The spread of long-range ballistic missiles took a step forward on May 7 with India's successful flight test of its Agni-III missile that can carry a nuclear warhead as far as Beijing.
But the difference between this and other missile developments is that India's missiles — like those of the United States, Britain, France and Israel — are not used to threaten others and instead help deter potential aggressors.
With nuclear missile-armed neighbors like China, Russia and Pakistan, India needs an effective deterrent. But for years New Delhi concentrated on developing tactical missiles to deter Pakistan, which India fought three times since independence in 1947. India's nuclear-capable short- and medium-range missiles, in addition to its supersonic cruise missiles, are an existing deterrent to Pakistan.
Now India emphasizes development of strategic weapons, clearly worried about China's rapid military buildup. In 1962, India fought a war with China over their disputed frontier. When Chinese forces put down the 1959 uprising in Tibet and the Dalai Lama fled to India, New Delhi began military patrols along its northern border. Conflict with Chinese troops occurred, and in 1962 war broke out.
In three months of fighting China won every battle, showed the Indian army to be badly unprepared and redrew the border. Now, 46 years later there is unrest again in Tibet as China rapidly modernizes its military. With an arsenal of nuclear missiles that can reach India, including some reportedly based in Tibet, and a growing navy that could challenge for control of the Indian Ocean, China has become a threat to the Subcontinent.
The May 7 flight test was the third for Agni-III. The first test in 2006 failed, but the second in April last year was successful. This year's test was to validate last year's success and check out a new ring laser gyro-based navigation system. The Indian Defense Ministry said everything worked in textbook fashion in terms of range and accuracy. The missile traveled 3,000 kilometers (1,860 miles) and splashed down on target. Its full range is said to be 3,500 kilometers, which enables it to reach Shanghai and Beijing.
The government said Agni-III is now being turned over to the army, which has a missile regiment ready to receive it. The army will conduct the next flight test by the middle of next year, after which Agni-III is expected to become operational.
India's defense research organization now turns to complete the development of Agni-IV, a 3-stage solid fuel missile with a range of 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) or more, which would enable it to cover all of China from launch sites deep inside India. The Initial flight of Agni-IV is expected in 2010.
Indian defense analysts are concerned about the huge nuclear submarine base being built by China on Hainan Island in the South China Sea and Beijing's plan to build up to five ballistic missile-firing submarines. Consequently, India is building its own ballistic missile-firing submarine and in February carried out a successful test launch of a K-15 missile from an underwater platform. The plan reportedly is to develop a version of the Agni family of solid-fuel missiles to be carried on Indian submarines.
New Delhi also is working on ballistic missile defenses. In 2006, an Indian interceptor destroyed a target missile outside the atmosphere and last December a shorter-range interceptor stopped a missile inside the atmosphere. This two-stage missile defense is undergoing further testing, but components could be ready for deployment as soon as 2010. On a trip to New Delhi in February, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the United States and India are studying the possibility of a joint missile defense system.
After decades of considering Pakistan their principal enemy, Indian defense officials are beginning to see China as a more serious long-term threat, and they don't want to be caught unprepared again. Washington is embracing India as a rising power that can be a valuable ally to stand with this country, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Australia in defense of democracy in South and East Asia.
Defense against nuclear missiles can be achieved both through active missile defenses and deterrence. A combination of the two is most effective. Combining the U.S. and Indian nuclear deterrents, together with missile defenses in Alaska, California, India, Japan and on ships in the Pacific, will greatly diminish the ability of China or any other country to use nuclear missiles to threaten or intimidate others.
We should welcome India's development of both missile defenses and a strategic nuclear deterrent.
James T. Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times based in Carlsbad, Calif.