Last week India test-fired the nuclear-capable Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), Agni-V which reportedly covered a range of more than 5,000 kms. V.K. Saraswat, Scientific Adviser to the Indian Defence Minister, in a fit of elation declared: “Today, we have made history. We're a major missile power.” As usual, Indian media went ballistic beating its chest and crowing the success of its test, behaving like a hen that has laid an ordinary egg but cackles at the top of its voice as if it has laid an asteroid. Indian claim of the success being “overwhelming”, prompts a closer examination of the test and explore caveats if any.
India’s ballistic missile program is in large part a response to China’s capabilities and is administratively separate from the civilian space program but the Rumsfeld Commission had concluded that India used its commercial space launch program to develop the skills and infrastructure needed to support a ballistic missile program. India initiated its Integrated Guided Missile Development Program (IGMDP) in 1983 with the aim of achieving self-sufficiency in military missile production and development. The IGMDP comprises five core systems: the Agni (“Fire”) series of MRBMs, Prithvi (“Earth”) series of SRBMs, the Trishul (“Trident”) short range SAM, the Akash (“Sky”) medium range SAM, and the Nag (“Cobra”) anti-tank guided missile. These have had their fair share of failures and success. Ironically, in the 1990s, the United States applied pressure on India to slow its missile development programs. This was motivated by concerns about an India-China-Pakistan arms race and the potential for India to be a proliferator of missile technology. As a result, India shelved its Agni medium range missile program but in 1997 it restarted the Agni program articulating its threat perceptions quoting Sino-Pak cooperation. Apparently, the Chinese modernization program stimulated the development of the Agni-III intermediate range missile and now Agni-V, the longer range version of it.
To start with Indian “Defence R&D Organization (DRDO)—contemptuously referred to as “DODO” by many international defence websites, citing DRDO’s squandering of millions of dollars of a nation of starving populace on questionable projects like the Main Battle Tank (MBT) Arjun, being developed since 1974; the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas launched in 1983, which has become obsolete before it entered service and the ill-fated Akash, the Trishul’s older sister, which has not shot down a single target in conditions akin to a battlefield.
Even Chinese analysts raised doubts regarding the effectiveness of Agni-V. Their opinion is relevant, because Agni-V is being projected to be China-specific. Chinese official TV channel CCTV, while acknowledging the successful launch of the missile, commented that India’s missile program was riddled with problems. Chinese experts like Wu Xuelan, concluded that India does not possess a homemade high-precision guidance system for long range missiles to hit targets more than 5000 km away. New Delhi’s dependence on foreign technology continues unabated. Additionally, India would be encumbered by the 50 tonnes weight of the Agni-V, which would pose a serious problem of quick transportation of the system, since India lacks the infrastructure like suitable roads. Indian exuberance at the test is premature because it would take them several years to operationalize the missiles and induct them into their armed forces. India has become the largest importer of weapons and its expenditure would touch 50 billion USD in the next couple of years. In its mad obsession to compete with China perhaps at the nudging of the US, is definitely going to bleed India dry. It would be better off pursuing more fruitful paths of indigenous development to help its starving teeming millions rather than rekindling fires of arms race. On the other hand, US duplicity is exposed; it is opposing Tehran’s ambitions but approving Indian anti-China nuclear weapons’ development program.
n The writer is a political and defence analyst.