India is currently in the midst of a battery of scheduled missile tests at its Chandipur test range off the coast of Orissa, including scheduled tests of the Prithvi-II and Agni-II. On Saturday, India tested, for the third time, a 750-km semi-ballistic missile named Shourya. The Shourya has roughly the same range as the Agni-I but is designed to be more mobile, with a reduced logistics trail. India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), which developed the missile (as well as its Naval variant which is the basis for India’s future SLBM capability), noted in the post-test commentary that the missile is dual-use, capable of carrying 1000-kg nuclear or conventional warheads. Earlier this year, DRDO tested the Prahaar tactical missile and also noted that it can carry “different types of warheads,” presumably implying that it was nuclear-capable as well.
Michael Krepon has written about the problems of escalation control on the Subcontinent, and it appears that in addition to Pakistan’s expanding nuclear stockpile and delivery options, India’s DRDO is also keeping pace with an expanding missile lineup. There is little doubt that the development of these lower range delivery options can have significantly destabilizing effects on the nuclear balance between India and Pakistan. After the Shourya test, a DRDO official was quoted:
According to W. Selvamurthy, Chief Controller (Life Sciences and International Relations), DRDO, Shourya had a big element of surprise because it could be kept in locations where the enemies would not be able to detect it. “Besides, it cannot be detected by satellite imaging. It will surprise our adversaries and strengthen our strategic defence,” Dr. Selvamurthy asserted.
Words which Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division will surely find comforting.
But, an additional destabilizing feature of these missile tests, I would also argue, is that DRDO in its post-test press releases and comments is adjusting India’s nuclear posture in ways that may undermine how India’s Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) and Strategic Force Command (SFC)—the bodies responsible for crafting and executing India’s nuclear doctrine—conceive of the Indian nuclear posture. In particular, DRDO, in the case of both the Prahaar and Shourya tests, assigns the yet-to-be-operationalized capabilities both potentially nuclear and conventional roles. Is this how the NCA and SFC view these capabilities? From where does DRDO derive the authority to assign operational roles to the capabilities it develops? Does India intend the Prahaar—a 60km battlefield support missile—to have any nuclear role, in contravention to its entire existing nuclear doctrine and posture? All of these are unlikely, and DRDO’s statements therefore muddle the situation, particularly since they are dissected by adversaries for hints about India’s nuclear posture.
Certainly, the engineers at DRDO who have developed these capabilities should be proud of their contribution to India’s strategic capabilities, but their post-test commentary risks adjusting or crafting Indian nuclear doctrine on the fly and in ad hoc ways—carrying the danger of dragging the cat by its own tail. Leaving aside the larger direction and drivers of DRDO’s strategic missile developments, these seemingly public relations details can have tremendous implications for future crisis stability on the Subcontinent. The DRDO commentary presumes that political and strategic decisions about future missile role-assignment have been made. But, if the NCA and SFC decide, for example, that the naval variant of the Shourya will have a nuclear role but the land-based cousin will not, those subtleties may be lost on adversaries because of these DRDO statements, possibly generating misperceptions and miscalculations about India’s movements during a crisis. Of course, the press releases and post-test commentary may be technically accurate—all of these missiles are certainly capable of carrying nuclear warheads given the payloads these missiles can throw—but these public statements undermine regional security if they are not intended to have nuclear roles.
Indeed, on the one hand, it seems as if the SFC has considered moving away from the dual-assignment of capabilities—assigning delivery vectors either strictly nuclear or conventional roles. The obvious benefit to this is clearer signalling to an adversary in a crisis: it reduces the chance that an opponent will mistake conventional movements for nuclear movements, thereby reducing the risk of inadvertent escalation. Recently, retired Brigadiers Feroz Hassan Khan and Gurmeet Kanwal wrote a joint piece advocating even retiring some short-range capabilities to enhance crisis stability. But the first step, at least on the Indian side, is one that SFC seems to already be implementing: being clearer about role-assignment for potential delivery vectors.
If SFC is indeed trying to move toward greater transparency about vector role-assignment, DRDO’s press releases and post-test comments unnecessarily—and dangerously—confuse India’s nuclear posture, possibly undermining other organizations’ efforts to implement stabilizing policies. If, however, India’s security managers are uncertain about the roles these capabilities might serve in India’s future nuclear posture, a single authority should be charged with disciplined messaging—preferably the PMO/NCA or SFC—to eliminate the multiplicity of signals emanating from various organizations, which is ipso facto destabilizing. In either case, India’s interests are probably best served if DRDO strictly releases details, parameters, and performance of a particular flight test without speculating about how the ultimate capability might be employed by the state.
Confused signals have rarely served a nation’s security. India’s security managers should perhaps therefore enforce tighter discipline in how it announces the development of its capabilities—particularly when they have not yet been inducted into the armed forces or Strategic Force Command with a specific (or dual) role, whatever that might ultimately be. There are already growing concerns that India might be creeping beyond its posture of ‘credible minimum deterrence,’ or assured retaliation, and DRDO statements that missiles are being developed which could conceivably be employed in tactical nuclear missions do nothing but augment those worries. Thus, addressing DRDO announcements about missile tests is a simple, but potentially incredibly stabilizing, way that India’s security managers can enhance transparency about its nuclear posture.