Strategic Stability in Asia and the Agni V Missile Test

May 10, 2012


By David J. Elkind
Professors M. Taylor Fravel and Vipin Narang’s recent Foreign Policy article “The Asian Arms Race That Wasn’t” argues that India’s recent Agni V test is unlikely to prompt an arms race between India, Pakistan and/or China. While I agree with their assessment that “India’s test reflects one step forward in a long process of gradually achieving a retaliatory capability against its regional adversaries,” I think it is important to emphasize that the current and future programs to enhance nuclear capabilities in Asia are quite marginal. In particular, I would like to draw attention to the robustness of India and China’s current capabilities and how these features contribute to strategic stability between the two powers.
In discussing the implications of the Indian Agni V, authors note that it will allow Indian missiles to reach Beijing and anywhere else in China, whereas China is already in possession of ballistic missiles that can strike all of India, implying that the missile should be a cause for concern. Certainly the Agni V augments Indian posture, but India is already capable of holding Chinese targets at risk – as the authors note, the Agni V merely extends the range of Indian missiles – to include Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Chongqing, and Dongguan (five of China’s most populous cities). In light of this, the additional range of the Agni V does not radically alter strategic stability in Asia. Furthermore, the Agni V may even enhance stability, as the number of potential targets India can hold at risk will extend to Beijing. Because the deterrent relationship held before, I anticipate that each nation being able to hold at risk all the targets of the other (including national capitals), would strengthen that posture.
But my larger disagreement is with the authors’ characterization that India is only “just now creeping toward having an assured retaliation capability against China.” The authors follow this observation with observations about the qualitative and quantitative superiority of China’s arsenal over India’s, and China’s “significant head start on sea-based capabilities.” But India need not develop sea-based capabilities to have mobile, and hence more survivable, missiles – already, India has developed truck-mounted missiles, called transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) platforms. While on patrol (and their location is uncertain and changing), these missiles tax an adversary’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, reducing the adversary’s confidence in its ability to destroy them. That measure of uncertainty is vital to strategic stability, because it enhances India’s confidence in the survivability of its arsenal and gives it a measure of assured retaliation. While India’s motivation to build another survivable capability via a sea-based deterrent is understandable, the lack of such capability is not as destabilizing as Fravel and Narang characterize it. Submarines are likely preferred given that TELs are ground-based and not hardened, but their mobility – while not perfect – is a strong asset providing confidence to Indian decision-makers that their deterrent is survivable.
The above observation is, of course, wholly consistent with the authors’ conclusion that an arms race between India and China is unlikely. Additional weapons would enhance China’s ability to locate and destroy Indian TELs in the same way that a larger number of darts would allow one an enhanced ability to hit a dozen constantly-moving bull’s eyes simultaneously – which is to say, marginally. Furthermore, since the survival of even a single Indian TEL assures the destruction of Hong Kong or another major city, China is exceptionally unlikely to risk war – and hence strategic stability remains intact.

The authors then transition to a discussion of how and whether Indian development of MIRV-equipped missiles would endanger the strategic balance, writing that “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.” This statement, however, remains unexplored from a strategic standpoint, as the authors dismiss India’s interest in researching MIRVs (in their view, this would not be the first time that the Defense Research and Development Organization has made statements that do not reflect official policy).

However, it is worth exploring the strategic implications of MIRV and missile defense development. If we accept the authors’ premise that survivability of forces is the key consideration in evaluating the likelihood of an arms race ( “… [O]nce both sides have developed survivable second-strike forces capable of reaching an adversary’s key strategic targets, there is little need for additional forces”), MIRVs would not immediately threaten the most survivable elements of the Chinese arsenal, namely Chinese nuclear-armed submarines and TELs. I suspect that the authors mean to suggest MIRVs could be used to destroy the Chinese arsenal while the Indian missile defense system would be used to “sweep up” any weapons that manage to survive. However, this thinking suggests a remarkable degree of recklessness on the part of the Indian leadership and a very high level of confidence in the (future development of) a missile defense system. Even if this system achieves a remarkable 95 percent success rate (which would be an incredible achievement, given that recent American forays into missile defense have yet to score a single success), we expect it to fail one time in twenty. For context, Indian defense planners should anticipate China having as many as 48 SLBNs (Table 1, PDF); the likelihood of this (entirely unrealistic and hypothetical, but remarkably effective) missile defense system intercepting all 48 SLBNs is less than 9 percent. (The probability of Indian missile defense succeeding against all 48 Chinese SLBNs is given by 0.9548 ≈ 8.53 percent.) Even boasting such an impressive performance, this scenario would still require India to countenance a 91 percent chance that one or more of its major population centers are struck by a Chinese nuclear device in the event of war. This uncertainty is the fundamental core of why stability exists, and any radical shift in the strategic balance is unlikely.
While I ultimately agree with Fravel and Narang’s conclusions, I believe that an arms race on the subcontinent is less likely than they imagine and the strategic balance will be maintained well into the future, even as both nations continue to improve their weapons.  
David J. Elkind is a research intern for the Project on Nuclear Issues. The views expressed above are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Project on Nuclear Issues.