India’s missile bamboozle

There has been needless confusion and obfuscation about the Agni-V missile test-fired on April 19. First was the delay in the launch by some 11 hours. For a missile touted as “all weather”, a bit of lightning shouldn’t have frightened off the DRDO brass. More likely, the reason was last minute jitters about a missile whose launch had been turned into a media circus.
What is less comprehensible was the persistent description in the media, no doubt at the DRDO’s prompting, of the Agni-V as an “Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile” (ICBM) when, given its stated range of around 5,000 kms, Dr V. Saraswat, DRDO boss and scientific adviser to the defence minister, identified it correctly for television cameras as an Inter-mediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM). The first hint of Agni-V’s ICBM status was dropped by the minister of state for science, Ashwini Kumar, when he referred to the missile re-entering the atmosphere at “24.4 times the speed of sound”. Depending on the altitude, this works out to roughly 7.2 to 7.7 kms per second as terminal velocity, making it unquestionably an ICBM, compared to 6.2 to 6.5 kms per second re-entry speed of Agni-IV, which is IRBM performance. Obviously, Agni-V was fired in a high-parabolic trajectory to depress the distance it travelled, which may be why Chinese military sources have claimed that Agni-V’s 8,000-km range is being covered up. The Agni has to have a minimum range of 10,000 kms to be considered an ICBM. But why did the DRDO not publicise the missile’s full capability?
The reason was to mollify the Manmohan Singh government that has always been fearful of spooking the US. Washington has insisted that India restrict its missile capacity to cover China without tripping into the ICBM range lest that leads to India being perceived as a threat, resulting in American counter-measures. While the Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA government’s minister for external affairs (MEA), Jaswant Singh, denies he had cut any deal during his 19 rounds of “strategic dialogue” with Strobe Talbott, former US President Bill Clinton’s deputy secretary of state, in early 2000 to cap Indian missile capability at the IRBM level, the Congress coalition government has adhered to this restriction, which is reflected in the DRDO’s programmatic thrust.
Indeed, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s reluctance to offend Washington was stretched to a point where he reportedly kept delaying the approval of the first test of Agni-V until defence minister A.K. Antony put his foot down around mid-2011, and compelled Dr Singh to approve the launch. The government tried to soften any negative reaction by scheduling foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai’s speech extolling India’s spotless nuclear and missile technology non-proliferation record at an MEA-sponsored seminar on the same day as the missile test.
The DRDO’s fear of the government disallowing sustained testing of critical strategic technologies, backed by an equally nagging apprehension about reduction of funds for strategic technology development, is why the DRDO resorted to over-the-top publicity. The DRDO’s strategy was to thwart moves by the government to curtail activity in the missile field by creating huge public support for Agni-V and follow-on ICBM. It resembles the decision by nuclear scientists to simultaneously trigger three devices (which produced mixed, suboptimal results) on May 11, 1998, because of the fear that under foreign pressure the government would terminate testing after the very first explosion if a series of separate single underground tests had been resorted to.
The hullabaloo over the untested MIRV (Multiple Independently Re-targetable Vehicles) technology, enabling one missile to engage three to eight different targets that Agni-V is configured to carry, was also for the same reason. So much public hype about the MIRV technology, awaiting government permission to test for the last eight-odd years, means that Dr Singh cannot now stop its testing in the second launch of Agni-V.
The other stellar attributes of the Indian IRBM not talked about, but worth mentioning, are the chip-embedded guidance system and the servo-mechanisms for thrust control to permit mid-flight manoeuvring.
Were the Indian government strategic-minded, which it is not, it would push through an accelerated programme of testing and induction into service of Agni-V and, in parallel, quickly develop and test-fire over Antarctica a genuine ICBM by replacing the first stage made of steel on the IRBM with lightweight composites to accommodate more fuel. What an ICBM does is allow Chinese targets to be hit from virtually anywhere, thereby immeasurably enlarging the space for manoeuvre by Indian firing platforms outside Chinese satellite coverage. Further, the production rate of Agni-IVs and Agni-Vs needs rapid ramping up to keep pace with even a minor adversary — Pakistan.
The success of Agni-V, however, highlights the danger that I have been warning about for many years, namely, very advanced and accurate long-range missiles married to untested and unproven thermonuclear warheads that, without further physical testing of fusion and boosted-fission weapons designs, could prove to be duds. That will be a devastating denouement for the Indian strategic deterrent — accurate delivery but fizzled impact. Even so, with a proven IRBM, India has reached deterrence parity with China in the sense of being able to reach the most distant Chinese targets.
The MEA should capitalise on the interest generated by Agni-V to explore an Indian role as the “net security provider” that countries in Southeast Asia would welcome and Washington has been urging Delhi to play. Our dilly-dallying on the sale of the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile led Indonesia to buy a variant directly from Russia. Vietnam, which also seeks Brahmos, is unlikely to wait around either. Unless India treats Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and other Asean members as the first tier of India’s defence and missile-arms them on a priority basis, national security will remain grievously impaired. New Delhi emphasising non-proliferation norms at the expense of the country’s geopolitical interests is tragically short-sighted, given that the brownie points it wins cannot compensate for China transferring nuclear missile technology to Pakistan, or insinuating itself into the military affairs of Burma, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Maldives, to disadvantage India.
The MEA should not squander the chance to pursue substantive cooperative security measures with the United States and countries on China’s periphery beyond anti-piracy patrols and joint military exercises by, for a start, discussing and preparing for contingency scenarios.

The writer is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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