WASHINGTON -- India on Friday announced it would equip a future long-range ballistic missile to accommodate multiple nuclear warheads, but one analyst said the plan is unlikely to prompt a significant response from probable target China.
India has been preparing its developmental Agni 5 ballistic missile to carry multiple warheads, but the Agni 6 is expected to have a longer range. A Friday report by Zee News carried anonymous assertions that the Agni 6 has an intended flight distance of roughly 5,000 to 6,200 miles, numbers that could significantly exceed the range of its predecessor in the Agni line.
"Agni 5 is major strategic defense weapon. Now we want to make Agni 6 which would be a force multiplier," Defense Research and Development Organization head V.K. Saraswat said in comments reported by the Press Trust of India.
Saraswat said schematics are ready and "hardware realization" is under way, but he did not specify the planned missile's range, its maximum payload or when the weapon might be ready for deployment.
The project appears to be part of "a longer-term plan to have more stable deterrence against China," said Toby Dalton, a former high-level Energy Department nuclear security official now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Planning against Pakistan, India's nuclear-armed regional rival, would not require "a missile that can well overshoot" the country, he told Global Security Newswire.
Beijing's likely response is "really hard to know," but its reaction to India's 2012 trial launch of the Agni 5 missile was "very restrained," he said.
Dalton said he did not anticipate "a strong reaction from China, either in words or in fact." China's nuclear modernization is "well under way" and appears to have been "fairly consistently implemented over time," he said. Beijing is developing a new line of long-range ballistic missiles, and it is reportedly progressing toward a capability to field nuclear-tipped missiles on submarines.
Certain antimissile and nuclear warhead delivery systems under development in India appear "far beyond" the country's nuclear doctrine and posture, Dalton added. The nation formally abides by a nuclear no-first-use policy and a defensive posture of “credible minimum nuclear deterrence.”
New Delhi has conducted only one flight test of the Agni 5 to date, and the analyst noted that "testing a missile one time does not mean that it's anywhere close to being inducted into a nuclear force."
India is believed to possess between 80 and 100 nuclear warheads, according to a 2012 analysis by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Pakistan was estimated last year to hold 110 nuclear weapons, and the nation was pressing forward with construction of a new reactor for generating weapon-usable plutonium.
Islamabad feels it is capable of deterring a nuclear strike, but continues to pursue shorter-range armaments for potential use in countering a large-scale conventional Indian offensive, Dalton added. A long-range, multiple-warhead Indian missile is unlikely to "drive the Pakistanis in a new direction," he said.
India has been pressing forward in preparing land-, air- and sea-based launch platforms for its atomic arsenal. The nation last week conducted its final planned trial of a ballistic missile intended for deployment on submarines. The INS Arihant, the nation's first planned ballistic missile submarine, is slated to begin sea trials later this year.
A DRDO spokesman was not immediately available to answer questions. The Indian, Pakistani and Chinese embassies in Washington did not respond by press time to requests for comment.
An unidentified DRDO insider previously said the missile would be able to carry between four and six nuclear warheads depending on their size, but others claimed the weapon would be able to carry up to 10 warheads, according to the Zee News report. The missile would be longer, thinner and more easily transported than the Agni 5; it would weigh 55 metric tons, the article quotes a "senior scientist" as saying.
The report claimed the weapon would incorporate three stages and be deployable on land or at sea, and could be "ready" by the middle of next year if plans receive final approval. It did not specify the origin of the assertions.