A new missile -- Agni II -- could do away with all these limitations
The first option would be to call Pakistan's bluff. India could do this by openly deploying nuclear forces. Pakistan, given its limited economic and technological capabilities, could hardly be expected to prevail in an open nuclear arms race against India. Unlike Pakistan, India would also have the added advantage of drawing on its vast civilian space infrastructure to field an effective ballistic missile force. The central aim of this strategy would be to move away from a regime of rough nuclear parity to a position where India enjoys overwhelming nuclear superiority. Indeed, this is the option advocated by India's nuclear bomb lobby.
This approach although elegant in its simplicity and logic is fraught with several dangers. First, it would inaugurate a nuclear and missile race in South Asia. Pakistan would import or smuggle the requisite technologies and weapon systems to offset India's strategic superiority. Second, India's nuclear forces would also enjoy some capability against China. China, which has in the past transferred sensitive nuclear and missile technologies to Pakistan and shown scant regard for global nonproliferation regimes, could then be expected to upgrade its strategic relationship with Pakistan. India would also be targeted by Chinese nuclear forces. In short, India would end up in a ruinous nuclear and missile arms race with both China and Pakistan.
The United States and its allies would also not respond benignly to a nuclear and missile arms race in South Asia. Confronted by a frontal assault on the global nonproliferation regime, they would almost certainly impose economic and technological sanctions on India. This could derail India's globalisation drive. Thus, although tempting, overt nuclear deployments would not be the best approach to address India's security concerns in South Asia.
There is, however, an alternative strategy. India can combine a program of limited technology demonstration with bold arms control initiatives to achieve its regional and global security goals. Technology demonstration would involve the development of a medium-range (3,500 to 5000 km) ballistic missile that would overcome the limitations of the earlier Agni demonstrator. As critics have argued before, the current Agni demonstrator suffers on three counts. It uses a combination of solid and liquid fuel motors that are cumbersome from a military user's perspective. The missile's re-entry carbon-carbon heat shield imposes inherent range limitations. Hence, important urban, economic, and military centres in central and northern China are beyond its range. Lastly, the missile is not mobile.
A new missile -- Agni II -- could do away with all these limitations. It would be designed to use newer and more powerful solid propellants and use flex-nozzle technology to alter the missile's trajectory during flight. Its re-entry vehicle would also use ablative materials for longer-range and lower angle of re-entry into earth's atmosphere. And finally, the Agni II would be designed as a rugged system capable of quick firing from a silo or launch from mobile road and rail stations.
The objectives of technology demonstration under the rubric of the nuclear option strategy would be two-fold. First, it would allow the consolidation of strategic technologies that would give India a genuine option to flex its nuclear muscle if warranted by the strategic scenario. More significantly, however, the programme would signal to Pakistan that if confronted with a serious threat to its national security, India could be expected to bring its superior economic and technological capabilities to bear on the strategic equation between the two countries. In other words, India could threaten to lock Pakistan into an open-ended no-holds barred arms race in which it enjoyed all the strategic advantages.
Technology demonstration would also be a warning to Beijing that India takes Chinese meddling in South Asia very seriously. India could thus implicitly threaten China with nuclear deployments if the latter persisted with its goal of strategically trying to contain India in South Asia. Finally, the revival of the Agni programme would be a signal to Washington that India had reached a critical technological threshold. The choice before the United States and its allies would be to either accommodate India's genuine global aspirations through the transfer of civilian and other dual-use space technologies, or face the prospect of India's potential to disrupt international technology-denial cartels.
From a position of strength, India could then seek to negotiate a no-first-deployment regime in South Asia. This would involve the withdrawal and destruction of all classes of ballistic missiles -- the Hatf, M, and Prithvi series -- from both sides of the Indo-Pakistan divide. Conventional wisdom to the contrary, the present generation of ballistic missiles in South Asia does not offer any great strategic value to either side. Their value in a conventional role is worthless.
Similarly, the argument that ballistic missiles are the best means for nuclear delivery is dubious. That argument holds true for countries that do not have a sophisticated air force or are separated by large distances. But India and Pakistan share a common border, have unrefined intelligence gathering capabilities, and imperfect air defences. A ballistic missile-based nuclear deterrent would also be very unstable. It would reduce warning time in the event of a nuclear attack to about five minutes. In contrast, aircraft require anything between 30 to 40 minutes to execute a nuclear strike. Aircraft also incorporate positive nuclear command and control systems; i.e. once launched they can be recalled. This is not the case with ballistic missiles.
Today, Pakistan's lack of geographical depth clearly gives India a strategic edge. Indian combat aircraft, when equipped with an appropriate electronic suite and following a terrain-masking, ground-hugging profile, can carry out nuclear strikes against any conceivable target in Pakistan. In contrast, Pakistan, because of India's geographical size and depth does not enjoy similar corresponding advantages. The net result of the development and deployment of long-range ballistic missiles by Pakistan would be to deny India its natural strategic depth.
The time has come for India to act with boldness and imagination. The aim of any grand strategy must be to maximise one's strategic advantages at a minimum military, economic, and political cost. India's bomb lobby, unfortunately, suffers from an acute case of nuclear and missile envy. Our approach instead should be to act proactively in such a way that would allow us to retain a degree of initiative, consolidate our strategic advantage, and act in a manner and time of our own choosing.
Indeed, technology demonstration coupled with a regime of arms control would be an imaginative way to respond to the latest round of provocation from across the border. It would also be congruent with the fundamental precept of strategy since times immemorial, that technology is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
Gaurav Kampani is a Research Associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the CNS or the Monterey Institute of International Studies.