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India Striving to Enhance Nuclear Forces

Ian Williams

India is pushing to improve its nuclear counterstrike capabilities with a plan to finish development of its Agni-5 ballistic missile by 2015, according to Avinash Chander, India’s new head of defense research.

Chander, director-general of India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), told India’s Headlines Today on July 2 that he will reduce the time required to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike to “within minutes” by making the country’s ballistic missile forces “much more agile, fast reacting, and stable.” The DRDO is the main Indian government entity responsible for developing new, advanced military technologies.

Response time is the most critical factor for an effective nuclear second-strike capability, said Chander, who was appointed to his post in May. He previously served as the chief controller of the Agni ballistic missile program and is considered one of the main architects of the Agni-5.

The DRDO is preparing to conduct two more tests of the nuclear-capable Agni-5 this year, Chander said in a June 29 interview with The Times of India. The three-stage Agni-5 is solid fueled and can carry a 1,500-kilogram payload a distance of 5,000 kilometers, according to news reports. The Agni-5’s first and only test-flight, which took place in April 2012, was considered a success. (See ACT, May 2012.)

A range of 5,500 kilometers is generally considered the threshold between intermediate range and intercontinental ballistic missiles. A missile’s range can be extended by lightening its payload.

When asked in the June 29 interview about the feasibility of finishing the development of the Agni-5 within two years, Chander said that there is no longer a need to conduct a large number of trials because the DRDO now conducts “thousands” of flight tests through computer modeling and simulations. The actual flight tests, Chander said, “are just to validate what’s predicted in the simulations.”

Agni-5 Timeline Questioned

Tessy Thomas, the current head of the Agni-5 development program, echoed Chander’s comments at an engineering conference Aug. 2, saying that, after two or three more successful test-flights, the Agni-5 will be “ready for operational service by 2015.”

Deployment of the Agni-5 would give India the ability to strike targets almost anywhere in Chinese territory. India has an explicit no-first-use nuclear weapons policy, but will “respond with punitive retaliation” to a nuclear attack on Indian territory, according to its draft nuclear doctrine released in 1999. India’s two main strategic rivals, China and Pakistan, each have deployed ballistic missiles capable of reaching Indian territory.

Some analysts question whether the DRDO can finish development of the Agni-5 by 2015. Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said in an Aug. 2 e-mail to Arms Control Today that he thinks two years is “too optimistic,” citing the technical problems that “can and tend to pop up on the road to full operational status.” Kristensen pointed out that even after its first successful test launch in 1999, the Agni-2 ballistic missile underwent 14 more years of testing before it finally was classified as “deployed” by U.S. intelligence earlier this year.

The DRDO “has often overpromised and underperformed” on past projects, said Michael Krepon, director of the Stimson Center’s South Asia program, in a July 16 e-mail to Arms Control Today.

Monika Chansoria, senior fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi, said in an Aug. 21 e-mail to Arms Control Today that although she believes there will be an “operational version” of the Agni-5 in service by 2015, the missile will not be deployed in significant numbers until the end of that decade.

Chander said in the June 29 interview that India is developing more-flexible and more-resilient launch platforms for its ballistic missiles. One of the DRDO’s planned test flights for this year will involve firing the Agni-5 from a road-mobile launch truck, according to Chander. Road-mobile launchers are more agile and easily concealed than fixed-site or rail-mobile launch platforms, making them less vulnerable to a pre-emptive strike. Currently, India’s only deployed, solid-fueled, road-mobile ballistic missile is the single-stage Agni-1, with a range of 700 kilometers, according to a recent report from the U.S. National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC).

India successfully test-fired an Agni-2 ballistic missile from a road-mobile platform on Wheeler Island, according to an April 7 DRDO press release. However, the NASIC report said the solid-fueled Agni-2, which can carry a 1,000-kilogram payload a distance of 2,000 kilometers, is currently deployed only in rail-mobile mode.

In view of Asia’s “changing security environment,” it is “imperative that India makes advances in weapons and technology,” Rajeswari Rajagopalan, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, said in an Aug. 22 e-mail to Arms Control Today. Rajagopalan specifically cited Chinese ballistic missiles deployed near Tibet as a key motive for India’s ballistic missile ambitions.

Advancing SLBM Capability

India also has been progressing toward a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) capability. (See ACT, September 2012.) In January, India conducted its third successful test-firing of the nuclear capable K-15 SLBM from an underwater pontoon, according to a DRDO press release. Sometimes referred to as Sagarika or B05, the missile has a maximum range of 700 kilometers and can carry up to a 700-kilogram payload, according to a 2012 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. China, France, Russia, and the United States are the only other countries currently capable of producing SLBMs.

The K-15 is expected to be the main armament of the nuclear-powered INS Arihant, India’s first ballistic missile submarine. (See ACT, September 2009.) In development since the late 1980s, the Arihant’s nuclear propulsion reactor “achieved criticality” sometime in early August, according to an Aug. 10 press release from Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s office. The indigenously produced Arihant is now expected to undergo sea trials starting this year. In his statement, Singh described the success of the reactor as a “great stride” in India’s technological progress and said he looks forward to the submarine’s “early commissioning.”