China now possesses 350 nuclear warheads, while Pakistan has 165, as compared to 156 of India, as per the latest assessment of the Stockholm International Peace Institute (SIPRI) released on Monday.
The nine nuclear-armed countries together possess an estimated 13,080 nuclear weapons, with Russia (6,255 warheads) and the US (5,550) leagues ahead of the rest. The others are France (290), UK (225), Israel (90) and North Korea (40-50). These figures, of course, are not exact because countries by and large keep their nuclear weapons programmes shrouded in secrecy.
Apart from Russia and the US, all the other seven countries are also either developing or deploying new weapon systems. "China is in the middle of a significant modernisation and expansion of its nuclear weapons inventory, and India and Pakistan also appear to be expanding their nuclear arsenals," said SIPRI.
The report comes at a time India and China remain locked in the military confrontation in eastern Ladakh, which erupted in May last year, with no signs of de-escalation as yet. But the fresh border ceasefire with Pakistan has held since February.
Indian officials say robust delivery systems like land-based ballistic missiles and nuclear-powered submarines with ballistic nuclear missiles (called SSBNs), with "assured second-strike capabilities", have more strategic significance rather than the actual number of warheads.
"Nuclear weapons are meant for deterrence, not war-fighting. Pakistan, of course, has benefitted from its nexus in nuclear and missile proliferation with China and North Korea. But India is doing fine with the development and modernisation of its indigenous credible minimum deterrence," said an official.
The tri-Service Strategic Forces Command, for instance, is now inducting the over 5,000-km range Agni-V intercontinental ballistic missile, which brings the whole of Asia and China as well parts of Europe and Africa within its strike envelope, after shorter-range missiles.
Similarly, the new Rafale jets have boosted the existing "air vector" for delivery of nuclear gravity bombs after some Sukhoi-30MKIs, Mirage-2000s and Jaguars were earlier modified for that role.
But the third leg of the "nuclear triad" is still far from being credible. India currently has only one SSBN in INS Arihant, with 750-km range K-15 nuclear missiles. Countries like the US, Russia and China have SSBNs with well over 5,000-km range missiles.
India has three more SSBNs under development, with INS Arighat slated for commissioning this year after some delay. The developmental trials of K-4 missiles, with a strike range of 3,500-km, in turn, have been completed but the induction is still some distance away, as was earlier reported by TOI.
Pakistan as yet does not have sea-based nukes, though it has tested the 450-km-range Babur-3 cruise missiles for deployment on conventional diesel-electric submarines. China, of course, is far ahead with its Type-094 or Jin-class submarines armed with the 7,400-km JL-2 missiles.