What Agni-V’s success means to India.
Yesterday, India conducted a successful test of the much-awaited Agni-V nuclear-capable missile off Wheeler Island, Orissa. Agni-V incorporates advanced technologies including composite rocket motors and micro-navigation systems, and has a range of over 5,000 km. The test itself is the most significant technological demonstrator of India’s evolving nuclear capability since the Pokhran tests of 1998.
By all standards, yesterday’s test was a long time coming. Hindered by high-technology denial regimes led primarily by the U.S., India’s strategic missiles program has experienced delays and setbacks over the course of the last 15 years. However, the absence of criticism from the U.S. on yesterday’s test is a testament to how far the Indo-U.S. bilateral relationship has come since Pokhran. As Shashank Joshi notes, “[i]f this had happened 15 years ago, it would have been condemned by the U.S.”
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.
Yes, Agni-V was an important step, but India has many more significant challenges to overcome in the evolution of its nuclear capability. The significance of Agni-V ties directly with India’s “No First Use” (NFU) nuclear doctrine, which requires a mature secondary-strike capability for any NFU position to be credible. Effectively, a secondary-strike capability means having the ability to retaliate in an imposed nuclear war via land (typically, missiles), air (strategic bombers) and sea (submarines) — the so-called “nuclear triad.”
However, two of the three legs of India’s nuclear triad are only just evolving. Agni-V’s successful launch notwithstanding, it will take several years before it can be fully inducted into India’s armed forces. Further, as India’s stature and interests on the global stage grow, there will be a need in the future to adequately consider and account for threats beyond its shores and neighborhood. This will mean the development of missiles with ranges longer than Agni-V, which will take not only advanced technological expertise to achieve, but also considerable political will.
India’s sea-based deterrent is also lagging. Since India’s first indigenous nuclear-powered submarine, Arihant, was revealed about two years ago, its operationalization has been significantly impacted by delays in its sea trials. It is unlikely therefore, that it can be inducted into the armed forces before 2014. Moreover, India’s submarine-based ballistic missile program is at a nascent stage. While the short-range SLBM Sagarika (K-15) has undergone some trials, the longer-range K-4 is still under development and is unlikely to be ready for tests in the next 4-5 years, going by previous record. This means that India is unlikely to realistically achieve credible sea-based deterrence before 2020.
India’s avowed position of never employing a nuclear weapon first in combat means that it must develop its secondary-strike capability with purpose. It can ill-afford to go through additional iterations of lethargy and ineffectual decision-making in operationalizing and maturing its nuclear triad. Naturally, India’s nuclear arsenal must also quantitatively and qualitatively evolve to reflect current and emerging threats. The value of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems lies in convincing adversaries of their credibility and ability to inflict unacceptable damage in retaliation, should the need arise. The need of the hour therefore is to focus on these aspects rather than engage in injudicious and myopic chest-thumping.