In the past few months, interest in the Agni 6 missile has shot up after it was revealed that a honey-trapped Defence Research and Development Organisation scientist had divulged the Agni 6 missile launcher details to Pakistanis. Then, this month, DRDO released an image depicting the missile during a Defence Expo in Chennai.
The question arises, notwithstanding India’s significant missile advancements, whether India needs or can build an ICBM with a range of more than 10,000 kilometres. However, this endeavour must be viewed through the complex lens of national security and international diplomacy.
The effectiveness and necessity of possessing an ICBM with a range of at least 10,000 kilometres are hotly contested. Numerous experts argue that India’s current security environment does not necessitate such an extensive range, as its most distant potential adversary is China, which can be effectively targeted with existing missile capabilities. However, the discussion surrounding India’s pursuance of an Agni VI missile, rumoured to have a range greater than 10,000 kilometres, raises security and geopolitical concerns.
From a geopolitical picture
According to publicly available information, in 2011, former Indian Air Force Chief of Air Staff Pradeep Vasant Naik and Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee Pradeep Vasant Naik made a compelling argument for expanding India’s nuclear capabilities far beyond its immediate vicinity. With its extended range, the Agni-VI missile has the potential to put at least four key world capitals within striking distance of India.
Gen. Deependra Singh Hooda (Retd.), PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, VSM & Bar, who retired as the Army Commander of the Northern Command, told Frontier India, ” Till now, we have developed missiles like Agni-5 with a range of 5,000 km and based on the kind of capabilities that China possesses, it would be a good idea to go ahead and modernise your arsenal and build more weapons so having an ICBM with a range of 10,000 or more kilometers should be under consideration.
The US and the European countries have not recognised India as a nuclear power; although they are well aware of India’s nuclear developments, they lack consideration, so you see opposition from particularly the European countries. The objections are more on moral grounds and not much on pure strategic consideration. If some country comes up with nuclear blackmail, then certainly the European countries won’t come to your rescue, so you have to help yourself.”
Air Marshal Anil Khosla (Retd.), PVSM, AVSM, VM, ADC, who retired as the 42nd Vice Chief of the Air Staff (VCAS), told Frontier India, “The question is not whether India needs it; it is can India afford it? The future of warfare is in long-range vectors and unmanned platforms. More The standoff range and reach more ‘The deterrence value’. Both our adversaries have long-range vectors. (Increasing the range, Ed.) Our deterrence value will get a boost.”
On similar lines, Maj Gen. Harsha Kakar (retd), who served as the Head of the Department of Strategic Studies at the College of Defence Management, Secunderabad, opines that if a question of ‘whether an ICBM with such a range is required or not,’ “one should note that normally India’s threats may not be of that nature, but then that is no guarantee at the first place. Secondly, if we are looking at covering the entire China, even with what we have now, this is something that will be needed. India is going to be a global military, so it needs to cater for anything emerging and after all, one doesn’t know how the geopolitical scenario shapes up, i.e. what is your future and where do the threats emerge from. So keeping that in mind, we need to cater for it and therefore having such an ICBM in the arsenal is imperative, so if we have got the capability to develop it, we must.” Maj Gen Kakar further states that “when it comes to 10,000km range missiles, it means the ranges are such, but there is always a minimum range which is going to come well within what you need. It’s not going to be a range of 9,500 to 10,000 km; the possible minimum range is going to be from around 5,500 km to 10,000 km, so the requirement is within the range.”
However, Air Vice Marshal Suryakant Chintaman Chafekar AVSM, SC, who retired as the Senior Air and Administration Staff Officer, Maintenance Command, tells Frontier India, “India has the ICBM technology in place; it’s one of the seven countries to have the same; however, anything more than 5000 km is presently not our requirement. No, India for sure does not require an ICBM with a range of 10,000 km, as we are not an expansionist nation. We believe in defending the nation and do not intend to use force. Moreover, presently, “Guns or Bread” is always a question, even for buying the most essential equipment for the security of the nation. Use of ICBM against whom if it’s against the countries who possess this technology, then these Nations can tackle ICBM in the reentry phase, in short – can defend. Just to join the arms race; these aspects can’t be ignored.”
The other side of the coin
One of the primary concerns surrounding India’s development of such an ICBM is the potential reaction from the international community, particularly from the United States and European nations. If India openly acknowledged the Agni VI’s development with its extended range, it could trigger diplomatic tensions and concerns about regional stability. Here, it is essential to delve into the nuances of this situation.
Firstly, the development of long-range ICBMs is often seen as a means of projecting military power globally. While India may argue that it seeks to enhance its deterrence capabilities and protect its sovereignty, the global perception might differ. Possessing such missiles can inadvertently lead to suspicions about offensive intentions, sparking concerns among other nations.
Furthermore, India must consider its role as a responsible member of the international community. It has traditionally adhered to a policy of no first use (NFU) of nuclear weapons, emphasising a commitment to using them only in response to a nuclear attack. Developing ICBMs with extended ranges could lead to questions about the nation’s commitment to this policy and its overall approach to nuclear deterrence.
Air Marshal Anil Khosla (Retd.) says, “Obviously, many countries, mainly those that already have and those that are not friendly, will make a noise and accuse India of an arms race. Sanctions may be announced against India like in the past.”
Maj Gen. Kakar mentions that “if India possesses such an ICBM, there would be others to look at it, so the aim is to prevent others from going into it, and certainly the protests are there, but they have not led to anything or any form of sanctions, it’s been a standard form of protest because if you are looking at a missile with such a range, it is them (US and the European countries) who are coming under threat so it is natural for people to protest. Even a nation like Pakistan protests on the same, even though they don’t have any link in this case. We don’t need it for Pakistan, but it is their nature. So it has been a matter that you are not looking at other nations following the India model, so for that reason there is always a desire that ‘You stick to what you need, don’t go beyond’.”
“One would look at targeting points depending on its geopolitical threat, from where you are expecting it. And one needs to realise that a missile with a 10,000km range is the ultimate range and not a minimum range. So you are looking at targets within the minimum and maximum range,” he adds.
Considering ‘Orbital Logic’ and the Journey of AGNI
The connection between a nation’s successful space program and its potential ability to deploy nuclear weapons globally is a topic that has garnered considerable attention. The underlying notion is that if a nation can successfully launch even a medium-sized satellite into a high Earth orbit, it possesses the technological prowess to adapt its space launch capabilities for potentially destructive purposes anywhere on the planet.
India’s journey into space exploration began in 1980 with the launch of its first satellite, achieved using the indigenous SLV3 rocket. In less than a decade, India took a significant step by conducting the inaugural test flight of its surface-to-surface Agni Technology Demonstration missile, drawing upon the knowledge and technology harnessed through the SLV3 program.
Air Marshal Anil Khosla (Retd.) says, “India has reached the moon. 10,000 km is ‘comparatively neighborhood’. Our missile and rocket program is doing well. Similar technologies are being used in numerous indigenous weapon systems.”
The Agni missile series, symbolising “fire” in Sanskrit, has evolved with India’s progress in space technology. The series commenced with Agni I, boasting a range of 700-1200 kilometres. Following the success of Agni I, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) introduced the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), equipped with four stages featuring a blend of solid and liquid fuel components. Notably, this development inspired the Agni II missile, especially its second stage, which employed a two-stage design renowned for its mobility and adaptability. With a range of 2000 kilometres, India’s reach encompassed a significant portion of Pakistan and southeastern China.
As India’s space technology advancements continued, so did the Agni missile series. The Agni III, capable of travelling up to 3,500 kilometres, and the Agni IV, reaching distances of up to 4,000 kilometres, showcased the nation’s commitment to bolstering its missile capabilities in tandem with space exploration achievements.
In 2012, introducing the Agni V intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) marked a pivotal moment. With an impressive range of approximately 5500 kilometres, the Agni V demonstrated India’s counterforce capabilities, thanks to its enhanced payload capacity and the incorporation of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) technology. The precision of these advancements elevated the Agni V’s lethality to a significant degree.
Notably, the United States expressed concerns that India could transform its PSLV into an ICBM with a substantial range extension within a remarkably short timeframe. This assertion stems from the realisation that many components essential for developing an ICBM are already accessible in India, thanks to its indigenous space program.
“If a nation can have the capability to launch missions like Chandrayaan and Aditya, it is clear that India possesses the ability to develop what we are looking at. Since we have the technology, we can go ahead with it. One needs to remember that missile technology is one of India’s major strengths in defence affairs, which is why we can move forward in whichever way we want, says Maj Gen. Harsha Kakar (Retd.)
Meaningful Warhead for ICBM
This also brings us to the question that even if, as a nation, we possess the spirit of developing a 10,000km range missile, do we have the capability to develop the needed warheads for the same?
The thermonuclear bomb detonated during the 2018 ‘Shakti’ test has a yield of 200 KT. Compare it to the latest iteration of the R-36 intercontinental ballistic missile (referred to by NATO as the SS-18), which is equipped with at least ten 18-25 megaton nuclear warheads.
“India’s nuclear program is fairly mature now. Although it is not out in the public domain what sort of systems and warhead technology we have, the fact is that tests have been carried out, and India’s nuclear program has been going on for decades now,” says Gen. Deependra Singh Hooda (Retd.).
Maj Gen. H Kakar (Retd.) answers the query by stating, “If India is developing an ICBM of this nature, then naturally it may have warheads for which the development is taking place. With the absence of warheads, developing an ICBM doesn’t make any sense. When you already have warheads, the next is that you develop delivery needs for the same. So we would be having that as well, even though there are no official records or inputs, but naturally, if such an ICBM is under development, we must already have the necessary warheads and the ability to be launched by the missile. After all, the size and weight are crucial to the carrying capacity, so you might develop it accordingly. And there is a high possibility that the warheads for different missiles would have a similar or the same weight.”
The Bottom Line
India’s pursuit of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a range greater than 12,000 kilometres necessitates an in-depth analysis of the risks and benefits of such a development. In a world where the circumference of the Earth is approximately 40,000 kilometres, a missile with a range of 16,000 kilometres could theoretically reach any location on the planet. Few nations, including the United States, Russia, and China, possess such formidable ICBMs, and they do so for specific strategic purposes.
When contemplating this capability, the geopolitical context must be evaluated. India confronts Pakistan and China as its principal nuclear adversaries. In the case of Pakistan, India already possesses a variety of delivery systems, allowing for various options. When negotiating with China, however, the situation becomes more complicated. India’s missile forces on the Eastern front may reach Tibet, but they cannot affect the Chinese interior. India would rely on its submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and possibly an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) to effectively target Beijing.
The most recent ICBM officially reported in India’s arsenal has a range of 5,500 kilometres. However, specialists analysing test results indicate that its actual operational range may be closer to 8,000 kilometres. Significant portions of China are already within India’s strategic sphere, demonstrating India’s regional deterrence capabilities.
However, exceeding this range has significant repercussions. India would be able to pose a direct threat to other key global powers, especially European and American nations. A development of this nature could spark international concern and result in diplomatic repercussions. The dread of this potential threat could result in these nations undermining India’s nuclear technology ambitions, impeding its access to nuclear cooperation agreements, and restricting its membership in international nuclear organisations.
Suppose India possesses an ICBM capable of reaching the United States. In that case, it will not receive preferential treatment in nuclear civil agreements or membership in organisations such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Consequently, if India undertakes the development of a legitimate ICBM, it is reasonable to assume that this endeavour will be shrouded in secrecy for an extended time — potentially a decade or more.