Sunday, July 14, 2024

Redefining Battlefield: India’s Ballistic Capabilities & Whether It Stands Up To The Task

By Girish Linganna

Girish Linganna, Aerospace & Defence analyst & Director ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd

Wars are not fought on paper where we see just absolute numbers. War is fought psychologically. The ongoing Russian incursion into Ukraine is a testament to how numbers can be deceiving. Even though Russia is taking on a variety of Western countries as they continue to supply arms and armaments to Ukraine, the firepower is asymmetric. The containment has been crucially successful at the behest of missiles that have checked mainly the movement of Russian tanks and troops.

What It Means To Go Ballistic

Ballistic missiles differ fundamentally from cruise missiles, catering to a different use cases. A cruise missile employs aerodynamics to fly at a constant speed towards its target. Ballistic missiles depend on a projectile motion to deliver the blow.

Cruise missiles carry a single warhead and hit their target with high precision. A cruise missile, like BrahMos, can carry a conventional payload at supersonic and hypersonic speeds. A ballistic missile is impacted by various factors that impede its precision, but it can travel more than 5,000 KM and deliver multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) warheads. It is in this prominent area of effect that ballistic missiles are prized.

In the Indian context, an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), with a range of more than 5,500 KM, can be launched from any part of India and still hit all of China, including its eastern coasts. Under testing are certain ballistic missiles with a range of over 12,000 KM. A ballistic missile could severely impede any deep target in the enemy’s territory in a MIRV configuration, along with credible intelligence. A nuclear deterrent of this range and potency indeed keep all adversaries at bay.

India’s Ballistic Capabilities

India’s current arsenal is nothing but the fruit of its Integrated Guided Missiles Development Programme (IGMDP), which was spearheaded by Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, the former President. IGMDP oversaw the development of various ballistic missiles, like the Agni, Dhanush and Prithvi families of missiles. After the closure of the IGMDP in 2008, all of these branched into separate projects.

Particularly of note have been the developments under the Agni series of missiles. Agni-I was a short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) with about a 700-1,200 KM range. The next, Agni-II, was a medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) that extended the range to somewhere between 2,000 and 3,500 KM. The next iteration, Agni-III, grew the range to 3,000 to 5,000 KM as an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM). 

Agni-III was first tested in 2006, and its 1.5-tonne warhead capacity and range made it a potent deterrent. Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), hence, spent the resources focusing on updating subsystems and bridging the gap between the Agni-II and Agni-III. Thus, although it had only 1 tonne of warhead capacity and 3,500 – 4,000 KM of range, Agni-IV was a pivotal test of in-house innovation in missile technologies.

The first four Agni family missiles ensured coverage over all Pakistan. With the Agni-III and Agni-IV, even parts of China were within striking distance.

Currently, India’s ICBM capabilities are realised by the Agni-V solid-fueled missile. A point to be noted here is how India has ensured not to let Western countries uncomfortably question these capabilities. ICBM has a range beyond 5,500 KM, which is not what India claims the Agni-V can achieve. It has merely mentioned the range to be over 5,000 KM. This uniquely puts all of China within range and yet cannot worry the West about India’s ballistic reach.

Under the wraps is the Agni-VI missile, which is a MIRV-capable ICBM. It is reportedly being developed to carry 10 MIRV over 12,000 KM. On paper, as a whole, India is sufficiently capable of meeting the ballistic needs. But a fight is always easy when the other person is not punching back.

Tete-a-Tete: Can India match Pakistani and Chinese Challenges?

Chinese and Pakistani ballistic missiles are formidable in their own right. The Chinese arsenal has ballistic missiles from 2,800 KM to over 13,000 KM range that can carry anywhere from 700 to 3,200 KG of payload.

Similarly, Pakistan has only four ballistic missiles of its own. All but one has a range of less than 1,000 KM with a 1,000 KG payload capacity. Pakistani Shaheen-2 apparently has a range of over 10,000 KM with a 1,000 KG payload.

In light of such teetering competition, India has successfully concluded its Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) programme. BMD realises an aerial defence that shields the country from even nuclear missiles. The two-layered, home-grown BMD uses the Prithvi Air Defence to destroy missiles at exo-atmospheric altitude (50 – 180 KM). At endo-atmospheric altitudes (15 – 40 KM), the Akash surface-to-air missile (SAM) does the job.

The piece de resistance of the BMD is its detection system. It can use land-based, sea-based and aerial detection systems. For land-based radars, India has the option of the indigenous Swordfish and the Israeli Green Pine. Notably, India is only the fifth country to have a naval vessel for tracking sea-based missiles which it can use with the BMD.

This is, of course, in addition to procuring the S400 Triumf air defence system from Russia. Russia claims it is on track to complete the delivery by 2023. The first batch of S400 has been deployed, reportedly, in the Himalayan infriction points with both Pakistan and China.

In a ballistic matchup, India has demonstrated its mettle with its state-of-the-art offensive and defensive capabilities. Only time will tell how it shall translate into a victory.

Girish Linganna is an Aerospace and Defence Analyst & Director ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Indian Aerospace & DefenceGirish Linganna is an Aerospace and Defence Analyst & Director ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Indian Aerospace & Defence


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