Agni-V And Beyond
On Thursday (April 19), Agni-V lifted itself from Wheelers’ Island on Odisha coast and streaked across the azure skies of Bay of Bengal. This event, though symbolic, is significant, because it catapults India in the league of select nations – United States, Russia, France and China, capable of operating inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM).
India has been trying to develop a wide spectrum capability regarding missiles since 1980s through its Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme under the aegis of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) with mixed results. Despite sanctions imposed after Pokhran tests (1998) by Western nations, regarding technology sharing, India has been able to operationalise and deploy an array of short range ballistic missiles.
Why Agni-V is so important to India? In the strategic context, it signifies India’s resolve to stand up to Chinese hegemonistic designs in South Asia. Matching China’s missile and nuclear capability may be a distant dream but with this development India surely stands out like a dark horse on whom the West, wary of growing Chinese influence, would prefer to bet on.
Chinese influence around Indian sub-continent is rather stifling. With waning influence of United States in Pakistan and Afghanistan, geo-strategic experts see China as a rising power controlling this sensitive region. Pakistan is all too eager to do Chinese bidding against India. Chinese presence in the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (Gilgit-Baltistan) has been a cause of worry. Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) has been militarised and with its improved surface communications Chinese have established contact with Sino-Indian border, Nepal and Bhutan. Much to chagrin of India, Chinese insistences on Arunachal Pradesh have been aggressively overt and undiplomatic. Along the Line of Actual Control between India and China there have been incursions and provocations by China. China has been marking its presence in South Asia; Indian Ocean Rim countries and Indian Ocean Region. India’s intention of prospecting oil and gas in South China Sea in collaboration with Vietnam has not gone down too well with China. China sees India as a rival and a rising regional power, having potential to contest its hegemony. Through its calibrated diplomatic and military moves China has been trying to provoke India and gauge its response.
It is well-known that Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programme has been supported by China. Just in a decade (1989-2000) Pakistan’s nuclear and missile arsenal has overtaken India. Since 2002, its short, medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles have been covering entire Indian sub-continent.
Chinese missile bases in Central China and Tibetan Autonomous Region cover entire India and much beyond. Its Golmud-Lhasa highway and railway enables China to move and launch missiles from silos or Transporter Erector Launchers (TEL).
Agni-V successful launch dispels that gloomy feeling of being hemmed in by China and Pakistan as far as missile threat in the sub-continent is concerned.
In 2011, DRDO tested Agni-III and Agni-IV in rapid succession and even claimed to test Agni-V in the same year. This exuberance indicates confidence of scientific community who have achieved proficiency in systems’ integration.
Agni-V can strike up to a distance of 5,000 kilometres. That means most of Asia and Europe and parts of Africa are within its reach. It can carry 1-1.5 tonne warhead—nuclear or conventional. Its subsequent editions will also be capable of carrying multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles i.e. multiple warheads for engaging separate targets. It has improved guidance system and claims a circular error of probability of less than 40 metres. Technically speaking the present range of Agni-V qualifies it as an intermediate range ballistic missile, but scientists are confident to soup-up its reach by another 1,500 kilometres. The DRDO has said that more than 80 per cent of the missile was indigenous. Impressive parameters, indeed.
Agni-V at present is a technological demonstrator. It would need many such tests to validate the reliability and performance of its systems and sub-systems before the missile is offered to the armed forces. Armed forces will conduct user trials prior to inducting it in their inventory. To achieve the operational deployment it would be needed in sizable numbers along with an extensive support system. DRDO’s time line of 2014-15 for operationalising Agni-V seems rather ambitious unless a rigorous induction programme is embarked on.
Chinese reaction to Agni-V launch has been rather terse. An article in the state-run daily Global Times termed the event as “delusion” and asserted that, “Even if it (India) has missiles that could reach most parts of China, that does not mean it will gain anything from being arrogant during disputes with China. India should be clear that China’s nuclear power is stronger and more reliable. For the foreseeable future, India would stand no chance in an overall arms race with China.” Bellicosity apart, the statement highlights some ground realities. To achieve a comprehensive capability in nuclear weapons and missiles arena India needs to expand its satellite cover for imagery and surveillance and to achieve redundancy in case of attrition by anti-satellite weapons. A ballistic missile defence system for the capital city, metropolitan cities, command and control set-up, nuclear installations, missile silos and production facilities would be needed. Nuclear warheads for missiles, rocket and artillery need miniaturisation, which is a complex technology. Such warheads are fabricated from weapon-grade plutonium. The technology is a prerequisite for producing nuclear-tipped missiles. Nuclear weapons and missiles are incomplete unless their triad is developed. India would need at least two of its components—ICBMs and submarine launched ballistic missiles in the immediate future.
India’s commitment to ‘no first use’ of nuclear weapons puts her in a dilemma. With its two neighbours having no such compulsion will always have the initiative of striking first. India needs to preserve its ‘second strike’ capability by having ballistic missile defence and deploying its resources in the ‘triad’ equitably. Having missiles in silos or on TELs (Transporter Erector Launcher) bereft of any missile or air defence conjure up the scenario from Gulf War II where Iraq’s Scud Missiles were eliminated in first few days of war.
Higher defence organisation of India would now need a relook. With ICBM ability, our armed forces need more integration at the apex level. Time is ripe for bringing in the appointment of Chief of Defence Staff, an idea which is hanging fire since 2002 despite the recommendation from Group of Ministers, due to unyielding attitude of a particular Service. Triad concept cannot bear the operational stress if the resources are to be handled by Strategic Forces Command.
Infrastructure development particularly in the border areas and hinterland for the movement and deployment of missiles needs to be undertaken on priority basis. Otherwise how do we move a convoy of 10-axle heavy duty trucks loaded with missiles to its designated place. Recently, slow pace of development of border areas in the North-east was in the news because Army Chief had sought intervention from the Prime Minister to fast track the projects.
Agni-V is good news. The momentum generated by its launch should be maintained to achieve basic minimum deterrence against India’s adversaries.
By Colonel (retd.) US Rathore
(The author is a Threat and Risk Analyst and Defence and Security expert)