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International Politics

India test-fires ‘China killer’ missile

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Common Sense recently discussed the threat posed by the proliferation of ballistic missile technologies here. Not four days later, India has test fired an intermediate range ballistic missile, with an estimated range of 5,000 kilometers (3,125 miles). According to The Times of India, the Indian Defense Research and Development Department (DRDO) plans two more tests before production and deployment of the missile in 2014.[1]

The Agni V rocket, named after the Hindu god of fire, is capable of carrying a 1,500 pound payload. It could place a satellite into low earth orbit or drop a nuclear/chemical/biological warhead onto an enemy city. The DRDO is reported to be working on anti-satellite and multiple re-entry vehicle technologies, which will significantly increase the flexibility, and threat, posed by India’s strategic arsenal. A submarine-launched version might also be in development.

It is significant that the Agni V rocket is almost 100% indigenous designed and produced. Very few components were imported, mostly some electronics. Most of their advanced weaponry is licensed built in India – their state-of-the-art Sukhoi Su-30MKI air superiority fighters were designed in Russia, and the first 170 were built there, but Hindustan Aeronautics Limited is now building the remaining 140 ordered by the Indian Air Force.[2]

This gives India a substantial degree of independence and allows them to pursue their national security strategy with little fear of world reaction. Unlike Iran, which still requires imports of some advanced technologies, India is unlikely to be constrained by an arms embargo. India is subject to stringent export controls due to nuclear tests conducted in 1998. However, in reality, the US export controls on dual use technologies are largely toothless and neither the Bush nor the Obama Administration have let them stand in the way of attempts to improve economic and political relations between the two nations.[3]

 Western reaction to the growing strength of India’s strategic arsenal has been non-existent, but China has also been restrained. The official line from Beijing is that China and India are not rivals – despite the fact that the two nations fought a war in 1962 over a god-forsaken stretch of Himalayan mountain border. China won that contest, and tensions between the two nations remain relatively high despite the accords signed in 1993 and 1996 to settle the dispute.[4]

Despite the muted reaction, some Chinese papers have blasted the Indian launch. The Times of India reports that diplomatic sources in the Chinese Embassy said the “Agni-V launch can give rise to another round of arms race in this part of the world.”[5] The state-run Global Times wrote a scathing editorial calling the test “delusional” and warning India not to “overestimate” its strength. The Chinese daily reassured readers that their (Chinese) strategic forces were “stronger and reliable”.[6]

The United States has reason to worry. Not because of any direct threat from India – our relations with the world’s most populous democracy are excellent and should remain so. America and India have so much in common (even down to the fact of both being former British colonies) that a harmonious relationship seem almost guaranteed (it isn’t, of course).

A strategic arms race wouldn’t directly affect the United States, whose nuclear arsenal dwarfs all others combined (with the exception of Russia’s). But every new warhead built, every new missile deployed, breaks down the non-proliferation regime which is in everyone’s interest to strengthen. The more nuclear weapons there are, the greater the chance of a nuclear accident or incident. A strategic arms race between India and China would greatly complicate both nations’ C4I systems. It took the United States and the Soviet Union decades to build in reliability and even then there were incidents which could have provoked an accidental nuclear war. A similar problem will have to be overcome by the Chinese and Indian High Commands.

The two nations share a long land border, but the Himalayan frontier is so formidable that they might as well be separated by an ocean. Clashes are possible, but sustaining a multi-divisional force on the opposite side of that barrier is logistically impossible. Both nations already maintain large and modern land forces, making this an unlikely area of competition.

A more likely possibility is a naval arms race. This would also be highly detrimental to US interests. India sits astride China’s principal maritime trade routes from the Middle East, Europe and Africa. India’s navy is one of the few that boasts an aircraft carrier and is perfectly capable of interdicting sea lanes of control. If tensions rise, both nations may desire to expand their naval forces far beyond their current levels.

This would place the United States in an awkward position, analogous to Great Britain’s at the turn of the XXth century. Britain’s overwhelming naval preponderance was whittled away by a naval arms race between rising powers Germany, Russia, France and the US. The cost of maintaining that preponderance created an enormous drag on the British economy as arms spending ran rapidly out of control.

America is already strained fiscally and does not want to have to bear the burden of an uncontrolled arms race in any part of the world. While India is far more likely to prove to be a long-term US ally, rather than a rival, we don’t want them poking the dragon unnecessarily.



Sources and Notes:

[1] “Agni-V launch: India demonstrates ICBM capability; China reacts cautiously, says India not rival” 19 April 2012
[2] Pandit, Rajat, “IAF to add muscle with 40 more Sukhois”, The Times of India, 9 February 2007
[3] Since October 2001, President Bush waived sanctions placed on India in 1998 in response to Indian nuclear tests. The number of Indian companies on Entity List reduced from 159 to 2 primary and 14 subordinate entities. Licensing policy for nuclear and missile controlled items were changed from “policy of denial” to case-by-case review. Bureau of Industry and Security, US Department of Commerce.
[4] Singh, Onkar, “India Soft on China’s Arunachal Claim”, Rediff India Abroad, 20 November 2006
[5] “Agni-V launch: India demonstrates ICBM capability; China reacts cautiously, says India not rival” 19 April 2012
[6] “India being swept up by missile delusion”, Global Times, 19 April 2012

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