Agni-V, an intercontinental ballistic missile indigenously developed by Indian scientists, was successfully test-fired on Thursday. It was launched from Wheeler Island off the Odisha coast, and took 15 to 20 minutes to reach its designated target in the southern Indian Ocean, over 5,000 kilometres away. The missile has taken four years to develop; this success follows closely on that of Agni-IV last year, which tested many of the mechanisms that are integral to its longer-range sibling. Neither missile has as yet been weaponised and handed over to the Indian army. When they are, however, they will significantly restructure how India and the world should think about strategy and security in Asia.
However, the first instinct will be to reflect that this is, at long last, good news. India’s military and its scientific establishment have not had a very good year. The team at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) that has overseen this test, the culmination of 30 years of striving, has changed the narrative a bit. This is a reminder that even in the Indian public sector, good and innovative work can be done if the institutions are allowed to develop an internal strength and cohesiveness. Agni-V has reportedly been designed to be robust, and should, when weaponised, be available to fire from the highway’s edge. Yet many of the technologies used in Agni-V are cutting-edge, and the profile of Indian engineering has been consequently raised. V K Saraswat, the head of the DRDO, has indicated that the organisation has now set its sights on ensuring that Agni-V can carry multiple independently targeted warheads, and on anti-satellite capability. Once done, this will be a top-of-the-line missile, and the end of India’s long quest.
The strategic implications are considerable. This launch comes at a time when tension in Asia caused by China’s inexorable rise as a military power has been heightened. The most obvious point, of course, is that the cities along China’s coast are no longer out of reach for Indian missiles. This provides new and much-needed strength to India’s nuclear deterrent, a crucial ingredient in any country’s security strategy. As China’s recent hike in its defence spending shows, the military equation between India and China is going to be very asymmetric for the foreseeable future. China’s economy is larger, India’s policy making is welfarist and democratic, and its ambitions must consequently be more constrained. When faced with an asymmetry in power, deterrence is crucial. In a speech some years ago, then Admiral Sureesh Mehta outlined the strategy India’s planners thought sensible. Matching China in the traditional manner, through an attritional, “division-by-division” approach, was impossible, he argued: you needed to “harness modern technology for developing high situational awareness and creating a reliable stand-off deterrent”. This, together with the ability to project power where its growing interests are threatened, should be the cornerstone of India’s approach to its security. Perfecting Agni-V, creating better locational and directional systems, and ensuring weaponisation proceeds without a hitch are thus essential.