Tag Archives: ICBM

Agni-V, Indian nuclear weapons, and arms racing: a wrap-up

Three pieces of my writing on India’s new 5,000km-range ballistic missile, along with a few by others. Writing for RUSI with Frank O’Donnell (of the Department of War Studies at King’s College London),  I looked at the general implications:

An Agni-V deployed in modest numbers, and accompanied by political signals that the system’s development represents the maturity of India’s nuclear forces, would most closely accord with the initial spirit of credible minimum deterrence. By contrast, if the Agni-V is seen as a ‘bridge’ to a much more diverse and sizeable Indian arsenal, and its production and deployment eventually takes place in large numbers, this could herald a strengthening of the more assertive strand in Indian nuclear thinking. This is not about India adopting a nuclear posture of counterforce and embracing nuclear war-fighting. Rather, this is about a longstanding debate, pioneered in the United States, between the view that ‘deterrence can be achieved only through difficult choices, sustained with intelligent effort, and will depend very much on the technical details’ and the opposing view ‘that, beyond a certain point, all of this is crazy talk, and the technical details don’t matter very much at all’. India’s approach to nuclear weapons is, and is likely to remain, closer to the second of these – but that is not to say that the ‘technical details’ of nuclear deterrence will not assume greater prominence in India’s security policy.

At the Times of India, we suggest that the missile test reflects a shift in the US-India relationship:

In 1994, the United States pressured India to suspend testing of the Agni series after just three test flights. India formally suspended the programme at the end of 1996, although it resumed testing in 1997. The muted American response to the test of the Agni V, despite Washington’s concern over the missile programmes of Iran and North Korea, is indicative of the rapid improvement in the US-India bilateral relationship over the past 15 years. Some Indians sneer at the efforts made by successive Indian governments to improve ties with Washington. These sceptics should consider the diplomatic nightmare that India would have faced had it conducted this test 15 years ago.

We also look at two risks:

The first is that bureaucrats and scientists, rather than elected politicians and a well-informed public, make these choices [about India’s nuclear future]. Last year, MIT professor Vipin Narang … warned that “DRDO’s press releases and post-test comments unnecessarily – and dangerously – confuse India’s nuclear posture”. Perhaps India should build on the Agni V test to make longer-range missiles, as DRDO director V K Saraswat promised to do last week, but this has big financial, diplomatic and strategic implications – and is therefore a matter for political leaders. A national security strategy and nuclear posture review – like those we see in other nuclear weapons states – would be a good start. The second danger is that we begin to see all technological advances as desirable. To be sure, anything that makes India’s missiles more survivable – for example, increasing their mobility on the ground – is unambiguously a good thing. But other improvements mentioned by Saraswat, like MIRV technology that puts multiple warheads on a single missile, presents trade-offs: the missiles will pack a greater punch, but could generate fears that India is abandoning credible minimum deterrence.

Then, at the New York Times‘ India Ink, responding in part to the newspaper’s own reporting of the Agni-V test, I questioned the prevalent thinking that an “arms race” is now underway:

Of the Agni 5, the Hindustan Times’ foreign editor, Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, estimates that India will add, “at best, two such missiles to its arsenal every year.” This will have virtually zero impact on China’s retaliatory capacity. There is, therefore, no reason to suppose that Beijing will scramble to respond in the way that Washington and Moscow would have done in response to one another. Under these conditions, having more survivable and robust means of retaliation, like the Agni 5, can be stabilizing. Such missiles can be moved around by road or rail, which makes them less vulnerable than those in fixed silos. This enables India to shift away from less reliable and more trigger-happy delivery systems like aircraft. The more confident India feels in its ability to respond, the calmer it can be in handling crises.

The BBC asked this same question last week, and quoted Jeffrey Lewis along the same lines (emphasis added):

“Beijing tends to focus much more on the United States, rather than India. Indian officials talk about China much more than their Chinese counterparts talk about them. I doubt very much that China and India will engage in an arms race, scaled-down or otherwise. Both countries tend to pursue the same specific capabilities, but neither produces large numbers of nuclear weapons or nuclear-capable missiles.” He suggests that both China and India seem to be pursuing what he calls a “possession” oriented approach to nuclear modernisation: “They are developing in turn small numbers of ever more advanced capabilities held by other power. Neither country, however, has produced anywhere near the number of nuclear weapons or nuclear-capable missiles that each is capable of producing“.

The article by Vipin Narang (the one that we cited in the Times of India) was published with the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA) last year. It’s available here, and is well worth reading in light of last week’s flurry of post-test commentary:

Certainly, the engineers at DRDO who have developed these capabilities should be proud of their contribution to India’s strategic capabilities, but their post-test commentary risks adjusting or crafting Indian nuclear doctrine on the fly and in ad hoc ways—carrying the danger of dragging the cat by its own tail. Leaving aside the larger direction and drivers of DRDO’s strategic missile developments, these seemingly public relations details can have tremendous implications for future crisis stability on the Subcontinent. The DRDO commentary presumes that political and strategic decisions about future missile role-assignment have been made. But, if the NCA and SFC decide, for example, that the naval variant of the Shourya will have a nuclear role but the land-based cousin will not, those subtleties may be lost on adversaries because of these DRDO statements, possibly generating misperceptions and miscalculations about India’s movements during a crisis.

Last year, Michael Krepon also reflected on the broader question of an arms race (or “arms crawl”), and comes to more mixed conclusions with which I wouldn’t agree:

Ashley [Tellis] was right about New Delhi’s limited enthusiasm for nuclear weapons [when he wrote in 2000-1], but he was off the mark in assuming that Pakistan’s nuclear requirements would be influenced by India’s restraint and deep ambivalence about the Bomb. Instead, Pakistan’s military leadership appears intent to outpace India’s nuclear capabilities. China is also moving forward with strategic modernization programs. Situated between two more serious regional nuclear competitors, New Delhi has done “the needful.” India, like Pakistan, has reportedly doubled the size of its nuclear arsenal over the past decade, while still lagging behind its neighbors … Pakistan and India are entering a less stable phase of offsetting, growing, and more diversified nuclear capabilities, one that is complicated by China’s strategic modernization programs. This is par for the course after rivals with serious security concerns move from covert to overt nuclear weapon capabilities and, then later, when they build out their force structure. If one of the competitors in southern Asia seeks advantage, or worries about being disadvantaged, the result will look more like a nuclear arms competition than an arms crawl.

At his blog, Rohan Joshi warned against triumphalism:

However, it is important to exercise caution and not get unduly carried away with yesterday’s successful test.  Unfortunately, India’s mainstream media has displayed misguided, almost vulgar bellicosity in its reporting of the success of Agni-V.  The same mainstream media that claimed that India wasn’t even prepared for war against Pakistan just two weeks ago, was all set to launch a punitive nuclear attack against China yesterday.  Some TV news channels also featured animated videos of Agni-V hitting targets in China!  This shrillness, rhetoric and lack of credible analysis does a tremendous disservice to the profession of journalism and to the people of India.

Nitin Pai, writing for DNA, was also cautious:

It is fashionable to argue that India’s fractious democratic system does not allow it to pursue long term inter-generational projects. This is only partly true. India’s nuclear strategy contradicts this argument — the minimum credible deterrent has been pursued for at least the last three decades. Will Agni-V change the balance of power in the broader Asian region? Not quite. For that India will need to regain the economic growth trajectory that it fell out of over the last decade. What remains to be seen is whether the security the missile provides will make us even more complacent about implementing the second-generation reforms necessary to accumulate power.

 Also in DNA, Radhakrisha Rao demanded an ICBM. Why? Well …

an ICBM capability is vital for India to be recognised as a military power of global standing. India should look beyond the Chinese threat to build a sturdy ICBM muscle to showcase Indian technological prowess that cannot be browbeaten by the technology denial regime.