The Agni-V – a Dragon's Response


Within 18 months of conducting its nuclear tests in May 1998, India’s National Security Advisory Board presented a draft nuclear doctrine to the government. This document premised India’s nuclear deterrence on the country’s ability to carry out punitive retaliation to inflict damage deemed unacceptable to an aggressor. Commitment to a “retaliation only” policy mandated the development of a capability consistent with five key factors – maximum credibility, survivability, effectiveness, safety and security.

In support of the first three requirements, India’s nuclear doctrine further stipulated that nuclear forces be based on a triad of aircraft, mobile land-based missiles and sea-based assetsof adequate ranges and reliability. Over the years, India has been steadily moving to develop and induct these capabilities – not as part of a race with anyone, but in pursuit of establishing credible nuclear deterrence.

It’s in this context that the testing of the Agni-V on April 19 was a small but critical step. The success of the test elicited widespread international comment.  Yet the actual decision to conduct the test should have come as no surprise to anyone, given that notice to this effect had been given well in advance. More such tests will follow, including of submarine launched missiles with increased ranges, until such time as India acquires what it perceives as a credible deterrence against nuclear threats.

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China constitutes one of these perceived threats, and the range of the Agni-V (which shouldn’t be considered an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) was tailored with Chinese targets in mind, targets that the destruction of which would constitute “unacceptable damage” and hence buttress deterrence. This reality is obviously not lost on Beijing as is evident from its response.  In fact, two strains of opinion in its overall response are clearly evident.  On the one hand, the semi-official Global Times claimed India was a “cooperative partner” and advised it to “cherish the hard won momentum of sound bilateral relations.”  In the same breath, though, India was also counseled not to harbor any “missile delusion” from what was described as a “dwarf missile” and not to “overestimate its strength” since “China’s nuclear power is stronger and more reliable.”

In addition, there was also evidently an attempt, especially in the writings of researchers from China’s PLA Academy of Military Sciences or the National Defense University, to incite worry among a wider audience in Europe since Beijing didn’t find Western powers condemnatory enough. This was attempted at two levels, starting by attributing more fire power to the Agni-V than India claimed. As one analyst wrote, Agni-V “actually has the potential to reach targets 8,000 kilometers away.” Second, the Chinese permanent representative to the U.N. Security Council invoked the threat of proliferation and called upon the international community to “enhance its coordination and cooperation” and “join hands to face the challenge.” Interestingly, he chose to ignore suggestions that the failed North Korean missile was fired from a Chinese origin launcher.

Both responses are telling about China’s mindset. The first reaction, as I noted, was dismissive of India’s test, reflecting a tendency among some officials not to acknowledge the capabilities of a “lesser” rival. Indeed, for many Chinese strategists, India is but a small blip on its nuclear radar. Agni-V has changed the size of the blip a bit, but Beijing is loath to give India much credit publicly.

The second response, namely inflating India’s capabilities, is a blatant attempt to encourage other nations to chastise India without China having to take the burden or responsibility for doing so itself. Beijing has often found it more prudent to incite other nations to fight its battles while maintaining an ambivalent stand itself. The role played by China in the Nuclear Suppliers Group when the exception of India was under consideration is a recent illustration of this behavior.

Regardless of how one interprets the Chinese response to Agni-V, it’s still evident that Beijing has taken notice of India’s nuclear capability. India has for its part been clear that the missile is meant to provide deterrence stability in a relationship that was heavily skewed in favor of the Chinese in the absence of a credible delivery vector capable of reaching targets whose destruction would constitute “unacceptable” damage in the eyes of China.

As India marches towards operational induction of these missiles over the next few years, mutual vulnerability of India and China will help stabilize nuclear deterrence. This doesn’t imply any requirement for India to seek nuclear parity or superiority with China, either in terms of nuclear warheads or missile numbers. All that is necessary is an adequate number of reliable (which means well tested) missiles of Agni-V class, including its sea based variants, that can credibly signal survival in a first strike and assured punitive retaliation.

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