SAV Review Series: MIRVing and Deterrence Challenges for India

Reiew of “India’s Slow and Unstoppable Move to MIRV” by Rajesh Basrur and Jaganath Sankaran in The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age

Chapter Summary

In “India’s Slow and Unstoppable Move to MIRV,” a chapter in the recent Stimson publication The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age, authors Rajesh Basrur and Jaganath Sankaran examine the drivers behind India’s quest for multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) and assess the potential consequences for stability in South Asia. They conclude that India will continue to develop MIRVs despite their high financial costs, their tendency to increase first-strike incentives, and their complication of arms control negotiations.

Basrur and Sankaran contend that the threat of a rising China has powerfully catalyzed the argument in favor of MIRVs in India. This is especially the case considering recent Chinese technological developments including MIRVs, hypersonic delivery vehicles, and ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems. While some analysts do not appear enthusiastic about developing MIRVs to counter the perceived threat of China’s BMD systems, others believe that multiple warheads will make up for India’s absence of reliable thermonuclear weapons.

According to the authors, the technological imperative and security concerns are also drivers of India’s quest for MIRVs. They explain in great detail how the dominance of weapon scientists and engineers from the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) over civilians and military planners in the process of developing new weapons systems has played an important role in driving the push in favor of MIRV technology. The authors further note that military and civilian leaders have supported the scientists’ push for MIRVs with arguments about their military utility.

The authors also argue that MIRVing could augment India’s prestige through increased recognition of its growing military power and perhaps even enhance India’s claim in future arms control negotiations. They note that this logic could boost Indian policymakers’ support for MIRV technology, especially if it can award India with “diplomatic currency and leverage among the major military powers…” (p. 129).

The authors highlight an intrinsic contradiction between India’s strategic culture that has traditionally supported restraint and the strategic elite’s predisposition to rely on American-driven Cold War deterrence discourse that constantly pushes for development and improvement of capabilities such as MIRVing. The authors believe that as long as India’s non-deployment preference holds, the country’s traditional culture of restraint will not pose any challenge to the development of new capabilities including MIRVs.

In the conclusion, Basrur and Sankaran recommend political negotiation as a tool to ensure strategic stability.

Convincing Arguments

One important contribution of this chapter is its discussion of the often neglected, but extremely significant, aspect of the impact of borrowed discourse on the articulation of nuclear deterrence needs and policy choices on the subcontinent. Many scholars tend to mention the Cold War legacy in passing, but the implications of this legacy for policy decisions rarely receive attention. Recognizing the significance of borrowed discourse for nuclear choices has added richness and depth to this study. A better understanding of sources of learning would tremendously increase our ability to predict a state’s preferences regarding the future development of its capabilities.

A second contribution of the authors is their discussion of the decisionmaking guiding the creation of technologies such as MIRVs. Although these authors are not the first to delve into these processes, they compellingly tie the predominance of the DRDO with India’s push for MIRVs. Relatedly, the authors put forward the interesting argument that the balance of civil-military relations in India has further influenced the debate in favor of MIRV technology. For example, they argue that civilian leaders have limited the military’s influence in the formal decisionmaking process guiding the development of new military technologies, which has left DRDO’s advocacy for MIRVs unchallenged and questions about multiple warheads’ military utility unasked.

Reasoned Critique

Rajesh and Sankaran suggest that it might be pragmatic for India to hold the development of its MIRV technology until it has more information about China’s BMD program. Although this suggestion appears pragmatic, countering China’s BMD program is realistically only one of the many factors that are enticing India to develop MIRVs. For example, if acquiring new weapons technology would award India with further bargaining leverage in arms control negotiations, then this would be a compelling reason, independent of Chinese capabilities, for it to develop MIRV technology. Thus, a recommendation to limit MIRV production simply based upon on Chinese capabilities without considering other factors seems lacking.

Another critique has to do with the authors’ contention that MIRVs may not be inherently destabilizing. While they acknowledge that a “combination of highly accurate Agni missiles with a future MIRV configuration could raise concerns of first-strike stability,” they insist that India lacks the technological means for real-time tracking and targeting to actually carry out a successful preemptive strike, thus limiting the degree to which MIRVs would be destabilizing (p. 139-140). However, one could argue that MIRVs are in fact destabilizing because of the danger they entail by adding further fuel to the security dilemma. The authors even acknowledge that India’s development of MIRVs could increase the “prospects of arms races, crisis proneness, and shifts toward counterforce doctrine” (p. 140).

Future Research

Explaining India’s strategic rationale behind developing MIRV technology, the authors identify three main reasons that include the penetration of Chinese BMD systems, cost-effectiveness, and wider targeting options. However, the authors do not examine in great detail whether MIRVs, in fact, could practically meet these expectations. For example, it is often assumed that MIRVs are cost-effective from a missile development standpoint because more warheads can be affixed to fewer missiles. However, it depends upon how India would employ MIRVs whether they would prove cost-effective from a fissile material standpoint. For example, if India develops MIRVs to defeat China’s BMD system, it could use other technologies (e.g. penetration aids) to counter missile defenses without significantly changing the fissile material requirement. However, if India’s nuclear doctrine shifted toward counterforce at some point in the future, it would require a corresponding increase in fissile material, which could undermine its cost-effectiveness. Future studies could explore such technical details to assess the strength of India’s strategic arguments in favor of MIRVs.

The authors’ discussion of India’s quest for nuclear prestige is also something that a future study could explore in further detail. The authors support the view that India’s testing of nuclear weapons served as a key factor behind India’s growing status as a major strategic player in the international system. Specifically, they seem to assume that the special treatment India received under the Bush administration was a result of India having crossed the nuclear threshold. However, this remains an untested assumption. Perhaps the rise of China’s military and economic power served as a motivation for the Bush administration’s push for a closer relationship with India, in spite of strong opposition toward India’s nuclear weapons. Thus, assessing the debates of Indian and American policymakers ahead of the landmark 2005 nuclear agreement could provide additional perspective to the nuclear prestige argument. The question of whether India has acquired prestige at the international stage because of nuclear weapons or despite them would have some utility for assessing India’s argument in favor of MIRVs.

Finally, Basrur and Sankaran largely ignore the role of domestic pride as one of the possible motivations behind India’s push for MIRVs. In contemporary India where political organizations like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh advocate nuclear nationalism as part of the Hindutva’s cultural project, successful demonstration of technologies like MIRVs might bring political dividends for the ruling political elite. It would be useful to investigate the implications of such a possibility.

The Stimson Center recently released The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age, an edited volume that takes a retrospective look at the U.S.-Soviet experience with MIRVs and explores the second coming of MIRVs in contemporary Asia. In this SAV review series, SAV contributors Sitakanta Mishra, Amina Afzal, Rabia Akhtar, Sadia Tasleem, and Debak Das review each chapter with special attention to the implications for South Asia and future research. Read the entire series here.


Image: Pankaj Nangia-Bloomberg, Getty

Posted in , India, MIRVs, Missiles, Nuclear Weapons

Sadia Tasleem

Sadia Tasleem

Sadia Tasleem is a lecturer at Quaid-i-Azam University’s Department of Defense and Strategic Studies in Islamabad, Pakistan. As a Robin Copeland Memorial Fellow for Nonproliferation from 2014 to 2015, she undertook a research project entitled “Creating a Constituency for Unilateral Nuclear Arms Control in Pakistan.” Also, as a core member of the Program on Strategic Stability Evaluation (POSSE) she has done extensive research on various aspects of Strategic Stability, Nuclear Learning and the implications of Knowledge Diffusion with a focus on Pakistan. Previously, she worked as a senior research scholar at the Institute for Strategic Studies, Research and Analysis at the National Defense University; a research associate at the International Islamic University; and a lecturer at the Department of International Relations, National University of Modern Languages in Islamabad.

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One thought on “SAV Review Series: MIRVing and Deterrence Challenges for India

  1. Sadia,
    Thanks for writing this.
    I agree with you about the significance of “borrowed discourse” — the transposition of Cold War terminology and logic to South Asia. We can rail about this all we like, but the Cold War model of deterrence still greatly influences Pakistan. India and China — not so much, but even they use terms borrowed from the West. They have adopted what we may call an “Eastern” model of nuclear deterrence that is far more relaxed.
    MIRVs will test the Eastern model, which is why Stimson published this book.
    Best wishes,

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