As for the strategist the question would be: Can India hit China where it hurts? The answer to that would be a confident ‘Yes’. With a range of ”more than” 5,000 km, India has the measure of most of China with its intermediate range ballistic missile the Agni-V and does not, per se, need an inter-continental ballistic missile to ensure deterrence vis-a-vis the Chinese.
The only reason why India would need an ICBM to deal with China would be to be able to base its missile deep within Indian territory, say around Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh or deeper still in Nagpur in Maharastra in central India, to keep it out of harm’s way from a pre-emptive strike by China. By deploying its missiles aimed at Beijing and other industrial and shipping centres along the Chinese Pacific Ocean coastline so deep India would buy time for its anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defences to intercept Chinese ICBMs at the highest point (apogee) of their trajectory or mid-course interception.
As per the practice of designating missiles by the length of their trajectory an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) is a missile which traces a parabolic (unlike the rather straight passage of a cruise missile) range of 3,000-5,500 km (1,864-3,418 miles), between a medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) and an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
Classifying ballistic missiles by range is done mostly for convenience, in principle there is very little difference between a low-performance ICBM and a high-performance IRBM. Some other sources include an additional category, the long-range ballistic missile (LRBM), to describe missiles with a range between IRBMs and true ICBMs. The more modern term theater ballistic missile encompasses IRBMs, MRBMs and Short Range Ballistic Missiles, including any ballistic missile with a range under 3,500 km (2,175 mi).
In India ballistic missiles created under the Integrated Guided Missile Development Program includes the short-range Prithvi surface-to- surface missile; the short range low-level surface-to-air missile code-named Trishul (reduced to technology demonstrator status); the medium range surface-to-air Akash missile and the third-generation anti-tank missile Nag. The program in which all four missiles would be developed simultaneously was led by Dr APJ Abdul Kalam who headed the Defence Research and Development Organisation and later became President of India. It was on the foundations of missilery laid by Dr Kalam that India went on to create the Agni class of ballistic missiles when the Integrated Guided Missile Development Program was closed down after achieving its intended objectives.
The Agni series of longer range missiles was initiated under the IGMDP as technology demonstrators. The early generation of Prithvi missiles was intended to deal with the threat from Pakistan which had been supplied nuclear warheads by China and delivery missiles by North Korea.
The Prithvi surface-to-surface missile has been inducted in all the three Services-Indian Army, Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy (known as Dhanush) for surface targets. Their ranges extend from 60 km to 350 km. In fact the Prithvi missile lies at the heart of the Indian ballistic missile defence system as the interceptor the destructive range of which has been increased from the terminal phase to the more arms length distance of mid-course interception of an enemy missile.
In fact the range of the Agni-III covers the distance from a point within the plains area of the Brahmaputra valley (Tezpur) to Beijing approximately 3,100 km. Since Beijing city is the furtherest point of all the major cities- economic hubs, commercial centres, military-industrial townships and population centres-lie within this range and hence, by a system of basing can be reached by both the Agni-III (range 3,500-5,000 km) and the Agni-V (range 5,500-5,800 km).
Because of its longer range the Agni-V can be based in the hinterland between West Bengal and Bihar. This obviates the need to traverse the narrow and crowded Siliguri corridor connecting Bihar to Sikkim through the Darjeeling district. Currently the Darjeeling district is the hub of communications between the seven north-eastern states-Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Manipur and Tripura-and if indeed the Agni-III had been deployed in the north-east (like the Bofors howitzer) as a frontline dissuader against China then it needs to be bolstered by longer range missiles given the proclivity of Beijing of attempting to grab more territory by ‘salami slicing’ methodology.
As per current availability of strategic weapons each of the Agni series of missiles covers the entire spectrum of distances inside China from 700 km on the near horizon to 5,500 km on the outer periphery of the Chinese mainland. All these missiles are currently operational and targeted on the most valuable assets within that country.
India is credited with possessing between 90 to 110 nuclear warheads distributed between different types of delivery systems like missiles, aircraft and submarine-based. How many per each delivery system is a closely guarded secret. Its fissile material is not unlimited and hence it has to spread its nuclear deterrent carefully across the available delivery systems in a manner designed for maximum effect.
The submarine-based deterrent is still nascent, confined to just one nuclear propelled submarine, the Arihant. More will be needed to ensure that China’s vital points, its military-industrial cities, and its political leadership is brought within the range of Indian submarines. It is the submarine-based deterrent which is considered the best bet to prevent a hostile neighbor from becoming adventurous. The next Arihant class submarine the INS Aridhaman is expected to be launched this year. The first of its class Arihant will be commissioned in 2015 and all four of India’s indigenously designed and developed nuclear submarines will be in service by 2023.
While there is no third platform arraigned against China at the moment there is enough firepower to induce deterrence in the land based Agni missiles. After 2015 the Arihant will be able to deliver the K-15 submarine launched ballistic missile from a range of 700 km. Later the 3,500 km range K-5 will be retrofitted on this class of submarines. This will induce greater flexibility of deployment against China since a nuclear armed submarine is difficult to find and track in the open seas.
Notwithstanding all this, the Chinese need to be complemented on the far-sightedness of their preparedness for any kind of major conflict. That it is ready for World War III is testified by the underground city it has created beneath the terrestrial Beijing and several other important cities. What are currently shops and restaurants are camouflaged entrances to a huge maze of tunnels, military operations rooms and accommodation for the political leadership. At the moment they are being used to promote tourism but when the geopolitical temperature rises to an uncomfortable degree, the Chinese will simply walk into their underground bedrooms and wait for the nuclear fires to burn themselves out. This is an indicator that China is prepared for the worst-including a nuclear holocaust-and expects to come out of it with its political and military leadership intact to march out of the tunnels and establish hegemony over the whole region and most of the globe.
As for the Agni-VI, the 10,000 km plus missile which is under development, it could be put to other uses like an anti-satellite weapon to destroy the network on which China depends to a very large extent to bolster its warfighting capabilities or improve its ability to intercept Chinese missiles at the early stage of flight after lift-off. The debris could land on China itself.