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Agni-V: The fire that India needs

Last week, India successfully test-fired the 5,000 km-range ballistic missile, Agni-V off the Orissa coast. The nuclear-capable missile will become fully operational by 2015 after ‘four to five repeatable tests’ and user trials.

Few people remember that India’s strategic weapons programme started in the early 1970s with Project Devil (SRBM) and Project Valiant (ICBM). Project Valiant was an attempt to build a 8,000 km range missile, with three liquid fuel stages. The 30-tonnes thrust liquid engine was first test fired on 10 May 1974, but the project was soon cancelled because of insufficient progress, weak programme management and poor organisation structure.

The current missile development programme, the IGMDP, comprising five missiles and their variants was launched by the DRDO in 1983. While the Prithvi and the Agni series of ballistic missiles are meant to be strategic delivery systems, the Trishul (short-range) and Akash (medium-range) are air defence Surface-to-Air missiles and the Nag is an anti-tank guided missile. Of these, the Prithvi and Agni series of missiles have been markedly successful.


Aiming high: The 5,000 km-range ballistic missile Agni-V is the second credible leg of India’s strategic Triad, and is the first Indian strategic missile capable of canister launch

Although it can also deliver a nuclear warhead, the Prithvi, a single-stage missile with a range of 150-250 kilometres, is essentially a tactical weapon for conventional use. It has been operational for many years now. Agni missiles, in contrast, are strategic carriers for delivering nuclear weapons — the first four versions have ranges varying from 700 to 3000 kilometers.

The successful Agni-V test has been rightly described by the Indian establishment as ‘a quantum leap in India’s strategic capability’. Nuclear weapons are strategic in the sense that they can not be used like other conventional military weapons in war. They are geostrategic chess pieces. They prevent war by creating the deterrence that the adversary cannot ignore. More importantly, while conventional military capabilities are essentially configured on identifiable adversaries, strategic strengths are not country-specific. In fact, they are the new currency of power in the modern era.

To many who argue that the theory of deterrence is discredited, here is K Subrahmanyam’s simple explanation: “What is relevant in international politics and international security relations is not whether deterrence is rational or has been discredited but whether other nations which pose a potential threat to us believe in it or not. Pakistan and China believe in it. That is what matters for the Indian security calculus.” That deterrence works is also proved by the experience of the US and the USSR: after 40 years of nuclear and missile confrontation the two superpowers sat across a table, concluded a peace agreement and ended the Cold War.

Given our No First Use nuclear doctrine, there is a certain minimum credible deterrent that India needs to hold. Minimum credible deterrent, which underpins India’s nuclear doctrine, was incidentally the title of the study carried out under Rajiv Gandhi’s direction in November 1985 by General Sundarji with APJ Abdul Kalam and Dr Chidambaram as its members.

India’s minimum credible deterrent has to come from a nuclear Triad which provides a potent second strike capability. Agni-V is the second credible leg of India’s strategic Triad, aircraft-based delivery being the first. It is the first Indian strategic missile capable of canister launch, allowing it to be launched from any part of the country. It is also configured to hold several Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV) warheads. An MIRV comprises 3-10 nuclear warheads where each warhead can be assigned to a different target, separated by hundreds of kilometres. Although it will take another 4-5 years to deploy the MIRV, once deployed, MIRV will enable a single missile to overwhelm the adversary’s missile defence.The final leg of the Triad in the form of a nuclear powered submarine launching a ballistic missile with MIRV warheads from below the water is thus now closer to reality.

The fears of a Chinese backlash to Agni-V are overblown. If India were to borrow a lesson from what China did vis-à-vis the US, it is possible to develop the strategic missile as well as improve relations with Beijing. The nuclear weapons are indeed the new Himalayas — to use my colleague Nitin Pai’s evocative phrase — and the successful testing of Agni-V has just increased the height of that strategic barrier.  

Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review

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