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  Opinion   Columnists  19 Mar 2024  Kamal Davar | How MIRV makes a difference: Agni-5 takes India into a new strategic level

Kamal Davar | How MIRV makes a difference: Agni-5 takes India into a new strategic level

The writer, a retired lieutenant-general, was founder of the Defence Intelligence Agency and deputy chief of the Integrated Defence Staff
Published : Mar 20, 2024, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Mar 20, 2024, 12:05 am IST

India Successfully Tests Agni-5 Missile with MIRV Technology, Joining Elite Nuclear Club

 In this Saturday, Jan. 31, 2015 file photo, indigenously developed Agni-5 missile. The Defense Research & Development Organization (DRDO) conducted the first flight test of the Agni-5 missile with Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV) technology, on Monday, March 11, 2024. (PTI Photo)
  In this Saturday, Jan. 31, 2015 file photo, indigenously developed Agni-5 missile. The Defense Research & Development Organization (DRDO) conducted the first flight test of the Agni-5 missile with Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV) technology, on Monday, March 11, 2024. (PTI Photo)

On March 11, 2024, under “Mission Divyastra”, India successfully carried out the test launch of its long-range strategic missile, the indigenously-developed Agni-5, which employs Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV) technology. Once it deploys these missiles in its Strategic Forces Command (SFC), India would have joined the elite and exclusive group of nations like the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China which possess the MIRV capability. India thus is well on its way to acquire strategic nuclear deterrence, a mission which it has been pursuing since the past 40 years or so under its Integrated Missile Development Programme (IGMDP). The Agni-5 reportedly has a range of over 5,000 km and with further improvements will be able to match the threat from the Chinese Dong Feng intercontinental ballistic missile, which boast of a range in excess of 8,000 km. That nuclear-armed Pakistan is also endeavouring to MIRV its Ababeel type of missiles is well known. Thus, India has to remain ever watchful on such developments among its likely adversaries.

The MIRV capability allows weapon systems to deliver multiple conventional and/or nuclear warheads against different targets spread across hundreds of kilometres simultaneously, if required, thus making the defender’s task extremely difficult to stave off multiple missiles attacking it.

The IGMDP, conceived by then leading missile technologist A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who went on to become India’s President, finally got government approval on June 26, 1983 and has strived since then, at times with great difficulties, to make India self-sufficient in the constantly developing missile technology. The development was managed under Dr Kalam’s leadership by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the Ordnance Factories Board and in partnership to some extent with private industry in India.

The DRDO formally announced in January 2008 the successful conclusion of the development and production of five type of ballistic missiles for the nation, namely the surface-to-surface short range Prithvi 1, 2 and 3, the anti-ship missile Dhanush, surface-to-surface medium range missiles Agni 1, Agni P, Agni 2 and 3, surface-to-air missiles Akash and a host of others, including the Trishul and Nag. Officially, the Agni-5 was first tested in 2012 and is an intermediate-range ballistic missile

with an acknowledged range of 5,000 km-plus. Unlike the earlier class of missiles, the Agni-5 is launched from a sealed canister on a road-mobile launcher which reduces the time required for launch. It is also pertinent to point out that built with Russian collaboration, the now globally renowned cruise missile Brahmos has also been a welcome and much needed addition to the Indian armed forces’ arsenal. India too has the underwater launched missiles and medium range surface-to-air capability achieved through indigenous production.

While work had begun in 2008 to develop the Agni-5, it was only in April 2012 that the missile had a successful launch. In 2018, India’s DRDO and SFC had conducted extensive joint user trials of the canister-launched Agni-5 successfully and the Indian armed forces inducted the missile system in 2019. The effort to MIRV these missiles began, and has now been successful, conferring a much-needed MIRV capability to the armed forces. It goes without saying that India will take the necessary steps to upgrade the platform and warhead technology, besides working on hypersonic missiles, which I recall, was an obsession with Dr Kalam.

Though the induction of Agni-5 missiles with MIRV capabilities has long been sought, yet India’s recent test raised some eyebrows among the scientific community within our strategic partners, particularly the United States. Unlike China and Pakistan, India has a clear-cut “no first use” nuclear policy. Some of these scientists say that MIRV technology, which increases the survivability of its nuclear-tipped missiles, could also be useful for first-strike capabilities.

The director of the Nuclear Information Project, Federation of American Scientists, Hans Kristensen, had earlier said that if India succeeds in developing an operational MIRV capability for its ballistic missiles, it will be able “to strike more targets with fewer missiles”. He further warned that Indian missiles with MIRVs would become more important targets for an adversary to destroy before they could be launched to reduce the damage could inflict. He has further said that the MIRV capability would “allow India to add to its nuclear stockpile in the future, especially if its plutonium production capability can make use of the unsafeguarded

breeder reactors that are currently under construction”. However, an Indian nuclear scholar, Debalina Ghoshal, has rubbished Dr Krisensen’s prognosis. She contends that “for India, the MIRV technology will strengthen the no-first use doctrine. Having capabilities in missile systems that can evade missile defence systems negates the concern of a ‘use them or lose them’ dilemma”.

Those who try to wrongly bracket India with China or Pakistan -- both nuclear weapons states -- must realise that since India’s entry into the nuclear weapons nations club, India has consciously taken the decision of the “no first use” doctrine, which adequately speaks of India’s maturity and non-aggressive attitude. As an emerging global power, India has consistently displayed a sense of geopolitical balance and adherence to UN-promulgated norms and values.

India has no hegemonistic inclinations and thus the induction of missiles of various capabilities is only for its legitimate defence needs in a volatile neighbourhood and region. Nevertheless, with our growing nuclear capabilities and factoring in China and Pakistan’s intent towards us, India too needs to think afresh about its nuclear doctrine, including the continuation or otherwise of the “no first use” policy.

Tags: agni-5, defence research and development organisation (drdo), mission divyastra