Last month India successfully launched a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a range of 5,000km (3,100 miles). This is significant for at least two pressing reasons: the Agni-V missile is capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and its long range brings it within striking distance of China.
The test firing was described as “a perfect launch” by SP Das, Director of the test range, speaking to the BBC at the time.
Quickly following India’s return to the naval nuclear fold after signing a lease agreement with Russia for the Chakra, a nuclear-powered submarine, India finds itself back in the nuclear elite once again with its new air defences. Previously only China, Russia, France, the US and UK currently had long-range nuclear missile capabilities. Although the system will not be operational for a number of years, with 2014 looking the most likely date, the launch represents a significant shift in India’s strategic capabilities as it grows its nuclear arsenal.
"Today's launch represents another milestone in our quest for our security, preparedness and to explore the frontiers of science," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said at the time.
According to the missiles’ architects, Agni-V represents “a quantum leap in India's strategic capability.”
Although officials played down the geopolitical implications, there’s little doubt that India’s return to the nuclear elite signals its robust intent to develop a long-term strategy to rebuff any and all hostile threats, and particularly those from China.
China’s Global Times ran an editorial in response to the ICBM launch where it cautioned India against provoking aggression in the region, stating it had “no chance” in an arms race against the People’s Republic of China.
"Even if it has missiles that could reach most parts of China, that does not mean it will gain anything from being arrogant during disputes with China,” said the Global Times. “India should be clear that China's nuclear power is stronger and more reliable. For the foreseeable future, India would stand no chance in an overall arms race with China.”
Of course this is accurate. For the foreseeable future India is unlikely to be the ringleader of any instability in the region but it is vital that it continues to develop and advance its strategic military strength in the mid-term. Relations with neighboring Pakistan and China remain frosty; if India is to secure its borders and maintain its influence in the region, it must invest further in its naval and air power presence. Challenges from terrorism, piracy and Pakistan and China’s growing sea power will force it to.
But India certainly isn’t resting on its laurels. DRDO scientists are also said to be working on a longer range missile, the Agni-VI. In early stages of development, the ICBM could have double the range of the recently launched Agni-V. In addition, following the tests on April 19th Dr V.G. Sekaran, Director of DRDO’s Advanced Systems Lab (ASL), also confirmed to reporters that India would be testing the Nirbhay system, a cruise missile similar to a Tomahawk, this summer.
It isn’t yet clear if the Agni-V is a symbolic move designed to heighten its defence deference on the world stage, or if it’s something more than that. If, as a recent RUSI article suggests, its ICBM programme is a ‘bridge’ to furthering its nuclear capabilities, then it could indicate a more assertive, strategically assured India is ready to ramp up its military forces significantly over the next decade.