For sometime now, there has been an animated debate in India over the need to bolster the country’s strike capability with an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) equipped to hit targets at a distance of 10,000 kms. Indian strategic analysts argue that the country cannot afford to remain a silent spectator to the massive build up of an ICBM arsenal by China. Moreover, an ICBM capability is considered a natural corollary to India’s emergence as an economic, technological and military power of global standing. Further looking beyond the possibility of a Chinese threat, India should build up a sturdy ICBM capability to sustain its evolution into a truly global military power in the none too distant future. Right at the moment only a handful of countries in the world possess an ICBM strike capability.
India’s strides in designing and developing a range of military missiles and civilian space vehicles could easily be exploited to put in place a technological building blocks of an ICBM. As it is, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has time and again made it clear that developing an ICBM along with realising the technology of MIRV (Multiple Independently Targettable Re-entry Vehicle) is well within its capability .What is more, DRDO has also highlighted the need for India to develop an anti-satellite system with a view to prepare India for futuristic warfare in which space assets will play a key role in determining the outcome of the battle.
The political leadership, though, in the national capital, New Delhi has not given serious thinking on the necessity for an ICBM. DRDO can take up a project to develop India’s ICBM only after permission from the Government of India. Since India is not a signatory to the so-called Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Indian government is not bound by “any treaty commitment” to cap the development of ICBM capability. But occasional reports appearing in a section of the media suggest that there is a voluntary moratorium on developing missiles beyond the range of 5,000 km.
As things stand now, the possibility of the US exerting pressure on India to abandon the plan for an ICBM – in the event of New Delhi giving a green signal for such a project cannot be ruled out. Both the US State Department and many privately funded think tanks in the country hold the view that DRDO has been “silently and subtly” making use of technologies that Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has developed for its space vehicles. Many of the technologies including electronics and communications devices, guidance and navigation packages as well as propulsion systems are common to both a civilian launch vehicle and a military missile.
Against this backdrop, the dominant view in USA was that the solid fuel technology developed for India’s first civilian launch vehicle SLV-3 was used for driving the Agni range of missiles developed as part of the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) programme launched by DRDO in 1980s. The 17- tonne four stage SLV-3 which had its successful debut flight in 1980 was developed under the leadership of the former Indian President Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam during his stint with ISRO. The American suspicion about the diversion of ISRO developed technologies for IGMDP was further strengthened by the fact that Abdul Kalam moved out of ISRO to head DRDO. In fact, Kalam’s leadership proved quite crucial for the success of IGMDP.
In the late 1990s, India had to postpone the test flights of its intermediate range Agni missile on more than one occasion under intense US pressure. What is more, way back in 1992, the USA had prevented an economically emaciated and politically weak Russia into dropping its plan to transfer the critical cryogenic engine technology to India with a view to help ISRO develop its high performance Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). The argument of USA was that it contributed to “proliferation” and constituted the violation of MTCR. Subsequently, ISRO and the Russian space agency Glavkosmos came under the ambit of US sanction. Incidentally, the highly complex and difficult to handle cryogenic propulsion system is far from ideal for use in a military missile. For an overwhelming proportion of missile now being deployed are driven by earth storable, solid fuel systems. The logic is that a solid propellant driven missile is in a “perpetually ready to use” condition to hit the required systems.
With DRDO moving closer to preparing for the first test flight of the 5,000km range Agni-5, developing capabilities for ICBM would only be a matter of time and political decision. It is not for nothing that IAF chief Air Chief Marshal P. V. Naik had made a strong pitch for India to develop ICBM if the technological capability already exists. He also wondered why India should put a voluntary cap on developing missiles beyond the range of 5,000 km. On a more practical plane, building up an ICBM capability is vitally essential for India since it has a declared a “no first use of nuclear weapon” doctrine. Evidently India has not yet signed the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) despite the sustained pressure from USA. Yet another convincing argument in favour of India developing an ICBM is that the country which is already working on putting in place a ballistic missile defence system should not stay away from developing ICBM capability
The growing military might of China as highlighted by its plan for a high tech space warfare supported by a variety of long range missiles should wake up India’s defence establishment to build at least “a semblance of counter measure” in the form of an ICBM to begin with. Further, one cannot rule out the possibility of China developing a Space Force like its neighbour Russia to give an integrated thrust to its space and missile defence strategy.
The integration of China’s space and missile defence strategy could be a cause of worry for not only India but also to US. The early 2007 anti-satellite test and anti-missile tests of 2010 provide a clear pointer to China’s vision for integrating, Air, Space and Missile capabilities into a single matrix. Similarly, China’s plan for an oribiting space station could provide a conspicuous edge in the futuristic battlefield where the supremacy in space will determine the outcome of a war.
Radhakrishna Rao is a freelancer specializing in defence and aerospace issues
(The views expressed in the article are that of the author and do not represent the views of the editorial committee or the centre for land warfare studies).