South Asia's Arms Race Heats Up
Recently by Eric Margolis: Cuba: The Forbidden Island WakesUp
India just launched what the media called its "first intercontinental ballistic missile." India did indeed launch a new, 5,000 km-ranged Agni-V missile that can deliver a nuclear warhead to Beijing and Shanghai.
Previously, India's 3,500-km Agni-III did not have the range to hit China's major coastal cities.
But Agni-V is not an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), as wrongly reported. Nor was the missile North Korea launched on 15 April that fell apart soon after liftoff. Some media wrongly claimed it was an ICBM that could hit the United States.
One longs for the days when media employed real war correspondents who understood military affairs.
A true ICBM has a minimum range of at least 8,000 km and more likely 12,000 km. India and North Korea's missiles were medium ranged ballistic missiles (MRBM's). The difference is important because MRBM's are theater weapons while ICBM's threaten the entire globe.
India crowed with pride over the nuclear Viagra of its Agni-V launch. One government scientist claimed Agni-V made India "a major missile power." By contrast, India's growing rival, China, dismissed the launch with a disdainful sniff. North Korea was blasted by just about everyone for trying to launch its MRBM.
As this column has been writing for years, India is indeed emerging as a major military power.
In 2000, my first book, War at the Top of the World, began examining the growth of India's military and postulated that India and China would one day go to war over their ill-defined Himalayan border and Burma.
Today, India has become the world's largest importer of arms. India's navy is to deploy three aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines with ballistic missiles, a powerful air force, and armed forces of 1.3 million. India has long land and maritime frontiers and needs large, well-equipped military forces.
India and China have long been locked in an arms race, though neither will admit it. China holds a lead over India in modernized armed forces, but India is catching up. India is deeply concerned over China's land, air and missile forces on the Tibetan Plateau overlooking the plains of India, and by China's development of blue water naval forces that are edging into the Indian Ocean.
Yet almost unnoticed by the outside world, India has also been long working to develop a true ICBM that can reach North America, Europe and Australia. Why India, a nation of deep poverty, needs a missile that can deliver nuclear warheads to New York or Paris, remains a mystery.
US security officials appear blissfully unaware of the looming Indian missile challenge, or preferring to ignore it while fulminating against Iran, which poses no threat at all to North America.
The most likely reason India would want an ICBM is prestige and a seat on the UN Security Council. But there is the possibility that one day India may confront the United States over Mideast oil, or confront Russia and China in Central Asia.
India's deliverable nuclear arsenal, like those of all other nations, is designed to be a strategic deterrent — a national life insurance policy.
Delhi has masked development of an ICBM behind its space launch program. As Washington tartly noted last week about North Korea's attempt to put a satellite into orbit, a booster that can place a satellite in orbit can just as well deliver a nuclear warhead.
The same applies to India. For now, India is a close US ally, and the recipient of US and Israeli help in building its nuclear arsenal. Washington has closed its eyes to India's refusal to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has tacitly blessed Delhi's extensive nuclear program as a regional counter-balance to China.
India's purported ICBM is named "Surya" and is believed to have a planned range of 12,000 km. The missile is said to be composed of the main stage of its PSLV space launcher and Agni-V. Its development remains shrouded in secrecy. The program has had many failures and misfires.
India is also deploying nuclear ballistic missiles on its growing submarine forces, including the 7,500-km-range K-15 and 3,500-km range K-4, and well as cruise missiles and a range of deadly anti-ship missiles designed to sink aircraft carriers.
The US Navy is the only power operating large attack carriers in the Indian Ocean or Arabian Sea. Indians still angrily recall a US carrier group, Task Force 74, steamed menacingly off its coast during the 1971 India-Pakistan War.
The third maritime leg of India's nuclear triad provides a secure second strike capability after a surprise nuclear attack. But is also gives India to ability to attack most of the world' capitols from the sea. Is anyone listening in Washington?
Eric Margolis [send him mail] is the author of War at the Top of the World and the new book, American Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the West and the Muslim World. See his website.