The Asian Arms Race That Wasn’t

India and Pakistan are firing off missiles left and right. So why aren't the Chinese nervous?


Are we in the middle of a missile race in Asia? On April 25, Pakistan conducted the first test of its Shaheen 1-A intermediate-range ballistic missile. The Pakistan military said that the missile, which is capable of delivering a nuclear warhead against targets in India, successfully hit its intended location in the Indian Ocean.

If the thought of the world’s most unstable nuclear power testing such weapons doesn’t keep you up at night, consider this: Pakistan isn’t the only nation bombarding the Indian Ocean with ballistic missiles in recent days — an Indian missile test of its 5,000-km Agni V likely spurred the trial of the Shaheen 1-A. On a small island off India’s eastern coast late last month, a three-stage missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead blasted off and climbed more than 370 miles into the atmosphere before re-entering and splashing down into the water. Mainstream reporting on India’s successful test of the Agni V missile has suggested that the launch gave it "nuclear parity" with China — a claim echoed by seasoned South Asia hand Edward Luce last Sunday.

However, there is little reason to overreact to this series of missile tests. India’s test reflects one step forward in a long process of gradually achieving a retaliatory capability against its regional adversaries, especially China. Nothing more, and nothing less. Moreover, the test will not fuel an arms race with either China or Pakistan — despite Islamabad’s test of its own intermediate-range ballistic missile in response to the Indian test.

It is important to understand precisely where India’s ballistic missile development program stands. With a range of 5,000 kilometers, the Agni V is technically an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM), not an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which is defined as missiles with a range of at least 5,500 kilometers. Yes, this is an arbitrary cutoff. But it is useful for understanding the capabilities that India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the agency responsible for India’s ballistic missiles, has mastered — and those it has not. India does not have, and is at least several years away from, a true ICBM or sea-based capability.

The importance of this development should not be minimized: When the Agni V is eventually inducted into India’s Strategic Force Command, it will give it the ability to strike anywhere in China, including the capital Beijing. It extends the reach of India’s Agni family of land-based strategic ballistic missiles, which range from 700 km (Agni I) to now 5,000 km (Agni V). Chinese missiles, on the other hand, can already strike anywhere on the Indian subcontinent. The Agni V is designed to support India’s ability to assure nuclear retaliation against China in the event nuclear weapons are used against it.

The Indian test also represents a substantial achievement for India’s DRDO, demonstrating its mastery of maintaining structural integrity under significant stresses, successful stage separation, and terminal warhead guidance. But beyond these technical advances, the significance of the test should not be over-hyped. It was just a test, and only the first one for the Agni V. DRDO remains several tests, and several years, away from being able to reliably produce and operationalize the Agni V.

The idea that India can — or even intends to — achieve nuclear parity with China with a single test is misguided. Nuclear posture unfolds over years and decades, and India is just now creeping toward having an assured retaliation capability against China. Even when the Agni V is inducted into India’s military, Beijing will still enjoy clear advantages in both warheads and delivery systems, and it will retain them for the foreseeable future. For starters, China has at least twice as many nuclear warheads as India, many of which contain much higher yields than their Indian counterparts. With several decades of experience developing nuclear systems, China’s missiles are also probably more reliable than India’s. With the ongoing development of the Type-094 Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine that will carry the Julang-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile, China also has a significant head start on sea-based capabilities.

Don’t expect this test to spark an arms race in the region, either. India has been developing the Agni V since at least 2007, so both China and Pakistan have likely already factored its eventual deployment into their own nuclear planning. One central point missed by many analysts is that China and India have remarkably similar nuclear strategies –both are keyed to assured retaliation, or guaranteeing a secure second-strike capability. This means that once both sides have developed survivable second-strike forces capable of reaching an adversary’s key strategic targets, there is little need for additional forces.

Most importantly, neither India nor China have nuclear strategies that target each other’s nuclear forces. This would make nuclear stability critically dependent on the numerical balance of forces, as was the case during periods of the Cold War. Instead, with assured retaliation strategies, nuclear stability can be established much more easily, once both states acquire secure second-strike capabilities. India is only now reaching the point of having an assured retaliation capability against China. Given China’s superior capabilities, the eventual deployment of the Agni V will thus not weaken China’s deterrent, even as it strengthens India’s. China is unlikely to deploy more weapons in response, because its ability to survive a first strike by India remains robust. As a result — although an editorial in the always acerbic Global Times stated that India "should not overestimate its strength" — China’s official reaction was quite muted.

Pakistan is also unlikely to alter its own approach to nuclear weapons following the deployment of the Agni V. First, it is unclear how the test alters the nuclear balance between the two rivals: India’s existing arsenal can already reach Pakistan’s strategic targets. Second, Pakistan primarily aims to use its nuclear forces to deter an Indian conventional attack, abjuring a "no first use" pledge in order to credibly threaten nuclear use in such a contingency. Thus, its nuclear requirements are driven largely by India’s growing conventional capabilities – not the range of its nuclear capabilities. Finally, even Pakistan’s test of the Shaheen 1A missile is part of its longstanding quest to achieve a secure second-strike capability against Indian targets, and no evidence exists that Pakistan will produce or deploy such missiles in numbers that would trigger an arms race. Moreover, as Pakistan has typically timed the test of its missiles with those of India’s, its test was largely predictable. And neither of the launches would have caught the other state by surprise, as both have adhered to an agreement to notify each other ahead of impending ballistic missile tests.

One development could, however, upset the strategic balance in South Asia. Shortly after the test, comments from the head of the DRDO suggested that India might also be developing multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) for several Agni variants. This capability could enable India to deliver multiple nuclear warheads against an adversary’s targets — or its nuclear forces — with a single ballistic missile launch. MIRVs, coupled with a potential missile defense system in development, could have far-reaching implications for the survivability of China and Pakistan’s nuclear forces. Nevertheless, these comments were likely unauthorized and certainly do not reflect the policy of the Indian government or its future force posture. They were most likely made to enhance the organizational prestige of the DRDO, which has long sought to claim that it can indigenously develop world-class systems. This is not the first time that DRDO has made comments with strategic implications that do not reflect official policy.

Finally, in an alarmist article in the New York Times, Graeme Herd at the Geneva Center for Security Policy claims that the timing of the Agni V test would heighten suspicions that it was aimed at China, because it occurred as Beijing is engulfed in the political scandal surrounding deposed party boss Bo Xilai. Most missile tests, however, do not work this way. The Agni V test was planned for years, and it was most likely scheduled for when DRDO was simply ready to test the missile — and of course, when the weather was clear. Recall that the United States tested missiles according to a standard operating procedure as well — even once conducting a pre-planned test in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis simply because it was already scheduled.

A sober look at the Agni V test suggests that it was a significant technical step forward in India’s longstanding quest for an assured second-strike capability toward its regional adversaries. But it was not much more than that. Analysts expecting an arms race in Asia will likely be disappointed.

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