Bringing Prithvi Down to Earth The Capabilities and Potential Effectiveness of India's Prithvi Missile

11 May, 1998    ·   84

Z. Mian, A. H. Nayyar and M. V. Ramana argue that the Prithvi is simply not designed to deal with some of the roles it is expected to play

This article summarises our technical evaluation of the effectiveness of India’s Prithvi missile. Our work, based on descriptions in newspapers, journals and magazines, suggests that if Prithvi is armed with conventional warheads and used against targets like airbases, command centres and radars, its military utility would be marginal.

Technical Features of Prithvi

·                     There are two versions of Prithvi: Prithvi I is said to carry a payload of 1000kg to a maximum range of 150km, while Prithvi II carries 500kg to 250km.


·                     The missile has a CEP (a measure of accuracy) of about 100-300 m, with the number 150 m quoted most often.


·                     Prithvi is fuelled by a liquid propellant, which is highly volatile, corrosive and toxic; thus, it has to be loaded just prior to launch, dangerous to crew in case of spillage or leaks, and cannot be used for practice exercises.


·                     Prithvi is deployed in missile regiments along with several other vehicles.


·                     The launch procedure is said to take about two to three hours.


Targets and Warheads for Prithvi

The descriptions of Prithvi’s intended use in the open literature are long and varied. Among these are "crippling air-bases, striking at large static (military) installations and headquarters." Since the course of any war depends on achieving air superiority, Prithvi could best augment the already existing capabilities of the Indian military by targeting these facilities.

According to most reports, five non-nuclear warheads have been developed for Prithvi: the standard high explosive unitary warhead, pre-fragmented, cluster munitions, an incendiary warhead, and possibly fuel air explosives. For the kinds of targets we study, unitary and cluster munitions are the most effective.

Prithvi Requirements

We calculate the number of Prithvis needed to ensure a reasonable probability of significant damage to the different kinds of targets listed earlier using the most optimal choice of warhead and assuming a range of values for Prithvi's CEP. We assume the most optimistic performance on the part of Prithvi.


In order to disable an airfield so that no planes can take off or land, one has to make sure that no usable stretch of runway is available. Pakistan relies on US-made F-16 and French-made Mirage airplanes for its front-line aircrafts. Due to their high manoeuvre and acceleration capabilities, these typically need less than 400 m to take off.

Table 1: Prithvi Requirements for One Airbase


# of Prithvis











There are 10 airbases and 7 civilian airports within Prithvi’s reach; each would have similar requirements and all need to be targeted in order to "cripple" Pakistan’s air force capability.

Command Centres and Bunkers

Each of the 10 military airbases is likely to contain one or more command centres, all of which should be targeted by Prithvi to ensure air superiority. Besides these, there may also be several other military command centres not necessarily associated with an airfield that would have to be targeted for a complete strike.

Table 2: Prithvi Requirements for One Command Centre

CEP (m)













Pakistan possesses several radars as part of its air defence system. If a missile attack is to be used as a preamble to an air attack, it would make sense to target these.

Table 3: Prithvi Requirements for One Radar

CEP (m)

N (missiles)











While these numbers are much smaller, it must be remembered that many radars are mobile; in order to attack them successfully, their exact location must be known. This requires extensive intelligence gathering capabilities.

Even without adding up all these separate requirements, with its current stocks estimated at around 60 missiles and a production capability of about 40 a year, it is clear that India lacks a sufficient number of Prithvis to mount a full-scale missile attack.

Airforce Capability

Many of the roles outlined here for Prithvi may also be performed by strike aircrafts. The IAF possesses Texas Instruments Paveway II guidance kits - used by the USA during the Gulf War to destroy Iraqi hardened aircraft shelters – for British bombs, and French anti-radar missiles. The total weapon load capacity of Indian aircrafts (with one sortie each) is equivalent to 3,000 Prithvi I or 6,000 Prithvi II missiles.

Missiles under Development

Our analysis also leads us to some conclusions about the effectiveness of the Indian and Pakistani missiles that are said to be under development.

Indian Missiles: If Prithvi is not militarily effective with conventional warheads, Agni and other long range missiles are likely to be even less effective since typically the CEP increases with range.

Pakistani Missiles: Like Prithvi, Pakistan’s Hatf missiles, or Ghauri, will also be militarily ineffective if used with conventional warheads. Since there are at least some indications that Pakistan is yet to develop sophisticated guidance systems, these would be more inaccurate than Prithvi and thus even less of a threat.


The present capability of India's Prithvi missile, and the numbers that have been ordered to be incorporated into its armed forces, pose no significant immediate additional threat to Pakistan. However, Prithvi has already ignited a missile race, most evident in Pakistan testing the Ghauri. This progressive build up of missiles has only increased insecurity for both India and Pakistan. If the recent threats of the Indian government to induct nuclear weapons are carried out, and Pakistan follows its usual reactive policy, this insecurity is bound to increase.