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Strategic Shifts: India’s MIRV Milestone and Nuclear Policy Dynamics

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Strategic Shifts: India’s MIRV Milestone and Nuclear Policy Dynamics

Exploring the technical aspects and strategic implications of India’s MIRV breakthrough – and the impact on nuclear doctrine.

Strategic Shifts: India’s MIRV Milestone and Nuclear Policy Dynamics

In this Jan. 23, 2013, file photo, an Agni-V Missile passes through the Rajpath during the full dress rehearsal for the Republic Day Parade 2013, in New Delhi, India.

Credit: Indian Ministry of Defense

In a pivotal moment for India’s national security landscape, recent developments in the country’s missile program signaled a significant leap in technological prowess. The successful testing of Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV) technology on the Agni-V ballistic missile has not only bolstered India’s strategic capabilities but also raised questions about the potential impact on its nuclear doctrine. 

This article delves into the different dimensions of India’s MIRV advancements, exploring the technical aspects, strategic implications, and the interplay with India’s established nuclear doctrine.

Recent Developments in India’s Missile Program

India recently conducted a successful test of MIRV technology, using the Agni-V ballistic missile. While the Agni-V intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was chosen as the test platform for this technology due to its long range (over 5,000 kilometers), in the future MIRVs can be installed on India’s other ballistic missiles as well. Eligible candidates include the surface-launched Agni missile series and the submarine-launched K15 Sagarika and K4 missiles. 

As per a former Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) scientist, the MIRV tested by India can carry three to four warheads inside the nose-cone of the missile. While the MIRV test would have been carried out with dummy warheads, India is now in a position to store and/or deploy ICBMs with multiple actual warheads.

Generally, any missile carries only a single warhead. MIRV technology enables a single missile to carry and launch multiple warheads over the target area. These multiple warheads can attack either a single target location or multiple target locations. This, in turn, reduces the number of missiles and launch facilities required for a given destruction level. With single-warhead missiles, one missile must be launched for each target. By contrast, with a MIRV warhead, a single ICBM can disperse multiple warheads on the target area.

The trade-off here is between weight and numbers – more warheads mean each individual warhead will have reduced weight. The smaller power of the warheads will have to be offset by increasing the accuracy of the system. Improved designs allow smaller warheads to achieve a given yield, while better electronics and guidance systems allow greater accuracy. 

ICBMs carrying these warheads travel at hypersonic speeds and can potentially dodge ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems that are deployed to counter incoming enemy missiles. A MIRV-equipped missile can also be used to deploy fake or dummy warheads to distract the enemy’s BMD systems. Thus, due to high velocity, low probability of detection and less time window to react, ballistic missiles, especially those equipped with MIRVs, are a very potent platform. 

The technology being quite complicated and costly, only few nations have been able to make it on their own. This elite group includes: the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and now India. Israel is suspected to possess or be in the process of developing MIRVs. 

This capability boost is significant for two reasons. First, India has developed these technologies indigenously, joining an exclusive club. Second, MIRV technology will have implications for India’s nuclear doctrine and the regional balance of power.

India’s Nuclear Doctrine and MIRV Advancement

India’s nuclear doctrine clearly states that:

  1. India will maintain a credible minimum deterrent.
  2. It will use nuclear weapons only in response to a nuclear first strike on Indian territory or Indian forces anywhere, and this retaliation will be massive; applicable in case of a biological or chemical attack.

Let’s analyze the recent development of MIRV technology in the context of this doctrine.

MIRV capabilities enhance the efficiency of a nuclear arsenal, since it allows the attacker to overwhelm any conceivable BMD system without increasing the size of the attacker’s own missile fleet. India’s successful test potentially strengthens India’s deterrent posture, and thus changes the strategic balance.

Previously, any increase in missile fleet by the enemy could be countered by a similar increase in BMD interceptors. With MIRVs, to counter a single incoming enemy missile, multiple interceptors would have to be built, meaning that it is much less expensive to increase offensive versus defensive capability. Thus the cost-exchange ratio is so heavily biased toward the attacker that the concept of mutually assured destruction would now have to be re-factored in India’s strategic planning.

While India maintains a NFU policy, MIRV technology introduces a nuanced dimension. The ability to deploy multiple warheads may provide more flexibility in responding to a nuclear attack, thus increasing the retaliatory nature of India’s nuclear strategy. Likewise, an adversary would have to rethink its decision of using a chemical and/or biological weapon to attack Indian forces and/or territory. 

Also, the breakthrough creates space for revisiting India’s nuclear doctrine and the very existence of the NFU policy. Previously on some occasions, Indian politicians have made statements regarding the same – at that time, however, the capability to support the rhetoric did not exist. Now it’s a reality. From a deterrence perspective, MIRVs can thus increase the urge of a nuclear first strike – a country may opt to attack its adversary by MIRVs equipped with nuclear warheads and obliterate the enemy totally. 

India’s current nuclear doctrine emphasizes massive retaliation in response to a nuclear first strike. MIRV technology aligns with this objective. If MIRVs strike a single location or area, complete destruction of the target is guaranteed. If it rains down on multiple targets at the same time or at different times, it can have a cascading effect on the enemy’s counter-attack capabilities. Moreover, MIRVs increase the threats to counter-force as well as counter-value targeting. 

India possessing the MIRV technology has certainly raised the bar, and Pakistan and China would now be compelled to improve their ballistic missile defenses. China is known to have MIRVs as well as a good BMD program. Pakistan has also claimed to possess MIRV technology; however, whether Pakistan has a well-developed BMD program is not yet known well in the public domain. 

Installing MIRVs on Indian ballistic missiles will also require more nuclear warheads to be produced. Since jet aircrafts cannot carry a ballistic missile, naturally these would be installed either on surface-launched or submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Open source data says that Pakistan and China have more nuclear warheads than India. Thus, India will have to develop more warheads to realize the full potential of the MIRV tech it has developed. 

On the flip side, in an actual war scenario, finding out and eliminating Indian missiles equipped with MIRVs would be a high priority task for India’s enemies.

Command and Control Issues

The civilian political leadership, through the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA), retains exclusive authorization for nuclear weapon use. The successful MIRV test may prompt a reassessment of the NCA’s decision-making processes and the role of technological advancements in shaping those decisions. The fact that the prime minister himself chose to inform the nation about this test highlights its significance for the national strategic community.

But this test has once again brought to fore a point previously highlighted by some scholars regarding the command and control of India’s nuclear assets: How will the command chain be impacted when India has fully deployed submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs)? SLBMs cannot be put inside the submarine in a de-mated form; they will be there always in a ready-to-fire posture. 

In a worst case scenario, would the government delegate some authority to the submarine crew to make their own decisions, or would they stick to the officially stated doctrine? How would the command and control chain function when a single missile inside the submarine will have multiple nuclear warheads? 

That is something the Indian leadership now needs to think about. This new development will have to be factored into any future amendment that happens in the Indian nuclear doctrine, whether publicly announced, or otherwise.


In conclusion, India’s successful testing of MIRV technology not only signifies a remarkable technological feat but also introduces complexities that demand careful consideration within the context of its existing nuclear doctrine. The integration of MIRV capabilities into India’s missile program enhances its strategic flexibility, providing new dimensions to its deterrent posture. 

While affirming its commitment to global disarmament, India must navigate the delicate balance between technological advancements, regional power dynamics, and international perceptions. As the nation stands at the forefront of MIRV-capable nations, the road ahead calls for strategic foresight, diplomatic acumen, and a steadfast commitment to maintaining a stable and secure global order.