgradations.
In terms of Pakistan, SIPRI notes that the country has a small stockpile of gravity bombs by end of 2021 with two versions of the Ra’ad (Hatf-8) air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) “being developed to supplement this stockpile by providing the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) with a nuclear-capable standoff capability at ranges of 350–600 kilometres”. No confirmation of deployment has been envisaged as of January 2022.
Mirage III, the Mirage V, the F-16 and the JF-17 are some of the platforms that Pakistan could well use for delivery but these are not officially confirmed. While SIPRI is uncertain over the use of F 16 for a strike role, given that a modification will require the approval of the United States, this does not appear likely.
SIPRI estimates that finally the JF 17 may have to be the replacement for Mirage III and V and may be modified for carriage of Ra’ad ALCM.
Land Based missiles
China has a considerable variety of nuclear-capable land-based ballistic missile arsenal with modernisation to “new mobile and silo-based, solid-fuelled models,” which has been confirmed from the fact that China has constructed 300 new missile silos in Northern China. This appears to be to firstly house a futuristic scenario with 1000 warheads as estimated in 2030 as well as retain a level of ambiguity.
The possibility of the Chinese ICBMs with nuclear MIRVs is seen as a natural progression to beat air defence systems. SIPRI quotes DF-5B which can carry five warheads and an advanced version under development DF – 5 C which can carry multiple warheads.
DF-26 (CSS-18) intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) is also expected to be, “equipped with a manoeuvrable re-entry vehicle (MaRV) which can switch from a conventional to a nuclear one.
In land based delivery systems development of hypersonic boost-glide system in July and August 2021 has been reported including DF-17 (CSS-22) MRBM equipped with a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV).
SIPRI notes Indian Army’s Strategic Forces Command operating four types of mobile nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, “the short-range Prithvi-II (250 kilometres) and Agni-I (700 km); the medium-range Agni-II (>2000 km); and the intermediate-range Agni-III (>3200 km) with Agni-P (1000–2000 km), the Agni-IV (>3500 km)” and the Agni-V (>5000 km) under development and even longer range, the Agni-VI (6000 km), in the design stage.
The canisterised Agni P is expected to be the next generation system with manoeuverable re-entry capability and a replacement for the early generation missiles while an MIRV capability may be under development.
Pakistan also has four types of solid-fuelled, road-mobile shortrange ballistic missiles: “Abdali (also designated Hatf-2), Ghaznavi (Hatf-3), Shaheen-I (Hatf-4) and Nasr (Hatf-9). Pakistan Day Parade in March 2021 had deployed all these missiles and in addition the medium-range ballistic missile Ghauri (Hatf-5), with a range of 1250 km; and the two-stage, solid-fuelled, road-mobile Shaheen-II (Hatf-6), with a range of 2000 km”.
Shaheen-III with a claimed range of 2750 km has been tested but not deployed though displayed at the Pakistan Day Parade in March 2021. Pakistan is also claiming an MIRV capability in Ababeel which remains a question mark.
Pakistan has an array of cruise missiles in the Babur series with variable ranges from 350 kms to 900 kms.
China’s sea based deterrent is based on the PLA Navy (PLAN) six Type 094 SSBNs. These can carry at least, “12 three stage, solid-fuelled Julang-2, or JL-2 (CSS-N-14), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs),” a sea-based variant of the DF-31 ICBM with a range of 7000 kms. A type 096 SSBN is under construction for the PLA Navy with up to eight SSBNs operational by 2030 as per US Department of Defence (DOD) report.
India’s assured second-strike capability is based on development of at least four to six SSBNs, one of which is operational, another likely this year and two in varied stages of development.
The operational boat, INS Arihant has conducted a missile, ‘deterrence patrol’ in 2018 and SIPRI estimates 12 nuclear warheads have been allocated with another 12 for second SSBN, INS Arighat. SIPRI estimates commission of the Arighat a second boat by 2022. Two more SSBNs are under development.
Presently the INS Arihant and Arighat are expected to be equipped with two-stage, 700-km-range K-15 missiles while the subsequent ones will have the K-4 a two-stage, 3500-km-range missile with K 5 and K 6 with an extended range under development, which SIPRI estimates will take some time for operational deployment.
SIPRI has also included the Dhanush missile naval version of Prithvi-II to be launched from two Sukanya-class offshore patrol vessels, which are estimated to be stop gaps till a full fledged SSBN fleet is developed.
India is also reported to be developing ground- and air-launched Nirbhay subsonic cruise missile and the supersonic BrahMos cruise missile to be modified for a nuclear capability but without confirmation has not been rightly included in the SIPRI report.
Pakistan is expected to deploy the Babur-3 submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM) on the Navy’s three Agosta-90B diesel–electric submarines while Chinese delivered air-independent propulsion-powered Hangor-class submarines could also be employed in such a role.
Command and Control
Nuclear command and control remain one of the key touchpoints particularly when weapons are are to be deployed or deployed on submarines.
More over mating of missiles on submarines is an important factor with limited evidence of the same.
In the case of Pakistan an additional factor is the use of conventional submarines for arming nuclear and conventional missiles.
Enrichment of Nuclear fuel
Uranium and Plutonium stocks have also been estimated by SIPRI in the report. China is expected to have a total stock of enriched uranium in 2021 of 14 tonnes which is available for weapons. India 4.5 tonnes which is not available for weapons, while Pakistan 4 tonnes as available.
On the separated plutonium stocks, China is said to have 2.9 tonnes most of which is available for weapons and India 9.3 tonnes of which only 0.71 tonnes is available while 8.1 is not directly available due to unsafeguarded. Pakistan is estimated to have 0.5 tonnes most of which is available for weapons. SIPRI also estimates China to have larger capabilities.
China has four uranium enrichment facilities with substantial capacity and are civilian operated. India and Pakistan have military operated facilities with limited capacities.
[Acknowledgement- Security Risks Asia is grateful to SIPRI for providing Chapter 10 of the SIPRI Year Book 2022 World Nuclear Forces, which has formed the basis of this review]
Estimates of Spending on Nuclear Weapons
As per International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, China is estimated to have spent $11.7 billion on nuclear weapons, India $2.3 billion in 2021 and Pakistan $1.1 billion in 2021. The details based on which assessment has been made has been included in the Paper published by the institution and can be accessed here, “Squandered: 2021 Global Nuclear Weapons Spending.”