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  Nuclear realities

Nuclear realities

Published : Oct 1, 2013, 9:45 am IST
Updated : Oct 1, 2013, 9:45 am IST

The significance of the second test on September 15, 2013, of India’s improved Agni-V intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) from Wheeler Island test range, off the coast of Orissa, has to be per

The significance of the second test on September 15, 2013, of India’s improved Agni-V intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) from Wheeler Island test range, off the coast of Orissa, has to be perceived against the background of intensifying Sino-Indian rivalry, which came to a head most recently in the Chinese intrusions and ensuing face-off at Raki Nala in Ladakh. With a reported range of 5,500 kms, Agni-V will possess adequate strike distance to target value targets on the Chinese mainland from launch sites based in the centre of the Indian landmass, a payload of strategic deterrence which will provide some quantum of comfort to Indian planners within the doctrine of second strike mode mandated by national policy. When fully in operational service, complete with ancillaries and support systems, Agni-V will be the credible “threat-in-being” component in India’s nuclear triad which was not available earlier. India’s nuclear doctrine has consciously adopted a “no first use” policy, which has been emphasised right from the inception of the country’s nuclear weapons programme, but the requisite nuclear triad remained shortlegged and incomplete in the absence of a viable land-based component. With Agni-V this deficiency can be considered to have been made up. There has been speculation about Surya, as a follow-on to Agni-V, a super missile in the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) category with a range of 10,000 kms and more. Given the country’s proven scientific and technological capabilities, India is quite capable of developing such a missile, though indigenous production, especially in the area of quality control, still seems to be somewhat of an Achilles’ heel, especially in government facilities in which large funds have been invested. However, the strategic decision-making infrastructure to match the country’s geopolitical ambitions still remains inadequate. Is the Agni-V adequate for the short/middle term future envisaged for the country Or does Surya still remain the next logical step India’s geographic neighbourhood and geopolitical environment, including the contiguous Indian Ocean Region, remains in an almost permanent state of semi-equilibrium, an uneasy, edgy environment through which run the critical lines of commerce and communications sustaining the world’s economy, particularly the supertanker traffic connecting the energy sources of West Asian and Gulf countries to the consumer and industrial economies of the rest of the world. Critical tanker traffic between the Gulf states and the rest of the world maintains the bulk of oil supply. The presence and intermittent transit of nuclear-propelled warships, both surface and submarine, under various flags through these waters has not helped matters because their armed status as possible nuclear weapons carriers has never been acknowledged or clarified. Though efforts have been made by littoral countries to declare the Indian Ocean as a nuclear-free “Zone of Peace”, these have not been particularly successful because the countries of the region do not possess the capability to enforce such decisions. India (at very long last) now possesses a missile capability long sought-after, and the scales between China and India are now more evenly balanced, even if only marginally so, because numbers and capabilities still tilt markedly towards China. However, in the first flush of euphoria, India and its public opinion must not lose sight of the fact that it is early days yet, and still a long haul before India owns a credible ICBM force. It is to India’s good fortune that its missile and nuclear establishments are amongst the more efficient of the country’s systems. The successful test of the Agni-V missile has naturally invoked a feeling of immense satisfaction and national pride, which will undoubtedly feed into the public environment building up prior to the general elections due in India in 2014. All estimates of the public mood (insofar it can ever be estimated) point to the likelihood of a very bitterly contested election. Political handlers and minders, as well as electoral officials and state administrations, will have their work cut out to prevent deterioration of the situation into crudely jingoistic rhetoric by ill-informed and often ill-educated political campaign workers as seen in Muzaffarnagar. Against these approaching political storm clouds, the success of Agni-V holds its own political significance, if it can be soberly projected as an encouraging step forward on a long road, with distances yet to be covered. The almost simultaneous successful launch near Goa on May 13 of the highly manoeuvrable Brahmos supersonic cruise missile, a result of Indian-Russian cooperation, did not attract as much attention. Brahmos, handy both as a “carrier-buster”, as also a land attack missile, is a completely different tool but for an interlinked job. Both Agni-V and Brahmos are technologically on par — the former a true strategic weapon, the latter a dual-purpose tactical weapons — and both are capable of carrying a variety of “end products”, nuclear as well as conventional. Mating Agni-V with a conventional warhead would obviously be laughable, but the same may not hold true in reverse. Brahmos is primarily designed as a conventional weapon, is nuclear capable, and requires a custom-designed nuclear warhead for its various configurations. It is hoped that this is in hand. Advanced weapons like Agni-II, Agni-V and now Brahmos, as also nuclear powered submarines of the Arihant class with matching payloads of nuclear capable, submarine launched missiles like the Dhanush K-15, are now realities in the weapons inventories of all three services. While public interest is focused on strategic weapons, not much interest is shown in the matching command and control structures for their employment. The Strategic Forces Command is not a fully matured system yet and periodically emerges for debate like a low lying rock during ebb tide, to disappear again below the high-water mark as the tide comes in. India is in the big boys club now, and must carry its own big stick.

The writer is a former Chief of Army Staff and a former member of Parliament