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#3612, 23 April 2012
Agni V: What is its Strategic Significance?
PR Chari
Visiting Professor, IPCS
email: prchari@gmail.com

The successful launch of Agni-V, with its 5000+ km range and 1500 kg payload, has generated great euphoria in India. Manmohan Singh described the event as “another milestone in our quest to add to the credibility of our security and preparedness…” Significant choice of words, since the Army Chief’s indictment of defense preparedness to ensure the country’s national security is agitating the parliamentarians and strategic community in India. Agni-V’s successful launching was given extensive publicity by the media and talking heads in the 24X7 TV channels; they are generally supportive of this success of the UPA government, as it staggers from one crisis to another.

In truth, the strategic direction of India’s missile programme was set in the mid-eighties; it was designed to traverse the route from short-range to medium-range to intermediate-range to inter-continental range ballistic missiles. It has taken unconscionably long to reach the Agni-V milestone, which is classifiable as an intermediate-range ballistic missile; it will take some more time to attain ICBM (over 10,000+ km range) capabilities. Moreover, further tests, how many is difficult to estimate, are required before Agni-V can be fielded. Currently, it can only be deployed overground or in silos. India would like, however, to deploy the missile in a road and rail mobile mode. Then again, it wishes to develop a nuclear triad; hence Agni-V would ultimately be placed on land, aircraft and submarine platforms to yield a failsafe deterrent.  Claims, incidentally, about Agni-V’s accuracy are unverifiable since the precise splashdown area was not identified before the test. Further developments would include developing a version that could attack enemy satellites in space, or be equipped with mini and nano satellites for civil or military purposes, or with multiple-warheads to attack several targets. Agni-V could also be equipped with manoeuvrable warheads to evade attack.

Much could be argued for and against the proposition that India needs to establish ICBM capabilities, which is subsumed in the criticism that India has not revealed the strategic objectives underlying the Agni-V. Nationalists argue that India must join the Nuclear Club to dine at its strategic high table. But, slight introspection would reveal the fecklessness of seeking an extended-range Agni-V with an ICBM radius of action. Does it wish to target Washington, Moscow, Paris or London? That would ensure India being targeted, in turn, by all these countries. Strategic objectives need not be expressed; they can be inferred from actions. Agni-V’s strategic objective is clearly to primarily deter China. Indeed, Prime Minister Vajpayee had clearly named China and Pakistan, and their strategic links, to identify the nuclear threat driving India’s nuclear test series in May 1998.

Reactions abroad to the Agni-V launch were muted, unlike the cacophony that erupted before and after North Korea’s attempted satellite launch, generally interpreted to be a long-range missile test. Such comparisons are wholly invidious. India has not infracted any international norms by launching Agni-V. In contrast, North Korea violated its recent agreement with the US prohibiting it from undertaking long-range missile tests in return for food aid. There are nuances in these muted reactions of various countries to the Agni-V test that are worth noticing. The US response was mild, restricted to pointing out that India had a ‘solid’ non-proliferation record, which was in marked contrast to its sharp criticism of India’s nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998 that occasioned a raft of sanctions being imposed. China’s state television expressed doubts about Agni V's precision and capabilities, noting that its weight would only permit its being fired from a silo. It would, therefore, be easy to attack. However, the Chinese government also downplayed the strategic significance of Agni-V, while expressing the need to “cherish the hard-earned momentum of cooperation,” consolidated at the recent BRICS Summit meeting in New Delhi. Pakistan showed concern over India’s plans to take its Agni-V out to sea for making it invulnerable to a first strike, which is central to Pakistan’s launch-on-warning strategic posture. International observers are worried that the Agni-V seems designed to contain and not merely balance China; Sino-Indian competitive co-existence could hence deteriorate into strategic rivalry. A bilateral arms race between India and China that could include Pakistan and acquire triangular dimensions would be inherently unstable.

Agni-V can reach any part of China and of course, Pakistan; hence India does not need to proceed further if its objectives are only to strengthen its deterrent. However, great power seekers would urge that India must have ICBMs to join the Nuclear Club; it could never be a de jure member, unless the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is amended - the chances of this happening are zero.  A seminal decision cannot be evaded now on the strategic logic for extending or not extending the range of the Agni-V. India cannot proceed serendipitously forever.

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