The Indian announcement last week of the development of a new Agni-II intermediate-range nuclear missile illustrates a growing flexibility in New Delhi’s nuclear force posture.
India is entering a new stage of technical sophistication in its nuclear force development as it moves beyond its reliance on air-delivered nuclear gravity bombs to make the short-range Prithvi missile model the core of its operational nuclear arsenal.
Indian government statements postulate the future Indian nuclear force as resting on pillars of its long-range Agni missile suite and emerging nuclear-armed submarine force. The first missiles of the Agni suite, the 700-kilometer-range Agni-I and 2,000km-range Agni II, are presently being inducted into the Indian Army. This demonstrates Indian intentions to ensure a credible nuclear threat is retained against Pakistan and posed to China, while signalling its technological military capability as part of its campaign for great power status.
This is illustrated by the announcement last week of a new Agni II missile in development with a projected range of 2,750-3,000km. The reach of this missile sits between the present Agni-II model and the Agni-III, with a range of 3,500km. The new Agni-II missile program has been revealed not long after the announcement of the development of an Agni-V model, the first Indian ICBM, with a projected range of 5,000-6,000km.
The new Agni-II missile is designed to fit a perceived small gap in missile ranges. This elaborates the level of Indian political and economic investment devoted to the fielding of its long-range land-based nuclear missile force, as only one pillar of its nuclear triad.
The development of the Agni missile suite serves as an effective prism through which to analyse the range of nuclear force postures becoming available to Indian strategists. Technological advancements in nuclear delivery platforms can also place new nuclear strategy options in the hands of India’s rulers.
Since the promulgation of India’s first nuclear doctrine in 1999, India has characterized its nuclear force as being defined by a doctrine of “minimum credible deterrence.” The word ‘minimum’ is intended to signal restraint in nuclear arsenal size. However, this is modified by the word “credible,” which ties the size of India’s nuclear deterrent to what is considered to pose a credible nuclear threat to rivals. The inherent tension between these terms is amplified by the new possibilities provided by India’s nuclear arsenal development.
The 1999 doctrine, and its 2003 revision, outlined India’s commitment to developing a nuclear triad of land, air and sea delivery systems. The size of the triad would be guided by this doctrine of “minimum credible deterrence.” However, it is presently uncertain if Indian nuclear force modernization is directed at realizing this objective of a “minimum’ deterrent,” or if it is reflecting potential new nuclear ambitions prioritizing the credibility of Indian nuclear deterrence over concerns of arsenal size.
This question of the character of India’s future nuclear force and doctrine is animating present debates in Indian strategic discourse. Recent discussions regarding the outcome of the thermonuclear test in May 1998 extended to include the desirability and strategic necessity of a new round of Indian nuclear tests.
Another debate focuses on evaluating the benefits of Indian adherence to a declaratory no-first-use posture. Indian analysts are therefore beginning to explore alternatives to the present declaratory emphasis on nuclear restraint and a small, defensive nuclear triad.
India’s nuclear force, and the doctrine guiding its development, is in a stage of flux. How the Agni missile suite is integrated into India’s nuclear force, including the scale of missile production and deployment, will illuminate how Indian strategists view the role of the nuclear force in Indian defense projection and global power aspirations.
As domestic strategic debates continue and new delivery platforms provide for increased flexibility regarding Indian nuclear doctrine and force posture, its future nuclear force may be characterized by values and strategic objectives at variance to those currently stated..
By. Frank O'Donnell