NOT A SABRE FOR RATTLING
Two important developments, within this eventful month, have served to significantly alter India’s strategic profile in the region: the commissioning of the nuclear-propelled attack submarine, INS Chakra, and the successful test-firing of the 5,000-km-range ballistic missile Agni V. Since both convey strong messages in the context of China’s hegemonic intent, they have the potential to be regional “game-changers”; the former by altering the maritime balance of power in the Indian Ocean, and the latter by providing a much-needed boost to the credibility of India’s 14-year-old nuclear deterrence.
The long-awaited launch of Agni V has led to justifiable jubilation amongst DRDO scientists and aroused a degree of jingoistic pride among the citizenry. The purists, who are quibbling over whether this range entitles the weapon to be dubbed an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) or merely an intermediate-range missile, should note that the distance from Jorhat in Assam to Khabarovsk, in the Russian far east, right across China, is just about 4,200 km. However, those dancing on the streets must also bear in mind that for India, committed as it is to “no first use”, Agni V is neither a weapon of war nor a sabre for rattling. It will become a vital component of India’s nuclear deterrent, whose sole purpose is the prevention of nuclear war.
At the same time, the diehard pacifists in our midst would do well to recall the ancient Athenian wisdom that, in a realist world, “The strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.” Even short of war, there is much that India needs to guard against — coercion, compellence, arm-twisting and blackmail — in order to retain its strategic autonomy. Given that our current geo-political environment is fraught with hazards, Agni V should bring reassurance to our security planners.
As we undertake a realistic assessment of the impact of this weapon-system on our security, it is important to strike a balance between hyper-scepticism, of which enough will be forthcoming from foreign detractors, and delusionary self-congratulation that Indians are prone to indulge in. In the strategic arena, it is important to keep one’s feet firmly on the ground because others, especially potential adversaries, will be undertaking detailed and painstaking appraisals of our newfound capability on their own.
While it was heartening to hear the DRDO chief V.K. Saraswat declaring Agni V to be 80 per cent indigenous, one hopes that the remaining 20 per cent, which comes from external sources, does not pertain to vital technologies such as the solid-propellant rocket motor or the high-precision guidance system. The effectiveness of this missile as a weapon of deterrence will be a function of its accuracy and the explosive yield of its nuclear warhead. Since boosted-fission nuclear warheads are India’s preferred choice, their limited yield of 200-300 kilotonnes demands much higher navigational accuracies so that detonation takes place close enough to the intended target to inflict “unacceptable” damage. This would require the missile to impact within a few tens of metres after traversing 5,000 km. Given their past record, Indian scientists are perfectly capable of mastering these technologies, but should there be any gaps, they need to be bridged at the earliest.
India’s security planners have, so far, downplayed the significance of numbers as far as nuclear warheads and their missile carriers are concerned, and remained vaguely coy while defining a “minimum” deterrent. However, numbers assume critical significance for a “no-first-use” power such as India because it has to risk losing a major part of its arsenal to a first strike, before retaliating with its residual weapons. India’s tardy decision-making and slow production rates have resulted in even Pakistan overtaking us in terms of number of warheads and variety of carrier missiles. It is important that as soon as Agni V completes its test programme, sufficient resources are dedicated to its serial production in sufficient numbers.
In a related context, even the mobility of a containerised truck or rail-mounted Agni V may not provide it immunity from an adversary first strike because very little remains hidden from aero-space surveillance nowadays. It is, therefore, essential that the technological gains of this programme be used to produce a new class of missiles capable of underwater launch from nuclear submarines like the Arihant, or her sisters in the offing. Only then will India’s nuclear deterrent become truly invulnerable and credible.
In the midst of all this excitement, it is important not to lose sight of the overarching strategic vision which must underpin these undertakings and where we seem to be lacking considerably. In the paradigm that India has chosen to follow, the scientific lobby enjoys exclusive and unfettered access to the apex political authority, whereas the users of their end-product (the armed forces) have no say. Not only has the PM been deprived of strategic advice from the end-user of weapon systems, but time and cost overruns as well as performance deficits in our strategic programmes go unchecked.
Now that India aspires to be a major power, it is essential that we create institutions which will not only help us take major decisions regarding strategic technological programmes, such as anti-ballistic missile defence or space warfare, in a rational manner but also subject them to close oversight.
(The writer is a retired chief of naval staff and the former chairman of the National Maritime Foundation. This article first appeared in the Indian Express on April 23.)