The Shield of India

INS Arihant
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What the country needs is a seaborne nuclear missile

INDIA CARRIED OUT a successful test of Agni V, a missile with a range of 5,500-5,800 km, on January 18th, from an island off the coast of Odisha. This was the fourth test of the missile that can reach any target in India’s extended neighbourhood.

Technically, Agni V cannot be called an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) and is more appropriately labelled an extended Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM). These are not mere tags, but important markers in the progress of India’s firepower reach. There is speculation that the test allows for the missile to be inducted by India’s Strategic Forces Command, the organisation tasked with the country’s extended defence. Hopefully, this shall strengthen India’s deterrence power.

There has, understandably, been exultation at the success, as the missile can reach any point in China, a major threat to India. But much more needs to be done before India achieves full deterrence vis-a-vis its northern neighbour. The hard work of ensuring this has just begun. The country needs sea-launch versions of missiles like Agni V—fitted on nuclear submarines—that permit a nuclear strike-back if its deterrent capability is to have teeth. That will take time. Reports earlier this month suggested that INS Arihant, the country’s indigenously built nuclear submarine, suffered damage due to human error some months ago and had to be kept docked in its base for an extended period. The country’s leadership was informed about this once the Doklam crisis broke out.

That shows the weaknesses of India’s current defence shield. Not only does the country need a fleet of nuclear submarines that are operationally deployable at any time, they also need to be equipped with nuclear warhead- tipped missiles such as Agni V for launch from remote locations anywhere on the high seas. Land-based missiles are much easier for a well-equipped enemy to detect and neutralise. It is time India paid attention to building SLBMs of sufficient range.

As India’s strategic horizon broadens, it is a good time to ask if it needs an ICBM—with a range of 5,500 km or more. There were plans to build Agni VI, a missile with much greater range, but nothing seems to have moved on that front. It will be a feather in India’s cap when it is able to effectively demonstrate a sea variant of an ICBM. That will be a moment to wait for.