The U.S. Nuclear Deal and Indian ICBMs

Feb 16, 2009
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India: The U.S. Nuclear Deal and Indian ICBMs
June 21, 2007 | 1924 GMT

India reportedly halted development of intercontinental ballistic missiles as a good-faith gesture aimed at facilitating the troubled civilian nuclear deal with the United States, according to an unconfirmed (and as yet not denied) CNN-IBN report June 18. Though the gesture may have appeared magnanimous, intercontinental reach is far down New Delhi's list of priorities.

New Delhi appears to have halted -- at least temporarily -- development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), CNN-IBN reported June 18. The halt appears to be an effort to address Washington's discomfort with the proposed U.S.-Indian bilateral civilian nuclear deal. Though the report has not been confirmed, it also has not been denied.

U.S. concerns, however, have nothing at all to do with Indian ICBMs. India has only moderate interest in such a capability, since its most pressing international concerns are hardly at intercontinental distances. As such, India's need for ICBMs -- especially in the near term -- is quite limited.


Ultimately, India is fairly geographically secure. Oceans and mountains constitute the bulk of New Delhi's border. The Himalayas provide a nearly impenetrable barrier to meaningful military confrontation with China. Pakistan, which along with Afghanistan occupies the Hindu Kush to the northwest, is the only real power within India's immediate geographic zone.

The Indo-Pakistani rivalry has been well entrenched since 1948 -- but Indian strategic missiles are well-suited to deal with that threat. Moreover, the nuclear balance between the two has matured to the point that it now injects an element of stability and restraint into the rivalry. An ICBM has almost no relevance to a direct confrontation with Pakistan. The 3,000-kilometer (about 1,800 miles) distance from Bangalore in southern India to the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, in northern Pakistan is probably approaching the minimum range of a true ICBM.

Thus, unlike the intercontinental ranges of the U.S.-Russian Cold War rivalry, the Indo-Pakistani rivalry is not a long-distance rivalry. The medium-range Agni II, the longest-range ballistic missile yet deployed by the Indian military, already allows India to cover the entirety of Pakistan from nearly anywhere in India.

In terms of this particular rivalry, the Agni II will suffice for New Delhi's ballistic missile needs. Other avenues, like the BrahMos cruise missile and the Prithvi-derived Dhanush ship-launched ballistic missile now under development, can be pursued to complement this ability. Any additional range actually would be counterproductive.


The Sino-Indian balance, however, is another story. With the Himalayas as a geographic buffer, neither country represents an imminent strategic threat to the other. And neither has much interest in any sort of arms race, since both have far better things to worry about.

This is where the Agni III intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) comes in. A successful test in April followed a serious stumble in 2006, when a failure with the first-stage exhaust nozzle destroyed the test mission in the first minute of flight. It took nearly a year to retool and test a second missile. The Agni III gives New Delhi the ability to target Beijing, though this is not something New Delhi is in any particular hurry to do given the two countries' distracted bilateral relationship.

Beijing, by contrast, already can target all of India with most of its strategic arsenal. With another major power so close by, New Delhi could only consider it prudent to establish a basic counterbalance. Given the state of the two countries' current relations, such a counterbalance could be more than sufficiently accomplished with a small force of Agni III missiles.

Other Motivators for India

This is not to say India does not want an ICBM capability; who would not? But just like anyone else, India has priorities -- with establishing the military capability to obliterate Pakistan ranking near the top. Achieving a basic parity with China also is important. But for the immediate future, the importance of the nuclear deal with Washington ranks far above its desire for intercontinental reach.

While an ICBM is indeed within India's grasp, the nation's missile programs reflect that this is not a top priority. Development of the Surya ICBM has been rumored for more than a decade without tangible results. This is despite continued progress with the indigenous geostationary and polar orbit satellite launch vehicles on which the Surya theoretically is based. (Ultimately, the distinction between a satellite launch vehicle and an ICBM comes down to payload.) What is more, India is poised to become only the sixth country in the world to field a cryogenic upper stage, a particularly complex technology. So if it were a real priority, the Surya would surely be further along.

On the other hand, few things are more important to India right now than maintaining control over its own nuclear fuel cycle (and thus retaining the ability to extract its own weapons-grade plutonium for military purposes). This has been a contentious issue in the nuclear negotiations with the United States. India's defense establishment is extremely wary of the conditions the United States wants to place on India before the civilian nuclear deal can pass, and New Delhi is offering very little leeway on any concessions that would set India back militarily. Before the announcement of the Indian ICBM halt, the Indian Cabinet ratified an amendment June 15 to the International Atomic Energy Agency convention providing for protection of nuclear material from acts of terror and sabotage. This was another key U.S. demand for India (a nonsignatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty) to facilitate the ongoing negotiations.

In essence, the apparent sacrifice of the ICBM program is nothing more than a low-cost way for India to promote itself as a responsible nuclear player deserving of the civilian nuclear agreement with the United States. India can certainly stand to take a missile program essentially already on the back burner off the stove for a little while. But with the continued development of the Agni III IRBM and launches of its geostationary and polar satellite launch vehicles, India will continue to progress in this direction regardless.

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