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…and then there was fire

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.

 

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Nuclear Arithmetic, Deterrent Calculus

K Santhanam sent the Indian media into a flutter with his statement that the thermonuclear device (Shakti-I) tested in 1998 during Pokhran II was not completely successful and did not produce the anticipated (and reported) yield of 40-45 kT.  He put this apparent failure in the context of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), advocating that we do not sign or ratify the treaty until India’s thermonuclear capability can be successfully demonstrated.

Notwithstanding denials from APJ Abdul Kalam, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, R Chidambaram and Brajesh Mishra, the vast differential in the reported vs. observed yield is no secret.  International nonpartisan sources, such as the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) indicated 10  years ago that yield of Shakti-I was between 12-25 kT.  Indeed, Santhanam’s statements were also corroborated by both former AEC chairman PK Iyengar, and national security expert Bharat Karnad.

However, this admission does not change India’s nuclear posture much, either with regard to Pakistan or China.  Nuclear weapons are a deterrent force and Pakistan will neither be emboldened nor hindered by the admission of this yield differential, in the event that it is contemplating a nuclear attack against India, in the face of rapidly deteriorating circumstances during a conventional war.

A nuclear bomb is a nuclear bomb. Indeed, the credibility of Pakistan’s own nuclear tests in Chagai were marred by reports of a significant divergence between reported vs. observed yields.  While Pakistan reported tests of six nuclear devices (two in the kT range, and four in the sub-kT range) with a total yield exceeding 36 kT, nonpartisan sources indicate the May 28, 1998 tests produced a total yield of between 9-12 kT.

However, despite such reports, Pakistan’s arsenal consisting largely of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) acted as a very credible deterrent against possible Indian offensives across the LoC during Kargil.  Additionally, had Pakistan’s “diminished” nuclear capability been a factor, India’s responses to the December 13, 2001 Parliament attack and the recent 26/11 Mumbai attacks would have been very different indeed.

The nuclear calculus also doesn’t change much with regard to China.  India’s current nuclear posture continues to be incongruous to its “No First Strike” nuclear doctrine.  The nuclear triad, a corollary to the “minimum credible deterrence” and “No First Strike” policies remains unfulfilled, with two of three legs of the triad not currently being operational (with respect to China).  While India has taken the first step in the development of nuclear-powered submarines, the first of these, INS Arihant, will not be operational for sometime.

The most serious challenge to India’s “minimum credible deterrence” is its crippled missile program.  India’s longer range Agni-III IRBMs are as yet incapable of hitting strategic targets such as Beijing or Shanghai. The development, production and weaponization of the Surya-I and Surya-II ICBMs have experienced delays exceeding 10 years, as a result of high-technology denials by the US and the sloth-like inertia of DRDO.

Without true ICBM capability and bereft of an operational nuclear-powered submarine, India’s deterrence against Chinese aggression remains challenged; a 12 kT fission bomb or 50 megaton hydrogen bomb changes nothing under these circumstances.

The low yield of Shakti-I alters neither Pakistan’s perception of Indian retaliatory capability in the event of a Pakistani nuclear first strike, nor does it hurt any further, India’s credibility in being able to deploy nuclear payload to strategic targets in China, should the need arise.  Shakti-I changes nothing with regard to Pakistan; however, if looked through the prism of maintaining a credible deterrent against China, should reignite a debate  on the sorry state of India’s delivery systems and the credibility and logic behind our “No First Use” posture.

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