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On March 11, 2024, India’s Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) carried out a test of its longest-range ballistic missile Agni-V — a nuclear-capable, solid fuel, three-stage, canisterized missile with a range above 7,000 kilometers. This is the 10th test of Agni-V since April 2012 and followed the night trial of the missile in December 2022. What differentiates the recent test is the pronouncement that it has been conducted with Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRV) technology. Although India is believed to have been working on MIRV technology for quite some time and media reports in the past have suggested that India has MIRVed its new generation Medium-Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM) Agni-Prime, it is the first time that New Delhi has officially acknowledged demonstration of MIRV capability.

Interestingly, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the test of MIRVed Agni-V, followed by statements from the Indian Ministry of Defence and DRDO. Just weeks before India goes into national elections, the announcement by PM Modi himself is reminiscent of India’s test of ASAT capability before the 2019 national elections and underscores the prestige and domestic political drivers of the demonstration of MIRV capability.

Because of its long range, Agni-V is claimed by India to be China-specific and the test of MIRVed Agni-V is being trumpeted as a response to China’s nuclear modernization. However, the technological know-how of MIRVs would enable India to integrate the technology into other lesser-range land and submarine-based missiles, which would adversely affect strategic stability in South Asia by undermining arms race stability and crisis stability between India and Pakistan.

MIRVing of even smaller numbers of land-based Agni-V and Agni-P missiles, and submarine-launched K-4 and K-15 missiles would lead to rapid expansion of India’s nuclear arsenal. It is yet not clear how many warheads each Indian MIRVed missile would be able to carry. The number being floated in Indian media reports is between three to six warheads. Some media commentaries have even suggested 12 warheads, which seems implausible, as India’s proficiency in MIRV technology is unlikely to be that high. However, even if India has the capability to mount at a minimum two to four warheads on each MIRVed missile and goes on to MIRV 50-60 land-based and 25-30 submarine-launched missiles, India would have to increase its nuclear weapons inventory by at least 250-300 warheads, which would nearly triple the size of its current arsenal of 170 warheads.

It is worth underscoring that the above is a highly conservative estimate and the actual expansion of India’s nuclear arsenal following the integration of MIRVs could be even larger depending on the number of warheads that could be mounted on each missile and the number of missiles that would be MIRVed. Even the aforementioned conservative estimate is in stark contrast to the principle of minimum deterrence enunciated in India’s 2003 declaratory nuclear doctrine. This would further accentuate the inconsistencies in India’s declaratory doctrine and its actual force posture and would lead to further erosion of the predictability in the deterrence relationship between Pakistan and India, thereby undermining strategic stability in South Asia.

MIRV enables India to deliver multifold firepower and strike a large number of targets using fewer delivery means, which combined with high accuracy can be particularly useful against hardened counterforce targets. The combination of MIRVs and Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) – which India has long been pursuing – ostensibly creates favorable conditions thus strong incentives for the attacker to go for a first strike. Given that India is already believed to be harboring counterforce ambitions vis-à-vis Pakistan, integration of MIRVs in its MRBMs, especially Agni-P (a Pakistan-specific missile with a claimed Circular Error Probable (CEP) of 10 meters) and SLBMs (K-15 and K-4) combined with the false sense of security provided by BMD would further stimulate India’s counterforce temptations vis-à-vis Pakistan.

Having abandoned its recessed deterrence posture in favor of a ready arsenal with the canisterization of its land-based missiles, and current and prospective arming of its submarines with missiles mated with nuclear warheads, the MIRVing is a major leap toward India’s nuclear force posture tilting decisively towards counterforce targeting. This would compel Pakistan to resort to worst-case force posture planning, which entails the expansion of its nuclear arsenal to have sufficient numbers dispersed in several locations to survive a first strike from India and then retaliate to cause unacceptable damage. Furthermore, Pakistan would also be compelled to expedite its bid for a credible sea-based second-strike capability with at a minimum one submarine armed with nuclear-capable missiles to be always on the deterrence mission.

The net effect of these developments would be vertical expansion of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Given its resource constraints, Pakistan is unlikely to match each Indian warhead for a warhead and each Indian missile for a missile, but the vertical expansion of its arsenal to offset India’s advantage and dampen India’s counterforce ambitions while remaining within the precincts of its pronounced Credible Minimum Deterrence (CMD) would be an obvious security compulsion.

India’s reinforcement of counterforce nuclear force posture would significantly add to crisis instability vis-à-vis Pakistan. Equipped with weaponry better suited for counterforce targeting, Indian leadership – which is also dismissive of the core tenets of the theory of nuclear revolution – would be strongly incentivized to carry out a first strike against Pakistan in an attempt to eliminate maximum nuclear forces and would be betting that its BMD would intercept the residual forces. This would in turn pose Pakistan with a “use it or lose it” dilemma creating strong incentives to resort to launch under attack or launch on warning posture. Resultantly, the nuclear arsenals of India and Pakistan would be at high state of readiness, which coupled with the short reaction time between the two countries would result in the highest degree of first-strike instability in South Asia. This would raise the potential of any crisis escalating to the nuclear level based on miscalculations and misinterpretations against the desires and intentions of the actors involved.

Against the backdrop, the onus would once again be on Pakistan to offset the fallout of India’s MIRVing of its missiles and mitigate crisis instability by developing a credible sea-based second-strike capability. The presence of secure and credible sea-based second-strike capability would spell out to Indian leadership that a counterforce strike could not result in the complete annihilation of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and that Pakistan would always have the secure arsenal to inflict unacceptable damage to India. This would also alleviate the “use it or lose it” dilemma for Pakistan’s land-based arsenal and would enhance crisis stability thereby contributing to overall strategic stability in South Asia.

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