India's missile programme

Print edition : April 11, 1998

THERE is a broad consensus among India's political parties on the need to enhance the country's missile defence capabilities. A credible nuclear deterrent has to have a missile-based delivery system. Missiles have also played a very important role in recent conventional wars, notably in the Gulf war. According to strategic analysts, warfare in the future will be heavily dependent on missiles.

India's neighbourhood is bristling with missiles. Pakistan has developed and tested the Hatf-1 (range 80 km) and Hatf-2 (range 300 km) missiles. Western intelligence agencies say that Pakistan possesses 40 Chinese-supplied Silkworm missiles, although they have not yet been deployed. The Silkworms are believed to be Pakistan's answer to India's medium-range missile, the Prithvi.

China is far ahead of others in the missile race in the region. It has completed two-test flights of the Dong-Feng-31 and Julang-2 missiles, a combined ICBM and SLBM (submarine-launched ballistic missile). U.S. intelligence has said that multiple re-entry vehicles were included in the 8,000 km-range missile.

Maj. Gen. D. Bannerjee of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi, says that China has still not been able to develop solid fuel rockets, making its strategic defence capability "extremely limited". All the same, India's defence planners cannot ignore China's arsenal of nuclearised and conventionally armed missiles. Iran and Saudi Arabia also have missile capabilities that have the potential to impact on India's security environment.

For quite some time, India has been in the process of building a reliable ballistic missile system. Developing indigenous tactical missiles is high on the agenda of the Defence Ministry. After the last testing of the intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) Agni four years ago, there were reports that the Government was thinking of shelving the programme. But the Defence Minister in the United Front Government, Mulayam Singh Yadav, speaking to defence correspondents in July 1997, denied such a possibility.

Agni, with a range of 1,500 km, has been test-fired three times. The last "technology demonstration" test took place in 1994. There was a great deal of pressure from the West after the last test. This, many people believed, was the reason why the Narasimha Rao Government kept the programme on hold. However, after the U.F. Government assumed office, there were indications that the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) was asked to keep pace with technology advancement and to ensure that the Agni was provided with a reliable guidance system.

India's Integrated Guided Missiles Development Programme (IGMDP) started in 1993. The programme is responsible for the creation of the short-range surface-to-air missile Trishul, the medium range surface-to-air missile Akash, the anti-tank guided missile Nag, the short-range surface-to-surface missile Prithvi, and the IRBM Agni. The Government announced that it had "inducted" Prithvi into the armed forces. The other missiles of the short range have already been deployed. Some observers predict five more launches of the Agni to complete the development of a 2,500-km-range IRBM. There are reports that India's intercontinental ballistic missile, (ICBM), the Surya, is in an advanced stage of development.

Agni was viewed as a "political" missile by the West and was interpreted as an attempt by India to move into the ranks of the world's military powers. The first Agni test prompted the U.S. to take drastic action with regard to the transfer of military technology to India. Washington also started watching India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and Geostationary Launch Vehicle (GLV) with suspicion. The abrupt cancellation in 1993 of the $75 million "cryogenic engine deal" that India had signed with a Russian company was owing to Washington's pressure on Moscow. The U.S., France, Britain, Germany, France, Canada, Italy and Australia submitted diplomatic notes to India in 1993 urging that the Agni project be frozen and the deployment of Prithvi halted.

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