February 29, 2020
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Sparring In Thin Air, Seriously

The trigger may have been political expediency, but test-firing Agni-II launches India firmly onto the nuclear trajectory

Sparring In Thin Air, Seriously

ON March 7, members of the Launch Authorisation Board (LAB) for Agni-II were monitoring the countdown for test-firing of the intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) when the phone rang. It was the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), calling Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to tell him to put the launch on hold.

The DRDO team had completed pre-flight tests; they were just two hours away from pressing the ignition button. But orders were orders. All that Lt. Gen. (retd) Sundaram, head of the LAB and former director of the Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL), Hyderabad, and the other members could do was gnash their teeth in futile anger.

The test, Dr Kalam was informed, could sour relations with Pakistan at a time when prime minister A.B. Vajpayee had just made his historic bus trip to Lahore. To their chagrin, the DRDO team was instructed to issue a press release saying that the test-firing had been postponed because of a technical snag, though none existed.

Between February 1994 when Agni-I (with a range of 1000 km plus) was last test-fired and March 1999, the defence experts had weathered varying responses from successive governments on the continuation of the programme. While most lacked the political will to give it the thumbs up, some dithered on the timing of the first test of Agni-II. This March, the team had to abort the test because of a "snag" of a different order.

But the test-firing of Agni-II on April 11 raised the question of timing all over again. Why wasn't the government concerned now about souring relations with Islam-abad? No one in the Indian government could have thought that Pakistan would not respond in kind. On the heels of the Agni-II test, Islamabad went ahead with the test of its own IRBM Ghauri-II followed by Shaheen. But both sides informed each other in advance, as the two prime ministers had decided they would in Lahore this February. The two launches proceeded with a remarkable absence of hysteria.

Inevitably, observers in India linked the tests to the Vajpayee government's own political troubles. The opposition accused the government of trying to divert attention from the political crisis. "Now when the government is about to leave, it clearly appears that the tests have little to do with security concerns and more with politics," said CPI(M) politburo member Sitaram Yech-ury. The Janata Dal congratulated the scientists, but said the test-firing was timed so as to divert attention from the Bhagwat affair.

Naturally, the BJP chose to see the test as another shining achievement. Party vice-president K.L. Sharma said the missile launch would "dispel all apprehensions that India was shelving its missile pro-gramme under foreign pressure". He said Vajpayee had made it clear that he would not compromise on the vital issues of the country's defence and people's welfare.

But Vajpayee's speech on Doordarshan that evening about the Agni-II launch bore a distressing resemblance to an election speech. His advisors had clearly put him on TV reasoning that if he has to go down, then he should take credit for greenlighting this test and the Pokharan test within a year of each other. Sharma was only being factual, however, when he said that the BJP had refused to buckle under US pressure not to conduct this test. The Agni-II test has been on the anvil for years, but it's been aborted each time because of pressure from abroad. Hanging in limbo, any reference to the Agni-II programme in public or in Parliament was enough to evoke an embarrassed silence from whoever was in government.Reading the realpolitik behind it, the test appeared to be not merely a diversionary tactic, but an attempt to chalk up brownie points just in case the government did have to go before the end of the week. The testing of Agni-II could be a useful missile in an election campaign.

Perhaps more significantly, this test-firing signifies a major step forward towards a credible nuclear deterrent. Says Savita Pande of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses: "The test was long awaited and we should continue with it. It is part of our nuclear weaponisation programme. A nuclear weapon is complete only when you can deliver it."

It's the arms race in the offing that worries the world. Western experts figure that the missiles now being developed and deployed by India and Pakistan will take three minutes from launch to strike. That means "hair-trigger responses on the basis of inadequate information and under enormous pressure—a recipe for disaster," warns a report in Jane's Defence Weekly.

 The Americans weren't surprised by the test, though assistant secretary of state Karl Inderfurth blamed India for unleashing a nuclear and missile race in the subcontinent. "We believe India has a special responsibility in this regard. Clearly Pakistan is responding to Indian actions." In private, Clinton administration officials said that the test will not affect the Indo-US dialogue. China, which has been extremely critical of India's nuclear tests last year, squarely saw the Ghauri test as a response to the Agni-II launch.

THE significance of Agni-II lies in the details. The solid fuel used in the test-firing is said to be non-corrosive, easy to handle and store and facilitates faster sequential firing. Mounting a missile on a mobile platform offers flexibility, reduces vulnerability to air strikes, and allows for surprise attacks on the adversary.

A mobile, land-based IRBM is an ideal delivery system and deterrent, second only to a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Agni-II will help India come within striking distance of the classic triad of nuclear weapon delivery systems—an IRBM, fighter aircraft that can launch a nuclear bomb and scoot to safety, and an SLBM that can be fired from a nuclear-powered submarine. India's Mirage 2000 fighters and Sukhoi-30s can deliver a nuclear warhead, but the aircraft are vulnerable to strikes well before they could drop the bomb. An IRBM would be a significant component of the triad besides serving as an effective deterrent. The best deterrent, deployed by the armed forces of Britain and France, are SLBMs.

Sources in the defence ministry said that Agni-II missiles will require at least 20 test flights before they are approved for serial production. Taking test production into account, it would take about five years for the first set of Agni-II missiles to roll off the assembly line. During this period, the government ought to work on a nuclear doctrine complete with a command, control, communication and intelligence (C-3 I in military parlance) framework, as well as a fail-safe network of rail tracks in order to stack Agni-II missiles, which could be fitted with a nuclear warhead. It would then be easy to place the missiles on rail wagons and move them into sidings inside tunnels in remote corners of India. At short notice, these could be fitted together and fired from mobile platforms.

The sources said that India ought to spend at least Rs 100 crore over the next five years for continuous tests, aiming at an initial production of 50 missiles. So far, the missiles produced under the Integrated Guided Missiles Development Programme (IGMDP) were intended to perfect the capabilities of DRDO for designing a weapon.Once honed, these capabilities would also allow the pro-gramme to speedily move from perfection of technology to serial production.

Agni-II would be an ideal deterrent against China. But Savita Pande sounds a note of caution. The worry for India, she says, is that Pakistan is firing Chinese missiles from its territory. "Therefore they are more easily deliverable and will be more accurate." Defence sources feel it would now be appropriate if the government approved the design and development of an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), because China has claimed such a capability. Unconfirmed reports say that India is developing Surya, a missile with an initial range of 4,000 km, with Russian assistance. If true, that could be the real Agni-parik-sha—both for India's nuclear programme and for her diplomats.

With Sanjay Suri in London

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