India’s nuclear strike capability : Some questions by A Rahman in Dailystar Dacca 9/6/13.
In April 2012, India successfully tested a long range (5000 km ) ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and striking the Chinese cities of Beijing and Shanghai. The missile was launched from a small island off the coast of Orissa close to Bangladesh and to the Bay of Bengal. This year India has announced that it is likely to reconfigure this missile to carry multiple nuclear warheads. This will enable a single missile to target independently several targets.
By successfully demonstrating this intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) called Agni—V, Indian policy makers can no longer confine their argument that the country’s nuclear strike capability is there to meet limited strategic objectives. They must now be ready to argue the legitimacy of possessing an ICBM capable of causing havoc so far away from India. Indeed, Agni—V can now ‘punish China if she crosses (according to India) the red line’. The country is on the way to attain great power status. Only a handful of other countries in the world like the US, the UK, France, China, Russia and Israel possess such missiles that with a nuclear warhead can cause mass destruction at such a distance.
India began its quest to develop short, medium and long range missiles more than five decades back. In the fifties, India concentrated in building anti tank missiles which had only a 3 ton thrust. But due to organizational shortcomings of the Indian Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), the government agency set up to develop such weapons, as well as weak support from politicians, the project was terminated. The second phase was in the decade of the seventies. Two important projects were then taken up. The first project called Devil was started to ‘reverse engineer’ Soviet SA–2 surface –to-air (SAM) missile. The other was project Valiant to develop a 1500 km ballistic missile. But due to lack of engineering and scientific infrastructure the last project was abandoned.
In the eighties India seriously began its program of building a family of strategic and tactically guided missiles through an Integrated Guided Missile Development Program (IGMDP). Two types of short range missiles (Prithivi) and a medium range technology demonstrator (Agni) were produced. At the same time India started to also build a series of tactical missile systems. In mid nineties, the 150 km range Prithivi was built to strike Pakistan. It also fabricated Agni (with 1400 km)range with ‘re-entry vehicle’ technology to see whether in course of time it could build missiles to strike China. Thus Agni—II and Agni – III, and a supersonic cruise missile (BrahMos) with Russian collaboration, were built to do just that.
Indian defense scientists are also developing a new cruise missile system called Nirbhay (Fearless) which is a 1000km subsonic missile that can suitably be launched from various platforms. This missile is also able to avoid radar detection.
Another ballistic missile called Sagarika which can be launched from a submarine and is likely to be positioned in its nuclear powered submarine INS Arihant is being built.
The big question before India’s neighbours is, can she restrain herself from abusing her nuclear status when confronted with many of the intractable problems she has with each one them? Can India be trusted to behave responsibly while in possession of such powerful weapons of mass destruction? Are there any options available to the weaker neighbours?
India has never disclosed the size of her nuclear arsenal. But analysts estimate that she has 80 to 100 nuclear weapons. At the same time she has produced weapons – grade plutonium for 75 to 110 nuclear projectiles. India is not a signatory to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
But in 1999, she declared a nuclear ‘No –first-use’ policy based on ‘credible minimum deterrence’. She asserts that the policy she follows is ‘for retaliation only’. For this India has set up a joint staff ‘Strategic Nuclear Command’ which is the custodian of all of India’s nuclear assets including its missiles. This Command however takes direct orders from the Cabinet Committee on Security (CSS) which only can authorize a nuclear strike. The Cabinet Committee is obviously under the Prime Minister and so he has his finger directly on the nuclear button.
Curiously in 2010 India through its National Security Advisor signaled a change in its policy of ‘no-first-use policy’ to ‘no-first-use against non-nuclear weapons state’ policy. So a policy shift has discreetly taken place. It makes India’s claim to use her nuclear capability for deterrence questionable. In this context, deterrence seems to be a highly elastic concept.
But let it be clear that India’s nuclear strike capability though alarming to some of her neighbours is not as dizzying as that of China. According to analysts, Beijing has an arsenal of 240 or more nuclear warheads and it continues to add on to it. Its missiles have ranges between 2000km to 11000km.
If India and China are so far ahead can Pakistan be far behind? Far from it, Pakistan boasts of the ‘worlds fastest growing nuclear stockpile’ i.e.90-110 nuclear weapons. It uses ‘Chinese supplied’ missiles named the Ghaznavi, Shaheen and the Ghauri. It is now developing long range missiles and cruise missiles called the Babul and the Raad. The nuclear race among the countries in our region is therefore alarming and indeed regrettable.
But the key question now is, will the success of Agni — V act as a game changer? Would India for the time being stop developing more sophisticated missiles to deliver warheads to more distant capitals? Or Agni — V is a bridge to a yet more advanced arsenal? All this would depend on how India looks at China’s growing nuclear arsenal. If political and military importance of China grows in the coming years, it is likely that we may see a new round of a nuclear arms race in our region. But the recent declaration of reconfiguring Agni — V to carry multiple warheads partially answers our question
For small nations like Bangladesh in the Asia Pacific do we have any choice? We can only watch and despair.
The writer is a former Ambassador. E-Mail : firstname.lastname@example.org