Prithvi Polemics

11 Aug, 1997    ·   11

P.R. Chari looks into the polemics of deployment of Prithvi missile

Speaking in Parliament during the special debate commemorating the Golden Jubilee of India's independence, the Defence Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav stated,  "From where we have kept the (Prithvi) missiles it wont even take two and a half hours to shift them to the border.The missiles have not been made to keep them in museums." It is unclear why they must be shifted to the border to launch them. It is also unclear whether any overall security doctrine was informing the Defence Minister when he made this declaration. Or, whether it was merely occasioned by the heat of parliamentary debate.



But it has long been known that the Prithvi surface-to-surface missiles have been fully developed. They come in two variants with ranges of 150 and 250 kms respectively. The Minister of State for Defence Somu has informed Parliament earlier this year that Development of the 150km version 'Prithvi' for the Army has been completed successfully and subsequent activities are in progress. No further tests will be required before its induction into the Army". `Subsequent activities' could only refer to its serial production and steps being taken to deploy the missile. According to one newspaper report  (Pioneer 15/4/97) the 150 km version has already gone into limited serial production. Incidentally, this Army Prithvi variant can be equipped with high explosives but also with pre-fragmented  "anti-personnel" and "anti-tank warheads" that would enable its use as an  "area-weapon" to interfere with the movement of adversary forces.



The Minister of State has also announced before Parliament that Development of the 250km version 'Prithvi for the Air Force has also been successfully developed. This long-range version can find use to interdict targets like airfields marshalling yards, oil and ammunition depots, communication centres and so on to disrupt the adversary's war effort. It could be reasonably surmised however that this variant is yet to reach the serial manufacturing stage.



These several official declarations need reiteration because the Prime Minister I. K. Gujral is on record flatly denying that India has deployed its Prithvi missiles. This denial was issued in early June when the Washington Post had reported citing US official sources that India had deployed its Prithvi missiles along the Indo-Pak border. More precisely this report alleged that missiles had been transported from their production unit to a storage site near Jalandhar. Moving them up to the border would not be difficult since they are known to have a tracked version, and could even otherwise be rapidly transported by a heavy helicopter.



Can a rational distinction be made between "development" and "deployment"? This question becomes germane because it would be naive to believe that deployment of the Prithvi by India would not assuredly lead to counter-deployment of its Hatf missiles by Pakistan . And also its comparable M- 11 missiles supplied by China , which are believed to lie in crates at a military facility at Sargodha . A fertile soil thus exists for a missile arms race being triggered in the sub-continent. Further pressures could then be mounted by the security establishment in both countries for developing and deploying long-range missiles like the Hatf III and Agni. This would enable Pakistan to reach targets deeper within India and for India to strike further inside Pakistan and of course China . The danger arises from the fact that missiles like the Prithvi and M-11, unlike aircraft's, have very short flight the most five minutes. Moreover there is no assured defence possible against them. Besides again unlike aircraft they cannot be recalled once launched. The increase in tensions and instability between India and Pakistan consequent to a missile arms race can, therefore, be easily visualised.



There is also the financial angle. The Prithvi reportedly costs around Rs 6-7 crores apiece and the Agni between Rs 55-60 crores each. There is an intriguing report (Asian Age 7/8/97), that production of the Prithvi was stopped because Ms. Ascent Technologies Pvt. in Ahmedabad were not supplying Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd.the public sector company which makes the missile engines.with "film cooling rings" (precision machine bearings). Apparently, Ascent Technologies are the only manufacturers of these rings in India but had stopped supplying them to Hindustan Aeronautics, as it was owed money. This cautionary tale would be instructive to appreciate that missiles, especially if they have to be manufactured in meaningful numbers, do not come cheap. And the defence budget is already under great strain, which will increase manifold when the Fifth Pay Commission's recommendations would have to be implemented. Can weak coalition governments raise taxes or cut of expenditure to finance the production of Prithvi and Agni missiles?



The foregoing discussion draws pointed attention to the imperative need for evolving a common definition of what constitutes "deployment", as a first step towards forestalling this impending missile arms race. This item should be inscribed on the agenda of forthcoming foreign secretary level talks. A maximalist position could be urged that a successfully flight-tested missile be deemed to be deployed. A minimalist position could argue that, unless a missile was physically emplaced, utilised in exercises, incorporated into tactical doctrine and so on, it must not be considered to be deployed. Clearly, an understanding is required here of what the expression "deployment" truly connotes in the present stage of Indo-Pak missile "development". An understanding could then be sought as to what impermissible actions by one country might lead to such deployment by the other country. These basic understandings could, hopefully, lead on to discovering a modus vivendi to avoid a disastrous missile arms race in South Asia .