MIRVing tech not tested

The barrage of media reports (no doubt prompted by DRDO sources) about MIRVs on the Agni, was mystifying. Just got off an early evening television program (Headlines Today TV) with Dr Selvamurthy, one of the senior most DRDO brass, who clarified matters, but only after I had publicly raised doubts about the MIRV aspect. Being quite certain there were no MIRVs on-board, I wondered if the MIRVing technology had actually been tested, when in fact  the initial  test of such eqpt is a couple of years away.   Dr Selvamurthy, in response, confirmed  that such tech had not been “demonstrated” in this first test, but added it was MIRV-capable, design-wise, which is what I wrote in my 2008 book – ‘Índia’s Nuclear Policy’.

The question that really bothers me is the DRDO tendency to overstate (the less polite word is, exaggerate) its achievements. The Agni-5 is a superlative capability, but it isn’t MIRV-ed yet. Why make such a claim then? Similarly, Agni-5 is an IRBM, why call it an ICBM? It fools nobody, least of all our adversaries, who have a good fix on our strategic programs and are sufficiently nonplussed by its progress to assist our strategic cause. These missiles don’t need official embellishment. But then that’s a carryover from the nuclear realm where despite not having tested, proven, and reliable thermonuclear and boosted fission designs in our inventory, the Govt claims they have an entirely serviceable weapon with fusion warheads. How can such a claim be sustained on the basis of only simulation, component and sub-system testing, escapes me. As far as I’m concerned, it erodes the credibility of the nuclear (business) end, of the country’s deterrent.

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 Defence Industry, India's strategic thinking and policy, Missiles, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to MIRVing tech not tested

  1. vihan says:

    Very well written and exceptionally timely. I was just about to mail you about the MIRV “capability” and possible test or lack thereof. The key questions in my mind are :

    0)Does some behind the scenes dealing with the civ-nuke deal prohibit MIRV development?
    1)Does some behind the scenes dealing with the civ-nuke deal prohibit a *real* ICBM development with ranges in the 8000-11000km range?
    2)Aren’t these MIRV’s not much of a deterrence as the only provable warhead design we have is in the 8-20kT range? As you have rightly stated on a previous occasion the Chinese warheads are in the 1-3 MT range. So MIRV development needs to be done while considering a new *proven* design of the same magnitude, or better.

    Also, we need to keep our eyes on the larger strategic picture of the whole triad. We need MIRV’d SLBM’s as well as a long range strategic bomber such as you have rightly suggested – the Tupolev Tu-160 and even consider the possibility of having massive ~24MT warheads.
    I don’t care if people call me a madman, but the only triad which makes any real strategic sense to me is one with:
    a)A submarine fleet in East Asian waters armed with MIRV’d SLBM’s with each warhead having a 1-3 MT yield.
    b)MIRV’d IRBM’s and later ICBM’s with each warhead having a 1-3 MT yield on rail, land and sea platforms.
    c)Long range strategic bombers with ~24MT warheads in flight within fail safe positions which can head towards targets within China in a matter on minutes on orders from the PM. The same way the US had its strategic bombers on daily patrol near the USSR, ready and waiting for a go ahead from SAC and the President. The Soviets could never dare move an inch into West Berlin or elsewhere thanks to this, and the lesson for fighting Chinese aggression in the North East and elsewhere along with the long term future of India lies precisely in this.

    The way Chinese behaviour is threatening all of East Asia, I see little opposition from our East Asian allies(yes, lets use that word with all its implications because the situation is heading in that direction) to our building such capabilities. I would even go to the extent of saying many of them would even welcome our setting up bases(I count Nha Trang as only a first step) with nuclear weapons and missiles on their territory and have the same arrangements with them as the US did with many countries in Europe. Even the US which may publicly huff and puff would have to accept such a development. The European busybodies and Pakistan will be the only people shouting their lungs off, but I don’t think there is much they can do. An economically crippled Eurozone which needs the Indian market can’t afford to be holier than thou either now or later, and Pakistan, well, I don’t care what Pakistan says and neither should anyone else in India.

    The political will to do this is alas is the stumbling block, and as I haven’t formed my own political party and/or fought an election yet, I will not criticise its absence. I will criticise myself for not standing for an election and winning yet. Wish me luck Bharat 🙂

    • To get to the important thing first — Good Luck on your prospective life as political leader; it is remarkable you are embarking on the daunting task of getting elected w/o any party support. But more of us need to get into politics to change things, rather than merely complain of things being wrong, etc.

      Now replies ad seriatim:
      1) No, MIRVing is not barred to India by an agreement or understanding with any country.
      2) Well, we also have 125 KT, even 175 KT, warheads atop our missiles. But the performance of these have not been certified by actual physical tests. So whether they actually perform per specs everybody will know only once it is used! A terrible situation to be in.
      3) In my books, I had proposed we lease-buy the Blackjack Tu-160 from Russia — they have a ready squadron they are ready to part with. But maintenance costs are expensive. The FGFA in the offing could play the role of the manned bomber component in the triad.
      24 MT yield maybe too much of a good thing! But, at a minimum, India should have a 1MT weapon/warhead to match China’s.

  2. Joydeep Ghosh says:

    Bharat sir

    I hope the questions are not too mch for you

    1. Do you think a delibrate ambiguity is being maintained on the actual range of Agni 5 to keep it within the IRBM cap of 3000-5500 km.

    2. Since all missiles developed by India are dog missiles, do you think its okay to increase range at the cost of payload

    3. Do you agree with DRDO chief saying “We will have two more test launches of the Agni-5, and then productionise it for induction into field service with the Strategic Forces Command. We will also start working on different variants of the Agni-5, including MIRVs (multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles), anti satellite systems, and on making the Agni-5 capable of launching military satellites on demand,” says Saraswat.

    a. Is it not that just 2 more test launch is too little?

    b. Using Agni 5 Anti satellite system or launch millitary satellite is misuse of hard learnt tech?

    4. Dont you think the 50 ton weight of the missile is bit too much with respect to the 5000+km range and payload of over 1.5 tons

    5. Dont you think correcting the range of Agni 4 to 4000+ km justifies the placement of the missiel between 3000 km Agni 3 and 5200 km Agni 5?

    6. Do you think after successful testing of Agni 5 apart from developing MIRV tech, its justifiable to move towards a Pokhran 3 where

    a. thermonuclear devices should be tested to put an end to dispute over yield in test in Pokhran 2 and matting it to Agni 5.

    b. sub kiloton devices should be tested for use in warhead of Prahaar missiles

    7. Whats next Agni 6 or K 4

    hope to get answers


    Joydeep Ghosh

    • Replies to your Qs ad seriatim”
      1) Quite possibly.
      2) Depending on the mission/role tasking, all missile designs are a compromises between range and payload.
      3) DRDO is keeping to the R Kasturirangan committee’s recommendation that a minimum of three successful test launches is necessary before the induction of a missile into service (as a means of optimizing cost-efficiency). Of course, more may be in order if a launch misfires, or some critical onboard equipment or technology is seen not to have worked to expectations.
      3a) More tests are always better,but cost is a constraint. See above.
      4)That’s among the reasons for many experts suspecting Agni-5 may be 8,000 km-capable.
      5) Well, the range of a missile can be varied with the degree of the parabolic course it is fired on.
      6) We should long ago have had gone in for open-ended testing of the boosted-fission and thermonuclear designs to remove doubts and inject credibility into the Indian strategic deterrent.
      7) The Govt has to approve the testing of a genuine ICBM (10,000 km-12,000 km), this time to be fired over the Antarctic. But the Govt lacks the guts to do that despite seeing the political and diplomatic benefits to the country from having such capabilities.

  3. WMI says:

    A comment in Chinese media shows how poorly coordinated situation persists in India. We do not have roads and bridges that can actually take the load of a 50T missile. So the Agni 5 essentially will have to launched from a set of ‘singular’ bases.

    WRT, Vihan taking about setting up bases outside of India would not be a madman’s exercise but in truth a thing that must be done but our government does not have the balls to do so. While the most of Europe and USA need Indian economy, they have the upper lip and they do squeeze the GOI pretty well enough. Even if they are in deep shit situation, they successfully have been able to use our weakness for ‘Gora Saheb’ and ‘Gori Mem’.

    India can design multi-mT capable warheads but that has been in the back burner thanks to the civilian tie up with we all know who. The only last person who could have dared to take the actions Vihan talks about was Atal Behari but he speaks no more. Too bad. And now India is being ruled by sycophants, morally pauper politicians and corrupt officials.

    Given that you may want to say that pointing a finger at the situation does not help. Yes it really does not. Let us change the geography and we can make history. 🙂

  4. Vihan says:

    Thanks for your good wishes Bharat!

    A few questions and points :

    0)Will the FGFA having a good enough range to be a strategic bomber?

    1)In the meantime, would a purchase with full technology transfers of the TU-160 be a good idea in terms of reducing costs by building the units in India? It will give our research, development and maintenance personnel good experience with the learning curve not be as steep, as its Russian technology with familiar components.

    2)My logic behind the 24 MT yield is that China is the immediate threat, we don’t fully know what will be the future threat.

    Thus we need a capability of mind boggling and unrelenting fear to deter our current and future adversaries. I would even go to the extent of saying even after getting a 1-3 MT weapon tested and ready, the research, design and development process of thermonuclear weapons must continue with testing every 20-30 years or even lesser. We don’t know what new thing comes up next in Physics or other sciences. I remember that Einstein once said that “The likelihood of transforming matter into energy is something akin to shooting birds in the dark in a country where there are only a few birds” however, once the idea of splitting the nucleus with a neutron came up, everything changed! The theoretical models could be practically realized. We are saying the same thing about an antimatter weapon today, antimatter is not easy to realize in a lab and when done so its in very small quantities. Unless we find it somewhere in abundance in the Universe like we do crude oil on the Earth it can’t be exploited. But that’s what we know now, it may not even be true by the time you read this 🙂 Science and nature are far too great for us to put a box on our strategic foresight so I for one will never advocate it.

    For all practical purposes the next threat can also be a most unexpected one beyond our lifetime. To take an example, the rapidly changing demographic of Europe and the dominance and belligerence of Turkey are things that should concern us for the long run, ergo action is mandated now. Erdogan called for the secession of Jammu and Kashmir from India on the grounds that its Muslim majority occupied and exploited by others like “Palestine”, Western Cyprus, Nagorno-Karabakh. His foreign minister did apologise for the statement after we protested, but the initial message was clear. While most tend to dismiss his statements as superfluous rhetoric, I would not. I would also not categorize it as something to make Pakistan feel happy as they are allies. Erdogan has been going on rampage for the Sunni Islamic cause all over Eurasia. The fact the he’s negotiating patiently for Uygur rights with the Chinese and not calling for the secession of Xinjiang should tell us there is a lot of method behind the madness and cold hard realpolitik behind the rhetoric. If we couple this with what Wikileaks reveals about him, he sees himself as the “Tribune of Anatolia” and has visions of getting the caliphate back. He has been also successful in arresting members of the secular Turkish armed forces who oppose him, thus marginalising the deep state. That said, yes, he’s just one man, but if this becomes the new Turkish raison d’etre we should be extremely concerned.

    I would thus urge closer co-operation with Azerbaijan and Armenia in all spheres to the point where in we can have observe bases in those countries and eventually military bases. This will help us with some of our central Asian energy security challenges as well and give us a much needed foothold in the world’s future energy basket.

    Sorry to go totally off topic, but as this is something few in India are discussing, I thought I should post it.

    • Well, I have been advocating lease-buy of Tu-180 Blackjack, but with Russians discontinuing that line altogether upkeeping even a sqdn will be problematic, and cannibalisation with progressively attrit the strength. FGFA can reach strategic distances with all-up fuel load and a single under-fuselage Thermonuclear glide bomb.

      As to megaton warhead yields, have been making the case for inductable 1 MT weapons to match the standard-issue Chinese warhead on their DF-21, DF-31 for nearly 15 years now (In book form, see my ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security, 2002, 2005).

      With Uighur rights becoming an intl concern — even if it is Turkey begotiating for a better deal for the East Turkestanis with Beijing, it is a chink in the Chinese armor and which precedent can be widened in the future to erode Han Chinese control of Tibet.

      Aizerbaijan, well, news reports suggest that the Israelis will be staging their attack sorties on Iranian nuclear installations from that country on the Caspian.

  5. vihan says:

    I recently got all your books except Future Imperilled: India’s Security in the 1990s and Beyond [New Delhi: Viking Penguin, 1994], I can’t find it anywhere. I will be doing some serious reading in the coming months 🙂 A request though, your analysis of our defence preparedness and policy are the best I have seen. We need this knowledge and insight for our future generations, we also want them to cultivate the conservative instinct you have that is so badly needed in our people.
    Would you please request your publishers to sell digital copies as well so we can have copies for posterity 🙂

    I do agree if the FGFA has the required operational range and capability of carrying Thermonuclear weapons in the MT yields it would suffice. I only hope and pray that the development, testing and induction phases don’t take 30 years.

    I also agree that additional pressure on China from Turkey should be used as a justification for increasing our concerns about Tibet as well. In fact I think we should also apply this kind of pressure for Aksai Chin.

    Despite the possible future Israeli air strikes, having a covert observational presence at the least in Azerbaijan would definitely help us in the long and short run. The upgrading of such a presence can be looked at again in the future as the dynamics change.

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