Indian Fire: The AGNI V

April 26, 2012 --

Asia, China, Cody Knudsen, India

Image from the Wall Street Journal

Amid the lack of discussion about the magnitude of nuclear bombs themselves, India has opted to diversify and improve its nuclear delivery systems.  Last week, in accordance with that goal, India successfully launched the AGNI V, a missile with the capability to send a nuclear warhead nearly 5,000 kilometers, or about 3,100 miles.    As a nuclear delivery system, the AGNI V does not represent an increase in the size of the nuclear weapons but an increase in nuclear reach.  India aims to further enhance its nuclear power by developing a ‘nuclear triad‘ system that would enable India to deliver nuclear warheads from air, land, and sea locations.

The AGNI program represents an important step for the Indian military as it places Beijing and Shanghai within India’s nuclear range, thus increasing India’s power within the region.  Although increased trade between the two has resulted in improved Chinese-Indian relations, the nuclear powers have a less than friendly history, including  a war over disputed Himalayan borders in 1962, which China won. China’s nuclear capabilities remain stronger than those of India; however, this advancement increases India’s power within the region and slims the military gap between China and India.

In 2010, China spent approximately 2 percent of its GDP on military funding while India spent 2.4 percent.  While this appears to favor India, this results in $118.5 billion (2010 US) in military spending for China and $34.5 billion (2010 US) for India. This means that India spends about 29 percent of the amount China devotes to its military.  Because of this discrepancy in military spending, India views its nuclear capabilities as crucial to its security development.  From the Indian perspective, the AGNI V is a tool that reduces the military gap between China and India despite India’s weaker economy.

The addition of the AGNI V to India’s nuclear arsenal does not present an increased threat to Pakistan.  Although the relationship between India and Pakistan is antagonistic, both are nuclear powers between which three wars have occurred; the development of the AGNI V does not represent a significant change from the status quo.  This is largely due to India’s previous nuclear capability to place a nuclear warhead within Pakistan’s borders.  China is the real target of the Indian “fire” (agni translates to fire in English).

The United States should take a special interest in India’s advances because of India’s geographical position and relationship with the other nuclear countries in the region.  India’s regional neighbors, while presently maintaining a friendly relationship with the U.S., have leaned toward a more antagonistic future.  Pakistan has allowed the U.S. to use its territory as a staging ground for its war in Afghanistan, but relations have tensed lately.  China represents a growing political and economic power. The U.S. has engaged China in a chess game for control of the Pacific region; the placement of U.S. troops in Australia was one of the most recent U.S. “moves.”

India has the potential to be crucial player in this game.   This advancement, and India’s goal for a nuclear triad, indicates its concern about China’s growing power. This presents the U.S. with an important possible ally, as India is a democracy and is involved in many nonproliferation issues within the international community.  India has a strong nonproliferation record and has pledged that it retains its nuclear weapons for deterrence and military response.  A strengthened U.S.-Indian alliance would be an important check on China’s regional and global power.

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