BY PRAFUL BIDWAI
INDIA’S Agni-V missile launch followed by Pakistan’s Hatf-IV-Shaheen-1A launch were greeted with deplorable machismo and sabre-rattling in both countries. But the missile race will destabilise this region.
In India, praise was lavished on Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) personnel for their "scientific achievement", without asking how replicating a 1950s-vintage technology constitutes something original, and why such "achievements" are confined to mass destruction weapons.
Sections of the media euphorically termed the Agni-V a "giant leap" and a "game-changer". Even the hostile reaction from China’s state-owned Global Times didn’t generate sobriety. The paper said India was being swept by a "missile delusion", but stands "no chance in an overall arms race with China… India should also not overstate the value of its Western allies and the profits it could gain from participating in a containment of China."
China as Target
Clearly, China views India’s missiles as a threat. The Agni-V is designed to reach Beijing and cities in eastern China. China’s retaliation will extract a heavy price. But nobody talks about this.
India’s Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme, to which the Agni belongs, doesn’t warrant euphoria. It was launched in 1983 to develop the Prithvi, Agni, Akash, Trishul and Nag missiles by 1997.
Ten years after that deadline, and with a 400 per cent-plus cost overrun, only the short-range Prithvi and three crude Agni versions were ready. There were serious problems in switching from liquid-fuel to solid-fuel propulsion. Costs and time schedules went haywire. Critical components were imported as indigenisation failed.
The DRDO has never completed a major project on time. It declares that a missile’s development is complete after two or three test-flights, however successful. Other powers don’t induct a missile unless 8 or 12 test-flights prove its reliability.
India’s armed forces faced trouble in operationalising several missiles. Finally, the IGMDP was scrapped in 2008.
Last November, India tested the 3,500-km-range Agni-IV. The DRDO added a third stage to it, creating the 5,000-km-range Agni-V, and terming it an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. This still falls short of an ICBM’s range, generally defined as 5,500 km-plus. The DRDO itself says the Agni-V is only 80 per cent indigenous.
Claim on Agni-V Prowess
The claim that the Agni-V can be launched from a truck, giving it better mobility and protection, is questioned by Chinese experts. They say India’s roads and bridges cannot handle its 50-tonne weight.
The DRDO boastfully says it wants to MIRV the Agni-V, or equip it with Multiple Independently Targeted Re-entry Vehicles (warheads). It wants to use it as an anti-satellite weapon.
However, miniaturising warheads for MIRVing would be hugely expensive and violate India’s nuclear doctrine based on a "credible minimum deterrent" with "no-first-use" of nuclear weapons. Anti-satellite weapons run counter to India’s well-reiterated opposition to the militarisation of space.
It’s out of order for the DRDO to announce such decisions/intentions. That’s the prerogative of the political leadership, which must not get bamboozled into further developing the missile programme. India paid a heavy price in loss of security for the 1998 nuclear tests.
Nuclear weapons have made India and Pakistan more, not less, insecure. Millions of civilians in both are vulnerable to, but defenceless against, attacks by nuclear-capable missiles. Both are stockpiling large quantities of bomb fuel. Pakistan is building new plutonium facilities even as it expands its uranium enrichment programme.
There is no worthwhile arms control process between the two states. Pakistan is reportedly busy dispersing its "nuclear assets" to prevent the US from getting hold of them so they don’t fall into extremist hands. This will create new uncertainties.
Ultimately, the greatest danger in this region lies in its leaders’ smug faith in nuclear deterrence. This doctrine holds that security is achieved through a "balance of terror"—deterring an adversary’s nuclear attack by threatening him with "unacceptable damage" with your nukes.
For half a century, India maintained a principled stand against nuclear deterrence. It termed it "morally abhorrent", because underlying it is disregard for life, and preparedness to kill millions of civilians. India also argued that deterrence leads to an expensive arms race — and greater insecurity.
This captured the truth about the Cold War, with its furious nuclear build-up, missile rivalry, and spiralling arms spending in the rival blocs led by the US and the USSR. Nuclear warheads in each multiplied from a few dozen in the early 1950s, to several hundreds in the 1960s, to many thousands in the 1970s.
Their number reached an astounding 70,000 in the mid-1980s, enough to destroy the world 50 times over. This made the world irredeemably unsafe, causing hundreds of accidents, strategic misperceptions, false alarms, and hair-raising confrontations like the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
We now know from recently declassified documents that the Cuban crisis was much worse than thought. More scarily, neither the Kennedy nor the Khrushchev leadership knew of its true gravity. On many other occasions too, deterrence nearly broke down.
Transparency on N-Capabilities
Deterrence assumes perfect transparency about adversaries’ nuclear capabilities and doctrines, no accidental or unauthorised use of nuclear weapons, no strategic misperceptions, and no conventional conflict between them.
In the Cold War, there was very little transparency. All kinds of accidents happened. Nuclear submarines collided with ships carrying nuclear weapons. Weather rockets were mistaken for missiles. Counter-strikes were ordered — to be called off in the nick of time.
Nuclear states do fight conventional wars — as the USSR and China did in the 1970s. More infamously, India and Pakistan fought the mid-sized Kargil war one year after their nuclear blasts. This involved tens of thousands of troops, top-of-the-shelf weaponry, and hundreds of casualties, with potential for nuclear escalation. Nor do nuclear weapons prevent a conventional arms race. India and Pakistan have raised their conventional arms spending three- to four-fold since 1998.
Tragically, India has unlearnt the truth about nuclear deterrence and is replicating the Cold War-style behaviour pattern. It’s rushing headlong into a missile race with China which is three times bigger in economic size and military expenditure. India must rethink — and use diplomatic options to de-escalate rivalry with its neighbours.