An incremental deterrence

India moved one step closer to acquiring a nuclear triad when, on January 27, it conducted the final developmental test of its 700 km range K-15 missile from an underwater platform. The triad would enable India's military to launch nuclear weapons from aircraft, land-based missiles, and submarines. Such a triad is intended to enhance India's deterrent against its rivals. Still, it will take many years, and many more technological steps, for India to field a robust triad. Each of these steps will improve the capabilities and increase the invulnerability of India's nuclear delivery systems, thereby incrementally enhancing the credibility of India's deterrent. At the end of the road lies a better, but still far from perfect, deterrent.

The land-based and airborne legs of India's triad are already operational. The Indian air force's Sukhoi-30s and Mirage-2000s can deliver nuclear payloads to Pakistan, and to central China, but they cannot reach major cities in eastern China unless they are refuelled in flight. Aircraft are also the most vulnerable leg of the triad.

India's land-based missiles provide more assured delivery options against Pakistan and China. India's 700 km range Agni-1 and 2,000 km range Agni-2 can hit all major Pakistani targets from less vulnerable launch sites away from India's borders. However, they fall short of China's east coast cities. To reach these, India must field the 3,500 km range Agni-3, the similar-ranged Agni-4, which is a modified Agni-2, and the 5,000 km range Agni-5, which is a three-stage version of the Agni-3. Still, over the next five to 10 years, Pakistan and China could acquire missile defences for their main cities, and these would somewhat blunt India's missile capabilities against those targets.

The naval leg of India's triad is the most challenging. Three additional technological steps will be necessary to credibly operationalise this leg. First, India must complete sea trials of the Arihant nuclear-powered submarine, and then conduct operational patrols of the vessel that include test flights of the K-15. This may take three to five more years. Even then, a single submarine with 700 km range missiles is not really invulnerable. While it would be less vulnerable when on patrol in relatively safe waters, it would be more vulnerable in port, as well as when patrolling close to heavily defended target coasts (the limited range of its missiles will require it to move near such targets). India must cross a second and third technological threshold to lessen the vulnerabilities of its nuclear submarines.

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