|By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
Former Director General of Information Systems, Indian Army
When India successfully test-fired its nuclear capable Agni-V ICBM on January 18 this year, China had made no official statement, but after the December 2016 Agni-V test China had stated it hoped India's testing of the nuclear-capable Agni-V ICBM complied with UN Security Council rules and safeguarded South Asia's strategic balance. Hua Chunying, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said without elaborating, "On whether India can develop this ballistic missile that can carry nuclear weapons, I think relevant resolutions of the UNSC have clear rules.
We have always believed that safeguarding strategic balance and stability in South Asia is conducive for the peace and prosperity of countries in the region." Her reference to strategic balance in South Asia obviously referred to the military balance between India and Pakistan. But Hua's reference to whether Agni-V can carry nuclear warhead was more for consumption of the Chinese public. However, an article titled 'China should enhance presence in Indian Ocean to counter India's missile tests: experts' published in China's Global Times on January 18, 2018 stated that India's latest Agni-V test constitutes a direct threat to China's security, quoting Song Zhongping. According to Hu Zhiyong of Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, "Though the missile (Agni-V) could theoretically reach Beijing, India's missile technique is far below the standard. Nevertheless, China should be on the alert and further upgrade its anti-missile techniques." Hu Zhiyong's skepticism whether Agni-V can reach Beijing is laughable because of another article in Global Times that quoted Du Wenlong from the Chinese Academy of Military Science, stated that that the Agni-V had a strike range of about 5,000 miles (8,000 km), rather than 3,000 miles (4,800 km), and that the Indian government had deliberately played down its range to avoid causing concern to other countries. The abovementioned first article also states that Agni-V ICBM and India's nuclear program per se is a challenge to global nuclear-nonproliferation efforts. This again is amusing indeed since it is India's impeccable record in non-proliferation that has enabled its entry into the global non-proliferation regimes of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Wassenaar Arrangement (WA) and Australia Group (AG), while China has been denied entry into all three. The January 18 article in Global Times recommends China should enhance its maritime presence in the Indian Ocean to counter the missile tests by India. The article also says that "India is trying to build a military system with Australia, Japan and the US in order to keep a closer watch on China, which poses a direct threat to China". It does not elucidate how 'keeping a close watch' translates into a 'direct threat'. But it certainly indicates that Agni-V has raised serious concerns in China. These concerns would have gone up further with the Indian announcement that India will induct the Agni-V into its military in 2018 itself, compared to China's view that it would take few years. But now India is planning to test a Brahmos missile of more than 800 km range by end 2018. The 3-ton BrahMos already has extended range from 290 km to 400 km range, which became possible after India's entry into the MTCR in June 2016. The DRDO had announced last year that the existing version of the BrahMos was being tweaked to enhance its range to 800 km. In November 2017, India had successfully launched the BrahMos from a Sukhoi-30 fighter jet. Hence, India can launch BrahMos variants from land, air, sea and underwater.
The Sukhoi has a range of 3,600 km and arming it with a 800 km or more BrahMos increases the strategic targeting reach tremendously including in the backdrop of mid-air refueling.
Two Sukhoi aircraft have already been modified for equipping them with the air launch version of the BrahMos, which weighs 2.5 tons – 500 kg lighter than the land and naval versions. Obviously, more aircraft will be modified to carry the air-launch BrahMos missiles. The DRDO simultaneously should also be focusing on how the Sukhoi fighters carrying the air-launched BrahMos can effectively engage targets in the Indian Ocean over long ranges since the Indian Ocean has proliferation of vessels and submarines of multiple nations at all times, which makes designation of targets difficult.
Interestingly, an article titled 'China Wants missile Defenses To Stop India (And Kill Satellites) by Doug Tsuruoka published in 'The National Interest' on January 19 this year, highlights that though China is within range of India's Agni-V, North Korea's nuclear-capable missile and Japan is mulling whether to develop similar capabilities, there has been little focus in developing a missile defence system against these threats. But it is likely that China is develop a missile defene system based on selective use of anti-missile interceptors to defend critical "point targets" like military facilities or key infrastructure like the Three Gorges Dam from possible attack by India or others. The article notes that India began deploying its canister-launched Agni-5 ICBM in 2016 in a move that put all major Chinese cities within range of Indian nukes for the first time. Another longer-range, bigger-payload Agni-6 ICBM capable of carrying multiple warheads is believed to be under development, though Indian officials are tight-lipped and it isn't clear when the new missile will be tested and deployed. Another factor nudging China to deploy some type of missile shield is a fear that India may develop its own. China was internationally criticized in 2007 when it conducted a kinetic-energy (inert projectile) ASAT test on a target satellite that scattered hazardous debris in space. The test also negated China's credibility of her earlier stance against the weaponization of space. The missile defence shield no doubt is costly but China can be expected to develop a missile defence shield. How credible it would be against supersonic missiles and multiple missile attacks will remain a question mark; China would lace capabilities with propaganda – similar to its current proclamation that the Three Gorges Dam is nuclear-attack proof. India policy makers need to take into consideration abovementioned issues, including China's ASAT capabilities and its anti-missile shield.