What the Pentagon Sees in India—And Vice Versa

Not that long ago, Washington and New Delhi were deeply suspicious of one another. Now, they’re talking about collaborating on an aircraft carrier and weapons production.


India’s Nuclear-Weapons Program: 5 Things You Need to Know

Akhilesh Pillalamarri

Security, Asia

India’s challenge is how to deal with Pakistan without triggering a nuclear war.

India is one of the world’s greatest emerging powers today. Its economy is growing rapidly and its military is one of the largest in the world, with over a million soldiers.

India sees its nuclear weapons capacity to be an integral part of its vision as a great power, and its nuclear program is important for both its prestige and security doctrine.

Yet, India’s nuclear weapons program has not been free of controversy and criticism. India is not a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), and is not one of the five nuclear weapons powers the treaty recognizes. India’s nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998 led to criticism and even sanctions.

Since then however, sanctions have largely been lifted and the United States had quietly accepted India’s possession of nuclear weapons so long as India does not carry out further nuclear tests, though officially, the United States has not recognized India as a nuclear weapons state. This has also led to many claims of double standards on the part of the United States for making exceptions for India—including getting the Nuclear Suppliers Group to agree to a waiver on export restrictions of nuclear materials for India—that have been granted to no other countries. This demonstrates the strategic importance of India for the West and the general global perception of its trustworthiness and stability.

Here are five things you need to know about India’s interesting nuclear program.

Why did India build Nukes?

Indian nationalist leaders speculated about the possibility of acquiring nuclear weapons even before its independence. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru justified this by arguing: “As long as the world is constituted as it is, every country will have to devise and use the latest devices for its protection. I have no doubt India will develop her scientific researches and I hope Indian scientists will use the atomic force for constructive purposes. But if India is threatened, she will inevitably try to defend herself by all means at her disposal.”

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Strategic Passing: Why India Will Not Be Pakistan 2.0 in U.S. Asia Policy

Key observers in New Delhi and Washington agree that President Obama’s visit to India in January has monumental significance for the future direction of U.S.-Indian relations. While it is being hailed as a ‘new chapter’ in U.S.-Indian relations, the current dynamic between the two countries is not without its critics. Predictably, the left-leaning parties in India spewed vitriolics about Obama’s visit, thanks to their consistent opposition to American policies. Some within the opposition Congress Party have called this a ‘desperate move’ to distract attention from the assembly polls. Others have made fateful claims that India will become another Pakistan especially with the current U.S.-Russian tensions and the fears of another possible Cold War. The argument goes that with U.S.-Pakistan relations becoming increasingly difficult, with seemingly unfinished business still left in a troubled Afghanistan, and a militarily resurging China, India will take Pakistan’s role as a willing ally of Washington—warts and all—in an increasingly complex world. In the process, it might become as disrupted as its neighbor. While this viewpoint is immersed in heavy nostalgia of the nonalignment era, it is both pessimistic and faulty.

India will not become Pakistan 2.0 and here is why.

First, strategic proximity to the United States is not equivalent to subservience. Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi is forging closer ties with Washington, he is not budging from New Delhi’s core positions on a climate change agreement or the Nuclear Liability Bill. Even when as an insurance pool of $250 million is being offered to nuclear suppliers, there seems to be very little possibility of scrapping the Liability Bill entirely for U.S. suppliers. Moreover, while India is extensively increasing its defense purchases from the United States, it is expected to begin co-development of a series of hardware articles in keeping with Modi’s ‘Make in India’ campaign. Unlike the Cold War years, when Washington and New Delhi disputed over technology transfers, the co-making projects will promote technological cooperation between the two countries like never before. In other words, if the co-development projects materialize, then India will not be a mere defense importer of the United States.

Secondly, the fragility of the Pakistani state over time is more culpable for its presently dire situation than its alliance with the United States. The collusion of the Pakistani military with some sections of the Taliban during the U.S.-led Global War on Terror has made the country today both a hotbed and tragic victim of Islamist extremism. Several of Washington’s key allies outside of NATO are recognized democracies—notably Israel, South Korea, Japan and Australia—with whom U.S. ties have been mostly stable and fruitful. India is not only the largest democracy in the world but it also has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. As a result, bilateral relations between the two countries are multi-faceted with defense ties being one of the many key aspects of the relationship, unlike in the Pakistani case.

Thirdly, while the U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific is a noteworthy effort that makes India a key stakeholder in the Obama administration’s Asian pivot to counterbalance China’s rising geopolitical ambitions in the region, it is not a novel U.S. strategy. Even when Pakistan was a key U.S. Cold War ally, until at least the Sino-U.S. rapprochement, Washington expected India to become an Asian counterweight to the ‘Chicoms’—as Washington referred to the Chinese Communists at that time—along with Japan. India’s unresponsiveness owing to its nonaligned policy together with Washington’s inattention to New Delhi estranged the democracies throughout much of the Cold War. Moreover, it was easier for the United States to inject military and economic aid to Pakistan than to resolve disputes with India, especially given the contrasting Cold War strategic mindsets in Washington and New Delhi at the time. In other words, the two countries finally seem ready and willing to jointly pursue their common geopolitical goals in Asia. These goals are independent of U.S.-Pakistan relations since the Asia-Pacific does not constitute Islamabad’s sphere of influence.

Modi’s action-oriented approach that was evident in his recent appointment of S. Jaishankar as the Indian foreign secretary, who had played a key role in the 2008 U.S.-India civilian nuclear agreement, demonstrates that he is keen to make bilateral relations a priority of Indian foreign policy. Yet again, international politics is not a zero-sum game. It is not supposed to be. While last year Washington replaced Russia as India’s largest defense supplier, India still continues to receive a substantial part of its military hardware from Russia and will continue to do so in the coming years. Unfortunately, the United States may have to make accommodations for the Indo-Russian Cold War legacy. Such accommodation however will not be without its potential strategic utility.

At a time when U.S.-Russian relations are highly strained and a deal on Iran’s nuclear program is largely uncertain, Washington may stand to benefit from its newfound bonhomie with New Delhi, which has historically been on good terms. Much will depend on how the Modi government is able to bolster its words through actions, on the one hand, and how much the Obama administration is able de-hyphenate in its engagement with India on the other.


Jayita Sarkar is a Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images


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This chart shows how China, India, and Japan are competing to develop their own aircraft carriers

Aircraft carriers are one of the ultimate symbols of a nation’s military strength and ability to project force beyond its borders. 

An aircraft carrier group is only fully operational when it has a reliable power source (either nuclear or petroleum-based), an accompanying carrier fleet for protection, and aircraft that can operate off of the carrier’s deck. Meeting these requirements is an extremely costly endeavor that most nations either can’t fulfill or sensibly choose not to pursue, based on the exorbitant price and the questionable hard-power value of a carrier for most of the world’s countries.

Despite this, Asia may be in the midst of a carrier arms race, with China and India working on indigenous models. The following Reuters chart displays the aircraft carriers operating or under construction in Asia.

Asia aircraft carriers

China has the largest aircraft carrier in Asia in the Liaoning, a 302 meter former Soviet vessel which is capable of carrying 50 aircraft or helicopters. Although the carrier’s size is daunting, the Liaoning is an older vessel that’s prone to mechanical problems. It’s more of a test carrier than an actual tool for Chinese force projection. 

China is hoping to rectify that problem with an indigenously produced carrier that Beijing hopes will be ready by the 2020s. Currently, the carrier is still in the development stage and is not yet under construction. 

India has similar carrier-related problems to China. Although it has three vessels, the Viraat is set to be retired next year and the Vikrant, though set to premier in 2018 or 2019, is years behind in delays and cost overruns. That leaves only the Vikramaditya operational — although, like the Liaoning, it’s a repurposed Soviet carrier built in the early 1980s that suffers from frequent mechanical problems

India carrierIndia also hopes to complete two indigenous carriers with US aid within the next decade, although the envisioned Vishal carrier has yet to progress out of the planning stage. 

Japan’s Hyuga and Izumo-class aircraft carriers are currently only used for helicopters largely due the country’s current pacifist constitution, which prohibits Japan from building military forces for anything other than self-defense. The Diplomat notes, though, that the Izumo-class carrier could be outfitted with F-35Bs in the future. 

Of all the carriers in Asia, Thailand’s Chakri Naruebet is exceptional due to its small size and unique lack of capabilities. Constructed in the 1990s, the carrier today barely leaves port and has no dedicated aircraft fleet, due to funding shortfalls.

SEE ALSO: Thailand has an aircraft carrier with no aircraft

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