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New Delhi's New Missile: A Watershed for India's Nuclear Arsenal

Commentary, 20 April 2012
Global Security Issues, Central and South Asia
No Indian missile has been assigned as much political significance as the newly tested Agni-V. The ripening of India's second-strike capability will provide reassurance to India about the strategic balance, and indicate the direction of its nuclear forces.

No Indian missile has been assigned as much political significance as the newly tested Agni-V. The ripening of India's second-strike capability will provide reassurance to India about the strategic balance, and indicate the direction of its nuclear forces. 

By Frank O'Donnell and Shashank Joshi


20/04/12 - India's 5,000km-range Agni-V ballistic missile, first tested early Thursday morning off Wheeler Island on India's east coast, represents, in the words of its architects, 'a quantum leap in India's strategic capability'. The manner in which India now operationalises and builds on this platform will serve as an indicator of its intentions for how the country balances the twin demands of credibility and economy in its nuclear arsenal.

Over the decades, India has made gradual progress towards a diversified nuclear triad and mature command and control arrangements.[1] Based on sequential scientific advancements, and guided by a sense of the nuclear force as a numerically small yet critical aspect of India's great power aspirations and national security, its arsenal now approaches new benchmarks of lethality and range.

Maturing second-strike capability

The Agni-V missile is the first to put Beijing, Shanghai and other northern and eastern Chinese targets within India's nuclear reach. V.K. Saraswat, director of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) developing the missile, alluded to its prospective targeting at China in explaining its specific range, stating that 'the missile's range and lethality is based on the immediate objective of threat mitigation'.

The missile is also road- and rail-mobile, employs a solid propellant, and is configured to hold several Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV) warheads. These measures collectively enhance the 'penetrativity', potency, and survivability of the Indian deterrent - and therefore the robustness of its second-strike capability.

This will still take some time yet. As defence journalist Manoj Joshi observes, 'the launch has been decreed a success, well before the DRDO would have had the time to analyse the telemetry data that the test launch provided'. It will take years, and more tests, before the missile is inducted. Nonetheless, its development reflects a process of technological and diplomatic transformation.

The Agni-V emerged from the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme, originally launched in 1983 to coordinate Indian indigenous missile development. Previous missiles in the programme have included the Agni-III, with a reach of over 3,500km, and the Agni-II (2,300km) and Agni-I (800km). The Agni-V is classified as an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM), usually understood to have ranges between 3,500km and 5,500km. The Agni-V may also be classified as an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) according to some definitions.

Diplomatically, too, the Agni-V is a symbol of India's changed place in the world. In 1994, the United States pressured India to suspend testing of the Agni series after just three test flights. India formally suspended the programme at the end of 1996, although it deployed other short-rage ballistic missiles near the Pakistani border in early 1997, and resumed testing that same year. The muted American response to the test of the Agni-V, despite Washington's concern over the missile programmes of Iran and North Korea, is indicative of the rapid improvement in the US-India bilateral relationship over the past fifteen years.

India's nuclear doctrine

One important question is whether the missile heralds a new plateau in India's nuclear ambitions, or merely serves a bridge to a yet-more advanced arsenal.

Following its 1998 nuclear test series, India sought to assuage international fears by convening a panel of civil servants, defence scholars and journalists, chaired by K. Subrahmanyam, a former civil servant and India's preeminent strategic thinkers, to formulate a draft nuclear doctrine.  

The resulting doctrine envisioned an Indian nuclear force defined by principles of 'no-first-use' and 'credible minimum deterrence'. Although this intended as a small, defensive Indian nuclear force, its size was to be conditioned on its ability to deter adversaries.

India's Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) then issued an official nuclear doctrine in 2003. This tightened up the language of the 1999 doctrine, while outlining the establishment of a Nuclear Command Authority to create a clear chain of command.

Since that doctrinal statement, however, the Indian government has said little about what it sees as necessary to attain credibility, whether in terms of numbers or weapons systems. This recent period coincides with India's most impressive advancements in the history of its nuclear force, culminating in the Agni-V and the sea trials this year of its first indigenous nuclear-armed submarine, the Arihant. In the absence of a new doctrinal direction, the future of the Agni-V will shed some light on India's nuclear intentions.

In the years since 2003, it became apparent that credible minimum deterrence would be interpreted so as to require Indian planners to 'take into account the arsenal size and posture of both of India's nuclear neighbours', and that 'India [had] nuclear weapons requirements beyond those needed simply to destroy a minimum number of Pakistani or Chinese cities'.[2] In other words, the balance between the 'credible' and 'minimum' parts of the nuclear doctrine remained in flux.

The China factor

The two most prominent strategic concerns were  Pakistan's arsenal, estimated at 90-110 warheads, and China's of 170 warheads, the latter bolstered by an ICBM of over 11,000km range. The missile balance with respect to China was seen as particularly adverse. One estimate from 2009 judged that China deployed a 'total of 66 ballistic missiles, based in Kunming in Yunnan, and Xining in Qinghai, apparently target India (among other countries)'.[3] These include the 1,800km DF-21, 2,800km DF-3A, and 4,750km DF-4.

As Ashley Tellis noted some years ago, 'the current Chinese [nuclear] modernization effort merely represents a continuation of the latent threat that India has lived with since 1964', the year when China obtained nuclear weapons.[4] The test of the Agni-V is the culmination of many years of cumulative research and development, and is not directly related to the immediate state of the Sino-Indian relationship.

However, that relationship has been especially turbulent in recent years. The Indian media regularly reports alleged Chinese incursions into the Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh border areas, after the border dispute flared up after 2005. New Delhi also worries about a deepening Chinese presence around its land periphery and in the Indian Ocean, as well as Beijing's continued support to Pakistan's nuclear programme and military.

Consequently, the Agni-V has been ascribed a political status and symbolism to a greater extent than prior missiles. Even as operational questions - such as the balance of airpower with China, and Indian military readiness - remain worryingly open, the ripening of India's second-strike capability will provide a certain degree of reassurance to India about the strategic balance.

Plateau or bridge?

An Agni-V deployed in modest numbers, and accompanied by political signals that the system's development represents the maturity of India's nuclear forces, would most closely accord with the initial spirit of credible minimum deterrence.

By contrast, if the Agni-V is seen as a 'bridge' to a much more diverse and sizeable Indian arsenal, and its production and deployment eventually takes place in large numbers, this could herald a strengthening of the more assertive strand in Indian nuclear thinking.

This is not about India adopting a nuclear posture of counterforce and embracing nuclear war-fighting. Rather, this is about a longstanding debate, pioneered in the United States, between the view that 'deterrence can be achieved only through difficult choices, sustained with intelligent effort, and will depend very much on the technical details' and the opposing view 'that, beyond a certain point, all of this is crazy talk, and the technical details don't matter very much at all'.[5]

India's approach to nuclear weapons is, and is likely to remain, closer to the second of these - but that is not to say that the 'technical details' of nuclear deterrence will not assume greater prominence in India's security policy.

Michael Krepon wrote last November that 'Pakistan and India are entering a less stable phase of offsetting, growing, and more diversified nuclear capabilities, one that is complicated by China's strategic modernization programs'.[6] This should not be taken, as it is in some superficial accounts, to imply an arms race. Arms races entail a mutually reinforcing and open-ended arms build-up. Nor does it mean that India's nuclear force is growing as fast as Pakistan's (it is not).

But India lacks a national security strategy or a nuclear posture review. As a result, it is difficult to assess the likely contours of India's arsenal over the longer-term. As India's former army chief General K. Sundarji once observed, 'in war-fighting, whether conventional or nuclear, whilst calculating relative strengths, more is always better. But for deterrence, more is not better if less is adequate'.[7]

Frank O'Donnell is a doctoral candidate in the Department of War Studies at King's College London.

Shashank Joshi is a Research Fellow at RUSI and a doctoral candidate at Harvard University



[1] Rajesh M Basrur, Minimum Deterrence and India's Nuclear Security, Studies in Asian Security (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2006).

[2] Scott Douglas Sagan, 'The Evolution of Pakistani and Indian Nuclear Doctrine,' in Inside Nuclear South Asia, Edited by Scott Douglas Sagan (Stanford, Calif: Stanford Security Studies, 2009), p.247.

[3] Sankhya Krishnan, India's Security Dilemma Vis-aÌ-vis China: A Case of Optimum or Sub-Optimum Restraint?, RCSS Policy Studies (Colombo, Sri Lanka: Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, 2009), p.52.

[4] Ashley J Tellis, India's Emerging Nuclear Posture: Between Recessed Deterrent and Ready Arsenal (Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 2001), p.70.

[5] Jeffrey G. Lewis, Minimum Deterrence, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July 2008,

[6] Michael Krepon, The Arms Crawl that Wasn't, Arms Control Wonk, 7 November 2011,

[7] K. Sundarji, quoted in K. Sundarji and India's Bomb, Arms Control Wonk, 19 June 2009,

*Photo courtesy of the Indian Ministry of Defence


Shashank Joshi
Senior Research Fellow

Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow at RUSI. He specialises in international security in South Asia and the Middle East, with a... read more

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