Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Agni in India's belly, nation feels secure

(First published in The Pioneer dated April 24, 2012)

Call it what you like: The Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile, the Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile or the Long Range Ballistic Missile. The naming exercise will neither reduce the massive strike range of Agni V nor will it dilute the missile’s deterrence capability. Technical minds can deliberate over the nomenclature and argue that Agni V, with a range of 5,000 kilometres, is not really an ICBM because ICBMs are supposed to have a range of 5,500 kilometres and more. That may well be so, but who has said that Agni V cannot breach the additional 500-kilometre mark, if it comes to that?
At least the Chinese are certain that Agni V can go much farther. Their experts are not willing to buy what they see. A researcher with China’s People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Sciences believes that the Indian missile has the potential to reach targets 8,000 kilometres away. The researcher has charged the Indian Government of “deliberately downplaying” the missile’s capability in order to avoid “causing concern to other countries”. Another expert with the PLA National Defence University told an influential daily that the reach of Agni V “could be further enhanced to become an ICBM”. China’s official news agency is quoted as saying that Agni V can reach targets in parts of Europe and Africa.
Both these near-concurring opinions are part of a confused state of mind that China finds itself in with Agni V blasting off perfectly. Of course, there is no reason why India should seek to correct the impression that China has about the actual capability or reach of Agni V. If the Chinese wish to believe that the missile can travel 8,000 kilometres and is even more potent than is being touted by Indian officials, that belief does not in any way harm India’s interest. But then, this is not what the Chinese had said on April 19, soon after the successful launch. Beijing had officially played down the event and muttered something about the two countries being competitors and not rivals, and said that it did not see Agni V as a threat. Informally and through the media controlled by it, the Chinese authorities let it be known that India was “overestimating” its strength and that Beijing already had the real ICBM. In other words, the attempt on April 19 was to ridicule the success of Agni V.
But, if that success was of little consequence to the Chinese because they found it to be relatively insignificant, what made them change their position a day later to find even more meaning in the missile’s success than what has been officially stated? On the one hand, China has been cautioning India against ‘overestimating’ the latter’s strength and, on the other, it is itself adding fresh and glowing literature to Agni V. But, such befuddled thinking is understandable for a country that is suddenly faced with the reality of its Asian monopoly in advanced missile technology being shattered.
Militarily speaking, there is no reason for China to be so worked up. It far outstrips India’s capability. Although its defence arsenal is a closely guarded secret, enough is known to establish that China has one of the world’s most comprehensive military abilities. Experts know, for instance, that China has an ICBM with a reach of 13,000 kilometres and can carry nuclear warheads of up to one and three million tonnes. It reportedly has a missile stationed in the Tibet Autonomous Region, just across the border with India. It also reportedly has a submarine-launched missile that is capable of striking at a range of 8,000 kilometres. If Beijing has gone on an overdrive despite its fancy arsenal, the over-reaction has perhaps got something to do with a sense of insecurity that comes to nations (like China) which do not have open societies and forms of governance. These countries are forever looking over their shoulders and imagining conspiracies that are non-existent. For all their military might, they are largely insecure.
As for “causing concern” to other countries, there is nothing on record to suggest that Agni V has done anything of the sort to anybody, barring of course China and Pakistan. Reactions from Pakistan have been not as trenchant, perhaps because Pakistan had long before come under the Indian missile range, and has learnt to live with it. US may not have lauded Agni V in so many words, but it was quick to pay glowing tribute to India’s record of nuclear non-proliferation. Put in the context of the missile launch, it can only mean that America is not going to lose sleep over Agni V, and does not share Islamabad’s concern over an arms race breaking out in the sub-continent. In any case, India and Pakistan have been for a long time now engaged in the pursuit of more and more advanced military equipment, and the success of Agni will only amplify that quest.
Yet, Agni V is a game-changer. It will change the way the world looks at India from now on, and more especially since scientists at the Defence Research and Development Organisation have claimed that they have the ability to put together a missile that can reach (or strike at) a distance of 10,000 kilometres.
It’s easy to go over the top in the euphoria that has engulfed the country and the scientific establishment. Our scientists may surely be having the capability to breach the 10,000 kilometre mark some day, but do we have to? Any sort of military deterrence must have a purpose, a potential target. Since we do not have such potential targets that far away, it makes no sense to put in thousands of crores of rupees on the project. Remember, Agni V has cost us an estimated Rs25 billion, though every rupee has been well spent here. We have made our point on the issue of missile capability, and emphatically enough.
Seeing Agni V zoom away and perform perfectly in all its parameters, DRDO officials must have heaved a sigh of relief. The success could not have come at a more opportune time for the organisation, which has of late been under attack for underperformance in meeting the country’s critical defence needs. According to the recent issue of a national magazine, the DRDO has either failed to deliver or delayed in delivering indigenous equipment, ranging from the much-talked of Light Combat Aircraft to the Airborne Early Warning and Control System. Commissioned in 2001, the LCA project is running four years behind schedule and is now expected to be completed by this year end. The AWACS project has already seen a cost overrun of close to Rs2,000 crore and will be completed only by mid-2014. Even the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India had hauled up the DRDO, saying, “The organisation, which has a history of its projects suffering endemic time and cost overruns, needs to sanction projects and decide on a probable date of completion on the basis of a conservative assessment of technology available”.
The success of Agni V should now propel the DRDO into the next orbit. It must address its shortcomings and deliver on the critical requirements of our Armed Forces. If it fails to do so, as it largely has so far, that would spell trouble for our defence capability and for the organisation as well. Don’t forget that Agni V’s glow will not last forever.

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