By Frank O’Donnell
The Agni-VI, to be developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), joins the Prahaar missile as the new symbols of India’s powerful strategic complex. Both missiles, however, invite questions as to the validity of India’s “credible minimum deterrence” doctrine for its emerging nuclear force.
The Agni-VI is reported to have a range of 6,000 km, and is being designed as the first Indian ballistic missile to host multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) warheads. It will hold four to six warheads, and will be India’s largest ballistic missile yet at 20 metres long and weighing 65-70 tonnes. To give a sense of the haste of DRDO missile projects, it is the successor missile to the Agni-V, a 5,000 km range missile first tested only last April.1
There was a certain strategic rationale for developing the Agni-V: its aegis brings Beijing, Shanghai and other Chinese east coast metropolises into Indian range for the first time, bringing a symmetry and perhaps stability to their bilateral nuclear deterrence. However, this same rationale made further-reaching and more destructive Indian missiles a weak proposition. With China in its entirety already in range, what further strategic targets exist that merit an Agni-VI? What are the geopolitical advantages to be gained by an Agni-VI that outweigh the tensions and uncertainty about the intentions of India’s nuclear force that the missile generates?
The Agni-VI emerges as a product of poor political management. As new missile projects elevate DRDO prestige and create new budgetary requirements, it has every interest in initiating new missile plans regardless of a related strategic requirement. The Agni-VI was, therefore, already being sketched out by DRDO as soon as the Agni-V was first tested.2
To curtail this tendency and relate the Indian nuclear force to wider national strategic objectives, the Indian government should establish clearer directive political control over the missile activities of DRDO. When asked to comment, in October 2012, on commissioning future missiles following the Agni-V, Defence Minister A.K. Antony suggested that DRDO perfect its current missiles before initiating new missile projects.3 The DRDO has thought differently.
As a responsible and credible agency for developing India’s missile portfolio, DRDO is permitted almost complete political discretion to select and build new missile projects. As India’s nuclear capabilities grow, this bureaucratic reality is creating a growing divergence between the restraint at the core of India’s official nuclear doctrine, and an ambitious and growing range of missile projects. It is essential for the Indian government to articulate limits to the eventual Indian nuclear force size and capabilities, and thus recover the initiative from DRDO, before its mushrooming missile portfolio threatens the health of relationships with Indian security partners and rivals.
While the Agni-VI will generate interest due to its unprecedented size, range and MIRV capability, the political governance issues surrounding Indian missiles have also been illuminated by a lesser-known project, Prahaar. Prahaar is labelled as a short-range conventional missile for now, but its development dovetails with the interest of DRDO in tactical nuclear weapons. Prahaar adds little to Indian security. It could also generate the technical understanding for a future Indian tactical nuclear missile, which would make little sense under an Indian nuclear doctrine of “credible minimum deterrence”.
Prahaar was first tested by DRDO in July 2011. It features a range of 150 km and warhead capacity of 200 kg. This warhead capacity in and of itself is held by the agency to be proof of its purely conventional status, as DRDO has not yet developed a nuclear missile warhead smaller than around 500 kg.4 Prahaar is intended to complement the “Cold Start” Indian Army strategy of rapid cross-border strikes against Pakistan in the event of military conflict. This missile would have escalatory impacts within a conflict, while the strategy it ostensibly supports drove Pakistan to develop a tactical nuclear missile, the Nasr, as an anticipatory countermeasure to halt the Indian cross-border sweep. Prahaar, therefore, has a debatable strategic rationale.
However, Prahaar could also serve toward a DRDO objective. The agency has long held an interest in tactical nuclear weapons, including the test of low-yield devices in the Pokhran-II series in 1998. If Prahaar is not presently nuclear-capable, it could at the least serve as a precursor to a tactical nuclear missile. DRDO is already miniaturising nuclear warheads for new projectiles such as the new MIRV warheads for the Agni-VI, and for the K-15 sea-launched ballistic missile. Without clear political direction from the Indian government against development of tactical nuclear warheads, there is little to stop DRDO announcing its commissioning of a tactical nuclear missile. This is an entirely avoidable development, which would have damaging consequences for Indo-Pakistani relations and fuel a needless nuclear arms race. Effective political control of Indian missile projects should, therefore, not overlook the strategic implications of short-range projectiles as well as the long-range marquee headline-grabbers such as the Agni-VI.
The Agni-VI and Prahaar both signify unnecessary missile projects, which have been developed in the interests of DRDO technical and bureaucratic ambitions rather than the stated interests of India’s nuclear doctrine. The Agni-VI extends India’s nuclear missile range past the entire landmass of both of its nuclear rivals, while Prahaar could open the road to a tactical nuclear weapons race with Pakistan.
Firmer political guidance from India’s policymakers is thus required to reassess these projects, and ensure that India’s nuclear policy is in line with India’s wider global interest in a stable security environment.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.
1. The Agni-V has been described by DRDO as potentially having a future MIRV warhead capacity, but the Agni-VI is the first missile to be designed specifically with MIRV capabilities in mind. T.S. Subramanian, “Agni-VI All Set to Take Shape”, The Hindu, February 4, 2013, available at http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/agnivi-all-set-to-take-shape/artic…, accessed on February 4, 2013.
2. IBNLive Staff, “Agni-VI with 10,000 km Range to be Ready by 2014”, IBNLive, May 24, 2012, available at http://ibnlive.in.com/news/agnivi-with-10000-km-range-to-be-ready-by-201…, accessed on February 5, 2013.
3. Press Trust of India, “India to ‘Stabilise’ Present Agni Missile Program, Says AK Antony”, Economic Times, October 1, 2012, available at http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2012-10-01/news/34198359_1_…, accessed on February 5, 2013.
4. Surya Gangadharan, “Prahaar India’s Counter to Pak’s Nasr Missile?”, IBNLive, July 27, 2011, available at http://ibnlive.in.com/blogs/suryagangadharan/79/62564/prahaar-indias-cou…, accessed on February 5, 2013; see also Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, “Indian Nuclear Forces, 2012”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 65, No. 6 (July/August 2012), p. 100.
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/ManagingIndiasMissileAspirations_fodonnell_100213
About the author: IDSA
The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. IDSA has been consistently ranked over the last few years as one of the top think tanks in Asia.