Indian Space Launch Vehicles and ICBM

Feb 16, 2009
Country flag

Indian Space Launch Vehicles and ICBM

February 29, 2008
Kartik Bommakanti
This piece explores why it is assumed within India and elsewhere that New Delhi will
adapt its space launch vehicles to build an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM).
Some Indian commentators justify acquiring an ICBM by arguing it has special
symbolism or that the country has the technical capability to do so. Elsewhere, analysts
draw inferences about India’s intentions from its space capabilities. Surveying the
technical and the political factors will reveal that an Indian ICBM is a remote possibility.
It shows that technical impediments can be potentially overcome, but argues that these
are unlikely to override political preferences. The empirical evidence suggests that
advances in India’s missile capabilities do not and have not paralleled the pace and
intensity in development of India’s space launch rocketry.
Bharat Karnad, one of India’s leading strategic analysts, says the Polar Satellite Launch
Vehicle (PSLV), Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV) or the Geostationary
Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) can be easily turned into an ICBM with their satellite
payloads replaced with a thermonuclear warhead.1 Contrary to Karnad’s assertion, India’s
space launch vehicles cannot be automatically converted into usable ICBMs, even if their
technologies could help build one.
A brief survey of the technical evidence will demonstrate why this is difficult to achieve.
Compared to the most sophisticated ICBMs in the Russian missile inventory, whose
road-mobile SS-27 has a launch weight of 47.2 tons,2 while its rail-mobile SS-24 variant
weighs 104.5 tons,3 India’s SLVs are in a completely different launch weight category.
The GSLV has a total weight that is over eight times (401 tons)4 greater than the SS-27
and almost three times the weight of the SS-24. The PSLV, lighter than the GSLV, still
weighs six times (294 tons) more than the SS-27 and approximately three times heavier
than the SS-24.5 Thus, the Indian space launch vehicles’ excessive weight alone
precludes easy conversion into an ICBM.
However, a 2005 U.S. Department of Defense report, making a generic observation about
reconfiguring space launch vehicles into ICBMs, noted, “Demonstrating multistage
booster technology sufficient to reach GEO [Geostationary Orbit] is an indication that a
nation has capability to seriously pursue ICBM capabilities.”6 An indigenous GSLV
capability is something India is yet to develop fully. The Indian Space Research
Organization (ISRO) has launched five developmental flights of its GSLV, using
Russian-supplied cryogenic engines. These engines are used in the upper stage of the
GSLV, which bear similarity to their use in the American Saturn V and Saturn 1B
rockets.7 India is poised to launch in 2008 its GSLV-III with an indigenously developed
cryogenic rocket engine, which can carry a 4-ton payload to geosynchronous orbit.8 This
launch platform is completely new: the vehicle is not a derivative of its previous Indian
space launch vehicles.9 The ground test was successfully carried out in November 2007 at
the Liquid Propulsion Test Facility in Southern India. This engine will form the
cryogenic upper stage of the GSLV-III.10
Even with this step forward, technical hurdles will remain in changing the GSLV into an
ICBM. GLSVs use cryogenic engines which are liquid-fueled. The very low temperatures
of cryogenic engines, if used for ICBM propulsion, render their storage over prolonged
periods of time very difficult.11 Indian SLVs use solid fuels for initial propulsion and
liquid fuel during intermediate stages.12 Unlike other fuels, the storage volume of liquid
hydrogen is very high due to its extremely low density, which stands at 0.59 pounds per
gallon.13 In addition, as the 2005 DOD report mentioned earlier noted, “A propellant with
a low storage temperature i.e., a cryogenic, will require thermal insulation, thus further
increasing the mass of the launcher.”14 The United States in the 1960s decided to shift
from its liquid-fueled ICBMs to solid-fueled rockets due to the problems associated with
the storability of liquid-fueled engines and the enormous time it takes in preparing a
liquid-fueled ICBM launch.15

Feb 16, 2009
Country flag
The Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV), weighing 41,000 kilograms, has a
launch weight that is closer to that of Russian ICBMs.16 But even in the case of the
ASLV, there are liabilities. The ASLV is likely to be cumbersome as a road-mobile
ballistic missile. The ASLV is a five-stage rocket, and removing its two strap-on boosters
would bring its weight down to approximately 19,000 kg – a figure that fits well with the
launch weight of a road-mobile ICBM.17 The ASLV is, however, designed to carry a 150-
kg18 payload, but modifying the ASLV by stripping its strap-on boosters will trigger a
loss in payload delivery capabilities, rendering it incapable of carrying a 1000-kg payload
to intercontinental ranges.19 More critically, in a road mobile configuration, the enormous
diameter of ASLVs’ strap-on boosters makes them unwieldy as an ICBM.20 The only
option available then is to place the ASLV/PSLV in a fixed silo, which increases its
vulnerability to attack and makes the missile more easily detectable. Similar technical
challenges apply in the case of the PSLV’s transformation to an ICBM. The PSLV is a
four-stage rocket whose first stage has amongst the world’s largest solid-propellant
engines.21 With a diameter of 2.8 meters, it compares unfavorably to the Russian SS-27
road-mobile ICBM, which has a diameter twice as small as the PSLV.22
Also, the re-entry speed of an ICBM is greater than a launch vehicle, and requires greater
capacity to resist high atmospheric temperatures and hydraulic drag.23 One commentator
recently suggested that India may have been constrained from pursuing the development
of an ICBM due to the non-export of polyacrylonitrile (PAN) fiber to India by several
countries.24 This material, a Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) regulated item,
is indispensable for carbon fiber ablatives that enable heat resistance of re-entry vehicles
of ICBMs.25 There is some evidentiary justification to this point. The Defense Research
and Development Organization (DRDO) that runs the Indian missile program recently
issued a contract for carbon fabric such as warp fiber and weft fiber which are based on a
PAN precursor.26 Warp fiber and weft fiber have aerospace applications. The tender also
stipulates that the fibers be compatible with epoxy systems.27 Epoxy systems have
excellent insulating properties that enable chemical heat and electrical resistance.28
Nevertheless, one cannot clearly deduce that the DRDO’s quest to acquire PAN fiber will
inevitably find its way into the missile program, because the material has other defense
Despite these technical hurdles that India will experience in converting its space launch
vehicles into ICBMs, they are not necessarily insurmountable. Thus some Indian
commentators have urged India’s leadership to demonstrate the political fortitude to
acquire ICBMs using SLV technology, regardless of need and international
consequences. This would be a case of technology driving strategy, rather than the way
The last point is critical to understanding whether India’s political leadership will allow
technological determinism and bureaucratic momentum to drive its missile program.
Bureaucratic interests epitomized by India’s strategic enclaves will push for the
involvement of the space program to enable the growth of India’s missile capabilities, but
their influence will be circumscribed by the preferences of India’s political leadership. To
that degree, policy outcomes regarding India’s missile program cannot be determined by
bureaucratic momentum and technological determinism alone, they are ultimately a
function of political choice. As Stephen Krasner points out, “The values which bureau
chiefs assign to policy outcomes are not independent.”30
At the other end of the spectrum lies technological determinism, as advanced by analysts
like Raju G.C. Thomas, who argued in the 1980s that India’s nuclear and missile
intentions are a product of technological capacity “whether it is for development or
defense purposes.”31 This is inaccurate, at least in the latter case. Instead, the Indian
leadership has successfully prevented technological imperatives from driving the missile
program “by carefully directing the pace of research and development through stringent
control of funding and by basing all testing and deployment decisions on political
necessity rather than merely on technical capability – and this dynamic is unlikely to
change in the future.”32 India for over three decades had the opportunity to militarize the
Rohini series of sounding rockets, but has not.33 The political leadership has shown no
inclination in divesting civilian control of the sounding rocket program from the ISRO to
the DRDO, which would be a significant boon to the latter’s missile plans.
Another case in point is the Agni, a medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), which was
first flight-tested in 1989. Initially it was declared a “technology demonstrator” in a bid to
validate capability. Two additional tests were carried out and in 1996 the Indian
government briefly suspended the Agni’s development.34 The Agni program in effect
went through a phase of stops and starts for nearly a decade since the launch of the
Integrated Guided Missile Development Program, despite the DRDO’s attempt to
mobilize support for the project.35 To that extent, the Indian missile program has not
acquired an untrammeled momentum.
With a range of 3,000 kilometers, the Agni-3 is the longest range missile in India’s
ballistic missile inventory, even if it is still in its testing phase. This missile was
originally conceptualized in the 1980s for targeting China, but active development only
began in the late 1990s and it was successfully flight-tested for the first time only in April
2007. As one report noted, “Agni-III was by far the most difficult version of India’s
primary nuclear-weapon carrier. Five years in the making, Agni-3 was designed to be a
stubbier and shorter version of Agni II but with the power to traverse an additional 1,000
km. To give it the extra thrust, scientists had to fabricate all new, solid-fuel rocket
engines with diameters twice the size of Agni II.”36 Pending further tests, its deployment
is still uncertain. One of the principal factors behind this “haphazard” development
process is funding constraints, despite the imperatives of India’s leadership to create an
array of delivery systems. In the absence of committed resources, the DRDO is unable to
intensify its production capabilities, improve the quality of its engineering performance,
or establish economies of scale.37 These limitations have induced successive Indian
governments to temper the growth of its missile capabilities.
Finally, there are no strategic motivations for India to develop an ICBM to target the
United States or any other country located at intercontinental ranges, because there are
none that threaten India. Ultimately, the development of an Indian ICBM will be
conditioned by the quality of its political relations with the United States, Europe or even
Russia. It is therefore hard to agree with one American commentator that India intends to
build an ICBM by adapting its space launch vehicles to target the United States.38 As
George Perkovich notes, “Indians aren’t going to go crazy and build up…It’s not in their
interest, it’s not in the priorities, it’s not in the culture.”39 More likely, India and the
United States may have struck a tacit bargain that allows New Delhi to expand its strategic capabilities only to the degree that it does not directly threaten the United States.40 This implies that India will be expected not to develop missiles beyond a range of 5,000 kilometers, or in other words, missiles that can only reach as far as China.41 To that extent, bureaucratic and technological factors will not be the key drivers behind India’s missile capabilities.
1 Bharat Karnad, “India’s Force Planning Initiative: The Thermonuclear Imperative,” Nuclear India in the
Twenty-First Century, ed. Sardesai and Raju G.C. Thomas (NY: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2002), p. 200.
2“RT-2UTTH – Topol-M,” Federation of American Scientists, (accessed on February 26, 2008).
3 Ibid; See also “RT-23/SS-24 Scalpel,” Federation of American Scientists (accessed on February 26, 2008).
4 “Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV)”, Department of Space: Indian Space Research
Organisation, (accessed on February 16, 2008).
5 “Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle,” Department of Space: Indian Space Research Organisation, (accessed on February 16, 2008).
6 “List of MCTL Technology Data Sheets: 19.6 Launch Propulsion for Space Systems,” Militarily Critical
Technologies List: Section 19: Space Systems Technology, Department of Defense, October 2005,, p. 96.
7 Ibid
8 “Indigenous Cryogenic Stage Successfully Qualified,” ISRO, Nov. 15 2007,
9 “Space Launch Vehicles,” Bharat Rakshak,
html#gslvmk3 (accessed February 10 2008).
10 Space Launch Vehicles”, Bharat Rakshak,
html#gslvmk3 (accessed February 10, 2008).
11 “List of MCTL Technology Data Sheets: 19.6 Launch Propulsion for Space Systems,” Militarily Critical
Technologies List: Section 19: Space Systems Technology, Department of Defense, October 2005,, p.

Latest Replies

Global Defence

New threads