India conducted the first night test of its Agni III surface-to-surface ballistic missile off the coast of the state of Odisha on Saturday, December 1. The test used a missile selected randomly from the production set. The test, however, ended in an alleged failure, as one report suggested that the missile tumbled into the sea during stage separation.
The intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), pressed into service in 2011, services as a critical component of India’s nuclear deterrent. If the report, which quotes a highly placed source, is indeed true, then this is not only an acute concern for India’s Strategic Forces Command, but also sends mixed signals about India’s credible deterrent.
Development of the Agni III, a two-stage solid propellant missile, began as early as 2001 with the goal to build a highly mobile and survivable missile. Inducted into the Strategic Forces Command (SFC), the missile — designed and developed by the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) — is said to have a range between 3,000 and 5,000 kilometers, with the ability to carry warheads of up to two tons and possibly reach targets in China.
India’s official nuclear doctrine states that the country maintains a posture of credible minimum deterrence and no-first use (NFU), and will retaliate massively in response to a nuclear first strike. The important word to focus on here is credibility, a guaranteed assurance that India will respond to a nuclear attack. Such credibility is highly dependent on a country’s capabilities and force posture to assure an adversary of a retaliatory attack. For a country like India that maintains an NFU doctrine, its arsenal must remain functional and highly robust to signal a high degree of credibility to the adversary.
The failed night test of the Agni III, particularly at this stage in its service, raises doubts about the reliability and robustness of India’s deterrent. The Agni III is not only the main missile in India’s arsenal to operate in the intermediate range, but the K-4 submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM), a derivative of the Agni III, is deployed on the Arihant nuclear submarine. Hence, it is imperative that reliance of the missile is ensured. This failure might send a signal to Pakistan and China that India’s arsenal isn’t reliable, therefore emboldening them to push the envelope during a crisis as they might not fear Indian retaliation. Indeed, the adversary might even find it attractive to either use conventional weapons to escalate the crisis deliberately or strike first with nuclear weapons without fearing a massive Indian retaliation, as they might view India’s nuclear weapons to be less than fully potent or reliable.
One might argue that this test was a single failure and thus does not indicate a degradation in India’s nuclear capability. This argument is certainly merited. However, even a small failure might signal to the adversary that India’s arsenal isn’t highly reliable. Moreover, this must worry scientists at the DRDO, as the failure might be indicative of a major error in either the software package or design of the control electronics, making this a high-priority issue for the national security establishment.
The immediate concern for the DRDO and the Indian security establishment is to run a full examination of the cause of the failure. Taking a long-term view, it is certainly important for India to conduct extensive tests of its ballistic missiles, either in the labs or by conducting launches from time to time in order to ensure that these weapons remain fully functional and ready for operations when necessary.
Developing missiles is expensive. But it pays to have a robust arsenal even if it takes more time to press a weapon into service. Any hurry to press newer missiles into service without fully solving technical issues will lead to the degradation of robustness over time, undermining India’s deterrence capability.
India’s defense planners must make careful considerations about the technical reliability of new nuclear delivery systems such as the Agni V to make sure that they have a long shelf-life.
Asserting the credibility of India’s NFU essentially requires its nuclear arsenal to be functional, reliable, and robust. However, it also requires verbal assurances by leaders and high-ranking officials. One cannot talk about India’s nuclear posture without addressing the doubts about India’s no-first use created by Defense Minister Rajnath Singh earlier this year, and many others before. The question about why India must not abandon NFU has been addressed many times previously.
The latest Agni III test provides yet another reason why India must not abandon NFU. Threatening to use nuclear weapons first requires an even greater level of preparedness of the weapon systems, as well as the command and control infrastructure. These systems, deployed in urgency, might fail to function correctly when required. This is quite well known from the Cold War. NFU, therefore, is highly beneficial for India as it is relieved of maintaining complex systems that may be highly vulnerable to failure.
Pranav R. Satyanath is a Research Analyst at the Takshashila Institution. The views expressed here are entirely his own.