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India’s Agni-V MIRV: Implications for South Asian Region

Recently India’s test of Agni-V Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV) marked a consequential shift in the strategic dynamics of the South Asian region. With the capability of delivering multiple warheads to different targets via a single missile, Agni-V has the potential to alter the existing balance of power. Although this technological advancement is being touted as an enhancer for India’s deterrence posture against China and Pakistan, on the flip side, it raises concerns about offensive arm race dynamics, regional stability, and the overall security landscape of South Asia.

India’s adoption of long range MIRV technology to enhance its essential counterforce capability not only questions its claim to remain a credible minimum deterrent but also prompts a review of its nuclear doctrine, particularly its long-standing ‘No First Use’ policy. While the NFU policy delineates that India will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict, the development of a MIRV-equipped missile could lead India to adopt a more aggressive posture, with tendencies towards pre-emptive or first-use strikes in certain scenarios. Such scenarios could include the detection of an imminent threat (potentially based on misinformation), a large scale conventional attack, or the disruption of an adversary’s nuclear capability.

Moreover, India’s development of the Agni-V missile accentuates the country’s strategic utilisation of civilian projects for military purposes. The Agni-V MIRV has benefited from technological capabilities originally developed for India’s civilian satellite SLV-3. By leveraging solid-fuel propulsion system and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) technology developed through its civilian space programme, India has significantly improved its Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capabilities. Nevertheless, its collaboration with the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been instrumental in this technological advancement.  Keeping in view the situation of ‘Thucydides Trap’ between US and China, this strategic application of dual-use technologies, coupled with US support for India, may contribute to the militarisation of peaceful projects in the region and increase tension among neighbouring countries over military alliances, potentially undermining regional peace. In this vein, the recent US sanctions on suppliers to Pakistan’s Ballistic Missile Programme, including long-ranged missile programme, testifies to its bias.

The operational requirements of India’s MIRV capability also raise qualms for regional actors due to its disproportionate nature. Unlike China, which possesses a limited Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) capability, and Pakistan, which has chosen not to pursue a BMD system, India’s development of MIRVs seems excessive. While MIRVs may provide a strategic advantage against sophisticated BMD systems, their development by India raises questions about its strategic intentions and commitment to regional stability. The absence of a BMD threat from either China or Pakistan suggests that India’s pursuit of MIRV technology is more driven by regional hegemony and prestige rather than mere deterrence.

The timing of India’s test flight of Agni-V MIRV, coinciding with the general elections, raises apprehensions about the political motivations behind the demonstration. As with the Anti-Satellite Missile Test (ASAT) conducted in March 2019, which conveniently preceded the Indian elections of that year, this MIRV test could be seen as another instance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government showing its military prowess for political gain. By conducing high-profile military demonstrations just before elections, the government may seek to bolster its image as a strong defender of national security, influencing voter sentiment. Nevertheless, such timing also reflects the strategic use of military developments for political ends. In contrast, Pakistan’s development of Ababeel MIRV complies with its strategic needs as its only adversary, India, possesses two-layered BMD system that can intercept aerial targets from a range around 30 km to 5000 km.

In conclusion, India’s development of MIRV-equipped Agni-V missiles suggests the urgent need for new confidence-building measures (CBMs) among India and Pakistan to mitigate the potential consequences of advanced technologies on regional stability. Key elements of responsive CBMs should include robust communication channels, bilateral discussions on emerging technologies and their implication on regional peace, besides strict adherence to missile test notification protocols. Additionally, regular strategic dialogues, supported by Track 1.5 diplomacy and regional task forces focused on new military technologies will be essential. India must recognise that its pursuit of MIRV technology has serious implications for regional stability and take concrete steps to address the concerns of its neighbours.