NEW DELHI - Has the Agni III, India's most ambitious nuclear-capable ballistic-missile program, been aborted or merely put in cold storage? Keen to impress the world community of its peaceful intentions in its quest to obtain nuclear fuel and technology from the United States, France, Canada and Australia, it seems that New Delhi has made up its mind to shelve plans for big military-power credentials for now.
The government has decided to cancel the first test-firing of an Indian inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM), one with a range of 4,000 kilometers (some say up to 6,000km), which is sufficient to reach China and capable of delivering a nuclear payload.
Pressure from the US and others cannot be discounted. The United States has always been very suspicious about India's Agni program, and in 1994 persuaded it to suspend testing of the missile after three test flights. The US-backed Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) seeks to prevent the proliferation of missiles capable of delivering a 500-kilogram payload over distances of 300km and more.
India has been subjected to sanctions since it exploded a nuclear device at Pokhran in 1974 and turned into a full-fledged nuclear-weapons state through a series of underground tests in May 1998. Nor has India (or Pakistan) signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The restrictions have been eased over the past few years, partly because of Washington's strategic shift toward India, the influence of business interests (India's nuclear market is considered to be worth more than US$100 billion), and India's record as a "responsible nation" with a strong democratic traditions. It culminated in the Indo-US nuclear-energy cooperation deal this March.
However, it has also come to light that as part of the March pact (the contents of which were leaked to the media) Washington has been insisting that New Delhi agree to a future moratorium on testing of dual-use (nuclear or conventional warheads) missile technology and the testing another atomic bomb.
India has rejected such a commitment as a back-door entry to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. India has not signed the CTBT, as it feels that the treaty came into existence after those who possessed nuclear weapons had perfected the know-how. But at this delicate time, India is also keen not to annoy the United States and the US-backed 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) scheduled to deliberate on the issue next week in Brazil.
Some experts think that India's restrained approach as a nuclear power puts the country at a geopolitical disadvantage, as any mere symbolic capability is a liability. "For us to start acting as if we're a nuclear-weapons state may have it costs, because someone may end up believing you. And, as I say, if someone believes that you're a threat, then he may be moved to take some preemptive action,'' said analyst Bharat Karnad on CNN-IBN.
However, the thinking in New Delhi is different. The consensus holds that India now has a minimum credible nuclear deterrence in place, and so the Agni III should rest for a while. Given the acute electrical-power situation in the country, it could be a worthwhile tradeoff. In any case, it will not be possible for India to beat China in a nuclear-arms race for a long time.
This week Anil Kakodkar, chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission, said plans are in place to double the electricity production from nuclear power plants by 2030. "We are trying to realize the target of 20,000 megawatts and scale it up to 40,000MW by 2030, with the possibility of international cooperation," he said.
The importance to the nuclear pact that will make India eligible for supplies of enriched uranium to generate power became apparent in a roundabout way. At a recent event attended by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee, M Natarajan, who is the scientific adviser to the government, said, "We are technically ready for the test-firing of the Agni III missile [since January]. We are awaiting a nod from the government.''
However, New Delhi, mindful of international reactions especially at the upcoming NSG and the ongoing wrangles at the US Congress, which is debating the Indo-US nuclear pact for legislation, has quickly said it has canceled the tests. Mukherjee, who is also a proponent of improved Sino-Indian ties and is slated to visit China this month, said, "As responsible members of the international community, we want to keep our international commitments on non-proliferation. We have no pressure on us, nor are we putting any political pressure. It is just that we have decided to have self-imposed restraint.''
New Delhi has further reiterated that it did not postpone the test-firing of Agni III under US pressure. Such decisions, it said, were based on its assessment of national-security needs. "Decisions concerning the country's strategic program, including the development and testing of different classes of missiles, are based on technical factors and a continuous review and assessment of our overall security environment,'' a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said.
So far, India has developed the 150-300km Prithvi and the 700-800km Agni I missiles, which are aimed at Pakistan and have been inducted into military service. In response, Pakistan has its own arsenal, including the 750km-range Shaheen I and 1,500km Ghauri-I ballistic missiles believed to be derivatives of the Chinese M-9 and North Korean Nodong missiles.
Last year, Pakistan successfully test-fired its first cruise missile. India has its own cruise missile, BrahMos, with a 300km strike range, believed to be similar to the US Tomahawk cruise missile, which was widely used in Iraq and Afghanistan. China's ballistic missiles are, of course, far more advanced and are said to cover most of the world.
Agni II (2,000km-plus, also inducted) and Agni III are seen as nuclear deterrents aimed at China. Agni III is said to be able to deliver a 200-300kg warhead with a high degree of accuracy. The longest-range, surface-to-surface Agni III has reportedly been ready for launch for two years, but the tests have been repeatedly postponed.
India's military capabilities and arsenal are developed by the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), which works in close coordination with space and nuclear-power institutions. At one level the announcement by Natarajan is seen as a way to deflect criticism of the DRDO as being steeped in red tape, delays and long gestation periods. However, there is no doubt that it is the shadow of Washington and access to nuclear energy that finally tilted the scales against the Agni III.