India is modernising and diversifying its nuclear forces against China and Pakistan. Parts of its efforts are focused on developing Multiple Independently-targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs) for its nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. The development of MIRV technology will enhance the Indian nuclear threat to both China and Pakistan.

With the MIRV warheads onboard, a single missile can strike multiple targets, unlike a single warhead on the same missile. MIRVs are also different from the Multiple Reentry Vehicle (MRV) technology, whereby two to three reentry vehicles strike on the same target to ensure the strike’s success if ballistic missile defences are deployed against it. However, MIRVs are technologically more complex to develop than single reentry vehicles or MRVs. MIRVs require smaller warheads on large missiles, accurate guidance systems for each warhead, and a complex reentry vehicle releasing system.

India has developed the Agni series of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. The series has missiles with ranges between 700km and 8000km. While the Agni-1 t0 3 are comparatively older, the 4 and 5 are newer in technology. The recently tested Agni-P also has advanced technologies as compared to the earlier versions. The Agni-V and Agni-P are most likely to be incorporated with the MIRV technology developed by Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).

Besides, there are several explanations behind MIRVing Agni-V. Firstly and most importantly, the missile will bring India into the league of select major powers who have developed and deployed MIRVed ballistic missiles. Secondly, China as a strategic threat to India will also be countered with this development. Other factors such as domestic technological imperative and reliance on Cold War borrowed strategic discourse also guide India’s MIRV development.

On the other hand, the Agni-P is a modern weapon system borrowing several new technologies like propulsion, guidance, and navigation from Agni-IV and Agni-V missiles. The missile was first tested on June 28 this year by the DRDO. The missile is developed to achieve more flexibility and an expanded range of targets. Powered by solid fuel and canisterisation give the missile a shorter time to deploy and launch. Agni-P is also lighter and smaller than the Agni-3, and there are rumours that it can be manoeuvred during the flight.

The 1000-2000km range of the Agni-P missile makes it Pakistan-specific as it can cover any target in Pakistan. Additionally, an intermediate or medium-range ballistic missile has less utility against China. Although there are no official words on Agni-P being MIRVed or not, a recent report has hinted that the MIRV technology was tested on the missile. MIRVing Agni-P along with Agni-V makes sense as to use it against Pakistan. A MIRVed Agni-V being a bigger missile with more range makes it less likely to be used against Pakistan if a Pakistan-specific missile can do the same job.

India will try to take out as many nuclear assets of Pakistan as it can in a preemptive strike using its MIRVs and then take down remaining with its BMDs. In the case of India and China, India’s development of both MIRVs and BMDs will neutralise the Chinese development of MIRVs and BMDs.

In addition to this, India has been developing its counterforce options against Pakistan. A MIRVed missile can prove to be a potent weapon under this strategy. A single MIRV-capable missile can destroy more than one target in Pakistan easily, given its geographical limitations. Therefore, it is highly likely that India will equip Agni-P or another missile with a similar range with MIRV technology to follow its counterforce temptations against Pakistan.

While the Agni-P is a new missile, the Agni-V has been in development for more than a decade. Reports about Agni-V being MIRV-capable started when the missile was in the development stage. There are accounts that India will conduct an operational test of a MIRVed Agni-V in October this year. A MIRVed Agni-V missile will have strategic implications for China. Currently, China faces a MIRVed threat from the US only. The development of India’s MIRVs will double the danger for Chinese strategic targets. Recently, India-China relations have deteriorated due to the armed clashes between them in 2020. In addition to this, the growing closeness of India with the US and other QUAD members also hints towards the strained future course of India-China relations.

Also, China is ahead of India in developing various strategic capabilities like submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), hypersonic weapons, MIRVs, and anti-satellite (ASAT) technology. India has conducted an ASAT test, and MIRVing Agni-V will be another step in India’s development of credible strategic technologies to mirror Chinese technological development and achieve a great power status.

Likewise, the development of MIRV technology will also be incorporated into the Indian SLBMs in the future. The land-based ballistic missiles are vulnerable to a preemptive strike; therefore, major powers have taken their strategic arsenal under the water. In India’s case, it is also developing the sea leg of its nuclear triad. The Arihant class of ballistic nuclear submarines is at the forefront of it. The first two submarines in the Arihant class are smaller than the two under-construction submarines. Submarines with more displacement capacity will be more suited to carry a large number of missiles and MIRVs. India has developed Sagarika and Shaurya or K-15 and K-4 SLBMs with the range of 700km and 3500km, respectively. The K-4 will likely be fitted with MIRVs in the future.   

MIRVs will have several implications for stability in South Asia. India’s MIRVs’ development will mean an increase in the nuclear warheads and a deviation from the minimum or credible minimum deterrence posture. In the India-Pakistan case, India is developing both MIRVs and Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD). In contrast, Pakistan is known to have only tested a MIRVed Ababeel ballistic missile. India’s MIRVs and BMDs underpin its ambitions of counterforce targeting options, especially against Pakistan. India will try to take out as many nuclear assets of Pakistan as it can in a preemptive strike using its MIRVs and then take down remaining with its BMDs. In the case of India and China, India’s development of both MIRVs and BMDs will neutralise the Chinese development of MIRVs and BMDs.

In a nutshell, the increased number of warheads, flexibility to strike more targets with one missile, and the temptation to neutralise more warheads within a single preemptive strike are few implications of MIRVs, which will only increase the instability in the region.

Samran Ali

Samran Ali is an Islamabad-based defense analyst. He writes on military capabilities, national security, and defense issues. He tweets at @Samranali6.

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