Artist's impression of the launch of a Agni V missile.
India’s Defence Research and Development Agency (DRDO) recently declared that it would be testing, for the first time, a 5000 km range Agni V missile by February 2012. It is construed to be a major leap in the country’s missile capability, over and above the 3000 km range Agni III missile that has already been accepted for induction into the armed forces, and Agni IV that has also been tested successfully. Together, these missiles are supposed to give a new meaning to India’s deterrence against China, since the new missiles, once operationally deployed, can reach distant but strategically important Chinese cities like Shanghai. But will the new feat in India’s armory dilute its ‘security dilemma’ against China?
For the record, the February trials of Agni V would be followed by a series of modifications and further trials. So it will take at least couple of years before the new missiles pass the entire test and are inducted and deployed in reasonable numbers in the Indian army. The 2014 deadline, as declared by the DRDO, seems to be a difficult target and may get delayed by a couple of years. Agni V apart, India is also lagging behind in developing the other components of the deterrence basket that it seeks to construct against China. These include, among others, a credible ballistic missile defence (BMD); the country has had limited success in intercepting incoming missiles with a range of 2000 km. DRDO’s claims notwithstanding, it will take many more years before India has similar deterrence for missiles that have a range up to 5000 km.
In designing the Agni V prototype against China, the Indian defence establishment realizes that all important cities and vital locations in China are either in the eastern or northern parts, far away from Indian soil, and thus would require accuracy and precision that would require iterated testing. This is a time consuming process. Further, the real challenge from China is near the LAC where the Chinese have gained strategic advantage over India in all aspects of military preparations. Missiles, whether of a short or long-range, would be of no use to India in deterring a Chinese pushover ‘near the LAC’. India would require effective air power capable of defending its interests in border areas. Unfortunately, this is an area where India lags far behind China.
While Agni I and II are Pakistan-specific, Agni III, IV and V are China-specific. And yet, the far-off regions of China would still be out of reach for Indian missiles. Perhaps that explains why these missiles are not able to engender confidence against China. Cost-effective deterrence against China demands that India work out on an advanced version of Agni V capable of striking at 6000 km that will bring most of China within its target range. If missile defence is going to be the core element of India’s deterrence capability against China, the political leadership must give the go-ahead to an Agni VI project aimed exclusively at China.
In this context, China stands as an example. China’s missile programme has been a key area of its military modernization and is ahead of India by at least a decade. Today, China has all range missiles capable of reaching global locations. While it has deployed a sizeable number of SRBMs off the Taiwan Strait, it has also deployed IRBMs against India that are located in Tibet and Xinjiang. These missiles can attack any target in India and are in operational deployment. In order to improve its regional deterrence against India, as the US Department of Defense Report on Chinese military power (2010) reveals, China has now replaced older liquid-fuelled, nuclear capable CSS-3 IRBMs with more advanced and survivable solid-fuelled CSS-5 MRBMs.
Missiles apart, China is also way ahead in other aspects of military modernization. In January this year, China confirmed its first test flight of the J-20 stealth fighter jet. Thus, China is making progress faster than expected in developing a rival to Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor, the world’s only operational stealth fighter designed to evade detection by enemy radar. This will be over and above its most advanced aircraft presently in service: the Russian Su-30 and Su-27 fighters. As for the navy, President Hu Jintao has already made its modernization a priority. The PLA navy is upgrading its destroyers and frigates to sail further and strike deeper. China could also launch its first aircraft carrier by next year.
The speed and scope of Chinese military modernization has been seen with concern in New Delhi as evident from annual reports of India’s Ministry of Defence in recent years. Yet, the pace and nature of Indian military modernization is painfully slow and the asymmetric gap with China has only been widening. The development, testing and deployment of Agni V are not going to reduce this strategic reality. India needs to provide more vigour, focus, and perhaps resources, to its military modernization programme in order to manage the security dilemma with China.