The Global Power Ambitions Behind the Indian Ballistic Missile Program

Indian ballistic missile program is growing in terms of both range and launch platforms. The Agni family of ballistic missiles has grown from short-range Agni-I to intercontinental-range Agni-V. Similarly, the launch platform flexibility has also increased from land-based Agni family to submarine-launched capability, the Sagarika and Shaurya. The increase in missiles’ coverage and diversity in terms of launch platforms are spearheading the Indian ambitions to become a global and hegemonic power.

India wants to achieve equal economic, political, and military status like the P-5 countries, including the United States (US), Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom (UK). In this regard, the primary Indian motive behind nuclear weapons development is to achieve prestige and influence in the world community. Similarly, the ability to deliver those weapons across the globe further strengthens the ambitions of becoming a global power.

Indian ballistic missile program dates back to the Integrated Guided Missile Development Program (IGMDP), starting in 1983 to develop guided missiles of different ranges. The most significant programs under the initiative include the surface-to-surface Prithvi missile system, surface-to-air Akash missile system, and the Agni technology demonstrator. The nuclear-capable Prithvi family has short-range missiles ranging from 150km to 350km. It is also the most-produced short-range missile class in India. It is developed as a tactical and battlefield weapon against neighbouring Pakistan and China. However, it plays a limited role in achieving India’s global power ambitions by giving it a technological base and know-how. However, the Agni family of ballistic missiles is the most developed and diverse in range than the Prithvi family of ballistic missiles. Agni and the K-series of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) play the most significant role in exerting India’s military influence and reach globally.

Though the Agni program started under the IGMDP but later was separated in 1989 to streamline the production of ballistic missiles of strategic importance. Furthermore, Agni is a series of land-based short to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). It has grown from the Agni-I to the Agni-V missile in the series. Entering into service in 2004, Agni-I has the range of 700-1200km, Agni-II with 2000-3500km, Agni-III with 3000-5000km, Agni-IV with 3500-4000km, and Agni-V with a range of 5000-8000km.

India is now developing the Agni-VI ICBM, with its range extending from 6000km to 10,000km. With Agni-VI, India will have a land-based ballistic missile with a worldwide reach, covering all essential capitals and places globally, a capability that only the P-5 countries and North Korea has.

It is not clear why India needs to have SLBMs with intercontinental ranges when its two primary adversaries are China and Pakistan, with whom it shares land borders. India already credibly holds all the targets in Pakistan and China at risk with its diverse land and air-launched weapons.

While the Agni-V and Agni-VI will be capable of hitting a wider range of targets around the world, the SLBMs like the K-4 (Shaurya) and K-15 (Sagarika) will truly be able to hit anywhere in the world. It will be possible due to the mobility of these SLBMs’ launch platforms, the nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), the INS Arihant and Arighat. The K-15 has a range of 700-750km, and the K-4 has a range of 3000-3500km. Reportedly, the K-5 and K-6 SLBMs with the ranges of 5000km and 6000km are also under development.  There is another Dhanush ship-based missile with a range of 250-400km. It is said to be the naval version of the liquid propellant based Prithvi missile.

Furthermore, the intercontinental-range missiles are also capable of reportedly carrying multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). In addition to the traditional ballistic missiles, India has also tested a hypersonic technology demonstrator twice in the past. The technology is still immature as only the US, Russia, and China are developing it.

Although SLBMs are more challenging to build and operate, yet they are also the most secure and mobile compared to the Transport Erector Launcher (TELs) based missiles. SLBMs are difficult to detect and track; therefore, they are more secure second-strike options. It is not clear why India needs to have SLBMs with intercontinental ranges when its two primary adversaries are China and Pakistan, with whom it shares land borders. India already credibly holds all the targets in Pakistan and China at risk with its diverse land and air-launched weapons. If we justify its SLBMs as a reliable second-strike option, even then, the intercontinental ranges of missiles that India is developing question the necessity of such weapons. The argument that China has them; hence India aims to balance Chinese capability, is also weak. Chinese intercontinental-range missiles are irrelevant when it comes to threatening India. Similarly, as mentioned earlier, Indian intercontinental-range missiles will also be unrelated to holding Chinese targets at risk. The answer to the question about the necessity of ICBMs, as discussed before, may primarily lie in the ambitious global power status.

While India is developing missiles with these ranges, it faces little or no opposition and resistance from the world community, especially the US and European Union countries. Indian missiles are already covering important European centres with the Agni-V and soon to be deployed K-4 SLBMs. The non-proliferation of ballistic missiles, among other weapons, is an essential agenda of the world community. However, it seems at ease with India developing such weapons. In fact, the US may have helped India in its intercontinental-range missiles through its enhanced space cooperation with the latter, which started during George W. Bush’s presidency. The US government has been warned of the same by the critics of US space cooperation with India. In addition, India has also been given the Missile Technology Export Control Regime (MTCR) membership which was established to limit the spread of ballistic missiles and other unmanned delivery platforms.

The fact of the matter is that the Indian ICBMs are as bad as North Korea’s, but India faces no opposition. Although the global powers may not feel threatened by these Indian weapons at the moment, such weapons do create a threat factor for the future. These missiles are generating a new global nuclear threat as they are adding to more weaponisation globally. They are only going to add to the international and regional insecurity, of which the global community should be mindful.

Samran Ali

Samran Ali is a Research Assistant at the Center for International Strategic Studies, Islamabad. He can be reached at @samranali6 on Twitter.

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