Agni V Missile Launch Won’t Hamper India’s Relationship with China
In what may be termed a significant strategic development, India successfully conducted the launch of the Agni V ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) of more than 5,000 kms on 26 December. Touchdown occurred in the waters near Australia and preliminary reports suggest that the principal technical parameters have been successfully accomplished.
This is cause for considerable satisfaction and the entire DRDO team and other agencies responsible for this launch are to be applauded. India embarked upon its integrated guided missile development program (IGMDP) in 1983 when PM Indira Gandhi was at the helm of affairs and former President, Dr Abdul Kalam – the much loved Indian ‘missile man’ was the project director for the Agni program.
Journey of the Agni Missile
As a young notetaker at the PM’s annual conference with the military commanders, one recalls the gravitas with which nuclear weapons and related missile capability were perceived and Mrs Indira Gandhi exhorting the techno-scientific apex of the country to enable India to acquire this capability. It was a period when India was under severe US-led technological sanctions and this program had to be pursued under very adverse conditions.
The DRDO, with valuable support from the rest of the national ecosystem persevered and in 1989 India tested the first Agni missile, which was rudimentary and had a modest range. The more credible 5,000 km plus range was a glint in Dr Kalam’s eye at the time – and 27 years later - in December 2016 has finally demonstrated this strategic capability.
This degree of proven ICBM capability currently exists only with the five major WMD powers (USA, Russia, France, UK and China). For the record, it merits mention that the world’s longest range missile is the Russian land-based Satan of 16,000 kms while the US ensures its deterrence by submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM-s) of 11,000 kms plus in their Trident class nuclear submarines. China also has a 13,000 km ICBM in its inventory, though the efficacy of the missile is of a lower order than what the US and Russia maintain.
Boost for India’s WMD Capability
To that extent the Agni V with a range of 5,000 kms plus needs to be located in this global and regional strategic context. The missile is reported to have cutting edge navigational and guidance technology which is crucial to ensure the credibility of such a missile.
An ICBM after launch and the boost phase (which provides the necessary propulsion) exits from the earth’s atmosphere and takes a parabolic path in outer space and then re-enters the earth at a carefully controlled point and then homes in on the designated target area. Latest guidance technology allows a CEP (circular error probable) in tens of meters, whereas earlier it was measured in hundreds of meters.
Challenge from Pakistan
Repeated reference is being made to China in the public discourse about Agni V and what this means for the bi-lateral. While it is empirically true that 5,000 kms plus does bring large parts of the neighbourhood into range, an ICBM is a politico-strategic capability that is not meant for sabre-rattling or resolving territorial disputes. The efficacy and relevance of the Agni V should not be emotively over-interpreted.
The India-China WMD relationship is a relatively stable one though Beijing has a WMD profile that is more capable than what Delhi currently possesses. Yet the strategic apex on both sides have ensured stability and disparaging or prickly commentary has been restricted to the hyper-national ‘anti-the-neighbour’ constituency on both sides.
India’s more complex and abiding WMD concern is the challenge that Pakistan poses and the support provided by China to its close ally in Rawalpindi. The Pak military is now determined to acquire tactical nuclear weapons and brandishes them as battlefield options – including nuclear tipped-cruise missiles at sea.
2017 is likely to be a very tumultuous year as far as the nuclear domain is concerned. US President designate Donald Trump has outlined his preference to build-up the American WMD arsenal and Russian President Putin has promised to follow suit.
India’s WMD credibility now enhanced by Agni V should also be used to progress regional strategic stability initiatives that are currently in a state of neglect.
(The writer is a leading expert on strategic affairs. He is currently Director, Society for Policy Studies. He can be reached @theUdayB. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)