Agni-V ICBM and the end of India’s northeastern dilemma

Source : India Today

Agni-V ICBM and the end of India’s northeastern dilemma
File photo of Agni 5 intercontinental ballistic missile; (PTI Photo)

On October 27, India tested the 5,000-km range Agni V intermediate range ballistic missile. This was the first ‘user trial’ of the missile by the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) that deploys India’s nuclear arsenal. The Agni V can carry a 1.5 tonne payload, possibly a boosted-fission device tested in 1998.

Until now, the 3,500 km Agni III, first tested in 2006, served as the backbone of the Indian nuclear deterrent against China. It could target all of Pakistan but only parts of mainland China. Even so, the rail-mobile Agni III would need for the SFC’s train-based ballistic missiles to travel for a launch to northeast India—closest to eastern and southern China. Ground-based invasions like the one China launched in 1962 can be halted by over 200,000 soldiers currently deployed by the army’s Kolkata-based Eastern Command—two Army Corps with two divisions each and a Mountain Strike Corps–for limited cross-border offensives. Indian military planners have continued to worry about the vulnerability of the 22-km-wide Siliguri corridor to a Chinese offensive from the Chumbi Valley. (The army’s Eastern Command recently conducted a week-long media tour to demonstrate its enhanced military posture.)

An Indian nuclear deterrent, operating along the road and rail axis in the sliver of India’s northeast, however, is vulnerable to tactical counter-force strikes (enemy attacks targeting the nuclear deterrent).

The Agni V has a range of between 5,000 and 5,500 km (even longer with a lighter payload) and allows Indian nuclear weapons to be launched from mainland India. Its induction thus ends the strategic dilemma Indian strategic planners face—a belligerent nuclear-armed China which could inflict punitive missile strikes all along the Indian mainland from the Tibetan plateau but whose own industrial heartlands and population centres, further away on the east coast, remain shielded from retaliatory strikes. This dilemma dates back to the 1960s when Indian strategic thinkers had begun advocating nuclear weaponisation to counter Maoist China.

Sometime in 1968, Indira Gandhi’s influential principal secretary P.N. Haksar made a strong case for India to go nuclear. Haksar was conscious of the formidable natural barrier in the million square kilometres of Chinese-occupied Tibet. Hence, he called for ‘the making of nuclear arms in the shape of medium range (2,000-3,000 miles) capable, from sites within India’s frontiers, of striking with success not only a few chosen targets in Tibet but ranging as far afield as the industrial heart of China in Manchuria and in the great river valleys south of it which include some of her principal industries and urban centers of population’.

Scholar Vivek Prahladan reproduced this startling policy document, titled ‘Need for India in a changing world to reassess her national interests and foreign policy’, in his 2017 book The Nation Declassified. In one of the earliest references on the need for nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), Haksar also called for ‘the development simultaneously of submarines driven by nuclear power fitted to carry nuclear missiles’.

Haksar’s note came just six years after the border war with China and four years after the country had tested a nuclear weapon in the sandy wastes of Lop Nor in Xinjiang. It is not unreasonable to believe that the paper became the basis for India’s nuclear force planning.

Haksar had long discussions with Indira Gandhi, which apparently changed her views on the nuclear issue. The former bureaucrat, who passed away in 1998, gave a rare interview to senior journalist Raj Chengappa, which was reproduced in his insightful 2000 book, Weapons of Peace, on the shaping of India’s nuclear deterrent. Haksar quotes a passage from the historian L.V. Namier’s book In The Margins of History to Mrs Gandhi: ‘The weight of argument greatly depends on him who uses it: that of the strong has ‘force’ and carries ‘conviction’; that of the weak, if unaswerable, is called quibble and apt to cause annoyance.’

India first nuclear test in 1974 was followed by over a decade of nuclear dormancy before the Rajiv Gandhi government revived it in the 1980s. Yet, without long- range delivery systems, nuclear weapons in themselves are useless. The missile development path has followed a slow curve of increasing range in the face of international opprobrium. The Agni technology demonstrator was test-fired in 1989 but further tests were shelved after US pressure in the mid-1990s. It was revived only after the nuclear tests of 1998 when Agni-II, with a range of approximately 2,200 km, was tested on April 11, 1999.

India’s security establishment had been careful not to mention China as the primary focus of its nuclear arsenal, though this had begun changing by the 1990s. In 1998, the then defence minister George Fernandes called China India’s ‘potential threat number one’.

In an off the record conversation with a few Indian journalists in London in 2000, Fernandes recommended they read the BBC journalist’s Humphrey Hawksley’s 1997 novel Dragon Strike, where a hawkish Chinese despot launches a nuclear attack on India.

In a letter to US President Bill Clinton (which appeared in the New York Times on May 13, 1998), Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee hinted at the ‘deteriorating security environment, specially the nuclear environment’ as one of the unstated reasons for India’s May 11, 1998 nuclear tests. ‘We have an overt nuclear weapon state on our borders, a state which committed armed aggression against India in 1962,’ the letter elaborated. ‘Although our relations with that country have improved in the last decade or so, an atmosphere of distrust persists mainly due to the unresolved border problem. To add to the distrust that country has materially helped another neighbour of ours to become a covert nuclear weapons state.’ The Agni V is thus an antidote for India’s worries over a collusive two-front security threat turning into a two-front nuclear nightmare.

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