Closer to credible nuclear deterrence

Sushant SinghA day after its 64th Republic Day, India crossed a threshold in its quest to acquire credible nuclear deterrence. At 1.40 PM on January 27, the DRDO announced the success of the final developmental test of its 700-km range K-15 missile from an underwater platform.

This submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) known at various times as Sagarika, Shaurya, Dhanush and K-15 during its development had already been consecutively launched successfully 10 times from under water and thrice from land. Since this is a missile that cannot afford to fail, India officially announced its possession for the first time only after this stringent testing schedule.

K 15 missile
The medium-range ballistic missile K-15 was successfully test-fired by DRDO from an underwater platform off India’s east coast last month

But the K-15 is not exactly a ballistic missile. As per journalists briefed by DRDO scientists, its more accurate description would be a hypersonic cruise missile or a hybrid propulsion missile, since it travels within the earth’s atmosphere. Business Standard quoted DRDO chief VK Saraswat as explaining that “Like a ballistic missile, it is powered by solid fuel. And, like a cruise missile, it can guide itself right up to the target.” Onboard navigation computers kick in near the target, guiding the missile to the target. This means that unlike conventional ballistic missiles which cannot correct their course midway, the K-15 is an “intelligent missile” capable of outmanoeuvring anti-missile weapons.

The path taken by the Hyderabad-made missile made during the last test was a copybook match with the ideal trajectory plotted by computers. As the missile neared the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, it made all the required diversionary manoeuvres to ward off hypothetical missile-downing efforts from the enemy. The dummy warhead also exploded with precision at the designated target during the test conducted off India’s east coast.

Robust testing and intelligent nature of the missile make it highly reliable, a mandatory requirement for the underwater leg of a nuclear triad. Nuclear triad is the ability of a country to launch nuclear weapons from land, air and sea. The purpose of having a triad is to significantly reduce the chance of an enemy destroying all the nuclear forces in a first strike attack; this ensures a credible threat of a second strike, and thus increases a country’s nuclear deterrence.

The land-based and airborne legs of India’s triad are already operational. Aircraft, the easiest to acquire, are also the most vulnerable. Their range is limited by mid-air refueling capacity. The Sukhoi-30 and Mirage-2000 aircraft of the Indian Air Force can deliver nuclear payloads to Pakistan, and up to central China. India’s land-based missiles provide greater reach than the aircraft. Agni-1 (700 km range) and Agni-2 (2,000 km range) cover all of Pakistan while being launched from sites away from India’s western borders.

The Agni-4 (3,500 km range) and the Agni-5 (5,000 km range) cover up to China’s east coast. Once operationalised, the K-15 will arm INS Arihant, India’s only indigenous nuclear powered submarine. Because nuclear submarines can stay under water undetected for a long time, missiles launched from them have the greatest chance of survival from enemy’s first strike, thus providing a credible second strike capability. This means that the K-15, carrying nuclear warheads, will be launched from INS Arihant only after a nuclear attack on India.

The acquisition of a triad aligns India’s strategic capabilities with its nuclear doctrine. India’s nuclear doctrine, promulgated by the government in January 2003, mandates a strategy of ‘no first use’ and ‘credible minimum deterrence’. Given the unequivocal ‘no first use’ commitment, a credible and invulnerable retaliatory strike capability is an imperative for deterrence. Nuclear deterrence is not a function of the exchange ratio of the damages inflicted by both sides. The crux of nuclear deterrence is survival of the retaliatory force and the adequacy of the survived force to inflict unacceptable punishment.

As the man who drafted the nuclear doctrine, the late K Subrahmanyam explained: “In India’s case, it would mean that the ability of the country to retaliate against a nuclear attack on it by either of its two nuclear neighbours, should be credible to the potential adversary. In other words, the retaliation should result in unacceptable damage in terms of population and property. So long as India has a survivable retaliatory force, the punishment is certain.”

As India works on a longer-range SRBM and produces more nuclear-powered submarines to further enhance its credible minimum deterrence, the successful testing of K-15 missile is a clear message to potential adversaries that India’s promise to weather a nuclear attack and retaliate punitively is no hollow threat.

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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