India’s Agni-V ICBM to Carry Multiple Nuclear Warheads

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India’s Agni-V ICBM to Carry Multiple Nuclear Warheads

Delhi’s use of MIRV technology on its longest-range missile could destabilize the nuclear balance with China.

India is reconfiguring its longest-range missile to enable it to carry multiple nuclear warheads, Chennai-based The Hindu reported on Wednesday, citing a senior Indian official.

V.K. Saraswat, Director-General of the Defence Research and Development Organisation, told the newspaper that a team is modifying the Agni-V to give it the ability to carry Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs).

“Work on that is going on and it is at design stage,” Saraswat told The Hindu.

The Agni-V is a nuclear-capable three-stage, solid-fuel missile with an initial range of 5,000 kilometers that will likely be extended to over 5,5000 kms, making it an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). India first tested the Agni-V last April, and the launch was a success.

The test was widely celebrated among official India and the Indian press where some referred to as the “China killer” owing to the fact that missile puts in range all of China’s major cities for the first time. Saraswat himself called the missile a “game-changer.”

MIRVs enable ICBMs to carry multiple nuclear warheads on a single missile, and strike multiple targets or a single target with greater efficiency. After the last stage of the ICBM boosts off, a MIRVed ICBM will dispense the warheads to their separate or singular targets. Both the Soviet Union and the United States MIRVed their ICBM forces during the 1970s, which complicated arms control agreements moving forward.

It has long been suspected that India would at some point seek to modify the Agni-V and the Agni-III— an intermediate range ballistic missile which has the same build as the Agni-V— with MIRVs. This is primarily because China is believed to be in the process of testing MIRVed versions of its DF-31 ICBM and DF-41 road-mobile ICBM.

MIRVing ICBMs has the potential to destabilize a mutually assured destruction situation primarily because they could give nations greater confidence in being able to destroy an adversary’s hardened missile silo sites in a first strike by launching multiple, lower yield warheads at the sites. This fear, in turn, increases the strategic logic of offensive action as nations could come to believe that they have to be the first side to launch nuclear strikes or risk having a large portion of their nuclear forces wiped out by an adversary.

There were strong fears throughout the second half of the Cold War about the destabilizing effects of MIRVed missiles. As one source recounts:

“MIRVed land-based ICBMs were considered destabilizing because they tended to put a premium on striking first. MIRVs threatened to rapidly increase the U.S.'s deployable nuclear arsenal and thus the possibility that it would have enough bombs to destroy virtually all of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons and negate any significant retaliation. Later on the U.S. feared the Soviet's MIRVs because Soviet missiles had a greater throw-weight and could thus put more warheads on each missile than the U.S. could.” 

The smaller size of the Chinese and Indian nuclear and missile forces could enhance the destabilizing nature of introducing MIRV technology into the relationship. It should be noted, however, that both China and India have no-first use nuclear doctrines, which should theoretically reduce the danger and anxiety created by MIRVed nuclear forces. Additionally both India and China are in the process of acquiring Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) that, once reliable forces are operating, virtually ensure that some second strike capability would survive a first strike by the other side.

Still, at the very least the introduction of MIRVed technology into the Sino-Indo strategic balance could convince both sides that they need to significantly expand the size of their nuclear forces. This would inevitably complicate global efforts to reduce the size of nuclear arsenals. Indeed, Russia recently stated that it is no longer interested in bilateral nuclear arms reductions with the United States, and will only pursue arms control agreements on a multilateral basis.