With Defence Minister AK Antony in China, the first by a Defence Minister in seven years, new facts about the direction India's nuclear missile programme is taking could send out an unprecedented message. In details revealed for the first time in an exclusive interview to me for Headlines Today, the new chief of the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) Dr Avinash Chander has revealed that one of his key mandates as the head of the country's military research complex, is to drastically reduce the time India will take for a potential nuclear counter-strike.
Unlike China, India has been typically timid about its strategic programmes. The DRDO chief's revelations make for a rare, bold message about the goings on within the country's most advanced weapons laboratories.
"In the second strike capability, the most important thing is how fast we can react. We are working on cannisterised systems that can launch from anywhere at anytime," said Dr Chander. "We are making much more agile, fast-reacting, stable missiles so response can be within minutes." India has a no first use policy for nuclear weapons, and its current response time for a retaliatory strike is classified. The DRDO chief's task is to whittle it down by a substantial degree to provide the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) with a literally 'anywhere-anytime' ability.
Dr Chander, formerly director with the Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL) in Hyderabad and renowned as the spearhead of the Agni family of missiles, was made chief of the DRDO last month.
India's current land-based nuclear weapon delivery systems include the 1,250-km range Agni-I, 2,000-km range Agni-II and 3,500-km range Agni-III. The DRDO chief has expressed confidence that 2 of India's two most ambitious nuclear missiles under test, the 4,000-km range Agni-IV and 6,000+ km range Agni-V, will both be inducted into the strategic arsenal within two years.
"We'll induct the Agni IV and V inducted in the next two years. It's the first time we will be inducting strategic missiles with such long ranges together. Agni III, IV and V are going to be the thrust areas. They give us the reach which we need, and are our highest priority now. Within two years we have to make sure that it happens," said Dr Chander.
Currently, the ASL is steeped in researching futuristic missile technologies. "In the future, the country will require much more precise warheads which are able to counter anti-ballistic missile defences. A manoeuvring warhead is going to be a key challenge. That's the next strategic capability which will become essential. That in turn will be followed by multiple warheads, with decoys, warheads, and other combination," said Dr Chander.
Asked about whether India needed an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM), with ranges in excess of 10,000-km like China's DF-31 and other in-development weapons, Dr Chander said his missile laboratories could develop and deploy an ICBM in as little as three-five years. "As we see today, we don't find the need for ranges more than 5,000-6,000 km. The technology building blocks required to build a longer range missile already exist. We are in a position to activate any such system at very short notice," said Dr Chander.
Asked about how India's missile programme squared off against China's, he said, "Comparisons are odious, always difficult, and many times taken out of context. If you see at the capability level, our missiles, radars are comparable with the Chinese and other friends around us."
On India's ballistic missile defence (BMD) system, Dr Chander said, "Ballistic missile defence capabilities of our adversaries will also grow in the years to come. As far as our BMD is concerned, we are now poised for take-off. We've done a lot of tests, need to do perhaps a few more tests. With that, we will be ready to intercept missiles upto a range of 2,000km. That system we will be able to start deploying. At the same time, our effort to develop a system to intercept missiles with a range of 5,000km is underway. Testing of those missiles is one of the limitations we have by virtue of the geometry of the country. We are working on the development of new ranges, so we can fire for a longer distance."