Agni V test a high, but challenges remain : The Tribune India

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Agni V test a high, but challenges remain

Indigenisation of military inventory is an arduous endeavour for a developing nation

Agni V test a high, but challenges remain

SUCCESS: Equipping the Agni V missile with MIRV capability is a commendable achievement. PTI



C Uday Bhaskar

Director, Society for Policy Studies

INDIA carried out a successful Agni V missile test with MIRV (multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle) capability on March 11. This is a commendable achievement. Kudos to the missile division of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). With this demonstration of MIRV capability, India has joined a select band of nations — the US, Russia, France, UK and China — that can launch intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) of 5,000 km-plus range. MIRV capability implies that a single warhead can carry multiple nuclear warheads and each of them can strike separate targets at different locations.

The distinctive feature of MIRV capability is that it degrades anti-ballistic missile defences.

Such a capability was first acquired by the US in the 1970s during the Cold War and subsequently by the erstwhile USSR (now Russia); the other three nuclear powers followed suit. The distinctive feature of MIRV capability is that it degrades anti-ballistic missile defences and has significant and complex implications for deterrence stability.

China acquired MIRV capability in 2015. There is a certain inevitability about the manner in which a major power moves up the techno-strategic ladder of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities. China became a nuclear power in October 1964 and India, after some reluctance, in May 1998.

After the disintegration of the USSR and the emergence of the US as the global hegemon, Beijing resolutely invested in acquiring trans-border military capability; the WMD domain received special attention. Seeking MIRV capability is part of this quest. Inasmuch as China seeks to assuage its WMD insecurity in relation to the US in the strategic arena, this element unfolds at a different level in relation to China and India and the Agni V MIRV test is part of this geopolitical trajectory.

However the major difference is that the two Asian giants are neighbours and share a 4,000-km land border. Furthermore, they have an unresolved territorial dispute with troops facing each other, and the ground situation in certain sectors is tense.

The Indian missile programme acquired visible traction in the early 1980s under then PM Indira Gandhi's stewardship. This was an extraordinary accomplishment by the DRDO at a time when India was under a severe technology denial regime imposed by the US. Beginning with the modest Prithvi series, the IGMDP (integrated guided missile programme) has now added the nascent MIRV-capable Agni V to the Indian WMD arsenal. This capability will have a significant impact on regional WMD stability apropos of the China-India-Pakistan relationship.

In an unintended coincidence, even as India is celebrating the MIRV success, the annual report of SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) noted that India remained the world's largest importer of arms. The March 2024 report has observed that India’s arms imports increased by 4.7 per cent between 2014-18 and 2019-23.

The gist of the latest SIPRI report is no different from what was highlighted in 2023 — that India is at the top of the arms importer list globally. The 2023 report noted that “with an 11 percent share of the total global arms imports, India was the world’s biggest importer of major arms in 2018-22, a position it has held for the 1993-2022 period.”

This reality check is contrary to the perception that India has acquired a credible degree of self-reliance (atmanirbharta) in its military inventory and that it is also a major arms exporter. The assertions made in this regard by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh are illustrative.

What explains this dichotomy wherein the DRDO’s missile programme has been a visible success but there is little in the conventional arms spectrum that can be applauded as significantly contributing to the indigenous effort? A caveat must be added that slender verticals in surveillance and communication equipment have been success stories, but these are exceptions in the less-than-flattering macro track record of the DRDO.

It is a matter of shame that over the past 50 years, while India has made significant progress in the WMD domain (missiles, nuclear weapons and nuclear propulsion), indigenisation of the conventional military inventory continues to have bleak prospects. From a personal weapon (rifle) to the larger artillery gun, tanks and combat aircraft, the scorecard is dismal. The political apex, the military brass, the defence bureaucracy and the government scientists are all culpable for this morass. The ecosystem they have nurtured encourages arms imports.

The DRDO has been the subject of numerous reviews by redoubtable domain experts, from former President APJ Abdul Kalam (who led the missile programme during his DRDO years) to Vijay Kelkar, Palle Rama Rao and Naresh Chandra, but there has been no tangible improvement in the output of the DRDO. Many claims of high-octane successes have been made over the past five years, but they fall in the 90-10 matrix — a modest 10 per cent success has been inflated and projected in the public domain as being 90 per cent and world-class. Some initiatives have been taken to infuse dynamism into the moribund indigenous defence R&D and production sector, but they remain aspirational and may be described as earnest, work-in-progress efforts.

The national security challenges for the next government will be daunting, but one tenet merits repetition: when it comes to matters of national security, electoral compulsions should not muddy the domain and create invalid or counter-factual narratives.

Indigenisation of the military inventory is an arduous endeavour for a developing nation; there will be numerous setbacks. The recent crash of a Tejas fighter aircraft is a case in point. The remedy lies not in obfuscation but in an objective review of failures and finding the optimal way ahead, with a much higher degree of institutional integrity and professional competence to the atmanirbharta quest than what has been the chequered experience of the past four decades.

#Defence Research and Development Organisation DRDO


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