India’s missile bamboozle

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There has been needless confusion and obfuscation about the Agni-V missile test-fired on April 19. First was the delay in the launch by some 11 hours. For a missile touted as “all weather”, a bit of lightning shouldn’t have frightened off the DRDO brass. More likely, the reason was last minute jitters about a missile whose launch had been turned into a media circus.

What is less comprehensible was the persistent description in the media, no doubt at the DRDO’s prompting, of the Agni-V as an “Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile” (ICBM) when, given its stated range of around 5,000 kms, Dr V. Saraswat, DRDO boss and scientific adviser to the defence minister, identified it correctly for television cameras as an Inter-mediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM). The first hint of Agni-V’s ICBM status was dropped by the minister of state for science, Ashwini Kumar, when he referred to the missile re-entering the atmosphere at “24.4 times the speed of sound”. Depending on the altitude, this works out to roughly 7.2 to 7.7 kms per second as terminal velocity, making it unquestionably an ICBM, compared to 6.2 to 6.5 kms per second re-entry speed of Agni-IV, which is IRBM performance. Obviously, Agni-V was fired in a high-parabolic trajectory to depress the distance it travelled, which may be why Chinese military sources have claimed that Agni-V’s 8,000-km range is being covered up.

The Agni has to have a minimum range of 10,000 kms to be considered an ICBM. But why did the DRDO not publicise the missile’s full capability? The reason was to mollify the Manmohan Singh government that has always been fearful of spooking the US. Washington has insisted that India restrict its missile capacity to cover China without tripping into the ICBM range lest that leads to India being perceived as a threat, resulting in American counter-measures.

While the Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA government’s minister for external affairs (MEA), Jaswant Singh, denies he had cut any deal during his 19 rounds of “strategic dialogue” with Strobe Talbott, former US President Bill Clinton’s deputy secretary of state, in early 2000 to cap Indian missile capability at the IRBM level, the Congress coalition government has adhered to this restriction, which is reflected in the DRDO’s programmatic thrust. Indeed, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s reluctance to offend Washington was stretched to a point where he reportedly kept delaying the approval of the first test of Agni-V until defence minister A.K. Antony put his foot down around mid-2011, and compelled Dr Singh to approve the launch. The government tried to soften any negative reaction by scheduling foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai’s speech extolling India’s spotless nuclear and missile technology non-proliferation record at an MEA-sponsored seminar on the same day as the missile test.

The DRDO’s fear of the government disallowing sustained testing of critical strategic technologies, backed by an equally nagging apprehension about reduction of funds for strategic technology development, is why the DRDO resorted to over-the-top publicity. The DRDO’s strategy was to thwart moves by the government to curtail activity in the missile field by creating huge public support for Agni-V and follow-on ICBM. It resembles the decision by nuclear scientists to simultaneously trigger three devices (which produced mixed, suboptimal results) on May 11, 1998, because of the fear that under foreign pressure the government would terminate testing after the very first explosion if a series of separate single underground tests had been resorted to. The hullabaloo over the untested MIRV (Multiple Independently Re-targetable Vehicles) technology, enabling one missile to engage three to eight different targets that Agni-V is configured to carry, was also for the same reason. So much public hype about the MIRV technology, awaiting government permission to test for the last eight-odd years, means that Dr Singh cannot now stop its testing in the second launch of Agni-V. The other stellar attributes of the Indian IRBM not talked about, but worth mentioning, are the chip-embedded guidance system and the servo-mechanisms for thrust control to permit mid-flight manoeuvring.

Were the Indian government strategic-minded, which it is not, it would push through an accelerated programme of testing and induction into service of Agni-V and, in parallel, quickly develop and test-fire over Antarctica a genuine ICBM by replacing the first stage made of steel on the IRBM with lightweight composites to accommodate more fuel. What an ICBM does is allow Chinese targets to be hit from virtually anywhere, thereby immeasurably enlarging the space for manoeuvre by Indian firing platforms outside Chinese satellite coverage. Further, the production rate of Agni-IVs and Agni-Vs needs rapid ramping up to keep pace with even a minor adversary — Pakistan.

The success of Agni-V, however, highlights the danger that I have been warning about for many years, namely, very advanced and accurate long-range missiles married to untested and unproven thermonuclear warheads that, without further physical testing of fusion and boosted-fission weapons designs, could prove to be duds. That will be a devastating denouement for the Indian strategic deterrent — accurate delivery but fizzled impact.

Even so, with a proven IRBM, India has reached deterrence parity with China in the sense of being able to reach the most distant Chinese targets. The MEA should capitalise on the interest generated by Agni-V to explore an Indian role as the “net security provider” that countries in Southeast Asia would welcome and Washington has been urging Delhi to play. Our dilly-dallying on the sale of the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile led Indonesia to buy a variant directly from Russia. Vietnam, which also seeks Brahmos, is unlikely to wait around either. Unless India treats Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and other Asean members as the first tier of India’s defence and missile-arms them on a priority basis, national security will remain grievously impaired. New Delhi emphasising non-proliferation norms at the expense of the country’s geopolitical interests is tragically short-sighted, given that the brownie points it wins cannot compensate for China transferring nuclear missile technology to Pakistan, or insinuating itself into the military affairs of Burma, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Maldives, to disadvantage India. The MEA should not squander the chance to pursue substantive cooperative security measures with the United States and countries on China’s periphery beyond anti-piracy patrols and joint military exercises by, for a start, discussing and preparing for contingency scenarios.

[Published April 26, 2012 in the ‘Asian Age’ at  and in the ‘Deccan Chronicle’ at ]

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 Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Army, Indian Ocean, Military Acquisitions, Missiles, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, Strategic Relations with South East Asia & Far East, Strategic Relations with the US & West, Technology transfer. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to India’s missile bamboozle

  1. Joydeep Ghosh says:

    kudos to DRDO for perfectly using the media pitch to turn things in its favor, now the pitch has grown so high that if they dont go ahead with MIRV, canister, Agni 6 or the K series missiles the DRDO will again be critisized for not living upto expectations. The launch of the RISAT satellite by ISRO has pushed up the hype which is only expected to go up and I believe the next Agni 5 launch will not only be MIRVd but also canistered.

    I also think the with Agni 4 launch scheduled for next month will also be canistered. As for the warheads i had earlier said that the need is now greater for new set of nuke tests and i believe keeping in mind the current political and economic scene and US maintaining a unusual silence on Agni 5 coupled with the media hype there will have to a Smiling Buddha 3 by 2014

    • Re: A-5, all true. But testing in an open-ended fashion of the rejigged boosted-fission and thermonuclear warheads of different yield-to-weight ratios is a political bridge too far to cross, at least for the Manmohan Singh government.

  2. Prem Kumar says:

    BK-Sir: thanks for a well articulated right-wing stance, which is a breath of fresh air. The Indian public is delighted by this test and there is not much of the usual drivel like “why do we need ICBMs when 80% of Indians live on less than $0.02 a day” from our mainstream media.

    A few comments:

    a) The 11 hour delay could very well have been the need for telemetry measurements (which would be affected by a lightning storm), this being a development & not a user trial

    b) The lesser said about repeated GOIs & the heads of state (the present one being the most egregious), the better. These are supposed to be our “leaders”, yet are the ones castrating our vision

    c) The good news about A-5 is that it is the “final configuration” from a 3-stage point of view. I am hoping that the DRDO can test advancements like MIRV, 3rd stage composite, better solid fuel, SLBM etc under the A-5 umbrella itself, rather than waiting for the mythical “green signal” for an A-6, which may take another decade to materialize

    • You may well be right about the delay owing to telemetry angle. While it’d be desirable for most of the advancements being made under the A-5 aegis, the unfortunate fact is GOI has an over-ride on testing and can postpone/put off or call-off on a test by test basis for any of a host of reasons, including diplomatic.

      • Ravi says:

        The patch antennas which look like “scraps of paper” on the nose cone and other telemetry equipment would have been affected, thereby inhibiting data collection.

  3. Vihan says:

    Excellent write up as always. A question, are “mid-flight manoeuvring” and MARV(MAneuverable Re-entry Vehicle) the same? Or are there differences?

    To add to that, while I know little about avionics, getting MARV right and fully tested would be a necessary and sufficient condition before jumping onto MIRV’s. The reason being that they too would have to be capable for mid-flight manoeuvring post launch and be able to do sharp course corrections in the invent of detecting interceptors. I also remember reading somewhere that they want MIRV’s to have decoys and countermeasures as well to ensure a successfully kill. So while our MIRV designs have been ready for years, testing mid-flight manoeuvring and getting it right was needed before actually testing it on simultaneously launched MIRV’s. Am I right or missing something?

    • Last pt first: The sequential testing regime before MIRV tech is tested is right. MARV is for a single-warheaded missile and mid-flight manoeuvring may converge. However, the latter is a seperate capability for getting to a point outside of the normal ballistic course being tracked by adversary for release of separate loaded and decoy warheads.

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