India's Surface to Surface Missiles: The Doctrinal and Strategic Framework

A.K. Sachdev, Research Fellow, IDSA



Military technology spin-offs of the Second World War spawned three technological benefactions for the war ravaged world to contemplate the uses of: the atomic bomb, the jet engine and the missile. Each has had a profound effect on the manner in which inter-state conflict has manifested itself in post-World War days. The atomic bomb and its later avataras struck at the very fundamentals of war as a continuation of politics by other means, while mutual deterrence between antagonistic nuclear powers further modified the stark view of war. The jet engine made it possible to develop faster, better performing manned aircraft while enabling the blossoming of the V1 concept into the modern day Cruise Missile. The missile—depending on where it was launched from and what it was launched at—made the manned aircraft more powerful against air, sea and land targets, and at the same time made it more vulnerable to air defence systems. Spectacular developments in the realm of computers and propulsion made missiles fast, agile, accurate, survivable and space-worthy; missiles became most attractive as a replacement for, and as a complement to, the manned aircraft for offensive roles. Missiles and nuclear warheads became ideal partners in a global strategic environment that respected and feared nuclear existentialism.

India—eager to consummate its Great Power aspirations, but hesitant and demurring in its machinations to achieve that status—ventured into the nuclear and missile fields rather late. According to K Subrahmanyam, it was the event of China becoming a nuclear weapon power in 1964 that provided Indian policy makers with the zeal to consider acquisition of nuclear weapons for India.1 The aborted Subterranean Nuclear Explosion Project (SNEP), the successful Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE) and the declaratory Shakti explosions have been important milestones in India's quest for a nuclear weapon capability (although the first two were not specifically oriented towards weapon testing). Fortunately, India also had the foresight to embark on a missile programme that, whenever it became necessary, would complement the nuclear weapon capability by providing suitable platforms.

The obscenely large Cold War arsenals of nuclear warhead carrying missiles rendered the relationship between missiles and nuclear warheads quite apodictic. India's missile programme has, on the other hand, not inspired much awe domestically in the period leading up to the Shakti explosions. This paper argues that, while the doctrinal and strategic framework for Indian SSMs, predicated as it is to the nuclear issue, has so far been ambiguous (though not necessarily weak, as some aver), the time has come to make that framework more assertive, more pro-active and less ambivalent. It also argues that the conventional war-head carrying SSM is not on its way to extinction. The third main argument offered by this paper is that, although the doctrinal concept of an Indian triad of nuclear forces relies heavily on SSMs ("mobile land-based missiles" and "sea-based assets"), it does not preclude the possibility of the "aircraft" leg of the triad being put in place immediately as a credible minimum deterrent in the overall strategic framework. Another issue raised in this paper is the lack of military inputs into the doctrinal and strategic framework in India.

As is evident from the main arguments listed above, the narrow definition of SSM has been disregarded in favour of the broader one and the scope of the paper includes Ballistic and Cruise missiles launched from land and sea surfaces; wherever contextually relevant, submarine launched missiles have been included for the sake of completing the picture.

The Strategic Environment

This section aims at syncopating the global, regional and proximate security environment in the form of a dominant narrative within which to locate the Indian strategic culture. It should then become possible for the author to proceed with descriptive and prescriptive aspects of the doctrinal and strategic framework of Indian SSMs.

The last decade or so has been resonant with the debate on the evolution of a new international order in which USA is unquestionably the prima donna while Russia, China, Japan, Germany, the European Union and India jostle with each other for more audible roles in the emerging order. This polycentric milieu is in a state of amoebic metamorphism but one could prognosticate with certitude that the final state of the order will be Asia-centric. Ideology is becoming more and more obsolescent as the predominant premise for national policies—especially as far as the larger of the nations are concerned. The amoral nature of international relations is aptly manifest in 'nuclear non-proliferation'—a euphemism for selective proliferation. The US has invested tremendous endeavour, goodwill and attention in ensuring the self-perpetuation of the diktat of the nuclear weapon states (NWS) led by itself. The NPT, the CTBT, the MTCR, the FMCT, the NSG and the Waasenaar Arrangement are some of the weapons wielded by the US-led NWS in this crusade against "proliferation". This gendarme role is carried out with not so subtle discrimination; the sale of thirty six CSS 2 missiles by China to Saudi Arabia was largely ignored by US while irrefutable proof of China's collusion in Pakistan's nuclear and missile programmes has been brushed aside by it in the past. The five NWS also overlap the G 8 nations—a happenstance that permits the operation of a grotesque oligarchy that uses economic carrots and sticks to promote security agendas aimed at smothering the nuclear aspirations of the non-NWS. International security is no longer an exclusively military concept but encompasses several other attributes, the most important being economic.

The international order has impinged on the regional strategic environment too. Whatever nuclear algebra is favoured in one's calculations, the globe has a preponderance of the world's nuclear weapon states in Asia. Moreover, "Asia has 13 states with missile capabilities with ranges from 150 kms to 5000 kms".2 Large economies, expansive markets and impressive growth rates complement the energy geography of the region in rendering to it a degree of volatility and vitality. Primakov's proposal of closer strategic relations between India, China and Russia appears at once a bit incongruous and fuzzily practicable. It has indeed found some backers who feel that if the above named countries could "develop closer strategic relations it will help the three countries and their neighbours to enlarge the area of peace and cooperation in East, South, Southeast and Central Asia as well as on the Asia-Pacific rim".3 However, viewed through the prism of realpolitik, this menage a trois seems a target of the beyond-the-visual-range variety. On the other hand, India's relations with China and Pakistan are incontrovertibly harsh realities that loom large on India's strategic radar screen.

China, indisputably, is the cardinal strategic challenge to India—contemporarily and in the coming years. Two decades of military modernisation and doctrinal refinement have shown remarkable complementarity in China. The subtle display of power in consonance with stern iterations on the subject of reunification3 (with its intonations impinging on Arunachal Pradesh too) have had a sobering effect on the Indian psyche; the continued India-China territorial dispute also discourages Indian complacency in the security domain.

With Pakistan, the problem is different though not one that can be pooh poohed away. The civilian and the military rulers in Pakistan have both kept up a constant cacophony about the Indian hegemonic threat, never missing a chance of attempting to internationalise the Kashmir issue although it could be argued that Kashmir is not the fundamental problem that bedevils Indo-Pakistani relations. Nevertheless, Pakistan is an important element of Indian strategic reckoning.

In an interesting and imaginative study, John A Vasquez of Vanderbolt University has carried out a theoretical analysis distinguishing rivals that go to war from those that do not.5 He describes rivalry as "a relationship characterised by extreme competition, and usually psychological hostility, in which the issue positions of the contenders are governed primarily by their attitude towards each other rather than by the stakes at hand". He concludes that his findings (not listed here for want of space and contextual necessity) are consistent with the territorial explanation of rivalry and war in that rivals that have territorial disputes are much more apt to go to war than rivals that do not. If this theoretical framework is transposed to the Indian context, a high level of expectancy of war with China and Pakistan is indicated (this author does not fully agree with the view that the probability of a war with China/Pakistan in the next ten years is "extremely low"6). That is not to say that war with these two neighbours is inevitable. Instead, what is suggested is that efforts at developing cooperative relations with them should be tempered by adequate insurance against war. This assertion should have a prophylactic effect on Indian doctrinal and strategic thought.

SSMs and Indian Strategic Culture

So where do Indian SSMs find appurtenance in doctrinal and strategic terms? One of the difficulties that one comes across in trying to draw a spatial and temporal site map of Indian doctrinal and strategic framework is the lack of any official (governmental) pronouncements. No White Paper purports to enlighten the under-informed. The Annual Report of the Ministry of Defence (MOD) does outline the threat as perceived by the Government; this annual report is the closest one can get to an official strategic perception. It may be mentioned here that the policy on external threats has lain largely in the domain of the MEA.

The quality of strategic thought in India has been described as "abysmal"7 by some analysts; several other uncharitable descriptions could be cited in this respect. In the context of both—the nuclear weapon capability and the associated missile capability—Indian strategic culture has shown lukewarm interest in exercising macro power. Indeed, its Great Nation consciousness has, for the most part, been akin to an iceberg in very choppy seas—only the tip showing up intermittently at uncertain intervals. During the Nehruvian period, military security received a low priority in the overall strategic perspective; defence spending was 1.3 per cent to 1.8 per cent of the GDP and the defence forces were seen as pertinent only to ceremonials and aid to central and state governments in the event of natural calamities. The ignominious events of 1962 rudely awakened India and helped to bring around strategic focus on China; defence spending rose to 2.5 per cent to 2.6 per cent for the period of the next twelve years (up to the PNE at Pokhran). However, it is significant to note that, even when the nuclear strategy was crystallising in the form of the PNE and Bharat Dynamics Limited was in existence, there was no major development programme for the creation of any strategic delivery system in the form of SSMs. The aftermath of the PNE was a manifestation of a strategy of ambiguity in that the tests were not pursued to a logical conclusion in the form of weaponisation. It would be naïve to imagine that there was no thought given to that course of action, but apparently the contemporary strategic environment did not encourage Indian leadership to go the whole hog. Consonant with this hesitation to go overtly nuclear was the non-decision in respect of missile delivery systems. It was the train of events in Afghanistan from 1979 onwards that brought the hot breath of the Cold War monster (which had been a distant creature thus far for India) to bear on India's neck. The next decade saw the defence budget peaking at 3.67 per cent, the induction of several new, sophisticated weapon systems (Bofors gun, INS Chakra, INS Viraat, TU 142, IL 76, MiG 29 and so on) and the launching of the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP).

The IGMDP, which was started in 1983, has so far produced two land based SSMs that have significant strategic potential—the Prithvi and the Agni missiles. While the Prithvi I is about to become operational with the Army (with a range of 150 kms), the Prithvi II (range 250 kms) will soon be deployed with the Air Force; both versions are liquid-fuelled. A naval version will be deployed with the Navy for use from aboard ships and a longer-range version, Prithvi III (Dhanush8), is also under development. The deployment experience with the Prithvi would be invaluable for the solid-fuelled Agni, which would be India's IRBM class of SSM. After "technology demonstrator" launches of the Agni in 1989 and 1994, US pressure had kept the Agni programme under siege until April 11, 1999 when Agni II (with a range "in excess of 2000 kms") was tested taking it to the "point of operationalisation".9 A 5000 kms range version is possible10 and may be currently under development. The Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) produced by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) would be the precursor to the Indian ICBM, Surya; all that would be required would be that the satellite payload be replaced with a nuclear warhead. However, Dr VK Saraswat, head of the Prithvi project, is said to have stated that "India has no plans to develop intercontinental missiles".11 In the past, the Navy has operated the leased Russian submarine which had as part of its weapon inventory SS-N-7 Cruise Missiles and is now acquiring the Klub Cruise Missile which will be carried on board its Kilo class submarines.12 Sagarika, the nuclear capable under-sea launched missile being developed for the Navy,13 is also a possible future addition to the list of Indian SSMs. An indigenous nuclear submarine capable of supporting nuclear Ballistic Missiles is also under an indeterminate stage of development; the most optimistic estimate for its readiness is around 2006. There is thus an emerging, modest array of land and sea-based missiles—capable of carrying conventional and nuclear warheads—which India can look at with deep contentment because of their largely indigenous character. It must be mentioned, however, that there have been no continuous, unbroken doctrinal strands to guide a well-structured, long-term missile programme with defined strategic focus.

The British see doctrinal development as a continuous process which involves the tempering of the doctrine by various inputs i.e. national interest, national military objectives, perceived threat, politics/policies, theory, history and capabilities.14 Strategic analysts would argue that the essential inputs would be political, military and economic while several other less important ones could be factored in depending on the nation and subject under discussion. Doctrinal poverty would, of necessity, lead to weak and diffused strategic structure.

The political input emanates from visionary leadership of the kind that statesman Nehru was gifted with, or that charismatic one that Indira Gandhi displayed. Leadership has the pivotal role in setting national agendas, the next rung in this ladder being the intelligentsia. It has often been said of India that not only is there no national agenda but there does not even exist an institution that is meant for the purpose of setting one. In 1996, the Parliamentary Committee on Defence bemoaned the lack of a clearly stated defence policy; the Prime Minister's response was to assert that there was a defence policy but that there was no need for the government to make it public.15 Political and public debate on strategic matters has been conspicuous by its absence in India till very recently. Nor has there been any evidence of an established, dedicated methodological or analytical tool for the express purpose of addressing national security issues. The rejuvenation of the matter of a national agency for security matters in 1998 led to the government announcing the setting up of a National Security Council (NSC) and, in its support, the Strategic Policy Group (SPG) and the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB). The SPG was to conduct strategic reviews and the NSAB was to provide long term prognosis, analysis and solutions to policy issues. This step nurtured the hope that the SPG would carry out a Strategic Defence Review (SDR) on which the national security policy would rest. Consequent doctrinal templates would have provided the basis for strategies to be formulated by the various Ministries i.e. Defence, Finance, External Affairs and so on. As the SDR is not yet talked of and the NSAB has released the draft Indian Nuclear Doctrine, there is some justification in the contention that the doctrine has been prepared in isolation.16 Incidentally, it has been pointed out by some that, in the draft Doctrine, the five requirements for deterrence at Article 2.6 are listed with "the will to employ nuclear forces and weapons" as the last item. It may be contextually apt to mention here that the NSAB is not a statutory body and thus has no legal status. It is hoped that the NSAB, in classified recommendations to the Government, has addressed the strategic issue of long term development planning for 'land mobile and sea based missile systems' that find mention in the Draft Doctrine.

The military input into the doctrinal process in India has always been characterised by the intangible correlation between the state and the military—the two forever having occupied spaces not touched by the other. Defence decision-making—including the all-important budgetary aspect—has traditionally been under tight bureaucratic control and the military has had less than satisfactory audibility in the weapon system procurement and development processes—including in the strategic area of missile development. Vijay K. Nair, while discussing "The Structure of an Indian Nuclear Deterrent", outlines two major roles for the military. The first relates to the military organisation which has "a totally comprehensive, competent and integrated structure to field and employ nuclear weapons under political direction" and the other to the need for the military to "generate doctrine, organisational and equipping policies that would give it the endurance to continue a conventional war even if a nuclear strike is initiated against it during combat"17 (emphasis added). It may be mentioned that the military has no approved doctrine jointly agreed by the three services even for conventional war. Moreover, the military has "absolutely no experience of handling nuclear activities";18 indeed, nor does the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). On the matter of command and control, in reply to a question on December 8, 1998, then Defence Minister, Mr George Fernandes, asserted that India's nuclear command and control set-up was already in position.19 One cannot help wondering if that was a clue as to how the existing command and control structures of the military would be utilised for the operationalisation of the nuclear capability. The Draft Nuclear Doctrine refers to dual capable delivery systems20 and it is reasonable to assume that some of the SSMs developed, deployed and employed by India would be dual capable. That being the case, military inputs into the doctrinal process are essential and may even be critical. What, for example, would be the effect of dual capable missiles on the overall philosophy of integrating them into the air space management milieu, already complicated by multiple users with different command and control chains? However, for historical reasons, military contribution to the doctrinal framework has been neither welcome nor felt necessary by successive powers-that-be at the nation's helm of affairs. While it may not be in the military ethos to bemoan this fact publicly, there is no doubt in any military mind that the national security doctrinal milieu would have been that much more strong and hardy had there been an injection of military thought in a more articulate and audible manner. Far from producing military strategists of the ilk of Moltke, Mitchell or Mahan, the Indian defence forces have been generally bedevilled by budgetary migraines, short term policies and very limited control over make-or-buy decisions. Perhaps the time has come to involve the military into mainstream doctrinal and policy decision-making. A question, rendered purely rhetorical by the IGMDP's fait accompli on missile programmes, is whether the direction and texture of the missiles being produced by DRDO would have been the same if the military had been in the driving seat as far as missile design is concerned. After all, in the final analysis, it is the military forces that will eventually deploy and employ these missile systems. The impression has been created in this section that the military was left out of the missile programme and it is only fair to mention here that the military did not show much interest in missiles until the beginning of the 1990s.

On the matter of economic input, it may be apt to mention the disintegration of the erstwhile USSR due to internal economic contradictions which stands strongly contrasted with the strength of the Chinese economy that, in conjunction with military strength and nuclear capability, gives it the luxurious warmth of real national security. The Indian triad, as proposed in the draft Doctrine, would only achieve fruition if a sustained growth rate of 6 to 7 percent were to constantly inject the ongoing developmental programmes with the necessary economic sustenance. The cost of nuclear warheads amounted to only 7.4 per cent of the total cost of the US nuclear weapons programme;21 this astounding fact gives an indication of the proportion of costs involved in the delivery systems (including SSMs) and the supporting infrastructure. The French nuclear effort, at its peak represented 26.4 per cent (roughly a fourth) of the total defence budget22 (the French example is referred to here because of the 'triad' connection between the French programme and the Indian one). If a coarse extrapolation exercise is indulged in, it could be surmised that the Indian defence budget would have to be increased by approximately a third of its current value. The Defence Minister has already been reported to have made a plea for an increase in the defence budget to about 3 per cent23 of the GDP. This figure evidently seeks to remedy the shortage-related lessons from Kargil and does not take into account the development of infrastructure and delivery systems for the proposed triad. If the triad and its supporting elements were to be incrementally included in the defence budget, the figure should go up to about 4 per cent of GDP (of which a fourth would be utilised for the triad and supporting elements). This percentage figure is an impossible dream. Should this economic input not be forthcoming, the whole concept of the triad may crumble and along with it the delivery systems being developed in tandem. The alternatives could be a reduced conventional capability—a disastrous course to pursue, or the pruning of the triad into a dyad or a one-legged deterrent. The Indian Defence Ministry was quoted as laying the cost of a single Prithvi missile at Rs 3 Crore in mid-199824 while the cost of an Agni II was given as Rs 35 Crore in April 1999.25 The point being made is that the tangible economic concept of affordability versus adequacy is an important input into the doctrinal framework; on it would depend long term decisions about the texture, magnitude and disposition of India's SSM programmes.

The strategic projections of proximate nations and our perceptions of those projections would also impinge on our doctrinal processes; so would the regional patterns of development and technology levels. The doctrinal process is always one of compromises between divergent pulls and pushes of which the important ones have been discussed above. The compromise may be a good one, a bad one or even an ugly one. In the case of India, there has been a general obfuscation on doctrinal issues. The ambiguity inherent to the nuclear option may have appeared to be passive or even negative as a national projection but it did have its merits and cannot be faulted just because it did not lay all the cards on the table. The ambiguity permitted India "to preach disarmament while developing nuclear explosives and missile delivery systems".26 The allied SSM development programme has also tended to display disparate characters at different points of time. The Agni programme, for example, has displayed signs of ennui between test launches—not so much on account of the need for DRDO to take time out between launches but because of extraneous pressures. However, the Shakti tests have ended the uncertainty of the nuclear variety and the time has come for the related SSM capability also to be discussed, debated and declared. If the ongoing SDR has not included SSM delivery systems on its agenda so far, then it should do so now. While there is no need to indulge in unnecessary, jingoistic rhetoric on the issue, there should be no hesitation in declaring the intention to develop SSMs—land mobile and sea-based—to consummate the "triad" enshrined in the draft Doctrine. It is apparent that the draft Doctrine is not an ephemeron that will go away from Indian attention in a hurry. Once it sheds its prefix of 'draft' and assumes an unqualified character, it should become that much easier to state the policy on missile delivery systems. It will not do to shed the ambiguity in the nuclear agenda but cling on to ambiguity in the matter of missile development. There certainly seems to be no shade of ambiguity in the reason for Chinese missile deployment in Tibet.27 Why then should India hesitate to develop and deploy missiles capable of threatening counter value targets in China? This can be done quietly, without any specific targets being discussed or nominated. The game would then be played on a more level field.

Conventional or Nuclear SSMs

There are those who argue that the raison d'être for the SSM is the delivery of WMD warheads (if we discount chemical and biological warheads on account of the international regimes covering them, we can come down to only nuclear ones). SSMs are seen as ideal second strike weapon systems. High costs and large infrastructure requirements are cited as the reasons against carriage of conventional warheads aboard such sophisticated delivery systems. The Rs 35 crore Agni II had a payload ceiling of only 1000 Kgs. There is also the matter of accuracy during the terminal phase of the missile flight; the accuracy required for a conventional warhead is far more stringent than that for a nuclear one. It must be mentioned, however, that while just the two Cold War protagonists had built up 55,000 nuclear warheads between themselves, no nuclear warhead carrying missile has ever been used in anger, while the estimated figure for conventional warhead carrying SSMs used since 1944 is over 16,000.28 Scuds in the Gulf War and Tomahawks in Kosovo are recent examples of SSMs in action with conventional warheads. With the trends in the nature of future war favouring sub-conventional, short lived wars—perhaps limited border conflagrations or trans-border terrorist activities—the role of the conventional warhead SSM is all the more prominent. Nuclear capabilities deter antagonistic nuclear powers from nuclear war and may avert full-scale conventional wars but would not be so effective in preventing sub-conventional conflicts. Kanti Bajpai argues that "the presence of nuclear weapons may positively encourage conflict below the level of nuclear and conventional confrontation".29 He ascribes the increased backing of Pakistani intelligence agencies to insurgency in India to the confidence provided by the knowledge that no Indian government is likely to resort to punitive conventional strikes across the border lest full-scale war result. Of course, we must remember that USSR and China fought a conventional war in 1969 when both had nuclear capability. There is thus a conventional role for the SSM over and above the nuclear one; the conventional warhead carrying missile may be used in conventional war and indeed represents the potential to indulge in sporadic anti-terrorist action (like the missile attacks on suspected Bin Ladin camps in Afghanistan). Technological advancements are bringing about rapid changes in the lethality of conventional warheads while nuclear weapons are "increasingly coming under societal disapproval since the demise of the Soviet Union".30 There may thus be a push towards doctrinal accommodation of the conventional SSM for signalling of political intentions, punishment/reprisal operations against terrorists and insurgents, and of course, in integration with air, land and sea operations of the purely military kind.

A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology based on mathematical modelling for missile accuracy, kill capabilities, target resistances and damage parameters, concluded in 1997 that the Prithvi and the Agni were, "in the conventional sense, useless".31 The Indian SSM development programmes have come a long way since then but are as yet not fully mature and, at the current pace, a nuclear triad based on land mobile and sea based Cruise and Ballistic missiles may be in place only by around 2015 or later. This assessment is based on the premise that ICBMs would also be a part of the final nuclear arsenal as would be SLBMs. However, the conventional SSM has been developed and is ready for deployment and employment in the shape of Prithvi while other types of SSMs are in the offing. Considerations of cost-effectiveness will not favour the use of any SSM for conventional roles of the extended range artillery variety but the possibility of use of Indian SSMs in the conventional role is a "real" reality as opposed to the virtual reality of a nuclear role in which they may be "used" but never launched. This "real" role should continue to influence the doctrinal imperatives of the missile development programmes in complementarity to their nuclear dimension.

SSMs and the Manned Aircraft

SSMs titillate with their promise of surprise, concentration of force and offensive action—three prominent principles of war. However, as weapons of strategic import, they have not supplanted the manned aircraft. Nor conversely, has the manned aircraft evolved in a manner so as to keep the SSM out of the offensive role. Since the beginning of the Missile Age (some date this beginning to the V1/ V2 period and others to the launching of the Sputnik in October 1957), missiles have vied with manned aircraft. Their attraction lay mainly in the absence of the need for supporting infrastructure like airfields and runways, their mobility (and thence their reduced vulnerability), short readiness times and the notion that the missile will always get through (reminiscent of Bomber Harris' "bomber will always get through").32 In the late 50s and the early 60s, when the superpower race for ICBMs, SLBMs and space vehicles gained urgency, the USAF agonised over the possible challenge of replacement of the manned bomber by the missile. It indulged in desperate efforts to develop new manned strategic bombers and air-to-surface missiles (ASMs);33 however, plans for the Skybolt, the B-70, the Camal and several other systems were denied fruition. The missile had changed the political environment by providing alternatives for delivering nuclear weapons against USSR. The dominant position of manned strategic bombing ended and indeed, USAF, which during the decade prior to the Sputnik launch had received half the defence budget, itself underwent changes in its organisational identity.34 That is not to say that either then, or at any time since then, the SSM provided an absolute replacement for the manned bomber even in the nuclear role. As far as the conventional role is concerned, the on-the-spot coverage of US Tomahawks burning their way through the night during the eleven-week NATO bombing action in Yugoslavia may have caught the imagination of the TV viewer, but the bulk of the explosive payload was carried by manned aircraft including the B-2 and the F-117.

The Royal Air Force Doctrine is absolutely definite on the matter of where SSMs fit in. For both the strategic roles—nuclear and conventional—the missiles (Cruise and Ballistic) are seen as complementing the manned aircraft. In the case of India, economic considerations are likely to impinge strongly on the matter of using horrendously expensive missiles for even strategic roles leave alone anything like runway bashing, interdiction or Battlefield Air Support. Doctrine, including the Indian Air Force's declared doctrine, is unclear about the use of SSMs for the strategic role (i.e. operations directed at undermining the enemy's ability and will to fight by attacking command and control, industrial, political and economic and military target sets).35 Perhaps the reasons for this lack of clarity are, firstly, that the Indian SSMs are not yet developed adequately for such considered analysis and, secondly, that there is a great deal of secrecy that envelops the Prithvi programme. In this context, the reasons for the acquisition of Prithvi I by the Army are also not very clear especially when the Prithvi II is to be acquired by the Air Force. Certainly no argument could be found to counter the apprehension that, with the two systems under different agencies, there would be immense problems of air space management at the tactical level and target differentiation at the strategic level.

Returning to the main point of discussion, the current states of technological levels in the fields of missiles and missile defences on the one hand, and manned aircraft and air defence on the other, suggest that the complementarity between missiles and manned aircraft in the context of nuclear as well as conventional roles is assured for at least the next decade or so. The Indian "triad" thus makes good doctrinal sense inasmuch as it envisages the employment of both these complementary systems. However, there are some issues that must be considered before India adopts this "system of systems". Firstly, the economic aspect which has been already touched upon earlier. Desirability of having a triad in place cannot be matched, at the current and foreseeable growth rates of the Indian economy, by the large investments required to develop and structurally support a triad. Secondly, at the level of economic inputs that are feasible, indigenous development will always lag behind the strategic requirements which are predicated to threat perceptions, comparable developments in threat posing nations and the state of missile defence technology (as also air defence against manned aircraft). Thirdly, if both the above problems could somehow be surmounted, there would be the matter of the actual time required for the development of new systems. It has been suggested that, for a new missile to be proved operationally reliable, it needs to be tested around three dozen times.36 As each successive test may need to incorporate design changes indicated by the preceding one, there would be a requirement for substantial time periods between tests. In short, the triad is unlikely to materialise soon nor will its appearance be in the form of the three legs making simultaneous, stage managed entries. What is needed is a rendition of the letter of the draft Doctrine that, translated into the near future realm of strategic feasibility, plans to put into place whatever represents a credible minimum deterrent. For India, the manned aircraft already exists on inventory and the air-droppable nuclear weapon is a presumed capability. Moreover, this leg of the triad represents the least time between recessed and existential/minimum types of deterrence.

Any discussion on the use of SSMs for conventional roles conjures up images of long, cylindrical, aerodynamically shaped objects leaving long plumes of fire and smoke behind them. Even the word Cruise Missile is associated with Tomahawk-like, expensive, sophisticated and immensely proportioned objects. A 1999 RAND study takes a fresh look at the Cruise Missile as "simply an unmanned aircraft designed to fly a one-way attack mission"37 and, discounting the jet- or rocket-powered, fast, expensive missile with complex guidance systems, suggests that the same mission can be performed by a small, piston-engined propeller aircraft using commercially available GPS and guidance/ control computer technology. Reconnaissance UAVs are proposed in the study as possible candidates for this role. An added attraction is that the slow speeds of these platforms makes them almost invisible to the more modern sophisticated air defence target acquisition systems which are optimised for the detection of fast moving objects. Of relevance to this paper is the fact that this type of SSM represents an inexpensive and indigenously producable option for the conventional role in complementarity with the manned aircraft. Payload capability, survivability and cost-benefit analysis are, of course, interrogatory marks over this seemingly attractive possibility.

The missile is generally seen as certain of penetrating enemy defences; this certitude is both—an absolute characteristic, and one that stands contrasted with the manned bomber. It must be mentioned, however, that with the ongoing developments in the field of missile defences, this certitude of penetration may—as a doctrinal premise—undergo sudden change. In the Indian context, this aspect boils down to the deployment of a Chinese BMD/ TMD system; the consequence would be a paradigm shift in India's doctrinal and strategic approach towards the development and deployment of missiles.


The timing of the announcement of the draft Doctrine permitted it to remain writ large on the nation's mind during the general elections but the debate on the "triad" was hijacked by the nation's preoccupation with the very same election. India is far from operationalising any leg of the triad but it is apparent that missiles are inherent to national security doctrine. Having progressed away from ambiguity in the nuclear dimension through the Shakti explosions, the time is ripe for a more pro-active, assertive and declaratory locus standi on the missile question. The author hastens to add that this is not a prescription for loud broadcasts on employment and targeting decisions. Instead, the strength of the new posture should lie in renewed and stated vigour to resist pressures on the missile programme and a display of independent, national security driven strategic thinking on missile deployment. The first step could be the announcement of a time bound, achievable schedule for the Agni.

Notwithstanding the ongoing debate on the nuclear triad and its final outcome, the need to have strong conventional forces cannot be brushed aside. Indeed, there is a strong post-Shakti, post-Kargil imperative for looking askance at our conventional strengths and weaknesses. SSMs therefore have a relevance away from the nuclear domain too. They are complementary to the manned aircraft in both, nuclear and conventional, roles. However, the low importance given to the strategic significance of missiles and the consequent leisurely pace of missile development have now placed India in the unenviable position of having a nuclear weapon capability but no significant missile delivery system. The long term prescriptive path lies in the direction of a triad based on aircraft and land-and sea-based missiles; the short term national security imperative is a credible minimum deterrent based on air droppable nuclear weapons.

If SSMs are to become meaningful to the national doctrinal framework, there is a need to incorporate the military into the decision-making loop far more intimately. The artificial separation between sensitive technologies in the civilian domain and the military one needs to be brought down at once. It makes great business sense to have the end-user influence product design. In any case, it is their strategic and tactical use by the military that will demonstrate the strengths and frailties of the doctrinal framework that embodies SSMs.



1. K. Subrahmanyam, "Indian Nuclear Policy—1964-98", in Jasjit Singh ed., Nuclear India, (New Delhi: Knowledge World, 1998), p. 26.

2. Uday Bhaskar, Sunday Times, April 18, 1999.

3. T.N. Kaul, "Towards a New Strategic Partnership: India, China and Russia", Himalayan and Central Asian Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, Jan-Mar 1999.

4. Jiang Zemin, in a speech on January 30, 1995, stressed eight points about the re-unification of China. Although the speech was located in the context of Taiwan, the wording is ominous. An extract goes as follows: "Comrade Deng Xiaoping has pointed out that the most important issue is the re-unification of the motherland. All descendants of the Chinese nation wish to see China re-unified". Source: Internet November 5, 1999.

5. John A Vasquez, "Distinguishing Rivals That Go To War From Those That Do Not", International Studies Quarterly (1996), no. 40, pp. 532, 555.

6. Jasjit Singh, "A Nuclear Strategy For India", in Jasjit Singh ed., Nuclear India, n. 1, 1998, pp. 311-312.

7. Bharat Karnad, "A Thermonuclear Deterrent", India's Nuclear Deterrent, Amitabh Mattoo ed., (New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications Pvt Ltd, 1999), p. 108.

8. Unattributed news item, datelined New Delhi and quoting Indian Defence Ministry as source, in Aviation Week and Space Technology, June 29, 1998, p. 31.

9. The Times of India, April 12, 1999.

10. The Times of India, April 13, 1999.

11. Nazar Kamal and Pravin Sawhney, "Missile Control in South Asia and the Role of Cooperative Monitoring Technology" (Cooperative Monitoring Centre Occasional Paper/4), Albuquerque, October 1998, p. 20.

12. The Times of India, December 2, 1999.

13. Nazar Kamal and Pravin Sawhney, n. 11, p. 21, suggest that Sagarika is an anti-ship cruise missile.

14. Royal Air Force Air Power Doctrine (AP 3000, Second Edition), Royal Air Force, 1993, p. 129.

15. The Times of India, December 9, 1996.

16. Air Marshal BD Jayal (Retd) PVSM AVSM VM & Bar, "Indian Nuclear Doctrine: A Discussion", Indian Defence Review, July-September 1999, vol. 14(3), p. 40.

17. Vijay K. Nair, "The Structure of an Indian Nuclear Deterrent", India's Nuclear Deterrent, in Amitabh Mattoo ed., n. 7, pp. 91-92.

18. R. Ramachandran, "Unclear Nuclear Identity", Frontline, September 10, 1999, p. 20.

19. The Hindu, December 9, 1998.

20. Article 5.3 of the Draft Nuclear Doctrine states that "For effective employment the unity of command and control of nuclear forces including dual capable delivery systems shall be ensured".

21. Air Marshal BD Jayal (Retd) PVSM AVSM VM & Bar, "Indian Nuclear Doctrine: A Discussion", Indian Defence Review, July-September 1999, vol. 14(3), p. 46.

22. Tara Kartha, French Strategic Doctrine (Delhi Papers), IDSA, 1998, p. 20.

23. The Times of India, November 26, 1999.

24. Unattributed news item, datelined New Delhi and quoting Indian Defence Ministry as source, in Aviation Week and Space Technology, June 29, 1998, p. 31.

25. The Times of India, April 13, 1999.

26. Pramit Pal Choudhuri, "The Challenges for Indian Diplomacy, India's Nuclear Deterrent", Amitabh Mattoo ed., n. 7, pp. 192-193. The paper argues that India's nuclear policy incorporated three strands—moral, status-related and security-driven—under the umbrella of nuclear ambiguity.

27. Amitabh Mattoo, "India's Nuclear Policy in an Anarchic World, India's Nuclear Deterrent", Ibid., p. 23.

28. Jasjit Singh, "Nuclear Diplomacy", in Jasjit Singh ed., Nuclear India, n. 1, p. 301.

29. Kanti Bajpai, "The Fallacy Of The India Deterrent, India's Nuclear Deterrent", in Amitabh Mattoo, ed., n. 7, p. 178.

30. Tara Kartha, n. 22, p. 71.

31. Z. Mian, A.H. Nayyar and M.V. Ramana, "Bringing Prithvi Down to Earth: The Capabilities and Potential Effectiveness of India" Prithvi Missile, Internet Page as quoted in India's Nuclear Deterrent, in Amitabh Mattoo ed., n. 7, p. 138.

32. Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris became Chief of RAF Bomber Command in February 1942 and received full support from Churchill's Scientific Adviser for his advocacy of bombing of German population centres. However, a full scale offensive launched in end-May 1942 saw bomber losses climbing to unacceptable figures of 5.3 per cent within the first few months.

33. For a detailed analysis of USAF endeavours in this direction, please see Peter J. Roman, "Strategic Bombers Over the Missile Horizon", 1957-63, Airpower Theory and Practice, (John Gooch ed.), Frank Cass, London, 1995, pp. 198 to 236.

34. Ibid., p. 229.

35. Indian Air Force, Doctrine of the Indian Air Force, 1997, p. 108.

36. Jasjit Singh, "A Nuclear Strategy for India", in Jasjit Singh ed., Nuclear India n. 7, p. 321.

37. John Stillion and David T. Orletsky, "Airbase Vulnerability to Conventional Cruise-Missile and Ballistic Missile Attacks", RAND, Washington, 1999, p. 15.