“What's really strikes me about ACA is the potential to shape the next generation of leaders on arms control and nuclear policy. This is something I witnessed firsthand as someone who was introduced to the field through ACA.”
– Alicia Sanders-Zakre
June 2, 2022
Letter to the Editor

A Long Wait for an Indian ICBM

When discussing India’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capabilities (“U.S. Space Aid to India: On a Glide Path to ICBM Trouble?” Arms Control Today, March 2006), it should be noted that, in the near term, bureaucratic and technological obstacles would hinder India from fielding an ICBM. And, in the long term, bilateral and multilateral political initiatives can thwart India from building ICBMs.

First, historically, India’s missiles have been developed in a technologically inefficient manner. India’s defense enclave has taken 10 to 20 years to build missiles that could have been produced in a few years, and it often builds missiles that are not well suited for strategic missions. For example, India launched its first satellite-carrying rocket in 1979. India’s defense scientists could have used the nine-ton solid- fuel booster from this rocket to build missiles by 1980-81, but they took years to develop and flight test Agni-1 and Agni-2 missiles from this booster. India launched an Agni technology demonstrator missile in 1989. It tested the militarily useful 700-kilometer-range single- stage Agni-1 in 2002. Earlier, in 1999, it launched a 2,000-kilometer-range two-stage Agni-2, whose strategic utility is questionable: its range far exceeds that needed to strike Pakistan, and it falls short of China’s major cities.

To take another example, the Agni-3 missile that has a range of approximately 3,000 kilometers is designed to reach China’s heartland. Indian scientists had designed a 3,000-5,000-kilometer-range missile with a 35-40-ton solid-fuel first stage and a 1.8-meter diameter in the early 1980s. Yet, Agni-3 development only began in the late 1990s, more than a decade after the missile was initially conceptualized, and the missile was only ready for flight tests this year. Overall, because of continued bureaucratic and organizational inefficiencies and funding constraints, India’s ICBM efforts are likely to proceed as slowly and technologically haphazardly as its prior missile endeavors.

Second, it is important to clarify how India may build an ICBM. One way is to use solid- and liquid-fuel technology from India’s heavier space rockets. The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) uses a 130-ton solid-fuel engine and a 37-ton liquid-fuel engine. The geostationary satellite launch vehicle uses one 130- ton booster, five 37-40-ton systems, and one Russian-supplied 12-ton cryogenic engine. An Indian ICBM could use several liquid-fuel engines, but such a missile may take too long to refuel and is therefore not appropriate for quick-launch military operations. Alternatively, it could use the 130-ton solid-fuel engine, but such a missile could be too heavy for road-mobile launchers. Thus, if Indian defense scientists build an ICBM from PSLV technology, this would not be a very capable missile, and if Indian scientists build an entirely new engine, that is, different from that used in the Agni-3 or the PSLV, for a more capable ICBM, this would take years to develop.

Third, on political grounds, New Delhi’s decision-makers have few reasons to seek ICBMs versus the United States. U.S.-Indian ties are likely to remain stable; bilateral relations have improved under both Democratic and Republican administrations in Washington and left-centrist and right-leaning governments in New Delhi.

Finally, the best political measures to prevent an Indian ICBM are a bilateral U.S.-Indian understanding against such a missile or a global ban against testing new missiles. The latter agreement, first suggested in international disarmament negotiations in the late 1950s, could prevent not just India but also all other emerging missile powers from building ICBMs.


Dinshaw Mistry is an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati and author of Containing Missile Proliferation (2005).