With successful completion of the maiden deterrence patrol by INS Arihant on November 5, 2018, India’s nuclear triad was officially completed. Launched on July 26, 2009, Arihant was expected to participate in the International Fleet Review 2016, but didn’t. Arihant was commissioned in August 2016. Three more submarines in this class are under construction with reports they may be larger: 12,000-13000 ton with SLBMs ranges of 5000-7000 km.
Significantly, China produces one SSBN/SSN annually in addition to conventional submarines, has invested heavily in unmanned submarines and is developing laser satellite able to operate at underwater depth of 500 meters; technologies she may share with Pakistan.
The ground component of India’s nuclear triad is under the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) and consists of land-based ballistic missiles. Prior to 2016, India already had fielded or tested the Prithvi-I with a range of 150 to 600 km, Agni-II with a range of 700 km, Agni-III with a range of 3000 km, Agni-IV with a range of 3500 km and Agni-V with a range of above 5000 km. After the first two tests of Agni-V in 2012-2013 in open configuration, subsequent ones from canister integrated with a mobile launcher enabled faster launch. The seventh successful test of Agni-V was conducted by SFC and DRDO scientists on December 10, 2018. The missile is capable of carrying 1.5 ton nuclear warheads up to ranges beyond 5000 km that can strike most major Chinese cities. Agni-III is under induction in the army, however, induction of Agni-IV and Agni-V into service will take more time.
Agni-V is armed with multiple warheads and multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRV). China has equipped some of its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with MIRVs and Pakistan announced in January 2017 that it had test-launched a new Ababeel ICBM with MIRVs. Agni-VI is reportedly also under development, with an envisioned range of 8000–12000 km and capability of MIRV or manouverable reentry vehicle (MARV). China has equipped some of its ICBMs with MIRVs and Pakistan’s announced in January 2017 that it had test-launched a new Ababeel ICBM with MIRVs. China’s longest range solid-fuelled road-mobile ICBM is the Dongfeng-41 (DF-41, CSS-X-10) with an operational range between 12,000 km to 15,000 km. Once Agni-V is inducted into service, India will join the exclusive club of countries like the US, Russia, China, France and Britain which have ICBM capabilities.
Pakistan now appears to have procured the nuclear-capable Chinese SH-5 howitzer of 155 mm caliber, which is already in service with the PLA. The SH-5 was part of Pakistan’s 10th International Defence Exhibition and Seminar (IDEAS) during November 2018 and the weapon system was tried out in mountains close to Karachi. Pakistan has been working on miniaturized nuclear weapons since 1984, with plutonium as the core. Nuclear warheads fitted in the 155 mm shell would give a range of 53 km; effective game changer for Pakistan army given the ‘shoot and scoot’ capability of the self-propelled SH-15 howitzer.
India needs a counter to Pakistan’s TNWs (tactical nuclear weapons) and nuclear-capable SH-15 155 mm howitzers that China would have already deployed along the Line of Actual Control with India. It would be naïve to think that India has not been giving due thought to this aspect. Interestingly, the US nuclear artillery shell W-48 uses 10 kg high density alpha-plutonium with a sphere of barely 54 mm could be fired from any standard 155 mm howitzer. In the 155 mm gun-howitzer category, India has the Bofors, indigenous ‘Dhanush’ under induction and the M777 under import from the US.
On September 20, 2018, India successfully test-fired Prahaar SRBM second time from a road-mobile launcher. Prahaar, with a range of 150 km, is to replace the short-range Prithvi-I. Unlike Prithvi, it can engage multiple targets in different directions with greater manoeuvering capability and acceleration, and can carry a payload of 200 kg. It will fill the gap between MBRL Pinaka and medium-range ballistic missile Prithvi. Unlike Prithvi, Prahaar can engage multiple targets in different directions. India has also developed the Pralay missile, a derivative of Prithvi Defence Vehicle (PDV) exo-atmospheric interceptor missile, capable of destroying enemy weapons at high altitudes.
Pralay, with payload of 1000 kg has strike range of 350 km. If the payload is halved, the missile can targets at 500 km. Development of tactical Pralay was necessitated after the Army sought for a 500-km range SRBM that can carry a sizable payload. Some information on Pralay missile, sanctioned in March 2015, was unveiled at the Defence Expo 2018 held at Chennai in April this year. The maiden test of Pralay was expected on September 22-23 but apparently was postponed. Pralay was developed to counter China’s Dongfeng 12 (DF-12) SRBM reportedly having a range of 100-250 with possible extended range of 400 km. If Prahaar and Pralay are nuclear capable, they could be the answer to enemy TNWs. Pralay, though interceptor missile, could also have a derivative for ground burst or low air burst.
During a tri-service audience chaired by the then Defence Minister (later President) Pranab Mukherjee, the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) had pointed out that Pakistan had reportedly deployed TNWs at corps level albeit with the nuclear button with the political authority. However, he as Chairman COSC was privy to what our plans of a nuclear response would be under our policy of NFU; he was not kept in picture of which and how many enemy targets would be struck. The Defence Minister did not respond but, hopefully, such a serious anomaly has been removed.
The NCA headed by the Prime Minister has no military member either. The Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), when appointed was to be single-point adviser to the government, and included in the NCA. Post the 1999 Kargil conflict, early establishment of the CDS was recommended by the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) and endorsed by the Group of Ministers (GoM) headed by the Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister.
However, the indications now are that instead of CDS, a Permanent Chairman COSC (PC COSC), is likely to be approved, perhaps next year or later. However, the operational powers of the PC COSC will remain restricted to overseeing out-of-area contingencies only, as exercised by the present Chairman COSC on rotational basis. This will mean just a cosmetic change with little additional operational advantage. India needs a CDS urgently who should also be part of the NCA to ensure requisite nuclear response.
(The author is a former Lieutenant General of the Indian Army)