Agni V, India's most powerful long-range ballistic missile, has lived up to the hopes of its creators at the Defence Research & Development Organisation. In its maiden flight on Thursday morning, the missile demonstrated that it could accurately lob a dummy warhead weighing slightly over one tonne to a distance of over 5,000 km. India already has nuclear-capable missiles that can reach all of Pakistan and Agni V is clearly intended to provide a similar deterrent capability with respect to China. More test flights will be necessary before the missile is inducted into the country's strategic arsenal. V.K. Saraswat, Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister, has called the missile “a game-changer” that can perform different roles, from carrying multiple warheads to providing anti-satellite capability and even launching tiny satellites into orbit. Like its progenitor, Agni III, this missile has a two-metre diameter (as compared to the one-metre diameter of Agni I and II). Agni III and V are therefore the first Indian missiles that can potentially be equipped with several warheads each (known as Multiple Independently Targeted Re-entry Vehicles or MIRV). MIRVs, however, pose their own technological challenges, especially the need to considerably shrink the size and weight of nuclear warheads. Despite China's earlier start, its ballistic missiles are still thought to be equipped with single warheads, not MIRVs. This suggests that developing an operational MIRV capability is not easy and will take time for both countries. Which is just as well because mutual security — as the superpowers discovered during the Cold War — does not lie in going down that path.

Both China and Pakistan possess formidable nuclear-armed missiles of their own. The former is in the process of replacing its liquid-fuelled ballistic missiles with more modern solid propellant ones. From bases in Qinghai and Yunnan provinces, these missiles can reach all of India. In addition, in 2004, China launched the first of its second-generation Type 094 Jin-class nuclear-powered submarines that will carry JL-2 solid-propellant ballistic missiles. Islamabad too has a number of long-range missiles in its armoury. An assessment carried out by an Indian strategic studies group found that Pakistan had a “credible deterrent structure” organised around the solid-propellant Shaheen-1 and -2 missiles. However, responsible possession of nuclear-armed missiles for the purposes of deterrence also requires working assiduously to remove sources of friction that can erupt into open conflict. It is also important that India and China start talking to each other on nuclear matters.

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