Muted Global Response Follows Indian Long-Range Missile Test

The heads of the launch team for India's Agni 5 missile offer poses after speaking with the press on Friday. Nations offered a muted response to the first flight test of the missile, which could hit major cities such as Beijing (AP Photo/Manish Swarup).
The heads of the launch team for India's Agni 5 missile offer poses after speaking with the press on Friday. Nations offered a muted response to the first flight test of the missile, which could hit major cities such as Beijing (AP Photo/Manish Swarup).

The international community's response to Thursday's successful maiden test launch of a India's longest-range nuclear-capable missile has largely been quiet, including in China -- the nation the Agni 5 is primarily aimed at deterring, the Associated Press reported (see GSN, April 19).

The muted reactions to India's missile test flight stand in stark contrast to the international anger that followed North Korea's long-range rocket firing last Friday, even though the North's attempt ended embarrassingly when its system broke up shortly after liftoff (see GSN, April 16).

The dissimilarities highlight the point that even though neither North Korea nor India is a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the global community has grown to view New Delhi as responsible nuclear-armed nation and partner in atomic trade.

"It's not the spear, but who holds the spear that matters. North Korea is a condemned nation. It's a pariah country. Its record of breaking nuclear agreements is well-known," India-based defense specialist Rahul Bedi said. "India has emerged in that sense as a fairly responsible country."

The United States responded to New Delhi's first nuclear test in 1974 by imposing sanctions that were not lifted for some 25 years. In a sign of how things have changed, the State Department responded to Thursday's missile launch by pointing to India's "solid" track record on nonproliferation. 

The Agni 5 must still go through a period of testing that is anticipated to last at least two years before the missile can enter into service. The missile has a top flight distance of roughly 3,100 miles and can strike targets as far away as Beijing, Shanghai, Pyongyang, Tehran and parts of Eastern Europe (Ravi Nessman, Associated Press/Google News, April 19).

"We will carry out two more tests of Agni 5 which will take about one-and-a-half years, and after that the production of the missile will commence and we will start handing it over to the military," Agence France-Presse quoted V.K. Saraswat, head of the Indian Defense Research and Development Organization, as saying on Friday.

"When it reaches the military they will start training and so a maximum time of two years is needed to operationalize Agni 5," he said to journalists (Agence France-Presse I/Yahoo!News, April 20).

Whereas North Korea continues to insist -- to widespread disbelief -- that its rocket launch was a peaceful attempt to place a satellite into orbit, India acknowledged it was trying out a nuclear-capable missile with near-ICBM qualities. Only nuclear powers China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States possess ballistic missiles with longer ranges.

Officials in New Delhi have emphasized the Agni 5 should not be viewed as a danger as India has pledged to never be the first to use nuclear weapons, AP reported.

Pakistan, the primary focus of India's nuclear deterrent, was largely unruffled following the launch. Foreign Office spokesman Mozzam Ahmed Khan merely said New Delhi had fulfilled the terms of a bilateral pact that obligates both nations to give prior notice of any ballistic missile test flights.

White House spokesman Jay Carney on Thursday called on "all nuclear-capable states to exercise restraint regarding nuclear and missile capabilities, and continue to discourage actions that might destabilize the South Asia region."

Carney noted to reporters that "India's record stands in stark contrast to that of North Korea, which has been subject to numerous sanctions" (Nessman, Associated Press).

Issue experts pointed out that despite Thursday's successful test, India still has a ways to go before it can match China's deterrent capabilities, AFP reported. Beijing possesses ICBMs that can travel at least twice the distance of the Agni 5.

"We are still way behind China," New-Delhi based defense analyst Raja Mohan said. "In terms of missile numbers, range and quality, they are way ahead of us."

Mohan criticized the emphasis placed on "demonstration" tests, which he said show the country's missile posture is headed by scientists instead of the military and policy-makers. "We can wrap ourselves in the flag today, but there's a dearth of real strategy on how to actually deploy missile technology."

Analysts said four to five additional trial launches would be needed to validate the Agni 5's precision flight control and reliability. After that, bulk manufacturing of the missile could take place.

Bedi said New Delhi's senior politicians have not done a good job in making the most of the achievements of Indian researchers.

"India's nuclear deterrence lacks political foresight and understanding of its employment primarily because of the politicians' limited understanding of strategic matters," Bedi said. "The euphoria over Agni 5's success will abate fast if not followed by firming up this dissuasive deterrence capability that has only been demonstrated today, not confirmed."

The success of the Agni 5 is anticipated to lead to more urging within India to ready missiles with even longer ranges. However, weapons scientist K. Santhanam criticized the thinking behind developing continent-spanning missiles.

"The Agni 5 has strategic relevance, but how far do we want to go? Do we want to go to Washington?" he said to AFP. "We don't need ICBMs because we are at most a regional power and they wouldn't fit into any coherent strategy given the current security scenario" (Agence France-Presse II/Economic Times, April 20).

China and India share a long, heavily militarized border. The two countries had one limited war in 1962 and have continuing disagreements about border territory; New Delhi is also concerned about Beijing's growing naval presence in the Indian Ocean.

The Agni 5 test flight "from the Chinese perspective, looks like a movement from balancing China to containing China," Geneva Center for Security Policy analyst Graeme Herd said in a New York Times article. 

The test also "increases the perception of an arms race, and the reality of an arms race, in East Asia, particularly between China and India," he said.

In reporting on the launch, Chinese state television questioned the Agni 5's precision flight capabilities and noted the missile's heavy weight would likely require it to be fired from a silo, making it easier to attack than missiles that can be shifted around. New Delhi, though, said the missile is road-mobile, which caused worry in Pakistan.

Islamabad-based security expert Mansoor Ahmed said the Agni 5 enhanced India's ability to mount a second strike, especially if the missile is modified to be fired from submarines. An SLBM "can be deployed beyond the reach of a Pakistani first strike, thus ensuring survivability of its nuclear force," he said.

U.S. Congressional Research Service nonproliferation analyst Paul Kerr told the Times the development of the Agni 5 could lead to a deepening of the arms buildup in Asia.

"Everyone forgets about U.N. Security Council Resolution 1172, which calls upon India and Pakistan to cease development of ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons," the analyst said.

Missile tests from Pakistan, India, and China have "potential ripple effects" as "there's no arms control among the three," according to Kerr (Timmons/Yardley, New York Times, April 19).

Saraswat on Friday said there was no consideration of curbing India's missile efforts following the Agni 5, AFP reported.

"Our development needs are based upon today's threats and also evolving threats," he said. "And so there is no question of capping any programme because we will always have an evolving threat which will require different classes of systems" (Agence France-Presse I).

April 20, 2012
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The international community's response to Thursday's successful maiden test launch of a India's longest-range nuclear-capable missile has largely been quiet, including in China -- the nation the Agni 5 is primarily aimed at deterring, the Associated Press reported.

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