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The Agni V is not the ace India was looking for in its security calculus with China. But what is?

The successful test of the India’s Agni V missile recently has rekindled a nationalistic fervour in India. Blogs, newspapers, and the Inderatti (Indian twitterati) have been busy congratulating the scientists of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and their fellow citizens, while policy wonks and strategists have reiterated the obvious claims that this new addition to the Indian arsenal brings all of China into range and strengthens India’s deterrent. Not to be outdone, the usual suspects have also floated the tired “guns vs. butter” argument. But looking past the jingoism, beyond what blogger Harini Calamur called the “bleeding hearts with leaking brains,” how does the Agni test increase India’s diplomatic and security toolkit?

Contextualising the Agni V

My heretical thought is that it doesn’t. Strictly from the specifications of the latest missile in the Agni family, it is evident that India means the missile as an insurance policy against China – the 5,000+ km range is serious overkill for Pakistan, and it is highly unlikely that New Delhi will entertain the idea of ordering a missile strike against Djakarta or Warsaw. There is no doubt that the development of the Agni V has been an umbrella under which the DRDO could develop ancillary defence technologies, and its presence in the Indian arsenal, particularly because of its canister-launch capability, certainly increases India’s choices. The mobility provided by the TEL system would virtually guarantee India a second strike capability against a Chinese attack.
Agni V specifications
Name: Agni V
Height: 17.5 metres
Weight: 50 tonnes
Payload: 1.5 tonnes MIRV-capable
Range: 5,500 kms
Propulsion: Three-stage, solid fuel propellant
Transport: Road or rail mobile
Launch platform: Canister-launch from TEL (transporter erector launcher)
It is not clear, however, how all this adds to New Delhi’s already existing capabilities. The Agni V is touted as a long range missile, an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) no less (albeit by a whisker), bringing all of China into range; its TEL platform, as mentioned, makes it difficult for enemy satellites to locate it for a preemptive strike and thus virtually guarantees a second strike capability; the missile is MIRV-capable (Multiple Independently Targetted Reentry Vehicle),  multiplying India’s target selection options. Yet all this is already available between the Agni III and the Sagarika (K-15) SLBM (submarine launched ballistic missile), not to mention India’s fleet of nuclear-capable aircraft (Jaguar, MiG-27, Mirage 2000, MiG-29, Tejas, Sukhoi-30 MKI, Rafale). While the Agni III (also using a TEL launch platform) can hit most parts of China, the Sagarika can hit any part that was missed, and both missiles are capable of surviving a preemptive first strike.

This is not to say that the Agni V was an unnecessary project – it adds to the government’s operational flexibility (nuclear release is a civilian decision in India) and allows further development of technology to keep India abreast of the major powers. Most importantly, keeping an eye on the future, it lays the groundwork for the development of longer range missiles if necessary. Yet it is important to underscore the fact that while the Agni V marked a breakthrough in Indian missile development, it has not changed New Delhi’s equation with Beijing as drastically. Among the chest thumpers, the Agni V – or any display of military achievement – is an article of faith, and they will no doubt point out that neither the Arihant nor the Sagarika are yet operational and therefore the new missile is sorely needed, but the same applies to the Agni V. In India, there is a long lag between the DRDO’s dog-and-pony show for the benefit of the country’s masses and actual military readiness.

It needs to be reiterated to the South Asian public that the moment a nuclear missile lifts off, be it from Secundrabad, Sargodha, or Delingha, they have already lost regardless of the outcome of a missile exchange. The paradoxical nature of nuclear weapons (and their delivery systems) is such that they serve only as a deterrent of last resort and cannot be used to actually fight wars (there is some debate on the defensive use of tactical weapons but one would hope that a government would delay detonating nuclear warheads on its own soil). Thus, while the Agni V reinforces a military option that no sane person dare use, its real utility is not as much as the less glamorous tactical doctrines.

Intellectual flexibility and depth

While India has achieved a certain degree of strategic depth with its missiles, submarines, and nuclear weapons, it is sorely lagging in methods of asymmetric warfare (while the term is usually understood as a synonym for terrorism a la Pakistan, it refers to conflict between two entities who capabilities and strategies differ widely). The implicit assumption regarding asymmetry so far has been that it deals with the unknowable, relying on surprise as ends and means. Thus, it is argued, there is no effective bulwark against such warfare except vigilance. But this is no different from symmetric warfare, in that uncertainty is inseparable from the nature of warfare (admittedly, asymmetry increases the realm of the unforeseen). The structure of symmetric warfare allows for a clear articulation of doctrine and tactics, techniques, and procedures, but such formulaic solutions and checklists are not possible to operationalise in asymmetric warfare. If and when the enemy succeeds in surprise, the response is necessarily ad hoc and less effective. Depending on preconceptions held by the military and politicians and ability to adapt, the advantage an opponent enjoys might persist. Indian military training must emphasise a mindset to deal with uncertainty quickly and effectively.

A vital ingredient to intellectual flexibility is intelligence and knowledge. India’s academic-military-government structure and practices are so foreboding that Indian think tanks and academics find it difficult if not impossible to contribute to a lively security debate within the country. The country’s universities are not prepared to produce area studies experts as are available in the West and China. Inadequate resources, poor faculty, paltry library collections, and a national ethos that favours technical education over the humanities have all made for a tiny pool of foreign policy scholars in India. While the state of Indian intelligence is not known, it cannot be near adequate given the glaring security failures India has experienced – while it is asinine to expect a 100% success rate, the sheer frequency of major attacks on Bombay, Parliament, and other targets throughout the country should stand as testimony to the need for a complete intelligence overhaul.

Different modes of warfare

As technologies change, so do battlefields. This is even more so in the case of asymmetric warfare when the weaker side tries to capitalise on terrain, weather, force composition, centre of gravity (in the Clausewitzian sense), and anything else they could use to advantage. At the tactical level, good intelligence is crucial, but at higher levels, military leaders must be able to see beyond the battlefield to the whole theatre and with non-linear thinking. While the Indian military does not have a stellar record for original and innovative thinking, there has been an acknowledgement of the evolving battlefield. For example, the Army announced a new war doctrine, Cold Start, in 2004. What the strategy lacks in originality, it makes up in vision – the plan calls for eight integrated battalions of armour, mechanised infantry, artillery, and combat air support. Such a composition would allow army units to mobilise quickly and strike fast and hard, reducing the time available for diplomatic intervention from third parties and domestic indecision. A quick mobilisation also increases chances of surprising the enemy. Further, the DRDO has worked towards creating weapons systems suited for Cold Start – in instances requiring rapid response, the Prahaar missile with its range of warheads outdoes India’s more famous line of missiles such as the Prithvi or Agni.

Cold Start is a Pakistan-centric strategy, and for all the fancy terminology and equipment involved, it is, in essence, an upgraded version of the German World War II doctrine of blitzkrieg. This means that it needs vast, open, and flat terrain, such as the plains of Punjab, Rajasthan, and Gujarat  to work effectively (though in the Punjab sector, Pakistan has built defensively aligned canals, distributaries and ditches which in terms of time and space thwart the use of armour). Obviously, the Himalayan geography will pose problems for Cold Start. With the same initiative as demonstrated in creating Cold Start, Indian strategists need to formulate plans appropriate to mountain warfare and commit resources to building the required infrastructure and specialised units for such combat.

Ironically, India may be able to draw lessons from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). In 1999, two colonels of the PLA, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, wrote a very interesting book on asymmetric warfare titled, Unrestricted Warfare. Rather than postulate on conventional strategies of asymmetric warfare, the authors assumed the undesirability of direct military confrontation and emphasised other unconventional means such as attacking networks, economic, and legal warfare. Unrestricted warfare battlefields reach beyond the physical domain to include culture, information networks, economics and finance, natural resources and energy. Control of sea lanes, cyber warfare, passport and visa controls, import-export controls, legal action for human rights violations, child labour, environmental concerns, etc. are all forms of unrestricted warfare (also known as 4th generation warfare) open to a state as well as private actors. For example, NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) regularly publish data on domestic violence, drug use, pollution, the environment, law enforcement, and a host of other issues. Some sue state governments (Israel is a prominent example) while others incite public unrest against a policy or project (the Kudankulam agitation in India is a recent example). In either case, the state is harassed and distracted from important issues. Gerald Steinberg of Bar Ilan University in Israel says, “NGOs manipulate international legal terminology and exploit the rhetoric of human rights to accomplish their political goals.” Such warfare can even be waged by proxy – clandestine support of some NGOs in raising certain issues can be given by a state if necessary. As US President John F. Kennedy said to the graduating class of 1962 at the United States Military Academy (USMA),

This is another type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origins—war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins; war by ambush instead of by combat; by infiltration, instead of aggression, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him…. It requires in those situations where we must counter it… a whole new kind of strategy, a wholly different kind of force, and therefore a new and wholly different kind of military training.

Training and Equipment

Interwoven with mental battlefield agility is the availability of abundant training, cross-training, and joint training. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has been in the news recently for its lack of adequate training for the pilots (25% of US Air Force and 33% of European air forces), and there is no reason to doubt that the situation is the same in the other branches of the military. Equipment is also essential in creating force multipliers in battle, through which critical zones, if not the whole battlefield, can be controlled. Yet Indian research and development as well as procurement from abroad is a horror story best left unrecounted. As Shashi Tharoor recently wrote, “any meaningful modernisation that will substantially enhance India’s combat capabilities remains a chimera, and the money at the disposal of the military remains inadequate even to replace the ageing and obsolete weapons systems with which the Indian defence services, armed police and para-military forces are replete.” Other aspects of maintaining top military readiness and effectiveness such as rotation of troops from conflict areas, salaries and benefits, reduced domestic use, clear strategic and political guidelines, and non-interference in operational matters leave much to be desired too. Thus, while India may have recently stationed three Sukhoi-30 MKI squadrons on her border with China and is raising two more mountain units, the deciding factor will not be numbers (which China has in plenty) but their equipment, training, and, just as critical, rest.

What Arms Race?

The launch of the China-specific Agni V has generated much talk about an arms race between China and India, and consequently, India and Pakistan. The Chinese media (and hence the government) has taken exception to this, reacting sharply to the test and labelling it as India’s missile delusion. Understandably, part of this bitterness comes from the gap between China’s and India’s capabilities closing; Beijing understands that while India may not, in the next decade, be able to challenge China’s rise to superpower status, it can certainly inhibit China’s rise by forcing Beijing to take cognisance  of a potential threat from the southwest. Meanwhile, analysts have rushed to point out that India is lagging far behind China, with a quarter its economy and a third its defence spending. Beijing also added that “for the foreseeable future, India would stand no chance in an overall arms race with China.” But unless India has abandoned its old policy of MUD (Mutually Unacceptable Damage), analysts and Beijing have jumped the gun. Under India’s policy of “minimum credible deterrent,” the idea was – is – the ability to have an accurate second strike capability through advanced technology and a nuclear triad. The question of the actual number of bombs has been left vague, at least in public, but the aim of the policy has been reiterated – India does not seek to ‘make the rubble bounce’ but only to inflict enough damage that it would cause an enemy to pause, think, and desist. In other words, India’s deterrent is not an existential threat to its enemies but one that promises a very high cost if India were invaded. Under such a policy, it would be unnecessary to acquire the mind-numbing number of weapons the Soviet Union and the United States thought fit to deploy during the Cold War; rather, a modest arsenal of even 200 nuclear bombs would be enough of a deterrent could it be guaranteed that they would reach their targets. It is in that spirit that the Agni V – and the rest of India’s nuclear paraphernalia – should be viewed.

Lessons from Deng Xiaoping

For the first time in the history of Indian military development, China had a sharp reaction to India’s achievement – not even the 1998 nuclear tests extracted more than a bland statement out of Beijing. But India must tread cautiously – the Agni V has not truly changed the equation between herself and China, and the various measures that could augment India’s war-fighting capabilities in the Himalayas are not yet in place. The Indian government’s reaction to the test has remained fairly muted but the Indian media and Inderatti have taken to jingoism. Instead of provoking the dragon out of sheer bravado, India ought to remember that China is far ahead of India economically as well as militarily. In an arms race, the only possible result of a showdown between these two Asian giants presently is a second victory for China. Instead, it would behoove Indians to take a page out of Deng Xiaoping’s book, at least for the time being. The best strategy for India to emulate in a critical period of her ascent would be to 1. lengjing guancha — observe and analyze [developments] calmly; 2. chenzhuo yingfu — deal [with changes] patiently and confidently; 3. wenzhu zhenjiao — secure [our own] position; 4. taoguang yanghui — conceal [our] capabilities and avoid the limelight; 5. shanyu shouzhuo — be good at keeping a low profile; 6. juebu dangtou — never become a leader; 7.  yousuo zuowei — strive to make achievements. China itself has followed this policy very closely in regard to its diminishing gap with the United States. As a result, it is only recently that American strategic planners have woken up to the potential danger China poses (even now, not everyone is convinced) to US interests.

Returning to the testing of the Agni V ICBM, there is much that needs to be done still. It needs to undergo six more tests and will be inducted into the military only in 2014. Even then, there are some issues to consider – how good is its accuracy? Why is it so heavy compared to US and Russian missiles of similar range? Can it host guided warheads? Can the missile be made to carry more warheads? How miniaturised are the warheads, and can they be made even smaller and lighter? After the questions of capability come the questions of capacity – right now, the DRDO can manufacture only two Agni Vs per year; at this rate, having a moderately sized arsenal can take quite while. Can the capacity be upgraded? How quickly can India manufacture and deploy, say, 50 missiles? The head of the DRDO, VK Saraswat, declared that over 80% of the missile is indigenous – the key question then is how much of the remaining less-than-20%, comprising mainly of electronic components, is critical to the project?

None of these questions have answers that would please Indian strategists. Therefore, India must still wait on the Agni V for its promise of security to be fulfilled. The motto on the Belizean flag reads, “Sub Umbra Florero,” which refers to the mighty mahogany tree and translates from the Latin to, “Under the shade, I flourish.” Perhaps Indians can take the cue.

This post was originally written for the CRI and has been reproduced with permission.