Published in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 17 November 2021.

In 2016, India inducted its first nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, the INS Arihant, into its navy, extending nuclear military capabilities from land and air to the sea. “Arihant” translates to “destroyer of the enemy,” a name chosen for its “subtlety and appropriateness.” A year after Arihant’s induction, the vehicle reportedly suffered damage, prompting a member of Parliament to ask about the cost of repairs. A defense minister responded, “The information cannot be divulged in the interest of National Security.”

In India, acute poverty persists against a backdrop of urgent development priorities that jostle for financial resources. Meanwhile, India’s lack of transparency around nuclear weapon expenditures—including the government agencies responsible for approval, spending, and audits of those expenditures—carries on. Indian taxpayers deserve to know how much their government spends on nuclear weapons, particularly compared to spending on education and health. Also, transparency on nuclear weapons expenditures would signal to the world that India’s claimed commitment to disarmament is not empty talk.

Indian government secrecy on nuclear defense systems costs is not new. In 2001, for example, the government declined to say how much it paid for multirole fighter aircraft, citing a confidentiality clause in the contract. More recently, the Indian government refused to divulge expenditures incurred in developing and testing an interceptor ballistic missile, leasing submarines from Russia, or developing a land-based ballistic missile known as Prithvi-II.

“There is a now a culture of not asking questions on issues which the government categorises as national security,” said Venkatesh Nayak, an activist who has filed several right-to-information requests with the Indian government. India’s equivalent of the US Freedom of Information Act, the Right to Information Act has been a great source of information about many government and private programs in India—excepting those run by nuclear agencies.

Government agencies that focus on nuclear weapons often omit the word “nuclear” from their websites and reports. Instead, they say that nuclear weapons are “strategic.” Terms like “strategic forces,” “strategic purposes,” and ”strategic weapons” obfuscate meaning. India’s Strategic Forces Command, responsible for procuring, holding, and maintaining the country’s nuclear weapons, was recently added to a list of intelligence and security organizations exempt from the Right to Information Act.

Sparse information about Indian nuclear weapon expenditures. When the Indian government divulges information on nuclear costs, it does so sparingly. In 2010, for example, the government stated the cost of test firing Dhanush, a nuclear-capable ballistic missile, was 110 million Indian rupees ($1.46 million). In 2013, the Indian Parliament was informed that the cost of upgrading a Mirage-2000 fighter aircraft was 1.67 billion Indian rupees ($22.27 million) per aircraft. The cost of INS Arihant was $2.9 billion, at least according to one media report, but the figure’s source and cost breakdown were unclear.

One comprehensive attempt at trying to understand costs of India’s nuclear weapons program was undertaken by economist C. Rammanohar Reddy in 2003.  Based on piecing together the scarce data and drawing heavily on a 1998 cost estimate of the US nuclear weapons program, Reddy estimated that India would spend approximately 0.5 percent or more of its gross domestic product on nuclear weapons over the decade that followed. This cost estimate included expenditures on fissile material for bombs, delivery systems, and command and control infrastructure. To estimate the full cost, Reddy noted that he would also need to factor in past costs related to nuclear research reactors that provide plutonium for nuclear weapons, weapons-grade plutonium production, previously built aircraft development, and land- and sea-based ballistic missiles. Since Reddy’s prediction, leading experts have noted the difficulty in providing more recent estimates.

“…[E]ven government bureaucracies like the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) and the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, whose function is to monitor expenditures and criticize cost overruns, do not seem to have access to expenses relating to weapons facilities,” wrote MV Ramana, a physicist focused on international security and nuclear energy at the University of British Columbia. To the extent they have tried to oversee expenditures, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India has criticized some of the agencies involved in defense research for project cost overruns and shortcomings in budgeting and accounts.

To complicate matters further, civilian and military nuclear facilities often overlap, which means nuclear weapon expenditures may be presented as part of the civilian energy program.

Some information may be gleaned from scattered op-eds by members of the defense community or from quotes by unnamed sources. For example, a 2014 article attributed information on the cost breakdown of INS Arihant to an unnamed source. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons estimates that India spent $2.48 billion on nuclear weapons in 2020. Although better than nothing, one cannot have much confidence in these numbers. Reliable estimates of India’s spending on nuclear weapons do not exist.

That said, these expenditures seem to be increasing, at least if one looks at the overall budgets of the umbrella agencies charged with overseeing nuclear activities. The Department of Atomic Energy, which is responsible for both nuclear energy and weapons, saw its budget increase from 121.15 billion rupees during the 2010-11 fiscal year to 182.21 billion rupees in 2019-20—both inflation-adjusted to 2020 ($1.62 billion to $2.43 billion in inflation-adjusted 2020 US dollars). In other words, the budget of the department went up by over 50 percent over the decade, even after adjusting for inflation. But the budget documents do not provide a breakdown of expenditure by program, which makes it impossible to determine how much is allocated to nuclear weapons.

India’s Defense Research and Development Organization produces weapons systems and defense technologies domestically for the army, navy, and air force. This agency is in charge of developing missiles and other means of delivering nuclear weapons. From the 2013-14 fiscal year to 2019-20, its budget increased from 139.30 billion to 185.40 billion in inflation-adjusted 2020 Indian rupees ($1.86 billion to $2.47 billion in inflation-adjusted 2020 US dollars, a 33 percent increase).  Since the Defense Research and Development Organization is also exempted from questions under the Right to Information Act, the percentage spent on developing nuclear weapons is unknown.

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What about Pakistan’s lack of transparency in its nuclear budget? Like India, Pakistan’s nuclear-weapon spending is hard to estimate, as funds for its program are placed under a secret budget head, according to Pakistani journalist Baqir Sajjad Syed.

“The cost of Pakistan [sic] nuclear weapons programme cannot be estimated with any reliability,” Zia Mian, a physicist and nuclear policy expert at Princeton University, writes. In 2011, Mian noted that Pakistan could be spending between $800 million and $2 billion annually on nuclear weapons, including health and environmental costs.

Of Pakistan’s $10 billion military budget for 2019-2020, Mian suggests that spending on nuclear weapons was approximately 10 percent. Pakistan’s military spending also includes the substantial assistance it receives from the United States and China.

Still, the Indian government should not justify secrecy around its nuclear weapon program costs by comparing itself to Pakistan—a country it accuses of sponsoring terror attacks and of being a failed state. India has long aspired for recognition as a global leader. Financial transparency on nuclear weapon spending offers India an opportunity to demonstrate leadership on the global stage.

The case for India to disclose nuclear weapon expenditures. “Powerful lobbies, including the military-industrial complex, weigh heavily on parliaments and governments and impose priorities that have no democratic legitimacy,” a statement from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said. The statement urges states to proactively inform their citizens about past, present, and future military expenditures.

The national health budget in India has been less than a quarter of the defense budget in the last two years—even as the country was dealing with a COVID-19 pandemic and a devastating public health crisis. India’s defense budget places the country among the world’s top five military spenders, according to the Stockholm Institute of Peace and Research.

Meanwhile, Indian government spending on healthcare is among the lowest worldwide—a fact reflected in poor health infrastructure and exorbitant private healthcare. India is also among the nations with the most malnourished and stunted children and has an escalating rate of non-communicable diseases.

According to the economist Jayati Ghosh, Indira Gandhi, the former Indian prime minister under whom India conducted its first nuclear tests once noted that the cost of an intercontinental ballistic missile was 340,000 primary schools or 65,000 health care centers.

India should take steps towards disclosing nuclear weapon expenditures. Transparency would allow for important analysis about the balance of nuclear spending with education and health, bolster its claims as a responsible nuclear power committed to disarmament, and set a “subtle and appropriate” example for other nations to follow.

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