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India's Agni test and China
Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan
20 April 2012

India has just successfully tested the Agni V missile, a nuclear capable missile with a 5,000 km range. Dr. V.K. Saraswat, the head of the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), which built the missile, said soon after the test from the Integrated Test Range complex in Wheeler Island, Odisha, that "this launch has given a message to the entire world that India has the capability to design, develop, build and manufacture missiles of this class, and we are today a missile power." Defence Minister A K Antony described Agni test as a "major milestone."

While the full technical data is being evaluated, DRDO scientists maintain that the mission objectives have been met. The various technical parameters, including engine, re-entry capabilities and guidance technology have been validated. With this test, India joins a small group of nations - US, Russia, China, France and UK - that have developed Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs).

While this test is seen as a game changer, another three or four years are needed to induct the missile into service. It will have to go through several more tests and user trials before it can be handed over to the services by 2014, Dr. Saraswat said. In real terms, this could take up to three or four years before the sufficient number can be produced and inducted into service. Having tested the missile, there are several important decisions to be taken before it reaches the stage of induction, including strategic doctrines, target definitions, number of missiles to be produced, etc. The government has to make these decisions before it becomes an instrument of capable, credible deterrence.

As for the technical parameters, the Agni V is a three-stage, solid propellant MIRVed (Multiple Independently Targettable Re-entry Vehicle) missile with a range of 5,000 kilometers and can carry a nuclear warhead weighing over one tonne. The missile can cover most of Asia, parts of Africa and parts of Eastern Europe. India has in its inventory other Agni series missiles also - Agni I of 700 km range, Agni II of 2000 km range, Agni III and Agni IV of 2,500 km to more than 3,500 km range.

The Agni V is seen as crucial for strengthening India's defence and deterrence capabilities. The missile has particular relevance to India in the context of advance military capabilities in its neighbourhood. Beijing has been upping the ante in the recent years in Tibet and surrounding areas. Advancements made by China in the Delingha missile facility is a case in point. The Delingha base is believed to be housing some nuclear missiles. PLA has also replaced the earlier liquid-fueled missiles with solid-fueled ones, reducing the launch time as well as making mobility much easier. Also Beijing's DF-4 ICBMs have been upgraded to fit them for the DF-21 (NATO code: CSS-5) series of ballistic missiles. There have also been reports about the possibility of the road mobile DF-31s (NATO code: CSS-9; Pentagon classification: CSS-10) and DF-31As (NATO code: CSS-9 Mod 2) being housed at the Delingha facility. These could additionally be equipped with penetration aids such as decoys and flares, making any countermeasures and warning systems more complicated or even ineffective. This base is particularly significant, given the proximity to India, able to target most of northern India.



India does not enjoy a benign neighbourhood. While Delingha is of particular concern, China's increasing foray into the Indian Ocean, its overall military modernisation, rising military expenditure, non-transparent nature of its programmes and objectives are also of concern to India. Recent Chinese policy approaches also have been not reassuring to India. The unresolved boundary and territorial disputes, changing Chinese policy on Jammu & Kashmir, questioning India's territorial integrity, and building strategic links with India's neighbours such as Nepal create security concerns in India. China-Pakistan collaboration on a range of military capabilities also warrants Indian attention.

Given these background developments, India has to be prepared for any eventuality. While Agni V should not be seen as China-specific, India has had to pay attention to and factor Beijing's capabilities in its military modernisation.

While the official reaction to India's Agni test was fairly muted, China's Global Times, in an editorial, said, "India should not overestimate its strength. Even if it has missiles that could reach most parts of China, that does not mean it will gain anything from being arrogant during disputes with China. India should be clear that China's nuclear power is stronger and more reliable. For the foreseeable future, India would stand no chance in an overall arms race with China." The point to be emphasized and understood clearly by Indian decision-makers is that it is not and should not be in a competition with China on the military front but this is not to mean that India will stop being prepared in a defensive fashion while beefing up its deterrent measures. Agni V is a weapon of deterrence and hopefully will never have to be used.

The Global Times editorial goes on to say that India and China should learn to co-exist with each other, if the two can not cooperate. It must also come to learn that India looks for an inclusive approach as it develops and extends its sphere of influence although one is not certain that this can be said of China. China has been rather uncomfortable with the fact that there are two or three rising powers in Asia simultaneously and these countries have to adopt cooperative frameworks if it is to be a stable and peaceful Asian century.

Finally, the editorial notes that China does not devote as much time on India as India does towards China. The fact, however, is that as Beijing's military modernisation is geared more towards the United States, its capabilities are already at a much more sophisticated level. It will be naïve if India were to assume that those capabilities are purely US-centric and therefore, not be concerned about those capabilities and applications. Capabilities that China builds to deal with the US can easily be turned against India. However, India does not have to assume that such conflict of interest with China is inevitable. India can reach out to China. It will be to the benefit of both countries to engage in periodic military confidence-building measures (CBMs) as a means of mutual reassurance.

(Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Currently, she is a Visiting Professor at the Graduate Institute of International Politics, National Chung Hsing University, Taichung, Taiwan)