WASHINGTON -- As India touts its successful Sunday test of a nuclear-capable ballistic missile that theoretically could reach Beijing, analysts predict the event will not significantly alter the country’s relations with nuclear rival China.
The Agni 5 blasted off from India’s Wheeler Island Sunday morning and “flew on a predefined path and reached its destination with expected precision,” the Indian Defense Research and Development Organization said in a press release. The launch was the second for the solid-fueled missile, which had a successful maiden test-launch in April 2012.
The missile has a range of 3,100 miles, putting it close to the range of an ICBM -- a weapon presently possessed only by China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The test “has demonstrated the maturity, repeatability and robustness of the system, paving the way for initiation of [production] and subsequent induction,” India maintained in the statement. Defense Minister A.K. Antony said the DRDO scientists "made their country proud,” and national security adviser Shiv Shankar Menon said the test was a milestone for his country’s development of long-range missiles.
Despite India’s pride in the Agni 5 advancement, former Pentagon official Christopher Clary said it likely will not change the present state of strategic relations with New Delhi’s two foremost nuclear rivals -- Pakistan and China.
“The existence of the Agni 5 does not change the weapons requirements of any of India's potential foes: China already has long-range missiles and Pakistan can credibly threaten Indian commercial and political centers with its existing systems,” Clary, a former country director for South Asian affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, said in an email.
The missile does, however, enhance the credibility of India’s nuclear deterrent toward China, because it gives New Delhi the ability to threaten major Chinese cities, said Clary, who is a Stanton Nuclear Security fellow at the RAND Corp.
“For a long time, Indian strategic planners had to construct wild schemes to deliver a nuclear weapon to China's political and economic heartland in the East, or be content with mushroom clouds above Lhasa [in Tibet] in the event of a nuclear exchange,” Clary noted.
At present, the longest-range nuclear-capable ballistic missile in India’s army is the Agni 3, which has a traveling distance of 2,175 miles.
The nuclear relationship between New Delhi and Beijing for some time has been viewed largely as a one-way rivalry.
“Beijing won't deign to acknowledge a mutual deterrence relationship with India,” Michael Krepon, co-founder of the nonpartisan Stimson Center, wrote in an email.
India and China fought a brief war in 1962 and have had ongoing border disputes.
“The Agni 5 won't stop Chinese patrols from making incursions across the Line of Actual Control [in the Himalayan region] dividing their disputed border,” Krepon predicted.
Both India and China have declared a nuclear policy of no-first use.
Sunday’s test was a duplication of the 2012 Agni 5 launch. The next step in the missile development involves building a canister version that can be fired from a truck, the Times of India reported.
“The canister-launch missile system … will be ready for testing by early next-year,” an unidentified Indian official told the newspaper. After that test takes place, just three or four more test-firings are needed before the solid-fueled missile can go into serial production.
“Full-scale induction should be possible by 2015-16,” the official said.