Is there an element of restraint in nuclear capable missiles development and testing in South Asia? India seems to have abandoned restraint to build nuclear forces that reflect and complement the global power status that it seeks. Like developments in nuclear weapons program, the unrestrained missile development programme has seemingly compelled Pakistan to keep up a pace to at least maintain some balance. Amongst the nine nuclear armed states, only India and Pakistan have a three-thousand-kilometre-long contiguous terrain and unresolved territorial disputes. Both have fought major wars in the past and are developing a triad of land, air and sea-based nuclear weapons delivery systems.
Unlike Russia, where an American inter-continental ballistic missile might take around twenty minutes to devastate Moscow, Indian vast array of nuclear capable missiles can hit Pakistani cities and its defensive troops in less than five minutes, which is dangerous. There are dangers of miscalculation, short reaction times and then the proclivity to pre-empt cannot be ruled out. The ability to irreparably destroy each other is so immense and fast that a rational state would seek peace rather than expanding space for war.
As a parting gift of 2016, India flight-tested Agni-V ICBM, which should be a regional and global concern due to its reach and destructive power that complements the destructive power of triad. As the second largest defence spender, India has the fastest growing nuclear triad and least safeguarded fissile material production programme, and claimed a range 5,000 km to assuage concerns in Western capitals.
Although Agni-V’s target was somewhere in the waters near Australia, the fact of the matter is that this multiple-warhead carrying ICBM can take the living daylights out of even UK and other peace-loving counties in Central Europe. Its upcoming longer range sibling, Agni-VI, will also carry multiple-independently- targetable-re-entry-vehicles (MIRV). These MIRV-type warheads are good for penetrating ballistic missile defence shields (BMDs) of Western European countries but are overkill against South Asian region states who have no BMD programme.
The state-friendly media reported that India deliberately exercised ‘strategic restraint’ as the test of Agni-V come after two years. The restraint is indirectly linked to country’s pursuit of membership of dual-use technology control cartels. Indian restrained behaviour changed after membership of missile technology control regime (MTCR). It is a cartel that claims a commitment to limiting risks of proliferation by controlling transfers and places 300-km range and 500-kg payload limits to missile exports.
India broke its restraint by testing world’s fastest Brahmos super-sonic cruise missile at an enhanced range of 600 km. Likewise, having failed to secure membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2016, New Delhi chose to test Agni-V. Will India exercise nuclear weapons test restraint if it succeeds in gaining the membership of NSG, which was created because of its first nuclear test in 1974.
Generally, it is perceived that Pakistan is engaged in tit-for-tat missile race with India. There is more to this simplistic view. For instance, India conducted twelve flight tests of nuclear capable missiles in the year 2016 compared to Pakistan’s two tests. In past, Pakistan has tested only one missile for every 2.7 missiles of India. In that sense Pakistan is on a restrained trajectory compared to its neighbour that needs constraints.
New Delhi has also recently joined Hague Code of Conduct (HCOC), which is a supplementary arrangement for the MTCR and seeks a politically commitment to curb the missile proliferation and exercise maximum possible restraint in development, testing and deployment of missiles. Interestingly, the country is nowhere close on these three counts. It is developing thirteen types of ballistic and cruise nuclear capable missiles with an inventory that is at times speculated to be more than 3,000 in numbers.
Its testing record is fastest in the world. Most dangerously, with canister-based weapons its missiles like Agni-V, the warheads shall be mated to the delivery vehicles and these will be in a launch-on-warning mode. Earlier, assembling a missile would have taken at least six hours and now it would be ready to use in less than thirty minutes. The developments in the Indian missile program indicate that the country has no respect for the political and legal commitments.
In sum, the tests of sea-based ballistic and cruise missiles are timed with developments in building a triad of nuclear forces, in which nuclear-submarine based second-strike capability would affect deterrence drastically. The test of K-4 missile in March 2016 from INS Arihant indicates the near operationalisation of the nuclear triad.
Plans for building a fleet of nuclear submarines capable of carrying ballistic and cruise missiles points to the fact that the country will produce more warheads for these. Another disturbing aspect would be the decentralised and delegated command and control in the accident prone Indian Navy. There appears no minimalism in Indian force posture developments and its combination with a risk taking political government is lethal.
At the regional level, advanced missile technology can reduce the chances of any arms control arrangements. As Indian missile program is not only aimed at Pakistan but uses China as a bogey, it will further complicate the security dilemma. If China chooses to respond to Indian missile developments and BMD system, this could lead to Russia and the U.S. reacting against Chinese developments, affecting the global arms control. It appears restraint shall be rare commodity in 2017 and beyond and India shall ride this trend instead for creating space for peace.
Tanzeela Khalil is a Senior Research Associate at South Asian Strategic Stability Institute and a former visiting fellow of Research Society of International Law, Lahore.