With China engaged in ambitious missile force modernization and the US building new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) as part of its “Prompt Global Strike” programme, the question we need to ask is: When will India develop its first ICBM? Without such capability, India has little hope of emerging as a major power.
ICBMs are the idiom of power in international relations. Even as economic might plays a greater role in shaping international power equations, hard power remains central both for national deterrence and for power-projection force capability. For example, all countries armed with intercontinental-range weaponry hold permanent seats in the United Nations Security Council, and all aspirants for new permanent seats have regionally confined military capabilities.
India has glaring deficiencies on both the deterrence and power-projection fronts. It urgently needs a delivery capability that can underpin its doctrine of minimum but credible nuclear deterrence. The current heavy reliance on long-range bomber aircraft is antithetical to a credible deterrence posture.
Such a posture bereft of long-range missile reach only helps typecast India as a subcontinental power. In fact, in the absence of “strategic” or long-range missile systems, India’s deterrent capability remains sub-strategic.
If India seriously desires to project power far beyond its shores in order to play an international role commensurate with its size, it cannot do without ICBMs. Indeed, the only way India can break out from the confines of its neighbourhood is to develop intercontinental-range weaponry. With its current type of military capabilities, India will continue to be seen as a regional power with great-power pretensions.
To embark on an ICBM programme, India needs to shed its strategic diffidence. The National Democratic Alliance government told Parliament: “India has the capability to design and develop ICBMs. However, in consonance with the threat perception, no ICBM development project has been undertaken.” That policy inexplicably remains unchanged under the United Progressive Alliance government, even as India faces a growing threat from the new ICBMs in China’s increasingly sophisticated missile armoury.
An ICBM has a range of 5,500km and more. Rather than aim for a technological leap through a crash ICBM programme, India remains stuck in the intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) arena, where its frog-like paces have taken it—more than two decades after the first Agni test—to Agni III, a sub-strategic missile still not deployed. Even the Agni V project, now on the drawing board, falls short of the ICBM range.
No nation can be a major power without three key attributes: (1) a high level of autonomous and innovative technological capability; (2) a capacity to meet basic defence needs indigenously; and (3) a capability to project power far beyond its borders, especially through intercontinental-range weaponry.
India is today the world’s largest importer of conventional weapons, ordering weapons worth at least $5 billion per year. Far from making the nation stronger, such large arms imports underscore the manner in which the country is depleting its meagre defence resources and eroding its conventional military edge. The Indian military today can achieve many missions, including repulsing an aggression and inflicting substantial losses on invaders. It can even carry out limited pre-emptive or punitive action and fend off counteraction. But it cannot do what any major military should be trained and equipped for—decisively win a war against an aggressor state.
The reason is not hard to find: Modernization outlays mainly go not to develop the country’s own armament production base, but to subsidize the military-industrial complex of others through import of weapons, some of questionable value. None of the weapon mega deals India has signed in recent years will arm its military with the leading edge it needs in an increasingly volatile and uncertain regional security environment.
Its military asymmetry with China has grown to the extent that it has fostered disturbing fecklessness in India’s China policy, best illustrated by external affairs minister S.M. Krishna’s recent Beijing visit. And in the absence of a reliable nuclear deterrent, India has become ever more dependent on conventional weapon imports. Among large states in the world, India is the only one that relies on imports to meet even basic defence needs.
Last year’s launch of the country’s first nuclear-powered submarine, INS Arihant, for underwater trials received a lot of media attention. A nuclear-powered, ballistic missile-carrying submarine (known as SSBN) is essential for India to bridge the yawning gap in its deterrent force against China. But even if everything goes well, India’s first SSBN will be deployed in the years ahead with a non-strategic weapon—a 700km submarine-launched ballistic missile now under development. That would further underpin the regional character of India’s deterrence.
Without hard power, India will continue to punch far below its weight and be mocked at by critics. One well-known India baiter, journalist Barbara Crossette, claims: “…today’s India is an international adolescent, a country of outsize ambition but anemic influence.” That India still does not have an ICBM project—even on the drawing board—is a troubling commentary about the lack of strategic prudence. China built its first ICBM even before Deng Xiaoping initiated economic modernization in 1978. A generation later, the Indian leadership has yet to grasp international power realities.
Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org