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India's Nuclear Deterrence Advancement: The Strategic Impact Of MIRV Technology – IMPRI Impact And Policy Research Institute

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India’s Nuclear Deterrence Advancement: The Strategic Impact of MIRV Technology

HARSH V. PANT, KARTIK BOMMAKANTI

As a China-specific missile, the successful test of the Agni-5 MIRV missile enables India to reach a milestone

The Agni-5 ballistic missile test dubbed the “Divyastra”, that was conducted by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), is strategically consequential. With a range of over 5,000 kilometres, the Agni-5 is the longest-range missile India has tested so far. But it is not simply its range but, equally, its potency which represents a watershed moment for India’s nuclear deterrent. The potency of India’s nuclear deterrent is enhanced because this variant is integrated with Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs).

Nuclear Advancement: A comparison with China

Though MIRV technology is not new, it is to India. The five designated nuclear weapons states — the United States, Russia, the People’s Republic of China, France and the United Kingdom — already possess MIRV capable projectiles which are integrated into their respective nuclear arsenals. India has joined a very select group of countries to develop an MIRV ballistic missile.

MIRV-tipped missiles are a necessity simply because they strike multiple targets simultaneously and help evade ballistic missiles defences. China is building ballistic missile defences such as the Hongqi (HQ-19) ground-based ballistic missile interceptors, which have been tested, but their capacity to intercept Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMS) such as the Agni-5 is still suspect. It is, nevertheless, progressing steadily.

The HQ-19s would eventually have the range to intercept the earlier variants of the Agni IRBM, especially when configured to carry only a single warhead. Ballistic missile defences paired to a growing Chinese nuclear arsenal would have significantly eroded India’s nuclear striking power as it would bequeath to China a strong damage limitation capability, especially if the Chinese were to carry out a nuclear first strike against India.

Now that India has integrated the Agni-5 with multiple warheads, greater balance has been restored in the Sino-Indian nuclear deterrent relationship. To be sure, more testing of the MIRV-capable Agni-5 will be required to render the Indian nuclear ballistic missile arsenal more credible as the end-user – the Indian armed services are unlikely to be satisfied with a single test.

Demanding requirements

Building MIRV-capable ballistic missiles is not easy. This is because it requires meeting some very demanding technical criteria, such as nuclear warhead miniaturisation, ensuring that the receptacle that carries the warhead or re-entry vehicle is of low weight or mass before its release from the Post Boost Vehicle (PBV), and also having the re-entry vehicles configured precisely to fit into the missile as well their separation from the PBV, which has to be manoeuvrable. Guidance and accuracy are a necessity as re-entry vehicles have to be spin stabilised during atmospheric re-entry.

A MIRV-based missile can only strike multiple targets that are within its ambit or geographic footprint. With the recent Agni-5 test, India has met these demanding technical requirements. In India’s case, this MIRV development is all the more significant and impressive because it has come against considerable odds stacked against the country’s missile and nuclear engineers.

  • First, inadequate nuclear testing by New Delhi compromised the extent to which it could miniaturise warheads and MIRV them to strike multiple targets.
  • Second, the lack of sufficient testing also undermined the extent to which the re-entry vehicles could be designed to carry the warheads. The DRDO and all its key associate agencies such as the Terminal Ballistics Research Laboratory (TBRL) responsible for integrating warheads with missiles and the Advanced Systems Limited (ASL) as this test of the Agni-5 visibly demonstrated, have overcome these challenges.

The opacity surrounding this MIRV missile is about the number of warheads it can carry, which in all likelihood would remain classified. Going by speculation, it is improbable that it can carry more than three warheads. Further, the yield of the nuclear warheads is likely to be limited due to the small number of atomic tests India has conducted. In addition, it is unclear whether the Agni-5 can carry decoys and chaff, especially during the boost and intermediate phase of the missile’s flight. Agni-5 will in all probability be launched from a road mobile platform.

Other projects ahead

Chinese missile defence interceptors will likely subject the Agni-5 to mid-course interception. Nevertheless, the Atomic Energy Commission of India, especially the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), which is directly responsible for core Research and Development (R&D) with respect to nuclear devices, have done a good job in designing sufficiently compact nuclear warheads for MIRV capability. This is a China-specific missile.

There could be more to come from the DRDO and AEC with India adding more punch to its nuclear arsenal when it tests a long-range Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM), which India’s nuclear ballistic missile submarines can launch. The Agni-5 with MIRV capability bolsters India’s nuclear capabilities vis-à-vis China. It puts China on notice — that India is preparing itself to counter the advances Beijing has made with its missile and missile defence programmes. With the successful test of the Agni-5 MIRV missile, India has crossed a key benchmark in its march to become a highly credible nuclear and missile power.

Harsh V. Pant is Vice-President for Studies at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

The article was first published in The Hindu as The MIRV leap that fires up India’s nuclear deterrence on March 19, 2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Vaishali Singh, a visiting researcher at IMPRI.

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