India’s Agni-5 has the potential to unleash an arms race
India’s catalog of ballistic and cruise missiles is remarkable. Its credibility has been increasing gradually due to steady technological advancements and the successful tests of missiles. Indeed, India’s modernized arsenal, especially the Agni-5, seems to be having an impact on the regional and global strategic environment.
The increase in the military capabilities of one state always amplifies the security dilemmas of others, particularly the neighboring states. For vulnerable and alarmed nations to react in the same manner is inevitable – a move which can unleash a destabilizing arms race. Hence, the development of an Indian missile is always monitored by Pakistan and China.
It is pertinent to note that China does not express its reactions over India’s cruise and ballistic missiles’ development. Pakistan, however, does exactly the opposite. One reason could be because India’s short and long-range weapons undermine Pakistan’s security, while China maintains a large inventory of cruise and ballistic missiles.
On December 12, India successfully test-fired the Agni-5 — an indigenously developed surface-to-surface ballistic missile — from the Dr. Abdul Kalam Island off the coast of Odisha. “Agni-5 is a three-stage missile and is 17 meters tall and 2 meters wide. It is capable of carrying 1.5 tons of nuclear warheads,” a statement released at the launch event had read at the time.
India initiated the Agni project in the mid-1980s, with the first test conducted on April 19, 2012. From then onwards, Indian scientists have been working on the technicalities of the missile by improving its navigation and guidance, warhead, and engine.
The Agni-5 provides a deterrent capability against China and has the most potent or survivable second-strike capability against Pakistan, provided India makes a naval version of the missile to deploy on its nuclear-powered submarines.
Last week’s test was the Agni-5’s seventh trial which enhances confidence in the operational capabilities of the missile. “It was a user-associated trial. Strategic force command along with DRDO scientists conducted it,” the statement said, adding that “the missile seems ready to be inducted into India’s tri-service Strategic Forces Command, which manages India’s nuclear arsenal”.
With a strike range of 5,000 km, the Agni-5 falls in the category of a nuclear-capable, intermediate-range ballistic missile. There is a probability that India could further increase its range by 500 km for it to join the exclusive club of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). At present, only the United States, Russia, China, France, and Britain possess ICBM capabilities. With the Agni-5, India is at the threshold of joining the club.
The Agni-5’s frequent tests demonstrate India’s noticeable strategic strike capability which cannot be ignored by the world’s great powers that possess intercontinental missiles.
Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal
India has been developing world-class military strike capabilities to project itself as a superpower in the global strategic setting. The Agni-5’s frequent tests demonstrate India’s noticeable strategic strike capability which cannot be ignored by the world’s great powers that possess intercontinental missiles. Its international recognition as a superpower will indeed strengthen New Delhi’s case in obtaining a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council.
India has also been developing its blue water navy and is determined to play a decisive role in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. The Agni-5 enables New Delhi to launch strikes against Beijing and Shanghai, across the whole of Asia, 70 percent of Europe, and Eastern Africa. With that kind of a reach, India can strike targets located in several countries and would be able to deter interference from other superpowers, especially China and pertaining to South Asian and Indian Ocean matters.
By being able to attack China, the missile sends out a strong message — that its coastal cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, are vulnerable to being targeted by a nuclear-capable ballistic missile.
Therefore, the incessant testing of the Agni-5 cannot be ignored by China and may lead to Beijing increasing its missile arsenal capabilities. The qualitative and quantitative increase of China’s missiles validates the US’ concerns that the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty does not address the former’s missile buildup.
Additionally, the timing of the Agni-5’s recent test is critical. US President Donald Trump was provoked over the similar strike range by Russia’s development of an intermediate-range, ground-launched, cruise missile. He threatened to revoke the INF Treaty in October and recently gave Moscow a 60-day deadline to comply before it gets rid of the INF Treaty.
The deployment of the Agni-5 has the potential to unleash a missiles arms race between India and China, even though the latter already has long-range missiles in its possession. However, it will not change the present state of strategic relations between Pakistan and India. Pakistan’s ballistic and cruise missiles can reach any part of India. The Shaheen-III, with a range of 2,750 km, arms Islamabad with the ability to attack major Indian cities.
In a nutshell, while the Agni-5 enhances India’s nuclear deterrent capabilities against China, it does little to bring about a real shift in the strategic balance between India and Pakistan.
— Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal is an Islamabad-based analyst and professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University.
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