Exaggerating capabilities

The day of the first Agni-5 test launch from the Odisha range is also the occasion when a Ministry of External Affairs-sponsored seminar with international participation on Strategic Export Controls was inaugurated in IDSA, by Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai, who spoke earnestly about India adhering to nonproliferation norms and seeking membership of the four technology denial regimes — NSG, MTCR, Australia Group, Wassenar Arrangement. This, as a Joint Secretary, said to me with a wink was not a  coincidence, Nice touch! We are finally beginning to play the game as the big boys do — saying something but doing our own thing.

That said, why is the Agni-5 being touted as an ICBM when, at 5000 km range, it is only an IRBM? It is true that this missile has all the technologies such as, the vernier rocket motors in the nose-cone for maneuvering in the terminal phase for exact guidance to target, and only requires the Manmohan Singh government to gird up its loins and give the green signal for the ICBM presently at an advanced design-development stage at the Advanced Research Laboratory, Hyderabad, to start becoming a reality. But that will be Agni-6, or whatever it may becalled. For the ICBM, moreover, a more powerful solid fuel propellant — with slower, but more intense, burn, will be required, because to add another stage to the 3-stage missile would be impracticable to enable payload delivery to in excess of 10,000 kms — the true mark of an ICBM.

Mislabelling Agni-5 as an ICBM is par for the course with the Indian atomic establishment claiming a thermonuclear weapons status for the country when, in fact, the fusion and boosted fusion weapons designs remain unproven, because the design correctives incorporated into the thermonuclear and boosted fission designs that fizzled in 1998, are still  untested and, therefore, unreliable.

Can there be a cost to hyperbolicizing our strategic capabilities. Yes, because some risk-acceptant adversary, such as China, could call our bluff. Where would that leave India? Up a creek.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, Defence Industry, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Missiles, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Exaggerating capabilities

  1. Vivek singh says:

    As long as it delivers our love to the Chinese capital with accuracy and stealth, we dont really care weather its a true ICBM or not. Although we must continue developing the 10k+ stuff, for now i think the agniV will suffice. What must be our real concern is fox fast these systems can be integrated in the system and how well. How can the reaction time be brought to a minimum and the again of command be made shorter.

  2. Vivek singh says:

    As long as it delivers our love to the Chinese capital with accuracy and stealth, we dont really care weather its a true ICBM or not. Although we must continue developing the 10k+ stuff, for now i think the agniV will suffice. What must be our real concern is how fast these systems can be integrated in the army and how well. How can the reaction time be brought to a minimum and the chain of command be made shorter.

    • OK, but my point is why call something it is manifestly not? To impress adversaries? But they have a good fix on our real capabilities.

      • Vickram G says:

        Deliberate ambiguity of the capability of a strategic weapon isn’t false bravado if it achieves the strategic objective -> deternece. How can any adversary be 100% sure of the real capabilites? Mr. Karnad – Ouch!

      • As deterrence history shows, ambiguity works when the weapon you say you have doesn’t actually work as you claim it will (owing to technology deficiencies, design weaknesses, whatever). But there’s no ambiguity to exploit when an IRBM is being openly tested over international waters with every major country keying in on its performance.

      • With low payload capacity the range is 8000 km.The dongfeng ICBM that china uses is not that accurate as our agni 5.
        http://combatgears.wordpress.com/2012/04/19/significance-of-indian-icbm-agni-5-implications-on-asian-balance-of-power/

      • Adarsh says:

        Sir,

        They havent called it a ICBM, actually gave it a new acronym Long Range BM and keeps saying it is ‘over 5000 Km’. That is the name Dr.VK Sarswat as well as Dr.Avinash Chander has used, the media and the online community calls it the ICBM. The Missile behavior explained also gives out ICBM characteristics, I personally believe it is around 5500 – 8000 Kilometers,

      • ”Long range BM’ is fine, except it needlessly obfuscates deterrent capabilities, which may be wise. See my ‘Missile bamboozle’.

  3. Madhav says:

    Developing an ICBM is not exactly the avant-garde of technological capabilities. It was probably high science 4 decades ago. We should be developing and testing MIRV capability also, which I’m not sure we possess. This too is pretty old technology. Perhaps the author can clarify as to how many times we need to test our thermonuclear weapons. 3-6 rounds of tests maybe? China had DF-5 ICBM by early 70s and we are still jumping up and down with Agni-V in 2012. Hopefully the next government in 2014 will have better gumption to do what is right by the country.

    • True, ICBM tech is not anymore high science. But it still requires some doing (refer my take on the need for propellant quality upgrade). MIRV designs, as I have reveled in my books — ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy’now in 2nd edition (2005, 2002) and ‘India’s Nuclear Policy'(2008) were on the shelf a long time, have now been dusted off, and will be tested in medium-term future. As for the thermonuclears and boosted fission weapons designs, the more tests the better, from reliability point of view, but a minimum of 5-6 tests of each weapon design are absolutely necessary to validate them and work out the kinks, if any, in each of them and which kinks will not be discovered except by iterative testing.

  4. Kartik says:

    This is the first I have heard of the boosted fission design also failing.

  5. MIRV will be standard stuff starting with 2nd Agni-5 test on all IRBM and follow-on ICBM.

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