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OLD ISSUE
STRATEGIC ISSUES
Cooled Off-April 2006
India’s ballistic missile programme will be slowed further
By Pravin Sawhney
 
Even as the Bush administration will seek an early voluntary fissile material moratorium from India after the July 18 agreement is cleared by the US Congress, there will be increased US pressure to further check India’s indigenous ballistic missile programme, and command and control systems. It is another matter that the latter has moved rather fitfully since the early Nineties when India, after the demise of the Soviet Union, sought close relations with the US.

Case in point is India’s indigenous Agni-III ballistic missile. When asked about the test firing of Agni-III ballistic missile, the Defence Research and Development Organisation’s chief, M. Natarajan told FORCE (March 2006) that: “As far as the DRDO is concerned, we have everything ready that is required for the test and it is quite some time since we achieved this readiness. But when it will be fired, how it will be fired, and where it will be fired is a decision that has to be taken at a higher level.” He could not have been more explicit than this. The Agni-III missile, which is an entirely new design and must be validated by test-firing, has been ready since end-2003. According to sources, Agni-IV with a range of 3,500km was to have been test-fired by 2006, and the last in the series, the Agni-V, with a range of 5,000km has been planned for test-firing by 2008. Instead, all India has at present is the 335 Rocket Regiment in the artillery with Agni-I having a range of 700km.

The single-stage, solid propellant Agni-I was conceived and test-fired under unusual circumstances. During Operation Parakram, the 10-month long military stand-off between India and Pakistan, Islamabad test-fired a series of ballistic missiles including Ghauri and Shaheen to convey the message that they would be employed if the war started. Realising that India did not have a single cost-effective and easy to handle ballistic missile for delivery of nuclear weapons, the Cabinet Committee on National Security cleared the development of Agni-I in one quick sitting. The experience of the ongoing Agni series was used, and the first test-firing of Agni-I was done on 25 January 2002. (The US was informed well in advance and given the reason for the test-firing). With one more test, the Agni-I was cleared for production.

The Agni-II, that was test-fired earlier on 11 April 1999 and 17 January 2001 uses a two-stage solid-liquid propellant motor with a strap-down Inertial Navigation System (INS) and is designed to achieve a range of 2,000km carrying a 1,000kg payload. The DRDO said that Agni-II weapon system would be both road and rail mobile with a modular configuration. The then defence minister, Jaswant Singh, announced on 31 May 2001 that serial production of Agni-II had begun and it would enter service in 2002. To keep pace with the proposed production schedule, the army cleared the raising of the 334 Rocket Regiment with Agni-II Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM). Ironically, the production of Agni-II never started which is why the army had to first induct the shorter-range Agni-I missile. Five reasons are believed to be responsible for the delay in the Agni-II schedule. One, the DRDO is yet to make a modular construction resulting which the Agni-II has been decided to be rail-mobile only. The latter requires specific rolling stock for carriage that has not been financially cleared. Two, the army wants Agni-II to have a solid propellant rocket only. Three, doubts have been cast on the accuracy of Agni-II as it is well established that strap-down INS are not very accurate beyond 1,500km ranges. Four, the US has maintained constant pressure on India to go slow with the Agni-II programme as it could spur a ballistic missiles race in the region. And lastly, the government has been worried that induction of Agni-II may send wrong signals to China at a time when bilateral relations are on the mend. Unfortunately, the government does not differentiate between capability and intention; the former is benign and adds to deterrence needed to avoid a war. Moreover, no weapon system is country specific, and its exploitation depends on its proper employment. Therefore, with Agni-II remaining in cold storage, the fate of Agni-III that has been planned to be silo-based is equally uncertain.

The situation regarding the command and control of nuclear weapons is still evolving slowly lending credence to the presence of extraneous US pressure. For example, the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) was set up by the government order of 4 January 2003 ‘to manage and administer all strategic forces’. Certain modifications have already crept in. Consider the following: The training in nuclear weapons and servicing of delivery systems will be the responsibility of individual services. The SFC, in consultation with the Chiefs of Staff Committee and the National Security Advisor is both responsible for strategic target planning, and execution of orders for the release of weapons once the National Command Authority (NCA) gives orders for use of nuclear weapons. Here then are two mismatches. One, the Commander-in-Chief (SFC) neither commands nor controls nuclear assets (he does not command assets because the aircraft are not dedicated and the 335 Agni-I Rocket Regiment is still not fully operational), but is responsible for strategic target planning and orders for release of weapons. And two, in the absence of a Chief of Defence Staff, the NSA, who is a non-military man, is the sole key advisor to the NCA on employment of nuclear weapons. In short, the SFC is still building its infrastructure and has only aircraft as delivery assets. For this reason, the three C-in-Cs, SFC have all been air force officers who understand how to employ aircraft for strategic delivery should the need arise.

This is not all. India still does not have a National Command Post (NCP) where the entire NCA can be moved in case of hostilities. The NCP becomes more important for India as it has a no-first-use declaratory policy for nuclear weapons. The NCP would need to be spacious enough to accommodate the entire CCS, the NSA, the cabinet secretary, the COSC with the accompanying operational and intelligence directorates. There will also be the need for an alternate NCP. Moreover, the NCP would require secure, robust and reliable communications that can withstand a nuclear strike. It become obvious that India’s nuclear weaponisation is slow and ad hoc, and does not provide the necessary deterrence, leave alone China, even against Pakistan.
 
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