Wednesday, November 30, 2011

New Delhi risks upsetting Asia’s delicate weapons balance

India's ICBM

China In India's Missile Range

Sometime over the next three months,perhaps as early as December, Indian defense officials are scheduled to test the country‘s first truly intercontinental ballistic missile, the Agni-V, which theoretically brings India’s weapons program within range of most of China.

Officials insist that India has a no-strike-first policy and that the weapons are no threat to any other country in the region. Said VK Saraswat, the chief of the Defense Research & Development Organization, the federal body that oversees the country’s indigenous arms development: “We are not looking at how many missiles China or Pakistan has. With a 'no first-use' nuclear weapons policy, we only want a sufficient number of missiles to defend the country in the event of a crisis. Ours is a defensive-mode strategy, even if others have offensive postures.”

However, as governments have pondered during the missile age, how much is a sufficient number? Tthe implications for the balance of power in the region are obvious. India’s two-decades-old missile program has mostly been aimed at nullifying nullify the threat from its immediate and unremittingly hostile neighbor, Pakistan. That appears to be changing. While shorter versions of the Agni missile series cover Pakistan, Agni III and beyond are part of India’s efforts to guard against China.

The ICBM, named for the Hindu god Agni, the god of fire and the acceptor of sacrifices, is referred to by Indian officials and scientists as the “China killer,” hardly a peaceable phrase, due to its ability to target cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and reach the northernmost tips of the country.

Yet with only a handful of missiles and believed to possess only 70 nuclear weapons, India has a long way before it couldmatch up to China’s arsenal, with its missiles capable of delivering payloads up to 14,000 km, covering much of the globe. China is believed to possess at least 410 nuclear weapons. This is probably a race the world does not need, as the western powers proved from the 1960s on. The United States and Russia have slowly and reluctantly been reducing their missile capacity for almost a generation, although both retain a vast suf ficiency enough to wipe out the planet several times over.

Nonetheless, Agni-V allows India to join a select group of nations including the US, China, the UK and Russia, which possess ICBMs with the capability to strike targets at least 5,500 km away. India’s program director, Avinash Chander, said that Agni-V would be ready for incorporation into the armed forces by 2014.

Agni V’s predecessor, Agni IV, which is capable of carrying nuclear warheads with a range of 3,500 km, was tested two weeks ago, almost a year after a previous test was unsuccessful. New Delhi called the test a “stupendous success” and suggesting the test puts India’s missile capability a notch higher than Pakistan’s.

Although India’s record in developing indigenous weapons --tanks or fighter jets -- is abysmal, such as not been the case with its ballistic missile program. Some of this is due to progress in launching and installation of broadcast and remote sensing satellites in space under the aegis of the Indian Space Research Organization.

This is despite sanctions US sanctions imposed on India’s dual-use technologies. The advances in missile technology have occurred concomitantly with strides in space research as the motors used in the launch vehicles of satellites have been incorporated into missiles.

The Defense Research & Development Organization, which has an otherwise spotty record of weapons development, claims Agni-V is built almost fully with indigenous technology, although Indian scientists are known to copy readily available blueprints from Russia.

Agni-V must undergo two to four more “repeatable” tests before the weapon goes operational, Avinash Chander said. “Our aim is to take just two to three years from the first test to the induction phase.”

In June, the now-retired Air Chief Marshal PV Naik said India's rising global stature demands developing the ICBM and long-range attack capability possessed by elite nations.

“India should pursue an ICBM program to acquire ranges of 10,000 km or even more,” Naik said. “Breaking out of the regional context is important as the country's sphere of influence grows. We have no territorial designs on any country, but India needs the capability to match its sphere of influence.”

India’s deepening interest in ICBM’s has occurred even as the US has opened its defense armaments market, including dual-use technology, for Indian use, definitely moving away from a sanctions-ridden policy paradigm that harkened back to the Cold War era when India was aligned with the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Events such as the Kargil war of 1999, during which the country nearly went to war with Pakistan and the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks orchestrated by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists have only heightened India’s insecurities and led to efforts to refine its ability to attack and protect itself.

Since the Mumbai attacks in November 2008, India has also accelerated its ballistic missile defense program with help from its newly friendly defense partner America, to protect against a sudden missile attack, possibly nuclear tipped, particularly from rogue elements in Pakistan.

The defense expertise can also be extended to space to protect India’s remote and communication satellites, especially after China conducted an anti-satellite test in 2007, in what is seen as a potential “Star Wars” arms race between the two Asian nations, with America strategically siding with India.

Given the closed nature of China’s polity, nobody is quite sure what kind of investments and developments are happening in China’s defense sphere. Some analysts believe that China’s military capabilities today could be superior to America’s although US defense expenditure dwarfs that of the rest of the world combined.

Pakistan is no patsy either, with a missile program that is actively promoted by China, and with the country having developed its own nuclear capability. Several of its attack ballistic missiles with the potential to destroy Indian cities are a copy of those in possession of China.

The country has test-fired the Shaheen-2, a 2000-km range missile. Pakistan, meanwhile, continues to receive military largesse from America as a partner in the global war against terror, though India has long held that such stockkpiling of weapons only adds to instability in the region.

New Delhi feels that US-supplied armaments to Pakistan are more potent against a conventional enemy rather than the amorphous terror networks that also spread over Afghanistan and need effective intelligence and pinpointed operations, such as the one that killed Osama Bin Laden, to neutralize.

India has thus been implementing a massive defense modernization effort over the past few years. Given the country’s incipient domestic inability to manufacture military hardware, most arms are imported despite the fact that the missile program remains an indigenous effort that breeds off the successes in India’s space program.

In its latest report, Swedish think tank Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, has said that India has become the biggest arms importer in the world and in the process overtaken China, though Indian observers say that a major portion of Beijing’s arms budget continues to be hidden, secret and unknown to the world.

(By Siddharth Srivastava New Delhi-based journalist)

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