Bottomline | Seek and Hide

With drift and undue secrecy India’s strategic credibility remains in a limbo

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

Following our desire to have a close or at least a positive relationship with the US, we have allowed drift to set in as far as acquisition of necessary strategic capability is concerned. We pride on being a nuclear weapons state with an assured and credible second-strike capability. This implies that we have a minimum nuclear deterrence, which we insist is a flexible concept, and hence cannot be defined. Yet, deep within we know that our nuclear deterrence is not credible, which is why since 1998 when we did the nuclear tests, we have neither defined our minimum deterrence needs (that the US wants to know), nor have we done enough towards acquiring the essential strategic capabilities for fear of displeasing the US. Such a situation, which suited the political leadership, was possible because we do not have a Chief of Defence Staff. In his absence, there is no single official who can be held responsible for this dangerous pass.

A case in point is the indigenous Agni ballistic missile whose maiden test-firing was done on 22 May 1989. In the absence of a sea-based nuclear deterrence, we should have worked double-time after 1998 to test-fire and produce Agni missiles needed against both Pakistan and China, two countries which have border disputes with us. We did not do this and woke up only during Operation Parakram, when Pakistan sent a strong and unambiguous message in May and October 2002 by test-firing Ghauri and Ghaznavi missiles in the midst of the 10-month-long military stand-off. The message conveyed was that Pakistan had a credible delivery system to use nuclear weapons. Even as we downplayed Pakistan’s tests, we hastily swung into action to produce the single stage, solid propellant and 700km range Agni-I missile that is Pakistan-specific in terms of capabilities and had been tested on 25 January 2002. Today, four years later, we have successfully raised the first 335 rocket regiment with Agni-I missiles at Hyderabad. But what about the longer range Agni for China?

Having learnt no lesson from Operation Parakram, we do not seem to understand that capability and intention are two different issues. Even as our relations with China improve, we must ensure that we have the needed capability at hand well in time. According to the then defence minister, George Fernandes, the 3,000km range Agni-III was to be tested by the end of 2003. We still have not done this for two reasons: the US, with whom we have been engaged first in the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership and now the July 18 civilian nuclear agreement, would not approve of the missile test. And, we do not want to annoy China with whom we are striving to have a ‘strategic partnership’, whatever that means. The reality is that the Agni-III has been technically ready for test-firing since a long time. After having toyed with the idea of either adding external boosters, or a third stage to the rocket, the scientists have now produced an entirely new design: unlike Agni-II with a one-metre diameter, Agni-III has a two-meter diameter. It is common knowledge that unless Agni-III is not successfully test-fired, it cannot be a proven delivery system.

The story with cruise missiles is no different. We have jointly produced the BrahMos anti-ship missile that compares with the best in the world. Unfortunately, Pakistan has acquired the Babur Land Attack Cruise Missile with the advanced turbofan propulsion technology. On the one hand, we still do not have a comparable LACM that is an attractive option to both ballistic missiles and aircraft. On the other hand, while being dismissive about Pakistan’s acquisition, we are not doing enough to push BrahMos’ further development and production.

Just how apologetic we are about our necessary strategic needs can be gauged from yet another example. Even as India’s maritime doctrine spells out the importance of a sea-based deterrence, no one in the government is willing to even acknowledge that we actually have a programme called the Advanced Technology Vehicle, and that our scientists are working on a 1,500km range land attack cruise missile that could also be used with miniaturised nuclear warhead. Given the drift and undue secrecy that militates against credibility, it is not certain if our National Command Authority and the Strategic Forces Command are indeed well-tasked, equipped and rehearsed to meet any eventuality.

This is not all. We are even downplaying the urgent need for nuclear and missile Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) with Pakistan. We have recently signed an agreement on pre-notification of ballistic missiles tests, and it is reported that Pakistan has proposed to declare South Asia as an anti-ballistic missile zone. We should take the lead and seek the de-linking of ballistic and cruise missiles with Pakistan. While cruise missiles will be used in a conventional war, ballistic missiles should be employed best with nuclear weapons. Either battlefield ballistic missiles are not used at all in a conventional war, or both sides have firm assurances that the warhead will not be misread in the din of war. Ideally, the battlefield Prithvi missile with conventional warheads should be earmarked against China. After all, there is a need to match Chinese ballistic missiles in Tibet. Clearly, in the absence of the CDS, our policies for strategic weapons remain ad hoc, secretive and event-based. This certainly is not a mark of a rising power.


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