Does India need ICBMs?

By A. Vinod Kumar | May 10, 2012

With the successful launch of the Agni-5, India now is on the cusp of having an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability. The Agni-5, an intermediate-range ballistic missile able to carry a nuclear warhead, has a range of 3,100 miles — 300 miles shy of becoming an ICBM, according to internationally recognized standards (a capability that so far belongs only to China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States). But since India’s supposed nuclear adversaries are China and Pakistan — both less than 2,400 miles away — does India really need an ICBM?

To be sure, the continued development and potential deployment of the Agni-5 would be a strategic milestone for the nation, one that would ideally signify completion of the land-based segment of India’s strategic delivery capability. But it remains to be seen whether that milestone justifies a longer reach, whether India will pursue longer strike ranges in the form of a truly intercontinental ballistic missile capability, or whether the entire pursuit is less strategy than showmanship.

As India celebrates the Agni-5, it is worth considering the rationale of the nation’s technological pursuit of intercontinental reach — and then worth examining whether the pursuit itself is rational.

India, China, and intercontinental reach. Due to proximity, India has had the ability to strike Pakistan for years. In theory, the Agni-5s potential to hit Beijing now elevates India’s nuclear deterrence status vis-à-vis China — from existential deterrence (non-use based on a fear of the uncertain destructive power of a country’s nuclear arsenal) to deterrence by punishment (a strategy of threatening massive retaliation to deter enemy aggression). But does this mean India’s nuclear deterrent is credible (always ready, but never used)?

Even with the Agni-5 in place, China holds a vast, asymmetric advantage over India through the sheer numerical superiority of its inventory, which has the flexibility for extensive coverage over the whole of India. In fact, China merely needs its medium-range missile (the DF-21) or its shorter-range systems deployed in its southern military regions to target Indian strategic assets or, for that matter, to deter India from even conventional forays. India, however, would need a colossal inventory of Agni-5s to deter China — and even then could suffer massive retaliation.

Nor can New Delhi discount recent strides Beijing has made in ballistic-missile defense. In January 2010, China successfully tested a long-range exo-atmospheric interceptor, which, when deployed on a nationwide scale, might negate the striking prowess of the Agni-5. India’s own Prithvi Air Defense interceptor, however, is stranded at an upper endo-atmospheric capability of 30-50 miles, which might be relatively effective as long as China launched only its shorter-range or slower missiles — and even then would likely have limited efficacy. Meanwhile, in order to create a nationwide missile defense that would be effective against anything larger or faster — for example, if China were to launch intermediate-range missiles to strike the Indian heartland — India is further impeded by the absence of long-range tracking radars, which would allow it to actually test its planned exo-atmospheric interceptors.

Ultimately, with the efficacy of its missile defense remaining dicey, India simply does not have — nor is it ever likely to have — a missile inventory that matches China’s. The task would be near-impossible: Beijing modernizes its arsenal and augments its strategic forces at a frenzied pace to meet its extra-regional aspirations. (India is not the only game in town.) The Chinese arsenal is doctrinally tailored with an imposing range of platforms designed to meet all of its perceived threats, including the force of the US arsenal. This being the case, it would be imprudent to think that an Indian missile with ranges beyond 3,400 miles would have a specific utility against China. What’s more, India does not have any perceivable enemy beyond the South Asian frontier that might justify an ICBM capability. Perhaps this is why proponents of Indian ICBM development rely more on intangible rationales — like enhancing India’s rising global profile — to justify the pursuit of ICBMs.

One thing is certain: The Agni-5 launch has unleashed a frenzy of techno-nationalism. Surprisingly, Agni-5 fever was not initiated by the government, which has merely described the system as a long-range ballistic missile, but by the defense research and development establishment, which obstinately insists on calling the Agni-5 an ICBM. To many, this posturing reads as just the latest attempt by the defense research and development establishment to define India’s strategic objectives and, in the process, undermine the mandate of the National Security Council and National Security Advisory Board. After all, the establishment seems eager to define and justify technological benchmarks. Previously, officials of the defense research and development organisation claimed to have achieved exo-atmospheric capability at roughly 19 miles, a far cry from the internationally accepted definition of 62 miles as the threshold of Earth’s atmosphere (also known as the Kármán line, the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space). Defense officials have also made clear their intent to pursue anti-satellite capability (to match the Chinese), a plan that boldly contradicts the government’s position against the militarization of outer space. Meanwhile, the defense research and development chief has declared that India will not cap missile development at 3,100 miles, a move the armed forces is expected to back, going by their obsession for power projection, a recurrent theme responsible for India’s recent high-tech acquisitions. (A former Indian air force chief has been quoted saying that India needs a longer delivery capability to match its “sphere of influence”.)

Going forward. The Agni-5 is undoubtedly a commendable technical accomplishment. The system has broken new ground in terms of India’s capacity to develop three-stage boosters with solid propellants and launch them from mobile platforms with over one-ton payloads. Reports also point to a breakthrough in MIRV capability. Of course, this is exactly why it is an opportune moment to enact a strategic and politically guided policy on India’s deterrence intentions — before the techno-nationalists go too far. With no strategic requirements for an ICBM and insurmountable asymmetry with China, the political leadership must resist efforts to seek parity of range or numbers. The focus, instead, should be on improvement of existing delivery platforms, including the Agni-5, in order to project a realistic, formidable second-strike capability. Having fulfilled its primary objectives, the Agni-5 should be capped at 3,100 miles while work continues on its deployment system. After all, offensive forces like ICBMs could prove to be anachronistic in a security environment increasingly influenced by strategic arms reductions.

A. Vinod Kumar is a fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, New Delhi; the views expressed here are his own.

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