ICBM capability

In the context of an extremely disturbing security environment posing a serious threat to the territorial integrity of the country especially from countries possessing nuclear strike capability, the need for India to develop and put in place a robust and versatile missile capability for a “deep and massive” strike has become all the more pronounced.

In particular, the possibility of India being forced to fight a war on more than one front, highlights the need to speed up the development of a full fledged Inter Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). Certainly, India needs to build a high performance ICBM incorporating latest genre technologies with a range of more than 10,000-km as part of the long range strategic vision aimed at insulating the country from the possibility of a multiple nuclear strike from across the border.

Clearly and apparently, India cannot afford to remain a silent spectator to the massive build up of an ICBM arsenal by China. And on another front, an ICBM capability is critical for India to be recognised as a super power of global standing. By all means, India should look beyond the Chinese threat to build a sturdy ICBM muscle to showcase Indian technological prowess that cannot be browbeaten by the technology denial regimes.

Action plan

As it is, India has the technological expertise, human talent and infrastructure to build a full fledged ICBM without much of a problem. A go ahead from the political leadership in New Delhi is the only hurdle in the way of building an ICBM by the state owned Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). Dr Avinash Chander, the head of DRDO, who has a sound track record in the area of designing and developing a range of missiles, has already made it clear that DRDO is capable of realizing an ICBM with 10,000 kms plus range by falling back on the technologies developed for Agni-V and Agni-VI long range missiles. According to Chander, range is not a problem. “We have the full capability to go to any range” says Chander. Indeed, Chander is clear in his perception that in the backdrop of the fast changing strategic scenario, India should be ready for wide range of eventualities.

Whether Agni-V and Angi-VI are fit enough to be bracketed as an ICBM, no one is sure as yet. Of course, media reports describing Agni-V as an ICBM appears debatable. However, there is no denying the point that an ICBM capability of plus 10,000 km range gives India a “major edge” in so far as its missile strike capability is concerned.

Since India has in place a policy of “no first use for nuclear weapons,” an ICBM capability to hit back at the adversary assumes immense capability. Moreover, China’s growing military might should wake up both the defence establishment and political leadership of the country to initiate an action plan aimed at building a “semblance of counter-measures” in the form of an ICBM to begin with.

China, which has time and again expressed concern over the capability of Agni-V missile to reach several cities in the country, is aware that Agni-V could very well serve as the stepping stone for the development of a full fledged Indian ICBM. An Indian ICBM capability is an eventuality that China could hardly afford to digest.

As it is, India’s impressive advances in designing and developing a range of missiles including the long range Agni-V and the civilian space vehicles could easily be exploited by DRDO to build ICBM. Of course, it would be in the fitness of things to launch a project for developing the ICBM as a national mission that would draw resources and expertise from a large number of research organisations, industries and academic institutions in the country.

First and foremost, DRDO can stand to benefit enormously in its quest to develop ICBM by accessing some of the technological elements developed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in the areas of propulsion, materials, micro miniaturization as well and control, guidance and navigation. For many of the technologies are common for both a strategic missile and a launch vehicle. Further, the capability of India’s home grown satellite navigation constellation IRNSS (Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System)-whose two satellites are already in orbit-can be also exploited to launch the ICBM with a “deadly accuracy”. Gone are the days when India was forced to depend only on the American GPS, the access to the restricted services of which was difficult to come by.

Technology denial

India should also take into account the possibility of US stepping in and exerting pressure on the country to drop the plan for an ICBM. Indeed, in late 1990s, the US had exerted severe pressure on the Indian government to annul the development of the intermediate range Agni ballistic missile being developed as part of the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) of DRDO. For it was alleged that the solid fuel technology developed for India’s first civilian space vehicle, SLV-3, was exploited for speeding up the development of Agni ballistic missile.

Incidentally, the former Indian President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam had spearheaded the project to build SLV-3 during his stint in Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and also IGMDP while heading DRDO. Many US think tanks as well as the White House elite continue to hold the view that India’s long range missile development programme has benefited enormously from the technologies developed by ISRO for its launch vehicles. Of course, this mind set was responsible for USA intervening in the Indo-Russian deal for the cryogenic engine technology for India’s three stage Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV).

As per the Indo-Russian agreement signed before the breakup of the mighty Soviet Union, Russia was bound to transfer the cryogenic engine technology along with two ready to use cryogenic engine stages to ISRO. The Russian cryogenic engine was based on the KVD-1 technology developed for the Soviet era N-1 rocket. But then geo political developments came in the way of taking Indo-Russian agreement to its logical culmination. USA, which could not relish the prospect of India emerging a major player in the area of space exploration, arm twisted Russia into dropping the plan for transferring the cryogenic engine technology. In fact, the US strategy was smoothened by the unceremonious breakup of the Soviet Union. In the context of the changed geographical reality, USA could easily coerce a politically emaciated and economically bankrupt Russia to fall in line with its dictate. By citing the provisions of the so called Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) USA pressurised Russia into going back on its commitment of transferring the cryogenic technology to India.

The US argument that cryogenic engine makes for dual use does not make any sense. For the cryogenic propulsion system is hardly used in a missile system as it is not possible for stuffing the cryogenic fuel into the missile system well in advance. Since a missile should be in a fully well ready to hit back without any loss of time, normally the earth storable solid fuel is preferred to propel a missile. And ultimately, as a face saving device, the Indo-Russian agreement was diluted down to the supply of seven cryogenic engine stages sans the transfer of technology.  These stages were meant to support the GSLV missions till such time as India comes up with its home grown cryogenic engine stage.

However, the flawless performance of the cryogenic engine developed by ISRO after sustained efforts spread over two decades, in the successful GSLV flight of January 2014 stands out as a slap on the face of US technology denial regime. The most telling message of the unqualified success of GSLV is that India don’t need to care or worry about the notorious technology denial regime spearheaded by USA.

Deep strike

As it is, the long range Agni-V which will be canisterised, will provide a major boost to the quest of India for achieving a credible minimum deterrence through its increased penetrative capability. It is in the fitness of things that DRDO has decided to equip Agni-VI, which is yet to receive final clearance from the political establishment in New Delhi, with MIRV (Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicle) capability augmented with MARV (Manoeuvrable Re-entry Vehicle). While MIRV provides a missile with capability to launch a number of warheads simultaneously to widely dispersed targets, MARV enables the warhead to perform evasive manoeuvres while hurtling down towards the target and in the process confuse the enemy air defence architecture. The expertise that DRDO would acquire during the process of equipping Agni-VI with MIRV could come in handy for developing a MIRVed ICBM. An ICBM with such a capability cannot but give jitters to the adversaries of the country.

Currently, USA, Russia, UK, France and China posses the MIRV capability on their long range nuclear capable missiles. But then MIRV technology is by no stretch of imagination a most recent innovation. It is quite an old hat. The MIRV capabilities were first deployed in the long range missiles by the USA and the former Soviet Union in 1970s. China is now fast tracking the programme to expand the arsenal of its MIRV capable missiles. There is no denying the point that an arsenal of MIRVed long range missiles fits well within India’s nuclear weapons doctrine.

The critical challenge ahead of DRDO in its quest of building India’s home grown MIRV capability will be the development of a booster rocket that can propel and navigate the warhead to its pre determined target with precision and accuracy. To improve the performance of the Indian ICBM including its warhead carrying capability, DRDO would need to go in for the liberal use of improved, smart materials including carbon fibres and micro miniaturization. Further, India would need to upgrade its skill level and expertise in areas such as nano technology, electro optics and Micro Electro Mechanical Systems (MEMS) to enhance the smartness of its nuclear delivery system.

Incidentally, the multiple warhead delivery enabled by a strategic missile is somewhat similar to the multiple spacecraft launch atop a single launch vehicle. As it is, India’s highly reliable four stage space workhorse PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) has already proved its multiple launch capability. In April 2008, it had created a sort of history by placing in orbit as many as ten satellites in one go. Not surprisingly then PSLV continues to be used for multiple spacecraft missions with a high degree of success.


But then coming to MIRV, the warhead re-enters earth’s atmosphere to hit the target. This implies that the guidance and navigation system of a missile should be highly accurate for hitting the target with unfailing precision. In a mission involving the launch of satellites, there is always a scope for “flexibility” in that there is invariably a clear room for minor deviation in orbital injection. For, the orbital position of a satellite can be fine tuned after the launch. But that is not the case with MIRV. Clearly, in the case of MIRVed missile, there is no room for flexibility normally associated with a satellite mission. Thus a major challenge ahead of DRDO would be to develop a highly sophisticated navigation and guidance system.

A number of Indian industrial enterprises -both in the public and private sectors- which have been contributing to the Indian missile development programme through the supply of components, hardware and engineering expertise could be roped in to support the development of ICBM. Significantly, the Andhra Pradesh based Premier Explosives whose area of focus in on explosives and accessories has been supplying smokeless composites, missile motors and composite casings for the Indian missile development programme. Indeed as pointed out by Avinash Chander the one striking aspect of the active participation of small and medium industries in India’s missile and aerospace development programme is that going beyond the narrow scope of supplying products, these enterprises are now moving up the value chain by building up design and engineering capability, that will ultimately stand the country in good stead in the years ahead. Perhaps in the quest of sourcing the Indian industrial expertise and skill in speeding up the development of the Indian ICBM, DRDO could take a leaf out of ISRO which is looking at the possibility of harnessing the capability of Indian industrial consortiums to deliver satellites and launch vehicles in a ready to use condition.

But then DRDO should put in place an action plan to reverse the trend of young and talented researchers leaving the organisation for “greener pastures”. Over the last seven years or so, DRDO has not been in a position to reverse the trend of man power attrition. To sustain the ambitious missile development programme, DRDO should make all out efforts to retain the human talent.