Given the Indian missile testing spree throughout 2022, it seems to have abandoned restraint in nuclear capable missile development and testing. The recent test of Agni-V (15 Dec 22) at an extended range of 5400 km poses regional as well as global concerns. It is also being reported that the missile can even go beyond 7000 km as its overall weight has been reduced by 20%. Being a member of Hague Code of Conduct (HCOC) and Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), India stands in violation of its political commitments to curb missile proliferation and exercise maximum possible restraint in development, testing and deployment of missiles. Interestingly, the country is nowhere close on these three counts.

India not only has the fastest growing nuclear program but also fastest missile testing record in the region. India and North Korea have tested maximum number of missiles in the outgoing year. Although the motivation for missile testing is different for both countries; however, it reflects a similar threatening and armament-oriented mindset. North Korea’s missile testing is a clear political and strategic signal to the U.S. administration vis-à-vis its calls for denuclearization of Korean Peninsula. While Indian missile testing could be seen as signalling towards China – backed by the West for its own vested interests, the increasing ranges of Indian missiles should be equally concerning for the U.S. like the threats from North Korean missile program.

The maximum range of Agni-V always remained contested. Some assessments indicate that it may be capable of hitting targets up to 8,000 km. Even though Agni-V can cover entire China, the Indian DRDO is working on developing even a longer-range missile Agni-VI capable of carrying warhead beyond 10,000 km. It is believed that India is unlikely to pursue capabilities beyond China and that the requirement for ranges should be calculated from farthest point in the operating country till the farthest point in adversary’s landmass. However, the same criterion is not applied when analysts assess the rationale for development of Pakistan’s Shaheen-3 missile that barely reaches farthest points in India. Anything exceeding the stated objective of deterrence vis-à-vis China would indicate either a technological competition driven by status or catering for a deterrent capability to address potential threats from across the globe. At the doctrinal level, missiles with ranges up to 10,000 km clearly go beyond what may be required for maintaining a credible minimum deterrent vis-à-vis China and Pakistan.

Indian scientific leadership has been long indicating their intent of integrating Multiple Independently-targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRV) capability in the Agni-V and a future Agni-VI missile. The recent test of Agni-V is also reported to be that of Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV). The fact that the weight of missile is reduced by 20% coincides with one of the main subsystem requirements of HGV to have a light-weight airframe. HGVs, a category of hypersonic weapons, are usually launched on top of ballistic missiles which then glide back through the atmosphere to their target at hypersonic speeds (5 Mach and above). HGVs are capable of carrying multiple warheads and are highly maneuverable, designed to not just reduce the flight time but also to avoid existing missile defense systems. Testing and integration of HGV capability in the, currently, longest-range Indian missile could be an indication of an upcoming demonstration of MIRV capability. MIRV capable missiles are generally seen as a countermeasure for BMD systems but would be an overkill given the absence of an operational BMD system in China and Pakistan.

Introduction of newer technologies like HGV and MIRV capable missile systems will make resumption of nuclear testing a necessity for India. ICBMs like Agni-V and Agni-VI with respective ranges of 7,000 and 12,000 km are not suitably complimented by the currently claimed maximum yield of 25 KT. There are also significant domestic pressures on India regarding the disputed success of its claimed thermonuclear tests. Hence, Indian position not to sign CTBT is consequential. During the recently held 77th session of the First Committee, India voted against Operative Paragraph (OP) 19 of the resolution on nuclear disarmament, which calls for early entry into force, universalization and strict observance of the CTBT.

In its eagerness to enter the elite club, India appears to be dismissive of regional realities in the form of fragile deterrence stability, existing disputes and a perpetually dysfunctional state of relationship with its nuclear armed neighbours. Although India has made a commitment in its nuclear doctrine to work towards global nuclear disarmament and maintains this stance at international forums; its actions point towards arms race which runs counter to the objective of disarmament.