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.

On Agni V

A milestone in the longstanding strategy of security by deterrence

From my response to a journalist’s questions.

The Agni V missile is part of India’s long term strategy to attain security through deterrence. It ties in with no-first use. It is wrong to see the development flight test of Agni V in the context of contemporary or current events. It is a milestone in a longstanding plan. Because India relies on a strategy of deterrence—see my essay in the special issue of India Today—it is important to provide psychological reassurance to the Indian public about their security. A successful test achieves that purpose to an extent.

The missile is not “meant for” any specific country. Rather, it deters powers that have interests inimical to India from acting in ways that undermine our national security.

India’s power projection in the region is a combination of geo-economic, geopolitical and military power. A missile test might work at the margin to show India’s capability to deter its adversaries but it does not say anything about India’s intentions to direct this weapon to coerce or threaten anyone. A mere missile test must not be seen as constituting a shift in the Asian balance of power.

We shouldn’t read too much into official or media pronouncements about this missile test, in India or abroad. The concerned governments are all aware of India’s strategy and Agni V is no surprise at all. Diplomatic statements coming out of New Delhi are meant to frame this test and capability in the context of international arms control negotiations.

Tailpiece: Terms like inter-continental and intermediate-range to describe missiles are a relic of Cold War arms control negotiations. A far more meaningful way to describe missiles is in terms of their range and payload capacity—the Agni V is a 5500km/1000kg class missile.

Saudi Arabia’s nuclear arsenal-on-demand

Just say the word

That Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have a secret nuclear deal is not exactly a secret. But the Guardian‘s Julian Borger has some details:

According to western intelligence sources (the meeting was under Chatham House rules so I am not allowed to be more specific) the Saudi monarchy paid for up to 60% of the Pakistani nuclear programme, and in return has the option to buy a small nuclear arsenal (‘five to six warheads) off the shelf if things got tough in the neighbourhood. [Guardian Blogs]

That’s still very fuzzy, but better than what was previously known to the public. In any case, the Pakistanis are unlikely to refuse if Saudi Arabia were to increase the size of the order.

While on the topic, do see Sean O’Connor’s very good open source intelligence analysis of Saudi Arabia’s ballistic missile force.

Kalam’s failings

The dangers of elevating humans to superhuman status

Over on his blog, Manoj Joshi posts his Mail Today article on how the legend of APJ Abdul Kalam resulted in poor technological choices and ultimately, as sub-standard missile arsenal. Excerpts:

Whatever may have been his successes as SLV-3 project manager, his tenure as DRDO chief has been something of a disaster.

Because of (diversions caused by Kalam’s dogmatic insistence), India’s long-range missile deterrent has been delayed by about a decade and even today it depends on aircraft dropped weapons, not missile borne, for its credible minimum deterrent

Kalam’s very prestige became his, and his country’s, worst enemy. He had attained oracular status by 1998, and the result was that the governments of the day blindly accepted what he had to say. He was not willfully dishonest, but his fixations and whims led to diversions and delays for which the country has paid a huge price. Perhaps his greatest, and in a sense forgivable, weakness was his obsession on “indigenous” development.

But the argument that India’s missiles are “indigenous” and Pakistan’s are based on Chinese, American, North Korean or someone else’s technology is a meaningless one. Military acquisitions are not about the “purity” of solutions, but time-urgent answers to a problem. And who will deny that Pakistan has got more than enough “solutions” in the nuclear weapon delivery area, to any threat India can offer. [Mail Today/Manoj Joshi’s blog]

R Venkataraman, RIP

Constitution-maker, defence minister, president

Former president Ramaswamy Venkataraman passed away in New Delhi today, aged 98. He was a member of the constituent assembly and rose to become president of the republic during a critical period in its history. His contribution to India’s strategic security is less well-known, but very significant. As defence minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet in 1983 he set-up a unique committee consisting of the three service chiefs, the top defence ministry bureaucrats and the top scientists in charge of India’s nuclear and missile development programmes. The biggest decision he made was to ask Dr V S Arunachalam and Dr APJ Abdul Kalam to accelerate the ballistic missile development programme by running five projects in parallel. It was Mr Venkataraman who allocated Rs 388 crores for the Integrated Guided Missiles Development Programme (IGMDP) that gave India the Agni, Prithvi, Akash, Trishul and Nag missiles.

In Wings of Fire, Dr Kalam writes: “He advised us to list all the resources we needed to achieve our goals, overlooking nothing, and then include in the list our own positive imagination and faith. “What you imagine, is what will transpire. What you believe is what you will achieve,” he said.”

A Q Khan, China and the truth

Bidirectional proliferation

Please don’t yawn. Savour the details. The Centrifugist revealed his side of the story to Simon Henderson. The latter’s article in The Sunday Times should put paid to the “Khan’s was a rogue operation” farce. It also tells the story of how China and Pakistan helped each other in nuclear technology.

(Khan’s) team was also the recipient of a gift from China of a design for an atomic bomb and enough highly enriched uranium for two devices, after Beijing decided to back Khan to jump-start Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. I remember being told about China’s nuclear generosity by an outraged British official in the 1980s. I later asked what Beijing had received in return. It was an enrichment plant.

The plant is at Hanzhong in central China. C-130 Hercules transports of the Pakistan air force made more than 100 flights to China carrying centrifuge equipment. Beijing needed the plant, not for bombs but to fuel its nuclear power plants. Centrifuge technology is good for both levels of enrichment, hence the current concern that Iran’s nascent plant at Natanz has a military purpose. China could not make the Pakistan-supplied centrifuges work properly, so replaced them with Russian centrifuges. What happened to the Pakistani centrifuges? A good question. They were not returned to Pakistan. Could they have ended up in Iran?

…Musharraf said Khan had shipped examples of centrifuges to North Korea. Correct, but with the connivance and at the instruction of the Pakistan military. [Times]

(linkthanks: the indefatigable Swami Iyer)

Command vs Cell

India’s new Integrated Space Cell

The good news is that the Indian government finally moved its feet on setting up a defence organisation for affairs in space. But there’s a distinct pusillanimity, lack of ambition, embarrassment or perhaps, bureaucratic consideration in what it decided to call the outfit. Instead of calling it an aerospace command that strategists have been advocating, the government has decided to call it an Integrated Space Cell (ISC). Setting up a Command would have given it a weighty profile—commands are headed by officers of the rank of Lieutenant-General or equivalent. A cell, on the other hand, can be commanded by anyone.

It is baffling that the report announcing the setting up of the ISC should mention that it has been so constituted to counter China’s plans for the militarisation of space. While China is an important consideration, it is by no means the only consideration. It may well be that the UPA government is attempting to counter criticism that it has been soft on China, but it was wholly unnecessary to exclusively cite it by name. Somebody messed up the messaging.

The unwarranted bravado in the messaging is met with an unwarranted downscaling of the new organisation. Setting up an outfit called a ‘cell’ suggests a tentative approach to a strategic issue. Unless the ISC is provided the resources, capabilities and bureaucratic heft, it is unlikely to be really effective. It remains to be seen whether the ISC is a command that is called a cell out of political correctness, or is, after all, a mere cell.

Related Link: Adityanjee’s article in Pragati on strategy and space.

Saying no to the USS Kitty Hawk

The irony of Gorshkov

The latest angle to the ups and downs of securing a second aircraft carrier for the Indian navy is the speculation that the United States intends to offer the USS Kitty Hawk, a 53-year old vessel that is up for decommissioning from the US Navy.

Image: Stratfor
The American offer is interesting for three reasons: first, it offers India greater bargaining power with Russia in the negotiations over the delivery of Admiral Gorshkov (INS Vikramaditya). Second, it offers the Indian navy capabilities to operate and train its personnel on an American platform. And third, it could improve India’s maritime power projection capabilities to a relatively greater extent.

The integration of this huge American ship into the Indian navy, however, is likely to pose its own set of problems. From the type of aircraft that can fly off it, to operational processes, to the logistics and docking arrangements, there are a whole range of operational issues that need to be addressed. And in addition to all the usual problems related to the purchase of second-hand equipment (the Kitty Hawk was commissioned in 1955), the possibility that the United States might insist upon an “end-user clause”, requiring US clearance before offensive operations seriously undermines the case for its purchase.

But the main reason to reject the American offer may lie elsewhere. The Kitty Hawk at a full displacement load of over 80,000 tons, it is three times larger than Viraat and almost twice as that of Gorshkov. It is also about a third longer than Viraat, but can carry seven times as many aircraft (70 against 12). There is no doubt that the Kitty Hawk is in itself an attractive alternative to Gorshkov or an addition to the fleet. The problem though, lies in the relevance of aircraft carriers in future naval combat. [See this interview with John Arquilla in MIT Technology Review]

China and Pakistan are investing in a submarine based fleet. Iran is investing in small, fast armed vessels. And they are also investing in anti-ship missiles. The latter are improving in range and capability, and are fairly accessible to even smaller states and non-state actors in the region. In naval conflicts of the future, aircraft carriers will need to increasingly stay away from hostile shores, limiting their effectiveness. The other way of looking at it is that the benefits of deploying an aircraft carrier—and the complement of frigates and destroyers that form part of the task force—will diminish over time, while costs will increase or stay the same. A bigger aircraft carrier may pack a bigger punch, but is also more vulnerable in itself, costlier to protect and will cause a greater strategic setback if damaged or destroyed. [Moreover, as India’s missile capabilities have come of age, they can increasingly replace carrier-based aircraft, just as they are replacing land-based ones]

The person who recognised this and developed a naval strategy that put a lot of weight in submarines was, ironically, Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union, Sergei Gorshkov. While India has bought a ship named after him, China and Pakistan have bought his logic.

This is not to say that the Indian navy doesn’t need aircraft carriers—it does. There are conceivable scenarios where aircraft carriers can be decisive, though not all of them involve actual combat. The point is that the role of carriers is diminishing in the 21st century naval battlefield, and hence smaller, perhaps, is better.

(Navy chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta) denied reports that the United States had offered to gift India its Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier, which is due for decommissioning. Even if the offer were made, India would not accept it, he said, because the ship was “too old, too big.” [The Hindu]

Related Link: Information Dissemination on ‘A strange solution for India’s Russia Problem’

Update: A version of this post appears on the South Asia Monitor, an online publication of the Contemporary Studies Society, New Delhi

Weekday Squib: Shooting in the air

The physics of celebratory gunfire

Those watching television news might have wondered: what happens to all those bullets they fire into the air when they are celebrating this or that?

The Grandpa’s physics looks robust: The bullet comes down, at a speed lower than that at which it left the gun, but still fast enough to kill.

And in one study conducted over a New Year’s day celebration in Puerto Rico, it turned out that most of those (36%) hit the head. The International Action Network on Small Arms has reports from across the world of people dying due to celebratory gunfire. UNDP Macedonia ran a campaign to encourage people to practice safe celebration.

UNDP Macedonia via IANSA

Before you ask…it’s unlikely that you can hit a satellite, even one in low-earth orbit (LEO). [With apologies to readers who are in change of ballistic missiles.]