A decision approving a series of test firings of the Agni-5 intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) has been pending for the last 10 years. When it was finally taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi it was done, it seems, again on a one-off basis, and with some reluctance. As to why this should be so is one of those mysteries only Modiji can unravel. It is clear the trigger for the test launch of Agni-5 was not some longview calculation in the wake of the news of the spectacular Chinese test of a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) in the guise of testing a hypersonic glide vehicle, but an attempt by India, a nuclear minnow, to say: Hey, notice me — I’m in the game too!!
Just how far ahead China is may be guaged from the Chairman, US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, calling the Chinese achievement “significant” and a near “Sputnik moment” for America.
First re: Milley’s Sputnik ejaculation. The US was startled out of its wits when the Soviet Union in October 1957, launched the first man-made satellite — the 80kg, football-sized, orbiter — Sputnik-1, which event the History Division of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), heralds as the “Dawn of the space age”. Incidentally, NASA was created by the stirred and much shaken Eisenhower Administration in 1958. It led, in that period, to the US handily winning the space race by landing Neil Armstrong on the moon in May1969, and meeting President John F Kennedy’s May 1961 challenge to the American science & technology community and industry to do so by the end of that decade.
The shock in a complacent Washington at China’s successfully testing FOBS is as great as when a doubting US was rendered aghast at the Soviet Union’s pulling off a Sputnik some 65 years ago. We can now expect a full-fledged arms race in space to get underway with American companies being pushed, pulled, prodded and incentivised to, as soon as possible, have the US military not just field an array of FOBS, but also technology to neutralize hypersonic glide weapons able to home in on targets at 21 kms per second (Mach 5 to Mach 7 speeds) after transiting through space and re-entering the earth’s atmosphere.
The Chinese FOBS occasioned the 5,000 km Agni-5 IRBM test, which was a sort of small, “me too” reaction by India. There’s no parity, of course, because DRDO’s hypersonic programme is having the usual kind of troubles with this tech relating to the design of the glide vehicle (for smooth reentry) as also with the propellant mix for the initial and terminal phases of hypersonic flight. It may not be like for like, but Agni-5 is the only weapon available to India to blunt Beijing’s tendency to show India up as a strategic nonentity and to prevent nuclear bullying of the kind the Indian army, in the conventional arena, routinely suffers at the hands of the PLA on the disputed border.
Hence, the great mystery about the Indian government’s reticence in showboating with the A-5. And why it is that these Agni’s aren’t regularly fired into the southern Indian Ocean after pointedly sending Beijing notices warning Chinese naval and merchant ships to keep off the designated target areas (whether there are any Chinese ships in the vicinity or not); the idea being to make a splash on the minds of Chinese strategists who are contemptuous of what they consider India’s strategic pretensions.
At the heart of this tragedy is a wimpy Indian government. Consider the pattern: Talented and highly motivated missileers at the Advanced Systems Laboratory, Hyderabad, design and develop missiles of various kinds and associated weapons technologies only for things to come to a shuddering halt as Delhi dithers endlessly first on testing, and then on inducting and deploying these systems, thus keeping the country in a state of peril.
The reason the A-5 is a formidable weapon is its “guidance on chip” — its unique selling point, that gives it extraordinary accuracy at extreme range. [For more details about ‘guidance on chip’, see my posts from 2012! — “Agni-5 tidbits”, April 23, 2012 at https://bharatkarnad.com/2012/04/23/agni-5-tid-bits/ and “Agni-V – guidance on chip”, April 26, 2012 at https://bharatkarnad.com/2012/04/26/agni-v-guidance-on-chip/%5D.
In the CEP (circular error probable) metric to assess accuracy of missiles, the Indian A-5 is as good as any missile in the world. In the event, the country should by now have had, quite literally, hundreds of these missiles — conventional and nuclear warheaded, to provide flexible strike options to take out the most distant countervalue or counterforce targets in China. Alas, test firings of the A-5 have been few and far between, and even though there are variants of the A-5, including one that is road mobile, the A-5 technology would gain refinement from many more and regular test firings. The strategic situation versus China is aggravated, moreover, by a low production rate of Agni-5s with its numbers to-date in the arsenal constituting only a fraction of the desired strength. But at least the A-5 has some testing behind it. They also remain relatively exposed owing to a marked deficiency of invulnerable mountain tunnel complexes to store and stockpile these Agni’s and, in crisis, to trundle out into firing positions clear of the mountainous overhang. The tunnel complexes is was I had advocated during my time on the first National Security Advisroy Board and then in my 2002 book — Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security.
The equally indigenous MIRV (multiple independently maneuverable vehicle) technology that allows a single missile to carry several warheads and to fire them at widely dispersed targets has not been so lucky. Designed, developed and readied for testing as far back as 2001-2002, the MIRV design and tech has been collecting dust in ASL ever since. Three governments in the new millennium –Vajpayee’s, Manmohan Singh’s and Modi’s, have felt no urgency whatsoever to give the green signal to test the MIRV prototype! More likely, as I have argued in my books, they have succumbed to American pressure to not test and induct this disruptive tech. Meanwhile, China took only a couple of years, from design to deployment, for its MIRV-ed missiles to enter the PLA strategic rocket forces’ inventory. [For details of the Indian MIRV tech, see my 2008 book — India’s Nuclear Policy].
If all these factors were not liability enough, we have the Indian government whose lack of strategic intellect is shocking, if not surprising. The collective ignorance of the phenomenon of nuclear deterrence and its dynamics in the highest reaches of the government, the military, in the bureaucracy, generally, and in MEA in particular, is a sad but costly joke at the expense of national security. It is evidenced in the statement issued by the Indian government following the IRBM test launch: “The successful test of Agni-5 is in line with India’s stated policy to have credible minimum deterrence that underpins the commitment to ‘No First Use’.” !!! This is on par with the endlessly repeated piece of idiocy mouthed by politcal leaders, military chieftains, and addle-brained diplomats alike that “nuclear weapons are meant for deterrence, not war fighting.” These strategic-nuclear illiterates are also convinced, for instance, that India’s gazetted doctrine emphasizing “massive retaliation” works even though the last two decades have clearly proven otherwise with even Pakistan mocking India’s nuclear posture by continuing to play the terrorism card and by speedily building up its stock of tactical nuclear weapons whose first use pronouncements, it surmises and the record bears it out, clearly deters India from exploiting its conventional military edge.
Despite the examples of Kim Jong-un threatening to take out Tokyo and the mid-Pacific US military island base of Guam in response to Trump’s talk of “fire and fury” that led to Trump slinking away and earlier, of China preparing to go with nuclear first use if the US tried to impose its military will, Delhi sticks with the simpletonish, one dimensional, view of the utility of nuclear weapons. Hence, the voicing of half-understood concepts like ‘minimum deterrence’ and ‘no first use’ from the Indian government and its representatives. It has consigned the country to a state of permanent strategic disadvantage and left it with no means to leverage a more respectful Chinese attitude to India’s national interest and its position on LAC, or to dissuade Beijing from pushing and pressuring this country at every turn. Xi Jinping and his team are by now only too aware that the Indian worm — nuclear or otherwise, does not turn.