A Prithvi-II missile soars into the sky during a test flight

With more and more nations using medium-to-long range missiles for strikes with conventional warheads, it is perhaps time for India to assess the options and challenges attached to this

by Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd)

As per its defence strategy and doctrinal positions, China is expected to extensively use its rocket forces during the initial days of the conflict. It is meant to destroy adversary assets at being, degrade the offensive capability, and demoralise the enemy nation. They have a dedicated PLA Rocket Force (PLARF). Some in Media have started speculating that India too is inching closer to the setting up of an Integrated Rocket Force (IRF).

India has had a successful missile program, which is being driven further to develop more medium and long range missiles. Also surface, submarine and air launched cruise missiles. There are also projects of multi-launch long-range rockets. How will they all be amalgamated into a tri-service command is being contemplated. Till now, India’s ballistic missiles were meant to carry nuclear warheads as part of the minimum credible deterrence strategy. With more and more nations using medium-to-long range missiles for strikes with conventional warheads, it is perhaps time for India to assess options and challenges.

People's Liberation Army Rocket Force

The PLARF, formerly the Second Artillery Corps, is now the tactical and strategic missile force of China. Name was changed in 2016. The PLARF controls all land-based ballistic missiles, both nuclear and conventional. PLARF was established in 1966, and the force is under the direct command of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Military Commission (CMC).

PLARF has under it the nearly 350 nuclear warheads, and an estimated 450 silo-based or mobile launchers as of October 2022. China nuclear warheads is planned to go up to 700 by 2027 and 1,000 by 2030, and 1,500 by 2035. This vertical proliferation includes increase in stockpiles, enhancing the technical sophistication of existing weapons, and developing new weapons. Beijing’s missile capabilities are also on the rise. It intends to deploy around 200 warheads on the inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM) over the next five years, and continue building the stockpile of more than 200 DF-26 ground-launched, intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBM) capable of carrying nuclear and conventional warheads. The opacity of Chinese intent also adds to confusion. With the planned expansion, they are notching up the level of deterrence. The PLARF comprises approximately 1,20,000 personnel and six ballistic missile bases. These bases are independently deployed in the five Theatres throughout China.

China has the largest land-based missile arsenal in the world. According to Pentagon estimates, this includes 1,200 conventionally armed short-range ballistic missiles, 200 to 300 conventional medium-range ballistic missiles and an unknown number of conventional intermediate-range ballistic missiles, as well as 200-300 ground-launched cruise missiles. These missiles are very accurate and can have devastating effects even with conventional warheads. The total inventory including cruise missiles is close to 4,000.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) continues to possess nuclear-powered submarine fleet, which include six ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), six nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), among other submarines. PLA Air Force has a significant bomber aircraft element and it is growing. The H-6K can carry six cruise missiles. China’s stealth H-20 bomber will be ready by 2025.

US Approach

United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) is one of the eleven unified combatant commands of the USA. USSTRATCOM is responsible for strategic nuclear deterrence, global strike, and operating the military’s Global Information Grid. It supports other combatant commands with integrated missile defence and global C4ISR. The principal mission is to deter military attack, and if deterrence failed, to counter with nuclear weapons.

The US has been working on Conventional Prompt Strike, formerly called Prompt Global Strike (PGS). Aim is to develop a system that can deliver a precision-guided conventional weapon airstrike anywhere in the world within one hour, in a similar manner to a nuclear ICBM. They will use emerging technologies, including conventional surface-launched missiles and air- and submarine-launched hypersonic missiles. This would provide the United States with the ability to strike promptly anywhere in the world, regardless of the presence of overseas bases or nearby naval forces. The issue of concern has been the possibility that other nations, such as Russia or China might misinterpret the launch of a conventionally-armed ballistic missile and conclude that they are under attack with nuclear weapons. The conventional strike weapons remain with individual service in the USA. As per the Arms Control Association, the United States has approximately 3,708 nuclear warheads, and Russia is estimated to have 4,477 nuclear warheads.

Strategic Rocket Forces of Russia

The Strategic Rocket Forces of the Russian Federation (RVSN RF) are meant to attack an enemy’s offensive nuclear weapons, military facilities, and industrial infrastructure. They operate all nuclear ground-based intercontinental, intermediate-range ballistic missile, and medium-range ballistic missile with ranges over 1,000 kilometres. Complementary strategic forces within Russia include the Russian Aerospace Forces’ Long Range Aviation and the Russian Navy’s ballistic missile submarines.

Russia was estimated to have 528 strategic launchers with about 1,800 nuclear warheads, with the ICBM force-carrying 958 warheads on 286 operational missiles of six types. 176 SLBM’s carry 752 warheads, and 66 bombers that have about 200 weapons assigned to them. Russia also deploys a large arsenal of non-strategic or tactical nuclear weapons, which can be delivered by its arsenal of short-range missiles. A new medium-range ground-launched cruise missile version of the Iskander series called the Iskander-K has been inducted. Air-launched Kh-47M2 Kinzhal “Dagger” could have Nuclear/Conventional/Hypersonic warheads and range of 2000 km. The 3M-14 Kalibr (SS-N-30A), with range up to 2,500 km can be submarine, air or land based. All new Russian ICBM deployments will be of MIRVed versions of the SS-27 “Topol-M”. Russian ICBM force will have the solid-fuel silo- and mobile-based SS-27 variants.

Pakistani Missiles And Control

Pakistani surface-to-surface missiles include Hatf series with ranges up to 100 km, Nasr (100 km), and Ghaznavi (300 km). The Short Range Ballistic Missiles (SRBM) include M-11 (350 km, Chinese), Abdali (450 km), Shaheen series (Shaheen-III-2,750 km). The Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBM), Ghauri-II and Ababeel (2,200 km). They have Babur series of cruise missiles have ranges up to 900 km. Pakistan also has a submarine launch variant. They have some Chinese Zarb series cruise missiles.

The National Command Authority (NCA) is the Government-led apex body to oversee the employment, policy formulation, exercises, deployment, research and development, and operational command and control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenals. NCA is also responsible for space operations (military satellites), information warfare, missile defence, internal and external command and control, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR), and strategic deterrence, and combating weapons of mass destruction.

The Pakistan Army Strategic Forces Command (ASFC) administers land-based nuclear weapons. Similarly there are the Pakistan Air Force’s Air Force Strategic Command and the Navy’s Naval Strategic Forces Command. All these come under the Strategic Plans Division (SPD). All tactical weapons remain under individual service. The Prime Minister is the Chairman of the NCA. Chairman Joint Chiefs of staff committee, Service Chiefs, and DG ISI are members of NCA, and DG SPD is the ex-officio secretary of NCA.

Indian Strategic Forces

India’s Strategic Forces Command (SFC), comes under India’s Nuclear Command Authority (NCA). It is responsible for the management and administration of the country’s nuclear weapons. The land-based nuclear weapons consist of Agni series of ballistic missiles from the Agni-I to Agni-5, and the Prithvi missiles. Agni-VI is under development, with an estimated range of 8,000-12,000 km and features such as multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). Agni-P is a two-stage, surface to surface, road mobile and solid-fuelled MRBM with dual redundant navigation and guidance system. The Surya missile is supposed to be an ICBM with operational range beyond 16,000 Km, covering the entire earth. The Shaurya is a canister-launched Hypersonic surface-to-surface tactical missile with a range of 700 to 1,900 km, and capable of carrying a payload of 200 to 1,000 kg conventional or nuclear warhead.

Prithvi missiles are tactical surface-to-surface short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM). Prithvi-I was the Army version (150 km range and 1,000 kg payload). Prithvi-II the Air Force version had a range of 350 km with 500 kg payload. Prithvi-III (Dhanush), the naval variant, had a 350 km range with 1,000 kg payload.

The air vector includes the Dassault Mirage-2000 and SEPECAT Jaguar. The role can also be taken on by Sukhoi Su-30MKI and Dassault Rafale. The sea-based nuclear deterrent includes planned four 6,000 ton (nuclear-powered) ballistic missile submarines of the Arihant class. The first vessel is operational. The submarines will be armed with up to 12 Sagarika (K-15) missiles armed with nuclear warheads and a range of 700 km. Future K-series missile ranges will go up to 6,000 km. India is also working on a submarine-launched ballistic missile version of the Agni-III missile, known as the Agni-III SL (3,500 km range).

Indian Missile And Rocket Forces

Nirbhay is a long range, subsonic cruise missile that can be launched from multiple platforms and is capable of carrying conventional and nuclear warheads. It can carry 200-300 kg u to 1,500 km range. Prahaar is the Indian solid-fuel road-mobile tactical ballistic missile to replace the Prithvi-I. Prahaar is a cost-effective, quick-reaction, all-terrain, accurate battlefield support tactical weapon system. The mobile launch platform will carry six missiles that can be deployed in stand-alone or in canisters. It has a range of 150 km. Prahaar is only for conventional strikes and no nuclear warhead. Pragati is a higher range (170 km) variant. A new conventional warhead missile, powered by single-stage solid propellant “Pranash” will have a range of 200 km.

Pralay is a canisterised tactical, surface-to-surface, short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) for battlefield use. Powered by a solid fuel rocket motor, the missile can perform mid-air manouvres. The 350 kg to 700 kg high explosive can have fragmentation, penetration-cum-blast, and runway denial munitions. Its range could be 150 to 500 km. Pralay is effectively a conventionally armed ballistic missile. In December 2022, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) cleared the order for 120 missiles. Two more units of 250 Pralay missiles worth ₹7,500 crore were cleared in May 2023 for both the Indian Army and Indian Air Force (IAF).

The BrahMos is a medium-range Ramjet Supersonic Cruise Missile that can be launched from submarines, ships, airplanes or land. It is notably the fastest supersonic cruise missile in the world, developed jointly between India and Russia. The land-launched, ship-launched and air-launched versions are already in service. A hypersonic version of the Missile, BrahMos-II, is under development with a speed of Mach 7–8 to boost aerial fast strike capability. It was expected to be ready for testing by 2024. In 2016, as India became a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a new generation of BrahMos missiles with 800 km range and an ability to hit protected targets with pinpoint accuracy are being developed. Plans are to eventually upgrade all missiles to a range of 1,500 km. IAF also has Spice-2000 and crystal maze glide bombs and cruise missiles. With Rafale aircraft came the SCALP-EG long range autonomous cruise missile with range up to 500 km..

Pinaka is an Indian road-mobile multiple rocket launcher with a maximum range of 60 km for Mark-I enhanced version. An upgraded guided missile version of the system has been test-fired, with a range of 90 km.

Current Indian Structure

In India, the strategic (nuclear) missiles are controlled by Strategic Forces Command (SFC). Currently service specific conventional rocket and missile systems are held by individual service. The Indian Army maintains these with artillery. The India Navy and IAF have dedicated units with cruise and stand-off missiles. Each service has its service-specific targets. Invariably long-range artillery and cruise missiles are meant to attack in-depth targets, to suppress or neutralize the enemy. In case of air force and navy, stand-off distances are also required so as not to expose on assets. Bulk fuel storage, large ammunition dumps, major command and control nodes, critical enemy infrastructure could be targets. For the air force, forward radars and airfields, and for the navy, port facilities could be targets. Long range and precision have made these very potent. Russians have been using the same extensively in Ukraine.

Does India Require A Dedicated Rocket Force?

The arrangement for ballistic missiles during the Cold War was very clear. It was presumed that a ballistic missile would be carrying a nuclear warhead. Therefore, to avoid an accident, each side had to announce numbers and deployments. These had to be verifiable. With more and more missiles becoming dual use, and the ability to carry both nuclear and conventional warheads, including the hypersonic ones, the level of ambiguity would increase. There needs to be clear bifurcation of nuclear assets and their command and control, which must be at the highest executive level. Even though the ranges of cruise missiles are increasing, the conventional forces must remain with the field commanders. They will be used for service specific targets and the targets given by the chiefs of staff committee. Arming ballistic missiles with conventional warheads are being worked out by many countries, including the US. But even they are conscious of the need to avoid ambiguity. All long-range cruise missile targets beyond standard artillery shells are normally decided at appropriate higher levels in each service. Even, if and when, Theatre Commands get formed, the conventional weapons must remain with the theatre. The mix of conventional and nuclear forces under PLARF is not a good example to follow. Putting all conventional ground-attack rocket and missile forces under one command too is not a good idea. Like India finally shelved the idea of Air Defence Command, after considerable debate, putting all long-range cruise missiles under one independent military structure needs significant amount of debate.

The writer is Director General, Centre for Air Power Studies. Views expressed are personal