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Agni V launch and other great expectations

The test launch of Agni V has been greeted by some breathless reporting, considering missile technology is old hat and the putative target, China, is way ahead of India in launch vehicle, as well as nuclear weapons technology.

Nevertheless, the successful test adds to the incremental steps that India has been taking to enhance its strategic deterrent capabilities. This has been marked earlier this year by the commencement of the sea trials of the Arihant, nuclear propelled ballistic missile firing submarine.

In a different category come the Indian successes against domestic terrorism in the form of the arrest, first, of Abdul Karim ‘Tunda’ an ace-bomber who operated in the late 1990s in the region around Delhi and second, of Yasin Bhatkal, a key Indian Mujahideen operative who has played a significant role in the bombing campaigns across India since the mid- 2000s.

Both the Agni and the terrorism successes hide more than they reveal. In the case of the terrorists, we have not heard too much about the role played by our external intelligence agency R&AW in ferreting out the terrorists and ensuring their arrest. Reports show that today’s terrorists are quite savvy and resort to all manner of techniques and methods to evade electronic snooping. The only way to get them is through the old-fashioned way — using human intelligence. This is also the toughest and most tedious method, but, as veteran intelligence officers will tell you, also the best.

Likewise, the Agni test does not reveal the sterling role played by the Indian Space Research Organisation in the success of the Agni programme. Key technologies that have gone into the Agni series of missiles were first mastered by ISRO, principal among these being the ability to make solid propellant engines and accompanying it, the flex-nozzle technology enabling the missile to pitch and yaw. If the ISRO designed SLV 3 formed the second stage of the very first Agni, it was an ISRO scientist who designed the second stage for the Agni II, which is the key missile in the Indian arsenal. As for Agni V, it needs to be noted that its diameter is the same as that of the segment developed for the ISRO’s Polar Space Launch Vehicle (PSLV), the workhorse of our space programme.

What the two developments do indicate is that the country does have deep resources in the area of defence and security. The issue is to harness them effectively. The big problem that we often face is that of the silo mentality. Our government departments and organisations insist on working in silos and would prefer to reinvent the wheel, rather than accept that another department may be able to provide the solution to their problem.

Contemporary security challenges require institutions and organisations to work together, just as modern science often depends on teamwork instead of the outpouring of individual geniuses. But getting people to work together in India is a major challenge. Perhaps the greatest challenge comes with regard to our national security. A broad definition of national security will involve almost every aspect of our lives — trade, commerce, natural resources, policing, governance, military matters, foreign affairs and so on. Though it is rare for countries to coordinate all of them, some like China do manage it and have benefited enormously from it. In India, we have been importing large numbers of passenger jets, but have never managed to leverage our purchases to establish a domestic civil aviation industry. The Chinese, on the other hand, invited foreign railways technology to set up projects in their country and within a decade they had imbibed the technology and emerged as a major player in developing fast railway networks.

They are now doing the same in other areas that interest them — civil aviation, renewable energy, military aviation and so on. Most of the Chinese advances in science and technology owe themselves to Project 863, named after the year (1986) and the month March (3) in which top Chinese scientists wrote a letter to supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, calling for major investments in a range of areas from biotechnology to robotics — to ensure that China would emerge as a major force in research and development. Through the programme, the government has pumped billions of dollars into labs and universities and enterprises, on projects ranging from cloning to renewable energy. It is through this programme that China has become the world leader in manufacturing solar panels as well as wind turbines.

The Chinese apply this principle of command-driven management to national security as well. At the top of the decision-making pyramid in everything related to national security sits the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, and associated with it, the Central Military Commission. What these bodies decide is final and the task of pushing the decisions on the rank and file rests on the shoulders of the ubiquitous Communist Party members.

Of course, a country like India cannot replicate this structure. But surely, our Union Cabinet, or our state Cabinets and governments can do a better job of managing things than they have done. Disunity and incoherence at the top inevitably trickles down to the system below and that is what has made the national security system of the country largely dysfunctional, despite episodic achievements like the launch of the Agni V or the arrests of top terrorists.  

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Nen Delhi 

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