Agni V and the South Asian Balance of Power

Last Updated: Tuesday, September 17, 2013 - 17:57

India tested its nuclear-capable Agni V on Sunday. The missile, with a range of over 5,000 kilometres, may eventually have its range enhanced or be equipped with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) technology though there are no signs that either of these was achieved in this morning`s test. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has been focusing instead on improving India`s second-strike capability by making its missiles faster, more agile, and road mobile (survivable). India`s latest missile, with its significant range increase over its predecessors, is seen as a China-centric missile and likely to be deployed after a few more trials only by 2017.

There are several interesting facets to the development of the Agni V. The first and most obvious is its range. Delhi can deny its rivalry with Beijing until it is blue in the face but there is no reason for India to develop a missile with such reach to target Pakistan. The Agni V underscores the argument that India sees itself in a dyad with China rather than, as US analysts have tried to argue, as an equal hyphenated with Pakistan.

As several observers have noted, despite today`s successful missile test, India remains a fair way away from an assured second strike capability that is essential to its no first use (NFU) posture. Others have commented that India`s focus on China creates instability in its relations with Pakistan, who, unable to keep up with the defence expenditure required to attain party with India, has chosen to resort to asymmetric warfare which could inadvertently bubble over into a full-fledged war. In an effort to become an established nuclear power with a credible triad, India`s nuclear arsenal has abandoned the minimum credible deterrent philosophy.

These fears are either exaggerated or inaccurate. First, the deployment of the INS Arihant will enhance the survivability of India`s nuclear arsenal and ensure a second strike capability, but India`s road- or rail-mobile nuclear arsenal is not an easy target for a hypothetical first strike. India may be significantly behind its rival across the Himalayas in terms of operational readiness, indigenous development of military hardware, and sophistication of its missiles and nuclear warheads, but none of these lacunae take away from India`s crossing a minimum threshold of nuclear readiness.

Second, while it has been fashionable to consider India and Pakistan as one sub-system and China as part of another isolated network, these assumptions bear no resemblance to the reality on the ground. China`s behaviour, vis-a-vis the United States, Russia, or anyone else, will impact Indian nuclear thinking and Delhi`s response will in turn affect Islamabad. It is irrational to expect Delhi to stand idly by while China improves its nuclear arsenal, no doubt in response to US modernisation initiatives, develops an anti-ballistic missile defence shield, and anti-satellite missiles.

Third, minimum credible deterrence is a philosophy that depends greatly on one`s rival; Pakistan has never been more than a distraction in India`s nuclear planning, much to its chagrin. For Delhi, its deterrence has always been against Beijing`s ambitions, and in that capacity, India has always maintained a technologically and numerically modest force. In fact, the DRDO`s moratorium on developing longer ranged missiles shows caution, responsibility, and the power of a limited purse. As Chander has stated, the DRDO`s primary goal now is to refine rather than expand India`s defence capabilities.

The fear that MIRV capability will somehow spiral into Armageddon is based on US and Soviet experiences during the Cold War. This is not applicable to the Indian sub-continent - neither China nor Delhi have suffered from the insane Cold War dash to accumulate gargantuan nuclear arsenals, and there is little evidence to indicate that a MIRVed Agni V will substantially increase the size of India`s arsenal. In fact, barring one or two analysts, the considered opinion of the strategic enclave is that the country would be well served by a nuclear kitty ranging from 150 to a maximum of 250 warheads. Of course, this is liable to change with fluctuating threat perceptions but is still a far cry from the 16,000+ warheads the US and Russia have between them.

There is, however, merit to the claim that India`s military developments will keep Pakistan on edge; it is the same dynamic India experiences with China`s rise and challenge to the United States. However, acknowledgement of this fundamental dynamic is not to equate the two rivalries - India does not support terrorist activity against China as Pakistan does against India. The low intensity conflict Islamabad sponsors does far more to destabilise sub-continental relations than a straight up military and nuclear rivalry.

Another factor contributing to the region`s instability is China`s refusal to acknowledge the threat posed by India`s nuclear arsenal. The Pokhran II blasts and the success of the Agni V has made Beijing`s tone terse, but until it acknowledges India`s nuclear prowess, there can be little hope for confidence building measures or nuclear discussions between Asia`s two largest states. There are many questions hanging over China`s NFU policy, which Delhi is certain to notice and compensate for in its force structure.

It would be supremely irresponsible for any nation to ignore the increasing military capability of a neighbour it considers its rival. India cannot rationally expect Pakistan to not be worried as India continually increases its military capabilities and reach, just as it is impractical to expect India to ignore China`s advances and activities in the region. Europe has witnessed several of these multi-variable rivalries as powers rise and fall in its history and something similar is being played out in Asia today, albeit with nuclear weapons. As China flexes its muscles in the region, India will be forced to respond, which will in turn put pressure on Pakistan.

Refraining from developing the Agni V, MIRV capability, and various defence technologies will only make India weak without increasing regional stability. Stability and peace have come either by the total destruction of an enemy, the peace of a graveyard, or by negotiations among equals; moderation is a virtue only in those who are thought to have an alternative.

DNA / Jaideep Prabhu



First Published: Tuesday, September 17, 2013 - 17:57

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