SHAURYA Hypersonic missile undergoing user trials from the Integrated Test Facility in Balasore

Our hypersonic Shaurya and cannisterised Agni capabilities aim to preserve strategic deterrence and thus maintain stability

by Harsh V Pant & Kartik Bommakanti

In the final months of 2021, India conducted two major missile tests. The first was the Shaurya hypersonic weapon test, which was conducted in October. The second was the Agni-P missile test conducted on Christmas Eve. Both missile tests indicate that India is on course to fielding a more sophisticated nuclear arsenal with greater diversity of delivery systems. These developments have triggered a flurry of analyses ranging from satisfaction over improvements in the Indian arsenal’s level of readiness to dangerous prognostications about what these missile developments might mean for strategic stability, especially between India and Pakistan.

Let us begin with what Shaurya and Agni-P imply for the state of readiness of India’s arsenal. These two missiles highlight the importance of expanding the repertoire of our nuclear-capable missile forces. India also tested a hypersonic weapon that is estimated to travel at a speed of Mach 5 and designed to dodge missile defences. Hypersonic weapons such as Shaurya are likely to be highly effective in taking out enemy early radars, static military installations such as airbases and command and control (C&C) facilities, although Shaurya may require a few additional tests to establish the credibility of its operational capabilities.

The Agni-P missile is believed to be capable of delivering multiple independent re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) or multiple warheads against a single target. This creates an opportunity for India to strengthen nuclear deterrence through ambiguity. Several analysts have inferred that Agni-P and Shaurya together represent a shift in India’s no-first-use policy. However, officially there is no evidence to suggest a change; India’s declaratory doctrine has remained steadfastly committed to no-first-use even as the country’s operational posture in the form of higher readiness levels undergoes a shift. The latter part is increasingly manifesting itself in the form of the ‘cannisterization’ of India’s missiles, not only for longer range missiles such as intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), but also for the Agni-P, which is a short-range ballistic missile (SRBM).

Canisterzing missiles enables more rapid deployment, as warheads could already be mated with missiles and placed in climate-controlled tubes, preventing damage, for launch on short notice. Further, cannisterised missile capabilities give India counter-force strike options, especially against Pakistan, according to some analysts who fear an intensification of strategic instability emerging from India’s missile progress.

Thus, because of India’s putative MIRV-based and cannisterised ballistic missile forces, one school of thought holds that India could launch a pre-emptive strike against Pakistan’s nuclear facilities in the heat of a crisis. This view conveniently overlooks the fact that Pakistan has a larger nuclear arsenal than India’s and Rawalpindi’s refusal to adopt a no-first-use policy, despite past entreaties to do so. Pakistan also pursues an asymmetric escalation posture that involves the development and deployment of tactical nuclear weapons, but most critically early use of atomic weapons in a conflict with India, leaving us exposed to stand-off missile attacks. Moreover, it is misleading to argue that India’s cannisterised and MIRV capabilities sow “strategic instability" when it is more the result of Pakistan’s pursuit of an offensive posture that involves the tactical use of nuclear weapons against a potential Indian conventional attack.

Indeed, the Pakistani presumption that the tactical and strategic use of atomic weapons can be kept separate is the primary source of instability. New Delhi has generally rejected the notion that decoupling the tactical and strategic use of atomic weapons is possible or sustainable because there can be no real distinction between counter-value and counter-force strikes involving such weapons, at least against Pakistan. Also, India’s pursuit of higher readiness levels in the form of Agni-P and Shaurya is only par for the course in that it is a justifiable insurance against a risk-prone adversary such as Pakistan. Although India has a stated no-first-use policy, combining it with a higher degree of operational readiness of its nuclear tipped-missile forces is also about pursuing nuclear deterrence, though through ambiguity, as it sows uncertainty and induces caution in India’s two nuclear adversaries, China and Pakistan. If anything, it complicates the first strike options of Beijing and Rawalpindi.

Beyond Pakistan, the advances in India’s missile capabilities are geared to deterring the People’s Republic of China. The latter has significantly superior capabilities than India. Beijing has deployed its Dong-Feng (DF)-26 IRBMs in the Xinjiang region of Western China. India’s Shaurya hypersonic weapon is equally a response China’s DF-17 Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV) with a range of 1,800-2,500km, which Beijing is believed to have been fielding since at least 2019. Notwithstanding the caveat that New Delhi has generally rejected distinctions between counter-value and counter-force targets and tactical and strategic capabilities, Indian counter-force strike options are more plausible against China than Pakistan simply because a large number of the former’s land-based nuclear forces are more distant from population centres. Pakistan is acutely vulnerable to strategic interdiction due to its narrow geography as opposed to the geographic and strategic depth China enjoys. In any case, Beijing's submarine-based nuclear capabilities give it a near invulnerable second-strike capacity, making India’s counter-force strikes against Chinese nuclear targets difficult. Thus, India’s hypersonic and cannisterised Agni SRBM and IRBM capabilities are equally about preserving strategic deterrence and enhancing regional strategic stability.

Harsh V Pant & Kartik Bommakanti are one of India's most renowned defence journalists who focus on strategic military studies and analysis