India and Pakistan’s integration of a triad of advanced technologies into its arsenal has shifted South Asia’s strategic landscape. The recently tested Agni-5 missile with Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRV) technology, space and land surveillance systems enhanced by Artificial Intelligence (AI), and increasingly sophisticated missile defense capabilities all have significant implications for the subcontinent. 

MIRV technology enables a state to independently target multiple locations using one ballistic missile payload containing several warheads, increasing strike effectiveness and complicating missile defense for adversaries. Meanwhile, AI-powered surveillance systems offer an unparalleled ability to gather data and monitor adversaries in real-time, both in space and on the ground, significantly improving a state’s situational awareness and ability to act preemptively. In a region marked by volatility, India’s integration of these technologies with advanced missile defense systems could lead to a strategic imbalance in the region by bolstering India’s military standing while potentially lowering the nuclear threshold, destabilizing crisis management patterns, and triggering an arms race. Yet, comprehensive and novel confidence-building measures are essential to prevent escalation and preserve stability.

MIRV Capabilities Underline Shift in India’s Nuclear Posture

On March 11, 2024, an official announcement confirmed that India has successfully developed the Precision Guided Munition (PGM), a type of MIRV technology. India could apply this technology to multiple missiles in the Agni series, including the Agni-P. The Agni-P features advanced technology from the Agni-V, including canisterized nuclear warheads that can be rapidly mated with the missile, enhancing its quick-launch capabilities. These technologies are critical to India’s first-strike potential because they would enable India to conduct precision strikes within an accuracy of 33 feet (10 meters) against military targets. These developments indicate a shift in India’s nuclear posture toward enhancing first-strike capabilities, reflecting a strategic pivot in its nuclear strategy for potential conflict scenarios.

The recent MIRV test confirmed that India’s Agni-V, a solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), has borrowed technological capabilities developed for the civilian satellite SLV-3 that allows the missile to carry a higher payload. Through a cooperative partnership with the U.S.-funded National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), India improved its ICBM propulsion systems by using solid-fuel and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) technology. This technology showcases the strategic application of dual-use technologies developed from civilian space collaborations for defense purposes. This capability bolsters India’s nuclear deterrence posture by enabling more versatile and reliable missile systems, potentially contributing to strategic instability in the region by escalating arms competition.

The recently tested Agni-5 missile with Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicles technology, space and land surveillance systems enhanced by Artificial Intelligence, and increasingly sophisticated missile defense capabilities all have significant implications for the subcontinent. 

AI-enhanced Surveillance and Missile Defense Systems Sharpen Capabilities

India’s investments in space technology and AI integration marks a pivotal shift toward enhancing its military and defense capabilities. This move, characterized by ambitious satellite launches and sophisticated AI applications, is designed to sharpen intelligence, precision-strike capabilities, and missile defense systems. 

Processing satellite data through AI will give India a clearer operational picture of strategic assets and military activities, facilitating more effective counterforce strategies and bolstering its missile defense architecture by employing advanced algorithms to analyze and interpret real-time data from multiple sensors and satellites. AI’s rapid data processing capabilities will improve India’s ability to identify and track targets, enabling quicker and more precise decision-making during offensive operations. Plans to augment satellites with AI will also improve the speed at which India can process the data, enabling real-time monitoring and information-sharing. 

India has already taken clear steps toward realizing this capability. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) announced in December 2023 that it will launch 50 satellites within five years to enhance geo-intelligence capabilities, marking a significant step toward expanding India’s satellite fleet. The initiative aims to strengthen border surveillance and strategic security, specifically focusing on deploying AI-integrated Earth Observation (EO) satellites for superior reconnaissance capabilities. By 2026, the Indian Army plans to improve its communications infrastructure through the Geostationary Satellite (GSAT)-7B, enabling more effective network-centric warfare.

AI-augmented missile systems can simulate various offensive scenarios to optimize missile trajectories and strike plans, ensuring that India’s arsenal is used precisely, reducing the risk of striking the wrong target. At the same time, AI enhances missile defense using machine learning-augmented automatic target recognition (ATR) technology, which will improve target discrimination, tracking, and guidance systems; increase the speed and scope of loop-decision making by the defense system; and strengthen hypersonic missile defense resilience. This dual approach could significantly improve India’s first-strike precision while concurrently complicating the second-strike capabilities of Pakistan, thereby altering the balance of regional security dynamics.

In December 2023, the Indian Air Force (IAF) unveiled a new doctrine, called the “Space Vision 2047,” to boost its development of aerospace technology, which promises to improve strategic surveillance capabilities from space. The doctrine outlines plans to develop advanced space weather forecasting, space traffic management, precision navigation, timing systems, and robust intelligence, surveillance, and communication networks. The Defence Space Agency’s evolution into a Space Command, with ambitious plans to deploy over a hundred military satellites in the coming years, underscores India’s ambition to use advanced technology in its arsenal. 

However, these ambitious plans face project delays and budget expansions, so how quickly and to what extent India can adapt these novel technologies remains an open question. In February 2023, the Defence Ministry informed the Rajya Sabha that India’s Defense Research & Development Organization (DRDO) struggled to complete 23 of its 55 projects. A critical review from December 2023 highlighted systemic issues causing cost overruns and technological obsolescence. That India must also integrate systems purchased from various countries further escalates costs due to interoperability demands, and as a result, requires additional expenditure on integration, training, and maintenance. This complexity not only increases the financial burden, but also impacts the operational efficiency of the military’s modernization plans.

Advanced Technology’s Role in Increasing Risk

India’s MIRV-capable missiles, in combination with advanced space technology and AI-augmented missile systems, represent a transformative leap in its military capabilities. Therefore, it is important to consider how the use of advanced technology to improve India’s precision targeting and space and surveillance capabilities could alter its strategic dynamic with Pakistan. By bolstering its offensive capabilities with advanced technology, India is developing the ability to precisely target and neutralize enemy military installations and assets preemptively, thereby strengthening its counterforce strategy, maintaining strategic stability, and managing an escalating conflict scenario.

These developments will likely create insecurity in Pakistan about the regional strategic balance. Assessing the impact of India’s technological advancements on the offense-defense balance, Pakistan may seek to augment its own defense capabilities to ensure effective deterrence remains intact. This might include accelerating development in missile technology, expanding nuclear capabilities, or enhancing other strategic defense systems to match India’s progress.

By deploying military and Earth Observation satellites, India improves its real-time data collection on the locations and movements of Pakistan’s nuclear and military assets, boosting its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. Enhanced surveillance capabilities could potentially reduce escalation risks between India and Pakistan by clarifying each other’s intentions. However, persistent mistrust and strategic uncertainties, particularly concerning India’s no-first-use policy, may negate these benefits as Pakistan might perceive India’s satellite deployments as threatening.

Though improved surveillance may intend to reduce accidental escalation risks, India’s real or perceived technological superiority could drive further instability in India and Pakistan’s dynamic. For example, AI will likely improve the survivability of drone swarms against current missile defense systems, clearing the path to a disarming attack by disabling an adversary’s defenses. This technological edge contributes to a qualitative shift in India’s military potential, which may prompt Pakistan to seek comparable advancements. Mutual technological parity could theoretically stabilize the region by diminishing uncertainties, while disparity might instead spark an arms race, intensifying regional tensions.

India’s improved targeting precision and situational awareness might lead it to seriously consider counterforce strategies, such as preemptive strikes on enemy nuclear weapons. Whether actual or perceived, improved missile defense and precision strike capabilities could exacerbate Pakistan’s concern that India is preparing for counterforce strikes. 

The use of AI and autonomous military systems by India introduces additional risks of miscalculation and accidental escalation, with rapid data processing possibly leading to premature actions in crisis situations.

Much of the discussion around India’s MIRV capabilities focuses on the technology’s ability to deliver more nuclear warheads simultaneously, increasing India’s offensive strike capacity. A less-often studied aspect is the shift toward precision and adaptability in India’s objectives for its militarized technology as recent advancements will augment India’s ability to deliver warheads with higher accuracy and adapt them to diverse strategic needs. For example, AI augmentation will allow a missile to correct its flight in real-time to adapt to unexpected information. In combination with acquiring the S-400 air defense system and potentially producing an indigenous missile defense system, these developments could potentially neutralize Pakistan’s retaliatory options and prompt it to lower its nuclear threshold in conventional confrontations to counter its perceived strategic imbalance.

The use of AI and autonomous military systems by India introduces additional risks of miscalculation and accidental escalation, with rapid data processing possibly leading to premature actions in crisis situations. Broadly, these developments also have the potential to trigger an advanced technology arms race in South Asia, which could threaten India and Pakistan’s ability to effectively manage and resolve crises by shortening diplomatic resolution windows and increasing nuclear exchange risks.

Need for Arms Control Measures

By developing MIRV-equipped Agni-5 missiles, AI-augmented surveillance, and missile defense systems, India must also consider new confidence-building measures (CBMs) to account for the consequences advanced technologies will have on regional stability. The main pillars of responsive CBMs include robust communication channels, bilateral talks on emerging technologies, and enhanced missile test notifications. Effective CBMs also require strong communication networks, such as political and military hotlines. Regular strategic dialogues and Track 1.5 diplomacy between India and Pakistan, supported by bilateral task forces on new military technologies, will be essential to managing risk. The evolution of missile technology, especially with hypersonic missiles, necessitates updating traditional test notification frameworks to include new advancements for transparency and trust. This includes sharing data on weapon capabilities and trajectories to prevent misunderstandings and escalations. Robust verification mechanisms to ensure compliance and regular dialogues to incorporate technological advancements into these agreements will also be crucial to fostering mutual understanding.

Policy implementation should follow a series of diplomatic engagements and CBMs, starting with international-mediated dialogues to establish basic principles. Subsequent technical meetings should define notification protocols and verification mechanisms with the help of international experts in missile and AI technologies. Because communication between India and Pakistan is complicated by long-standing disputes like Kashmir, a phased implementation approach has the most promise. This approach starts with conversations over less sensitive technologies and expands to more critical technologies as trust builds, coupled with regular reviews to address issues and update agreements based on new technological and security dynamics. 

It will be vital to create safeguards around the ethical development of AI and autonomous systems, as well as precautions against its misuse. This could involve India and Pakistan implementing safeguards against hacking and unauthorized use, coupled with increased international caution over dual-use technology cooperation. Engaging non-state actors such as academic institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and technology companies in monitoring and advocating for responsible dual-use technology use will benefit these objectives since they can provide expert analysis and help ensure stable and peaceful technology applications.

Ultimately, success in overcoming these obstacles hinges on India and Pakistan mutually acknowledging the benefits of stability and the dire consequences of escalation, bolstered by international support for dialogue and understanding. 

Also Read: Emerging Missile Technologies: A New Arms Race in South Asia?


Image 1: Agni-III Missile via Flickr.

Image 2: Surface to Air Missile via Wikimedia Commons.

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