The relentless pursuit of missiles before the first nuclear war

The relentless pursuit of missiles

Pravin Sawhney

The Agni series of ballistic missiles has matured with a few add-ons. However, since global technologies have moved strides ahead, the Agni-V no longer serves the original purpose of deterrence

India’s 5,000-km range Agni-V surface-to-surface ballistic missile is expected to be inducted into the Strategic Force Command soon. This is the latest version of the Agni series of ballistic missiles which was launched 34 years ago as Agni technology demonstrator in 1984. The then envisaged technology, with a few add-ons, has matured.

However, since global technologies have moved strides ahead, the Agni-V — contrary to claims made by the scientists — no longer serves the original purpose of deterrence. Especially for China against whom it would be fielded.  It has, thus, been reduced to an expensive showpiece.

Deterrence means that the adversary, in this case China, should be cautious if not scared of Agni-V. It should desist from military activism on the disputed border for fear of escalation which might go out of control culminating into a nuclear exchange.

Given this, it becomes evident that deterrence comes by creating strategic imbalance: By owning a weapon system which the adversary does not have and one which is capable of damaging the adversary’s core military strength, or which takes the war to a higher or new level for which the adversary is not prepared.

Two examples, one each from Pakistan and China, will help clarify the essence of deterrence. Subsequent to India’s 1998 nuclear tests, the United States, in order to prevent a subcontinental nuclear arms race, was keen that Pakistan should not follow suit; various inducements ranging from financial doles to F-16 aircraft to whatever else was up for discussion with Pakistan.

The Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was so stunned that he refused a meeting with the US interlocutors Strobe Talbott and Central Command chief, General Anthony Zinni. He simply did not know how to respond. At that point, the Pakistan Army Chief, General Jehangir Karamat met the US team; after listening to them patiently, he told them that Pakistan would do its own nuclear tests to restore the strategic balance.

Since India had demonstrated nuclear weapons capability, Pakistan would need to do the same, he added. General Karamat was proved right as within hours of India’s nuclear tests, the then deputy Prime Minister LK Advani boasted that Pakistan would now have to re-think on Kashmir.

Take China’s case. It cannot match the US in either conventional war-fighting platforms or in the range and variety of nuclear weapons. There is a huge gap in the finances that the two spend on developing technologies and annual defence allocations.

So, instead of attempting to match US capabilities aircraft carrier for aircraft carrier, China has focussed on developing asymmetric warfare capabilities (a) to hit and destroy US’ existing state-of-art weapon platforms, like the aircraft carrier and so on, and (b) by attempting to catch up, if not outdo the US in newer domains like cyber, space, electromagnetic spectrum and psychological warfare. By doing so, China has created deterrence through strategic imbalance vis-à-vis the US, a much more powerful adversary.

China has developed rockets as anti-satellite weapons; laser pulses to disrupt satellite communication; accurate land and sea-based anti-ship cruise missiles to hit carriers and ocean-going ships; a large number of conventional and nuclear attack submarines (accounting for 45 per cent of its naval combatants); excellent cyber warfare capabilities, largest numbers of armed unmanned aerial vehicles and so on. More than anything else, the race for Artificial Intelligence (AI) in warfare has broken out between China and the US.

On nuclear weapons, since China cannot match the US, it has declared a no-first-use policy. Making virtue out of necessity, China has said that it will not enter the nuclear arms race; it would only maintain limited stocks of nukes which are being upgraded and modernised. China, like other major powers, is aware that sooner rather than later AI weapons (which are useable) would take over the role of strategic deterrence from nuclear weapons once fully autonomous weapons are introduced into inventories. An interesting book titled, Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War,  by Paul Scharre provides insight into where the global AI is headed.

Chinese new deterrence has rattled the US. The US President Donald Trump has recently ordered the creation of a new Space Force; the sixth joint command for the US Armed Forces. This move would militarise the space but it might ensure that Chinese capabilities to disrupt and destroy US’ communications, which are the lifeline for their stand-off operations, remain mitigated.

Given all this, where does Agni-V fit into the warfare with China? Nowhere. For one, nothing more than a limited border war between India and China is envisaged. For another, given Chinese existing conventional capabilities, it has little need to even threaten a nuclear exchange. India, which like China, has a no-first-use policy, would ensure that Agni-V in not brought into the war discourse.

Pakistan’s case is different. It matches the Indian military at the decisive operational (war-fighting) level of war and it has an ambiguous nuclear weapons policy. While no military planner on either side envisages a nuclear exchange, India needs to retain land-based, in addition to the ultimate sea-based, deterrence against Pakistan. The Agni-I, with a range of 700 km, which covers Pakistan’s entire elongated geography, should suffice.

Thus, as far as the Agni series is concerned, except for the Agni-I, all other missiles, namely, Agni-II, Agni-III, Agni-IV, Agni-V, and even the obsolete liquid-fuelled Prithvi should be gradually eased out keeping pace with the induction of newer technologies. These comprise cruise missiles, sea-based deterrence, armed unmanned aerial vehicles, stand-off and precision weapons. Concurrently, research in space, cyber and AI weapons for the future should be redoubled.

This will not be easy for two reasons. One, there is an inherent tendency in the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to claim technologies they have not produced as indigenous. Two points will help make this point: The carbon-to-carbon composite heat shield in all ballistic missiles (used in Agni-V which re-enters the atmosphere from space at temperature of 4,000 degree centigrade to ensure

systems in payload remain safe), which is a critical technology, as well as the propulsion used in the Nirbhaya subsonic cruise missile are procured from a friendly country.

The other problem is the setting of unrealistic targets by the Defence Ministry. For example, the 2018 draft Defence Production Policy envisages India to become a leading world player in AI and autonomous weapon systems by 2025; seven years hence. This target seems to have been borrowed from China’s Vision-2025. Surely, the Government does not believe that we are in the same league.

(The writer is editor, FORCE newsmagazine)

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