The successful test-firing of Agni IV marks a great leap forward for India to become a super power

by Hiranmay Karlekar

The successful test-firing of the indigenously-developed, nuclear-weapons-capable, surface-to-surface missile, Agni-IV, on December 23, 2018, marks a significant leap forward towards India becoming a super power. The goal is warranted not only by the country’s size, potential and role in maintaining global peace, but the uncertain conditions in the world and, particularly, the region around the country. An India, that is a super power, will not only deter efforts to push it around, but enable it to retaliate forcefully if some country engages it in armed conflict.

The two countries that feature prominently in any discussion concerning India’s security are Pakistan and China: India has fought four wars with the former and one with the latter. Agni-IV, which has a striking range of 4,000 kilometres, is not needed against the former, which can be hit by Agni-I, II and III with striking ranges of 700, 2,000 and ,000 kilometres respectively. Agni-IV would enable India to strike some parts of China but not Beijing and its industrial hubs on the eastern sea board. Agni-V, which was last test-fired on December 10, 2018, and is expected to be inducted for use soon, would be able to do that and also hit parts of Asian and European land mass. Further, Agni-V would carry concurrently-developed Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRV) payloads. This will help evade interception by China’s ballistic missile defence system. Indeed, India should also have Manoeuvrable Re-entry Vehicles (MARV), which can drastically change trajectory to evade interception in the terminal stage.

A word of caution. Though a reference to China is unavoidable in any discussion pertaining to India’s security, it will be unwise to be inflexible and remain frozen in a posture of hostility. While New Delhi must do everything to neutralise any threat from China and any strategically inimical economic penetration, it must also be engaged in bridge-building with Beijing given vagaries of Donald Trump’s foreign and economic policies. This will not be easy given China’s close alliance with Pakistan, attempts to hem India in with its presence in adjoining countries, dominate the Indian Ocean and corner India in most international fora — all of which stems from its refusal to countenance India’s rise to a position where it can be perceived as an equal.

All this is precisely why India should hasten with enhancing its conventional and nuclear warfare capabilities while keeping all avenues open for an improvement of relations with its northern neighbour. The three key requirements of any nuclear warfare infrastructure are an adequate number of nuclear warheads, a nuclear doctrine and an effective delivery system. India has developed, manufactured and deployed its own warheads. In 2003, it announced a nuclear doctrine based on a “no-first use” principle. India will use nuclear weapons only in case of a nuclear attack on its own soil or Indian forces anywhere. The doctrine also provides for the maintenance of a “credible minimum deterrent”, and the possession or sufficient and survivable nuclear forces, to inflict unacceptable damage on the enemy.

As for a delivery system, India can, at a pinch, use Mirage 2000 or Su 30 aircraft for dropping a nuclear warhead on a designated target. Neither, however, can be a substitute for a missile delivery system which can hit any target in an enemy’s territory. It is important to remember this in the context of India’s adoption of the “no first use” principle, which makes it mandatory for the country to retain the capacity to launch a devastating retaliatory strike after suffering a nuclear attack.

Underground silos may not be able to provide the kind of total protection the missiles need as the enemy can get to know their locations and mount devastating strikes against them. The answer lies in missiles that can be moved from one place to another, which, along with the deployment of dummies, will keep the enemy guessing about their location. Agni-IV can be moved by road. Agni-V is both road and rail mobile, though roads and bridges will have to be strengthened in many parts to carry its much greater weight.

Finally, India must not rest on its oars even after Agni-V is inducted. It requires missiles with ranges between 8,000 to 10,000 kilometres to become a truly global super power. Also, it needs to vastly increase its ability to launch nuclear-tipped missiles from the sea, which are more difficult for the enemy to detect than land-based systems. It has the technical ability to do all this. Agni-IV is a highly sophisticated missile with compact and modern avionics, a fifth-generation on-board computer and ability to follow the correct path, guiding itself in the midst of in-flight disturbances and hit its target with precision. Agni-V incorporated advanced technologies involving ring laser gyroscope and accelerometre for navigation and guidance.

India has shown formidable resolve in pursuing its missile development program in the teeth of opposition from a number of countries and not just China. This speaks for itself and also suggests that it will use nuclear weapons if forced to do so. That message is central to the deterrence its nuclear arsenal is meant to convey.