Karela Fry

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A stone’s throw

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India’s first test of the inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) called Agni V was done on April 18, 2012. A bland but absolutely complete report from VoA:

India test-fired a new missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead as far as the Chinese capital, Beijing.

Indian media showed video of the long-range Agni-V missile in-flight Thursday. There was no official government confirmation of the test or whether it was successful.

The Agni-V has a range of 5,000 kilometers. The launch from a test range in the eastern state of Orissa was slated for as early as Wednesday evening, but had been postponed due to bad weather.

Ravi Gupta, a spokesman for India’s Defense Research and Development Organization has said the Agni-V represents a “quantum leap” in India’s strategic capability. But Indian officials have also cautioned that the missile should not be seen as a threat. Gupta said India has a “no first use” policy and that India’s missile systems are not “country specific.”

On Wednesday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Washington was aware of the impending test, adding that India has a solid non-proliferation record and is engaged with the international community on non-proliferation issues.

India has been testing its ballistic missile defense system since 2006. If it becomes viable, India would become one of the few nations with a working missile shield.

A ballistic missile works somewhat like a game of Angry Birds: a bomb is lobbed at the enemy; all the acceleration happens at the beginning (or thrice, in a three-stage missile). Once the last stage is burnt out, the missile is on its way, following a high parabola whose shape was known to Galileo. The essential technology of the ICBM is in the engine which can accelerate a piece of stone to velocities large enough to carry it across a continent before it drops back to earth; the project leader, Tessy Thomas, specializes in one aspect of this core technology. Quite different from this would be a cruise missile, which is more like a GPS enabled flying car, hugging the terrain and following a map by accelerating intermittently.

The Indian media response has been jubilant, but short on specifics. The report in ET is an example:

The 17-metre (56-foot) Agni V, with a range of more than 5,000 kilometres (3,100 miles), was launched at 8:05 (0235 GMT) from a test site off the eastern state of Orissa, said an official at the site who declined to be identified.

Currently only the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — possess a declared ICBM capability.

No mention that DRDO is behind the missile, but an emphasis on “joining an elite club”, and no analysis of how the defense situation changes now. The only political analysis was this report in Z News:

NATO does not consider India as a missile threat despite the country’s advanced missile development programme, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.

Speaking at a news conference at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Rasmussen said Wednesday the Alliance does not consider India as a threat to NATO allies and territory.

This is interesting, consistent with VoA’s report, and talks of backroom diplomacy by India. Similar conclusions can be drawn from the following segment of another report by VoA:

India’s longtime rival, Pakistan, had no official reaction to the missile launch. But Foreign Ministry spokesman Moazam Ahmad Khan said Thursday that Pakistan was informed of the missile test prior to the launch in accordance with a standing bilateral agreement.

TOI is more informative, but goes ballistic:

”We have met all our mission objectives,” said a jubilant DRDO chief controller of missiles, Avinash Chander.

DRDO chief V K Saraswat, in turn, said India had emerged as a major missile power with Thursday’s test.

The nuclear-capable, three-stage Agni-V, about 50-tonne in weight and 17.5-metre tall, will become fully operational by 2014-2015 after “four to five repeatable tests” and user trials.

India could have gone for a higher strike range but believes the solid-fuelled Agni-V is “more than adequate” to meet current threat perceptions and security concerns. The missile can, after all, even hit the northernmost parts of China.

With a canister-launch system to impart higher road mobility, the missile will give the armed forces much greater operational flexibility than the earlier-generation of Agni missiles.

“The accuracy levels of Agni-V and Agni-IV, with their better guidance and navigation systems, are far higher than Agni-I (700-km), Agni-II (2,000-km) and Agni-III (3,000-km),” said the source.

The idea of road mobility is interesting, but which platform will haul 50 ton ICBMs across Indian roads? Will it be the infamous Tatra? Railway flatbeds are more likely vehicles for the mobile platforms.

Business Week injects a note of caution:

The rocket is aimed at “narrowing the missile gap between India and China,” according to Poornima Subramaniam, Asia- Pacific armed forces analyst at IHS Jane’s, a unit of IHS Inc. “Extensive land- and sea-launched missile development programs have become important elements in India’s nuclear strategy.”

India will increase total defense spending by 13 percent to $38 billion this financial year as it seeks to modernize its armed forces to keep pace with the military buildup in China, where defense outlays of more than $100 billion per year are second only to the U.S.

Earlier rocket tests have ended in failure. A test firing of an upgraded version of its Agni-II nuclear-capable missile was unsuccessful in December 2010. A launch of the Agni-III missile in July 2006 also failed.

The military and diplomatic truth to be read from this is that India is trying hard to build a nuclear shield against China.

It is useful to remember that a nuclear war is not winnable. In a war between nuclear-armed adversaries, a nuclear exchange could at least destroy one or two large cities and their industrial infrastructure, and at worst reduce both sides to primitive economies, with several of the largest cities vanished and industrial capability destroyed. The strategic thinking behind nuclear defense is exactly this: the stakes are so high that war becomes unthinkable, because both sides can destroy each other. This is called a policy of deterrence through knowledge of mutually assured destruction (MAD).

This was the classic scenario which led to the global stand-off known as the cold war. However, an arms race like that eats up the economy so that the side which was slightly weaker to begin with eventually becomes impoverished. We all still remember that the cold war ended with the USSR breaking up due to economic pressures. In a new cold war between India and China it is not hard to see which is the economically weaker state. And the stake of the fading economies of the west is also clear: if India and China keep putting large parts of their GDP into nuclear war preparations, then the growth of Asian economies could be slow.

Moreover, the experience of the cold war teaches us that deterrence is not peace. More hot wars were fought in the 40 year duration of the cold war than in the 40 years before the second world war. Of course, these were proxy wars. A new defense scenario has emerged in Asia after the nuclear tests of the 90s. Nuclear armed India and Pakistan have directly fought in Kargil, a conventional war which didn’t go nuclear. The prevention of escalation was due to two factors: first closely matched conventional strength which drew out the war long enough that the second factor, overwhelming diplomacy by more powerful forces prevented nuclear escalation when India won the conventional war.

The lesson is that an extremely strong conventional capability is necessary to prevent a war from escalating into MAD-ness. Developing nuclear missile capability while conventional capability deteriorates, as is reported of the Indian armed forces, is a dangerous and slippery road. The barriers to nuclear escalation of a conflict are thereby lowered.

TOI reports a very measured response by China:

Reacting cautiously to India’s test of Agni-V missile, China on Thursday said the two countries are not rivals and enjoy “sound” relations though the sources in the Chinese establishment feel that the launch can give rise to another round of arms race in the region.

“China has taken note of reports on India’s missile launch. The two countries have sound relationship. “During the (recently held) BRICS meeting (in Delhi) the leadership had consensus to take the relationship further and to push forward bilateral strategic cooperative partnership,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told a media briefing in Beijing when asked about the launch.

In Delhi, the diplomatic sources in the Chinese embassy said the “Agni-V launch can give rise to another round of arms race in this part of the world.”

They were also critical of the media commentary on the successful launch of the nuclear capable 5000 km-range Agni-V missile, saying it sounded provocative. Asked whether China was concerned as most of the country would come under the Agni’s range, Liu said in Beijing that “both the countries are emerging powers. We are not rivals. We are cooperative partners. We should cherish the hard earned momentum of cooperation.”

Other countries will also react as the following facts, quoted in the same article from TOI, become more widely appreciated:

The 5,000 km-range missile gives India the capability to hit targets in China, including Beijing, eastern Europe, east Africa and the Australian coast.

Apr 22, 2012

As time passes, there are more voices asking for the logic of the enormous concentration of effort on missile defence. The Hindu Businessline reports:

The one thing that has not been specifically spelt out in the celebratory acclamations is the huge outlay of Rs 3,000 crore or more that has gone into the development of the project.

And the outgo will not stop there, and may even cross double the amount. A missile, it must be remembered, is no good until it is inducted and made operational. Agni-V is yet to be put through the mandatory repeatable tests and user-trials to make it fully operational and induct it into the country’s Defence system. The present realistic estimate is that it will not be ready for deployment before 2015.

Actually, the 3,000-km Agni-III, test-fired in April 2007 is still to be inducted, while the 3,500-km Agni-IV has been tested for the first time only last November and is waiting in the queue.

Meanwhile, confusion reigns over the range of the missile after China claimed that it is 8000 Kms and not 5000, as was earlier reported. IBN Live seems to imply that the Chinese claim is not ruled out:

At an informal interaction with journalists, when asked Pillai about China’s claim that the Agni V missile could reach targets in Europe up to a range of 8,000 kms, he said “Agni V has been tested for a range of 5,000 km. Further, extending the range or even testing the capability for an extended range will be considered only after political and diplomatic deliberations.”

Was this classified information? In which case how does China have it? Or is this misinformation that India is happy to play along with? Once you have questions of this kind, it’s a guessing game in a hall of mirrors.

An article in Huffington Post puts an interesting spin on this question:

A true ICBM has a minimum range of at least 8,000km and more likely 12,000km. India and North Korea’s missiles were medium ranged ballistic missiles (MRBM’s). The difference is important because MRBM’s are theatre weapons while ICBM’s threaten the entire globe. India crowed with pride over its Agni-V launch. One government scientist claimed Agni-V made India “a major missile power.” By contrast, India’s growing rival, China, dismissed the launch with a disdainful sniff.

The article also draws attention to the nuclearizable submarines that India is inducting, claiming that this is one leg of the classic nuclear triad, and one which gives India a second-strike capability.

An opinion piece in the Thai newspaper Bangkok Post is very cautious:

While there is a world of difference in the leadership of India and North Korea, it is impossible to dismiss the hypocrisy in the reaction to the two tests, both of which are clearly against the stipulations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which entered into force in 1970.

The NPT allows only five nations _ the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China _ to possess nuclear weapons. India has had nuclear arms since 1974 and has refused to sign the NPT because it would have to do so as a non-nuclear weapon state.

Over the years India’s status as a nuclear weapons state has been semi-legitimised. The clearest example of this is the 2008 Civilian Nuclear Agreement between India and the US, in which the US accepted India as a country with advanced nuclear technology. The deal was intended to increase cooperation between the US and India in all spheres, but it was also tacit acceptance of India’s nuclear weapons capabilities.

Is there any possibility of putting the nuclear genie back in the bottle? It is important to remember that the original purpose of the NPT was not only to limit the number of nuclear-weapon states, but also to compel nuclear weapons states to ”pursue nuclear disarmament aimed at the ultimate elimination of their nuclear arsenals”. There has been some progress on this front, mainly from the US and Russia, the two chief nuclear powers. … But there is no sign that any nuclear weapons country, much less all of them, is willing to give up its nuclear arsenal completely.

Yet Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called Thursday’s successful launch, which was openly admitted to be a test of his country’s ability to challenge China, ”another milestone in our quest to add to the credibility of our security and preparedness and to continuously explore the frontiers of science”. China’s response, in an editorial in its official mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, was just as boastful: ”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.” Thursday’s launch was stark proof that nonproliferation is still a distant dream.

AL Jazeera has an in-depth review which deals with exactly the questions raised earlier in this post:

But in a country where more than half of the people live on less than a dollar-and-a-half a day, many are questioning the high costs. In 2011, India spent more than $46bn buying weapons. That compares to a little over $11.5bn spent on education and $6bn on health.

So, does this open the door to a new arms race with China? And is that really in the interests of either country?

The German radio Deutsche Welle opines:

Thursday’s launch was a matter of prestige for the rising Asian nation. It was also a sign to leading countries, especially China, that India is aspiring to become a superpower. One can only suspect that India will now strengthen its efforts to gain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council – the club of the most powerful. And New Delhi will be seeking collaboration in Berlin, as it has in the past, in the framework of a long-overdue council reform.

The success of Agni-V’s launch is likely to boost India’s self-confidence as a leading power in rocket, space and software technology. And it can be expected that that self-confidence will show in New Delhi’s foreign policy towards its Asian neighbors. Delhi would, however, do well to pace itself, as China, likewise a nuclear power, is still much further along.

BBC has a different and quite interesting analysis:

China is already modernising its own nuclear-armed medium- and intermediate-range missile systems that could be used to target India. But as Taylor Fravel notes, “India and China have similar nuclear doctrines, as both emphasize no first use and achieving deterrence through development of a secure second-strike.”

It should be remembered that compared to Russia and the United States, China and India have relatively small nuclear arsenals. China is believed to have a stockpile of around 240 warheads, with perhaps 175 of them active.

In recent years it has been deploying more modern solid-fuelled missiles like the two-stage DF-5A with a true inter-continental range capable of threatening the United States. It deploys a number of shorter-range systems like the DF-21 – a potential threat to India.

China’s modernisation of its nuclear deterrent includes the development of a small number of submarines capable of carrying ballistic missiles, but it is not yet judged to have an operational sea-going submarine-launched capability.

India, in contrast, is believed to have around 100 nuclear warheads, some capable of being dropped from aircraft. But the bulk of its nuclear punch rests upon short-range Prithvi missiles and medium-range variants of the Agni missile.

India, too, is seeking to take its nuclear deterrent to sea. It is building a new class of nuclear-powered submarines intended to carry ballistic missiles. The first of these Arihant-class boats has already been launched and is expected to enter service next year. Five more are planned.

However, Jeffrey Lewis suggests that it is wrong to see in the dynamics between Beijing and Delhi echoes of the Cold War arms race between the US and the Soviet Union.

“I doubt very much”, he says, ” that China and India will engage in an arms race, scaled-down or otherwise.

“Both countries,” he argues, “tend to pursue the same specific capabilities, but neither produces large numbers of nuclear weapons or nuclear-capable missiles.”

He suggests that both China and India seem to be pursuing what he calls a “possession” oriented approach to nuclear modernisation: “They are developing in turn small numbers of ever more advanced capabilities held by other powers.

“Neither country, however, has produced anywhere near the number of nuclear weapons or nuclear-capable missiles that each is capable of producing.”

According to Taylor Fravel, “the main strategic dynamic behind China’s nuclear modernisation is the need to maintain a secure second-strike capability”. In other words, the ability to launch a counter-attack if China is attacked with nuclear weapons.

“From China’s perspective,” he says, “the main threat to this capability comes from United States, which has been developing both ballistic missile defences that could prevent China from launching a counter-attack and long-range precision strike capabilities that could be used to attack China’s nuclear forces (or command and control systems) with conventional and not nuclear weapons.”

Indeed, it is in the United States that some of the most active debate is underway on the significance or otherwise of China’s nuclear modernisation.

Quite contrary to the BBC’s opinion, IE reports the continuation of a subcontinental arms race:

Pakistan today test-fired an “improved version” of the nuclear-capable Hatf-4 intermediate range ballistic missile that can hit targets in India, six days after New Delhi tested the Agni-V missile with a range of 5,000 km.

The test of the Hatf-4, also known as Shaheen-1A, was conducted successfully, state-run Radio Pakistan reported.

The missile tested today was “an improved version of Shaheen-1 with improvements in range and technical parameters”, the report said.

The military did not specify the range of the missile though the original version of the Hatf-4 had a reach of 750 km.

The missile, capable of carrying nuclear and conventional warheads, can reach targets deep within India.

The impact point of the missile was in the Indian Ocean, reports said.

Pakistan had informed India in advance about the test and asked it to issue suitable warnings to aircraft flying over the region.

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  1. […] talks about the ethics of selling arms, very relevant again, when an arms race is developing in Asia: Bofors was a good company. Their products were good. Unfortunately in the race to expand […]


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