Missile testing is currently at an all time high in South Asia. The Indian Navy’s successful test of the supersonic BrahMos cruise missile on 6 October 2012, was the third missile test this month with at least another test (the indigenously built Nirbhay cruise missile) expected in October. The flurry of missile tests in the last few months conducted by both India and Pakistan indicates a competition of one-upmanship that may have negative consequences for strategic stability in the region. In this context, it is important to ascertain what kinds of danger are posed by the testing of such strategic and non-strategic missiles. Can persistent missile testing in the region contain the potential to destabilise South Asian strategic stability?
The year 2012 has reportedly seen India acquire ICBM (Inter Continental Ballistic Missile) and SLBM (Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile) capacity with the successful testing of the Agni V and the Sagarika/K-15. The Agni V’s declared range of 5000 kms though does not technically qualify it to be an ICBM. Nevertheless, Pakistan and China have not been silent spectators. Pakistan’s response to the Agni V was the intermediate range ballistic missile Shaheen 1A. But the more recent test of the nuclear capable Hatf-VII Babur stealth cruise missile is a more worrying development from the Indian perspective. The Hatf-VII not only possesses the capacity to penetrate advanced air defence systems and ballistic missile defence systems but its range of 700kms also makes this low flying terrain hugging stealth missile a major threat to a large part of North India.
The Indian response to the challenge laid down by the Hatf-VII has been the BrahMos cruise missile that has been jointly developed by the Engineering Research and Production Association of Russia with the Indian DRDO (Defense Research and Development Organisation). The latest version of the BrahMos tested this week was an anti ship missile that flies at a speed of Mach 2.8 and is designed to hit all classes of warships. The Tribune reports that the Talwar class frigate INS Teg, from which the test was conducted has already been armed with this type of missile and two other frigates from the same class – INS Tarkash and INS Trikand shall also be armed with the missile in vertical launch mode.
Meanwhile, according to DRDO Director General, V.K.Saraswat, the turbo jet powered 1000km range subsonic cruise missile, Nirbhay is also ready to be tested this month. This missile shall reportedly possess loitering capability, making it possible to change its target after being fired.
Recent Missile Tests in South Asia (Since Agni V)
Date Missile Type Range Payload Nuclear
19 April Agni V ICBM 5000km + 1500kg Yes
(3-10 MIRV) (Chinese dispute,
25 April Shaheen IRBM 2500-3000km 200-300kg Yes
1A (estd) (officially (Nuclear Warhead)
not released) 500-600kg
25 August Prithvi II SRBM 350km 500kg Yes
(user trial (Nuclear and
by Army) Conventional)
17 Septe- Hatf VII Cruise Missile 700km 450kg Yes
mber Babur (Stealth) (Nuclear and
19 Septe- Agni IV IRBM 4000km 1 Tonne Nuclear Yes
21 Septe- Agni III IRBM 3000km 1.5 Tonnes Yes
mber (Nuclear and
4 October Prithvi II SRBM 350km 500kg Yes
(User trial by (Nuclear and
the Army) Conventional)
5 October Dhanush SRBM 350km 500kg Yes
(Sea Variant (Nuclear and
of the Prithvi) Conventional)
6 October BrahMos Cruise Missile 290km 300kg No
Expected Nirbhay Cruise Missile 1000km Undisclosed -
in October (Sub Sonic)
*This is a list collated with information available from public sources. The details of some of the payloads and ranges are meant to be indicative and not exact.
**Certain Missiles have been tested multiple times. The list only indicated the last date of test.
Implications for Strategic Stability
Missile testing ostensibly showcases technological development and strength. But the way India and Pakistan have generated visibility for their respective missile development programmes is a definite case of both the defence establishments trying to ‘outflex’ each other.
These developments are not favourable to South Asian strategic stability, which is precariously balanced on the notion of nuclear deterrence. The recent spate of non strategic weapons tests can only destabilise the region. Indian superiority over Pakistan’s conventional military strength has been hitherto undisputed. The entry of the Hatf-VII changes this equation by making a huge part of North Indian territory vulnerable to attack in a more cost effective manner than building ballistic missiles.
Indian knee jerk responses, having already tested the 4000km range Agni IV ballistic missile and the BrahMos in October, as well as the expected test of the Nirbhay is sure to coax Pakistan into reciprocating. The frequent reminder of one’s capability to penetrate the other’s defences is not a healthy or intelligent roadmap towards attaining or maintaining strategic stability. It is believed though, that this is a part of a larger strategy by India to lure Pakistan into a ‘race’ that the latter can neither win, nor economically support. If that is indeed the case, Indian policy makers must be reminded that an economically drained Pakistan, plunged headlong towards internal instability is not in the best interests of Indian security. As the dominant South Asian power too, Indian actions should be responsibly guided towards larger regional stability. Accentuating the security dilemma does not fit that bill.