In the last half of September 2021 Indian news/media channels broke the news that India will conduct the user trial of its Agni-V intercontinental ballistic nuclear missile. The test has importance because it is reported in Indian media that it will be tested as MIRV (multiple independent re-entry target vehicle). It is pertinent to mention here that news came into the media because after postponing the test of Agni-V last year due to COVID-19, India is supposed to conduct the test this year in October. Like all other military developments especially missile developments with the capability to carry nuclear warheads, Agni-V will have multiple consequences on the strategic stability of South Asia. But, what needs to be addressed here is that will the consequences be “rattling” as Indian media has portrayed or will they not affect the “deterrence equation” of South Asian nuclear rivals.
Agni-V is India’s intercontinental ballistic missile with the capability to deliver 1,650 kg of payload. It has a range of over 5,000 km with three-stage solid propulsion. The first two stages of Agni-V have the same features as the Agni-III intermediate-range ballistic missile. According to open sources and CSIS Missile Treat Initiative, India initiated the development of the Agni-V missiles at the end of the last decade in 2008. India’s missile development agency DRDO initially named the missile Agni-III+ but later on change the name to Agni-V in the year 2010. In the year 2012 first flight test of Agni-V missile was conducted, later on, subsequent missile tests were conducted in years 2013, 2015, 2016, and 2018. Other than the range of the Agni-V missile another important aspect of this missile is that it is a “cannisterised” road-mobile launch missile, which gives it an edge to be launch from different places in a much reduced time. Regarding the MIRVing capability of the Agni-V ICBM, there is a variation in the statements and views of the Indian officials. The former head of the DRDO claimed in 2013 that Agni-V missiles are developed with MIRVing capability, this claim was later on denied by his successor head of DRDO. But, recent media reports are again buzzing with the news that prospective test of Agni-V will also test its MIRV capability.
Regardless of the fact that the Agni-V user trial test will test its MIRV capability, it is a known fact that DRDO is involved in the continued development of the MIRV technology and manoeuvrable missile systems, which will have implications on deterrence stability. The most important aspect in the Indian pursuit of cannisterised inter-ballistic missiles, MIRVs, and manoeuvrable technology is India’s dubiousness regarding its own nuclear doctrine and policy, its constant attempts to avoid the concept of mutual vulnerability and its continuous disregard for the deterrence dynamics of nuclear South Asia. India’s nuclear doctrine states that India will adhere to the policy of “NFU” and “CMD”, however, the development of cannisterised weapons depicts that in reality, India’s aspirations are more inclined towards counter-force nuclear posture, where weapons will be ready to use at any instance. Furthermore, Indian officials have stated that the development of Agni-V ensures the credibility of India’s nuclear deterrence, which depicts that focus is only on “credibility of deterrence” rather than credible minimum deterrence as stated in Indian nuclear doctrine.
In the case of South Asia, to ensure the credibility of its nuclear deterrence India does not need the ICBM as its small range and intermediate-range weapons have the capability to uphold credible deterrence. Therefore, the development of ICBM is not a rattling issue for Pakistan but the significant problem for Pakistan is India’s reliance on “cannisterised” technology for this purpose, which will reduce the time of launch and attack; it will enhance the ambiguity in crisis situations. From its experience of cannisterization of Agni-V missile, India this year tested its Agni-Prime ballistic missile with a range of 1000-2000 km, which is also a cannisterised weapon and specially designed to target Pakistan. Agni-Prime is also based on a two-stage solid propellant. Cannisterization of these missile technologies represents that India never intended to apply the NFU posture and is continuously and steadfastly resorting to the counter-force posture based on the view to launch the first strike.
Lastly, if dynamics of deterrence and strategic stability are analysed carefully in the wake of the development of Agni-Prime and the process of induction of Agni-V it is important to highlight that deterrence works with the sense of mutual vulnerability. So, Agni-V really does not rattle Pakistan. But it in fact rattles the requirements of restraint that are required from India to sustain the strategic stability in South Asia. Moreover, it brings us to the point of need of measures of arms control, which are required in South Asia.