LONDON: Apparently timed to appear before upcoming plenary meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) from June 22-23, King's College London has released a damning report on Indian nuclear programme.
The report by Project Alpha concludes that the strategic trade with India will enhance its nuclear weapons latency and enable it to push for a third `breakout' of nuclear weapons.
This British assessment raises fears that India surreptitiously superseded even the United Kingdom and France in their arsenal size and could pose a serious threat to their security once geopolitical alliances shift.
A similar conclusion was drawn by Harvard University Belfer Centre's recent report, titled 'Indian Nuclear Exceptionalism', which concludes that India has ostensibly a fissile material stock worth 2,600 nuclear warheads.
This assessment makes India fall in the unenviable third place after the United States and Russia.
A more modest assessment had appeared last year in a petite book by four Pakistani scholars, who placed Indian nuclear arsenal at around 500 warheads - still making it the holder Bronze Medal amongst the nuclear-armed states.
The book titled 'Indian Unsafeguarded Nuclear Programme' posits that India has enough indigenous uranium to cover its weapons and energy requirements of more than a century.
If these assessments are true, there's no reason that the NSG should even consider New Delhi's application for membership because nuclear trade will only help the country vertically proliferate and at some stage become a threat even to its benefactors.
India's nuclear self-determination as well as its interests in keeping its future options open would prevent the country from agreeing to other non-proliferation commitments, such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT).
The country has the largest unsafeguarded nuclear programme in the developing world and refuses to bring a substantial part it's so-called civil nuclear programme outside IAEA safeguards.
Likewise, Indian refusal to sign CTBT is because it is ostensibly developing thermonuclear weapons in a secret nuclear city in Karnataka's Challakere area - producing HEU in access of its needs for fuelling nuclear submarines.
Within this context, the King's College report highlights that international trade and other cooperation with India is contributing to India's strategic programmes both directly and indirectly.
This report also highlights the possible erosion of political control of the nuclear arsenal. The Agni-V intercontinental range capable ballistic missile is pre-mated in the same manner as the pre-mated ballistic missiles used on-board Arihant-class SSBNs.
This will have a significant impact on nuclear policy and command and control. Indian entities are at onward-proliferation risk.
The potential danger lies with the re-export of sensitive items and knowledge out of India to foreign powers.
The domestic industry supplying India's strategic weapons complex and the country's nuclear programme have reached sufficient technical maturity to export expertise and tangible nuclear and missile-related goods.
The supply of uranium from other countries allows India to burn this safeguarded fuel in their safeguarded facilities whilst using their sizeable natural uranium resources to breed plutonium and produce weapons-grade uranium for an expansion of their nuclear arsenal.
It's worth recalling that the NSG was created in 1975 as a reaction to Indian nuclear proliferation since 1950s and testing of its first bomb in 1974.
India's scientific complexes (nuclear, missile, and space) are poorly separated. The nuclear programme in India has been partially submitted to international safeguards, but this remains limited and allows India to exercise de facto nuclear weapons state privileges regarding the production of special fissile material.
This unclear separation should raise concerns about the unwitting or deliberate assistance of foreign entities when engaging with Indian entities who are stakeholders in the strategic weapons programme.
Illicit procurement of dual-use items intended for use in the Indian strategic weapons programme is a dimension of activity difficult to assess.
Nonetheless, this study confirms that such behaviour has occurred in the past and may have waned in recent years as indigenous capabilities increase and India's ability to procure items from abroad has increased.
The report also identifies and characterises entities involved in India's strategic weapons programme. KCL's report is an essential update on the record of Indian entities and will be of interest to government and private sector customers dealing with proliferation issues, particularly with regards to sensitive and dual-use items headed for end-users in India.
This report shall be read carefully by the 48 participating governments of NSG before they meet in Bern in few days.
Alarmingly, 243 entities have contributed to India's strategic nuclear and missile programmes as key weapon stakeholders, unsafeguarded nuclear fuel cycle entities, defence supply chain entities, developers of auxiliary systems such as vehicles, and entities conducted dual-use research of concern.
There is a wider and deeper network of suppliers and researchers involved in this system. India's strategic weapons complex has explored and developed additional weapons systems that could be made nuclear-capable should there be political will.
Historically, periods of capability breakout occurred around India's milestone nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998. In such instances, the initiative of the strategic weapons complex in developing technology demonstrators, has pre-empted political decision making to adopt such technologies as military capabilities.
India has invested in new special fissile material production facilities. This large unsafeguarded nuclear fuel cycle encompasses a number of entities performing dual civil and military functions.
India has used informal forums such as the High Energy Materials Society of India or Indian National Society for Aerospace and Related Mechanisms as potential spaces for Indian strategic weapons scientists to meet and exchange ideas with foreign scientists.
The process of Indian science developments taking the lead over policy direction is why India's technological latency should raise concerns. Furthermore, an acute nuclear crisis in South Asia would see India mobilise its science and technology potential to undergo a new massive expansion of nuclear capabilities - a third breakout.
Indian Navy is on its way to build a naval nuclear deterrent of at least six nuclear powered submarines by 2022 that will carry more weapons than French and British navies combined.
The Indian government's support for its domestic industry in the face of international sanctions and technology denial has continued since the normalisation of trade relations in 2008 with exceptional American help. The US won a trade waiver to India that year which has allowed it to sign a dozen nuclear deals since then.
Continued special treatment threatens to erode the interlinked non-proliferation regime by demonstrating the viability of achieving nuclear weapon state status outside the NPT and the possibility of Indian reintegration without significant concessions.
This exceptionalism begs the question: how can the abnormalities in the non-proliferation regime be addressed and the technological apartheid can end?
The nuclear-haves are running with the hares and hunting with the hounds.