25 April 2012:
Now that the slightly over-the-top celebrations of Agni-5's test have ceased, some harsh truths must be told. Agni-5 has a five-thousand-kilometre range and can carry a one-ton nuclear payload. For India's strategic requirements, that is not enough.
Without stating who India's enemies are, the country must have deterrent capacities to reach anywhere, anytime. Since India is also a self-proclaimed second-strike power, it becomes critical to have credible and secure deterrents, and our current inventory is unsatisfactory.
From available evidence, it appears that India will deploy boosted fission warheads on missiles like Agni-5. It confirms that the thermonuclear devise tested on the first day of Pokhran II failed.
The boosted fission trigger worked but couldn't ignite the paired fusion bomb. The Indian nuclear scientific establishment has its own explanation for the low yield of the thermonuclear device. It has never satisfied the world. You can take the attitude that it doesn't matter what the world thinks. In other walks of life, that may work. But not when it comes to deterrent weapons.
Deterrent weapons not only have to be repeatedly tested for perfection. But they must satisfy the rest of the world. Only from world satisfaction comes credibility for a weapon system. If a deterrent is not credible, it is not worth having, and positively dangerous to flaunt.
It is possible that India has built a viable thermonuclear device after the Pokhran II fizzle. But this or a future Indian government will have a hard time testing it, especially as it will have a bearing on the Indo-US nuclear deal and the uranium fuel and reactor contracts flowing from it.
Sooner or later, however, India has to overcome the obstacle and test -- and the sooner the better. The Agni-5 test has produced little protest from major powers, which means there is greater reconciliation to India's military nuclear status. That should give India the creative opportunity and space to test a thermonuclear weapon. To stress, the sooner it is done, the better.
Boosted fission warheads that Agni-5 and longer range missiles are expected to carry have the bang, so to speak. But thermonuclear devices have more bang for the buck. With far better yield-to-weight ratios than fission or boosted-fission devices, smaller and lighter fusion warheads would cause vast destruction at greater distances. Which is where, therefore, Indian weapons' designs and tests must head, if the country must be counted as a serious weapons' power.
Which in turn leads to the quality, Indianness and reach of our missiles. Of course it is not a matter to tom-tom that you have missiles that go to the top end of ICBMs, but there is robust deterrent logic to have them. The longer the range of missiles, the more deployment options you have, and at greater strategic depth.
For example, it cannot make sense to deploy deterrent weapons in Jammu and Kashmir or Assam where they are most vulnerable to a first-strike. The longer the missile range, the further inland it can be deployed.
But there are limits to the security of land-based deterrent systems. The Andamans may seem a long way away from the threats from the North and West, but weapons systems deployed there are vulnerable from sea and natural calamities.
A sea-based deterrent is more secure. But whilst it demands the most sophisticated, secure, fool-proof and fail-safe fire control, command and control and informational systems, its foremost requirement, after SSBNs, is long range missiles. And the longer the range of missiles, the more secure your deterrent.
Hence, whilst Agni-5 is a good starting point, India must place no ceiling on the missile range. If an Indian IRBM is acceptable to the world, why not an ICBM? And our need is for the longest range of ICBMs, so that we have secure deterrents deployed in any of the waters of the world. And with tested and perfected thermonuclear weapons, the world would accept the credibility and soundness of our deterrent. That is where India should be headed.
N.V.Subramanian is Editor, www.NewsInsight.net, and writes internationally on strategic affairs.