Guest Column | Credible Threat

The recently conducted canister launched test on Agni-V strengthens nuclear deterrence

Debalina GhoshalDebalina Ghoshal

Operational readiness is one of the key requirements in strengthening nuclear deterrence. India’s posture ‘credible minimum deterrence’ is only strengthened when nuclear delivery systems can pose a credible threat to their adversaries.

Not only is it crucial to develop sophisticated delivery systems, but also crucial to ensure that these weapon systems are able to meet their expectations in times of crisis. Frequent trials ensure that the weapon system is ready to be inducted into the forces. They also help a country understand where the weapon system lacks technologically so that should there be a need for improvisation, it can be taken heed of. While indigenously developed weapon systems undergo improvisation, those that need to be procured from foreign countries could be reconsidered. The aim to conduct such tests is to ensure that the weapon system is credible enough to strengthen deterrence.

Within six months, the Agni-V underwent two tests – both successful. The Agni-V is a 5,000km intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) that can reach targets in China. However, the missile is reported to be traversing in depressed trajectory and it has been assumed that the real range of the missile is greater than 5,000km. The missile was first tested in 2012 and then in 2013 — both the times in open configuration. However, the rest of the tests have been conducted with the help of canisters as there is an effort to make them canister launched in order to increase their survivability by enabling them to dodge enemy radars and spy satellites while also increasing the agility of these missile systems.

The US Standard missile as also the Tomahawk cruise missiles are some examples of canister launched missiles. In fact, in 1996, the US Navy worked on Concentric Canister Launcher (CCL) to provide a universal launch system that could launch both offensive and defensive missile systems like the Tomahawk cruise missiles, and the SM-2 Block IV and the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM). Chinese DF-31, an ICBM, is also a canister launched mobile missile system. Similarly, India’s Agni-V is not the only canister launched missile system, the BRAHMOS cruise missile is also canister launched.

Testing the missile system in both open configurations and as well as canister launched versions provides India with improved operational capability by allowing greater flexibility in launch mode. Also, canister launched missiles reduce launch time preparation, thereby strengthening India’s policy of a ‘no-first-use’ doctrine that requires missiles to be capable of being launched within short preparation time. It also limits direct handling of the missile systems and protects the missile from extreme atmosphere.

Canister launchers enable the missile to be stored for longer periods with the help of maraging steel. Carbon composite will prevent the missile from corrosion. The missile can be cold launched and the use of gas generators for ejecting the missile from the canisters enable the missile to be launched from any location without the need for any missile sites for launching them. One of the key components of a missile that must be launched under a policy of ‘no-first-use’ is fast reaction time of the missile with which a counter-strike can be launched. Canisters reduce the reaction time of the missile.

The recent test conducted in December 2018 is also a canister launched test. Repeated tests have also enabled the development of wide range of technologies in the missile including navigation and guidance, on-board computer and electronics, indigenous Ring-Laser Gyro-based inertial navigation system, avionics, engine and the warhead. All these technologies ensure that the missile reaches its target with greater accuracy. Canister launched missiles increase the mobility of the missile, thereby enabling them to be launched from any part of the country.

Not only this, but India is also working on multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). MIRVs would allow the missile to evade enemy missile defence system. Many sceptics are of the view that MIRVs would jeopardise the strategic stability between India and Pakistan. However, it must be noted that Pakistan is also developing MIRVs. Strategic stability is not jeopardised when two rival states possess similar capabilities; that is when parity is maintained between the two rival states. Strategic stability is jeopardised when one of the rival states possesses a weapon system while the other does not.

However, MIRV technology is not easy to develop and China struggled for years to miniaturise nuclear warheads to develop MIRV technology. Even the erstwhile Soviet Union and the United States took almost two decades to master the technology of nuclear warhead miniaturisation.

The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has been working on the technological requirements. For instance, the Agni-V has a diameter of two meters that could make them capable of carrying MIRVs. In fact, according to reports, not just Agni-V, but missiles like the Agni-III are also being made capable of carrying MIRVs. However, it is not just the diameter of the missile system that would only matter, but the missile would also need a post-boost control vehicle that could act as a platform to release these multiple warheads.

This would not be a very difficult task as the Agni-II already possesses post-boost vehicle (PBV) integrated to its re-entry vehicle. The PBV not only allows to carry penetration aids but also improves the accuracy of the missile. Most countries pursuing advanced missile technology programme like the United States, France, and Russia use PBV on their ICBMs for enhanced accuracy. The MIRVs are probably one of the reasons why the actual range of the Agni-V is greater than 5,000kms as these technologies are believed to have adverse effect on the range of the missile and can reduce the range of the missile drastically.

While Agni-V is undergoing successful trials, these trials are expensive to conduct. Computer simulations, on the other hand, continuously help to improvise the technological parameters of the missile system. All these factors would need to be taken into consideration in order to enhance the credibility of the missile system.


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