Agni 5 Tested: What Next?
On 18 January, 2018, the long-range Surface-to-Surface Ballistic Missile, Agni-5, was successfully flight tested to its full range from Dr Abdul Kalam Island, Odisha. This was the fifth test of the Missile and the third consecutive test of a canister on a road-mobile launcher. All the five missions so far have been successful.1 While the first test was conducted on April 19, 2012, the second and third tests were carried out in 2013 and 2015. The last test was done on December 26, 2016.
The Agni-5 is an intercontinental surface-to-surface ballistic missile (ICBM) with a range of more than 5,000 km.2 Agni missiles are a product of the Integrated Guided Missile Development Project (IGMDP) launched by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) in 1982.
Although the IGMDP terminated in 2008 on completion of its objectives, further development of Agni series of missiles has continued in order to enhance range, mobility and maintainability. Agni -5 is the fifth missile in this series after Agni-1(700 km range), Agni-2(2000 km range), Agni-3 (2500 km range) and Agni-4 (3500km range). Range enhancement has been the main goal so far. In this arena, what ought to be the next goal for the Indian Weapon Development Programme?
Although India does not have a defined and documented National Security Strategy, its intent, policies and actions are in coherence with a non-expansionist strategy focussed on protection of geographical integrity, development of human resource, sustainable economic growth and preservation of a rule-based order. Accordingly, the prime focus of the Indian Armed Forces is to ensure peace through deterrence. Development of military capability is a key component of deterrence strategy and missiles, like all other kinetic weapon systems, add to the overall combat potential and augment deterrence. Long range weapons have two inherent strengths- the ability to remain deployed in depth away from the high-intensity conflict zone and the ability to strike distant target systems thus expanding the battlespace. Both these factors form important components of the deterrence calculus.
Test flights are significant steps towards operationalisation of a new weapons system. After tests in various configurations, further modifications and refinements in Agni -5 will take place in consultation with the end users to ensure robustness and operational efficiency. Even while this process is on, the strategic community and weapon development team should be setting their next target. Should India develop Agni-6? If so, what should be the developmental goals? Damage mechanism (warhead), range and targeting accuracy define the potency of a missile. To further improve on Agni -5, the following could be undertaken. One, further enhancing its range to over 10,000km. Two, improving on the targeting requirements and making the system capable of handling diverse target systems within existing range. Lastly, developing different warhead versions of the missile. Militarily, further progression on all these prongs would be desirable. But it would be prudent to select primary focus areas based on an operational assessment.
Agni-5, like its predecessors, is expected to have a nuclear warhead. India has No First Use (NFU) policy for nuclear weapons. Therefore, the target for Agni-5 has to be from a group of nuclear weapon nations. Barring two nuclear-powered nations that India shares its land boundary with, all others from this group are practically ruled out as they are unlikely to consider a nuclear attack on India in the foreseeable future. With an existing range of over 5000km, Agni-5 meets all the possible requirements as a nuclear weapon delivery vehicle. Agni-5 only enhances the existing value of nuclear deterrence as multiple options exist for Second Strike. No further enhancement of range is operationally essential. However, a long range weapon with a conventional warhead also has operational utility especially in combination with multiple independent re-entry vehicles (MIRV). This could be employed as a deterrence against non-nuclear entities. However, in this scenario also, no further enhancement of range is operationally essential as India’s arc of interest in Asia and the Indian Ocean region can be covered by exploiting its geographic length and breadth for strategic deployment of weapons.
Coming to the second area for potential enhancement, the Targeting process commences with fixing the location of the intended target system. A nuclear attack is envisaged only on fixed/large targets and adequate data can be collected about such a target system with the use of satellites over a period of time and archived to be used on as required basis. The same targeting philosophy can be employed with a conventional warhead too. However, the approach for targeting a mobile system needs to be different. Detecting, identifying and tracking mobile target systems in hostile territory is possible only when they are within sensor range of existing air assets. Deployment of aerial assets for surveillance in hostile airspace is a high-risk mission and distance wise may not be possible in areas that can be targeted by Agni-5. The area that can be brought under surveillance of aerial assets is minuscule as compared to the targeting zone of Agni-5. A time lag between satellite revisits and the time taken for data download and interpretation makes satellites unsuitable for tracking and assisting in targeting a mobile system.. There is also the added fact that mobile target can be better concealed on land, making mission failure a distinct possibility. Therefore, a very low assurance level is expected in case a long range weapon like Agni-5 is used with a conventional warhead against a mobile target in hostile territory. This contrasts with the case of a mobile target in international waters, where detecting and tracking are comparatively easier as airborne sensors can be deployed with minimal risks and the target cannot conceal itself.
Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) in the Indian Ocean are the lifeline of the Indian economy and Indian naval assets are present to ensure their security. However, the dynamics in the Indian Ocean are gradually changing. Extra-regional powers, with the support of infrastructure in countries in Indian Ocean Region (IOR), are increasing their military deployment and could infringe upon Indian interests. Indian maritime domain awareness tools in conjunction with combat ship deployment and augmented by Indian Air Force combat and combat support aircraft can dominate a vast area of Indian Ocean for safeguarding rule-based order. The equations will change in case the extra-regional powers deploy their aircraft carriers in this area. Aircraft carriers are invariably deployed as a part of Carrier Battle Group (CBG) with a number of combat and support ships for operational and logistical imperatives. Air-launched long-range cruise missiles like BrahMos can provide effective deterrence but the continuous deployment of air power over the long range is resource intensive. In such a scenario, a conventional warhead ballistic missile like Agni-5 with MIRV can be a cost-effective tool. Additionally, ballistic missiles with their elliptical high angle trajectory and hypersonic speed limit the efficacy of most of the ship-based air defence systems. A coordinated attack by cruise missiles and ballistic missiles will test the limits of even the most advanced air defence systems with a high probability of success. For Agni-5 with a conventional warhead to deter a CBG, it needs to develop and demonstrate an ability to locate mobile targets and home on to them. Based on the expected speed of the target system and time gap between its launch and Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA) of the missile in the area, the sensors on board Agni-5 will have to scan an area of approximately 3,000 Square Km for its intended target system. A time lag between the last detection of a target and missile launch will increase this area further. Manoeuvring at hypersonic speed to converge onto a mobile target adds to the mission complexities. Once these two major technological challenges, identifying and locating the target and terminal homing, are overcome, Agni-5 will boost Indian deterrence capabilities in the IOR.
The 21st century is witnessing a greater amalgamation of virtual and real tools in the form of hybrid threats to states. Yet, kinetic weapons like long-range missiles play a significant role in the prevailing ‘no war no peace’ conditions. Successive successful tests of Agni-5 has paved the way for its operationalisation. This capability, on induction, will enhance India’s deterrence power. Further development of Agni-5 with a conventional warhead and ability to strike a mobile target like an aircraft carrier will allow India to continue to deter inimical forces from trying to dominate the Indian Ocean region. Such deterrence will assist in retaining peace, stability and freedom of movement in the IOR, so essential for the region’s growth and development.