Agni-V in perspective

In simple terms

This appeared in DNA yesterday.

Let’s look at some of interesting questions that arose after the recent test of the Agni-V missile. The first is whether it is really an inter-continental ballistic missile being undersold as an intermediate range ballistic missile out of reasons of political correctness. Well, other than for the purposes of international arms control negotiations, what four-letter acronym we use to refer to a missile is irrelevant. For example, an artillery shell fired across the 14.3 km-wide Straits of Gibraltar is, factually, an inter-continental ballistic missile. The classification of missiles with ranges less than 5500 km as ‘intermediate range’ is a relic of Cold War era arms control negotiations and an outcome of the strategic geography of that era. So while pedants, lawyers and negotiators can agonise over whether Agni-V is an ICBM or an IRBM, what is important from the perspective of our national security is its range and its payload capacity.

Officially, Agni-V has a range of 5000kms and can carry 1000kg of multiple warheads. In contrast to the usual cynical ‘they are inflating their claims’ comment, some foreign commentators have alleged that India is under-declaring the actual range. Chinese experts have claimed that the actual range is 8000kms, thereby allowing Europe to be targeted. Could there be something in these claims? Now, anyone who’s tinkered around with automobile engines or over-clocked their computers knows that there is often more juice to be squeezed from the machines because the engineers who design them are a conservative lot.

High school physics tells us that the trajectory of a projectile can be made to vary by changing its weight. So the 5000kms range is largely an indicative figure. With strategic missiles it makes sense to obfuscate range and weight parameters to the extent possible because keeping everyone guessing is a good part of the game.

That game is strategic deterrence. It’s a game that is well-suited to our national genius. India — and Delhi in particular — has historically ignored threats until they materialise at or inside the walls of the capital. Our internal political games keep us so preoccupied to this day that we are not interested in stopping the invader at the strategic frontiers like the Khyber Pass or the waters of the Indian Ocean. Only the Himalayas generally saved us from invasions from the north until 1962. By then the previously insurmountable barriers could be traversed due to the march of technology. However, after India developed nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them, the strategic barrier between India and China was restored. Now that we have apprised potential invaders of the unacceptably high cost of attacking us, we can go back to the delights of our domestic politics and entertainment.

The fact that the army chief warned of a severe shortage of basic ammunition troubled us for a fleeting moment last month. Then the IPL season started…

Once fully developed and deployed — a few years from now — Agni-V will extend the deterrence to countries in its range. Of course, this includes China. It would, however, be misleading to conclude that the Agni-V missile is solely ‘meant for’ China. It’s not. Like that colourful message you see painted on the back of trucks, it applies to anyone within its range who has an ‘evil eye’. There are no permanent friends or enemies in international relations, and today’s adversary could well be tomorrow’s ally. A strategic missile deters countries with inimical interests from acting in ways that undermine our national security.

Many foreign media reports connected India’s test with North Korea’s and suggested an Asian arms build-up. Meanwhile, a few Indian commentators attributed it to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s foreign policy. Both are wrong, because they ignore the fact that Agni-V is part of a missile development programme that was started in the early 1980s and has been consistently pursued by all governments since then. The broad timing of the test is more related to the development cycle than to contemporary events — the exact timing might well be influenced by factors ranging from the diplomatic calendar to the direction of the wind.

Relating it to Pyongyang’s latest shenanigans or China’s recent assertiveness would be impute a causation where none exists. Unlike mothers facing unexpected dinner guests, DRDO can’t cook up a new missile just like that.

It is fashionable to argue that India’s fractious democratic system does not allow it to pursue long term inter-generational projects. This is only partly true. India’s nuclear strategy contradicts this argument — the minimum credible deterrent has been pursued for at least the last three decades.

Will Agni-V change the balance of power in the broader Asian region? Not quite. For that India will need to regain the economic growth trajectory that it fell out of over the last decade. What remains to be seen is whether the security the missile provides will make us even more complacent about implementing the second-generation reforms necessary to accumulate power.

©2012 Diligent Media Corporation Ltd.

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