India’s Agni-V Missile Test: Is the World Entering a New Era of Nuclear Brinkmanship?

On March 11, 2024, India conducted a flight test of a land-based, nuclear-capable indigenously developed ballistic missile, adept with carrying multiple warheads. The multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) technology has added more sophistication to the  Agni 5  series. The development has raised concerns about the escalation of tensions among Nuclear states of South Asia, as well as the incapacity of the worn-out international Nuclear Non-proliferation and Arms Control apparatus to contain the rupture. Therefore, the article argues if the world has become too conducive for a new era of nuclear brinkmanship to begin.

Brinkmanship is the practice of taking actions that push a situation to the brink of war. The incapacity of the withering international regulatory apparatus becomes even more critical when states resort to the brinkmanship. India under the BJP government, has been a prime agent of brinkmanship. Repetitive episodes of escalatory moves in Pulwama, Balakot, and LAC, in the past few years, have stirred tensions across the region home to three nuclear states. Keeping the pattern of events into consideration, the enhancement of nuclear capabilities is likely to set an example of Nuclear Brinkmanship.

India recently conducted the tests of MIRV capable Agni-5, from an island in eastern Odisha state. The newly developed weapon, which took the Indian Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) more than a decade to develop, will enable them to launch multiple attacks in one go across different locations. The 5000 km range makes this missile a sole contender for the ICBM long-range category.  The development is the latest in India’s nuclear-capable Agni missile series named after a Sanskrit word that means fire, and part of its 1983 launched project. It is generally understood that if a state wants to conduct a pre-emptive strike or precision attack toward its adversary, then MIRV is acquired. There are strategic benefits as more number of warheads can be placed on a single delivery system. When the number of warheads targets different locations, it helps to deceive and evade the adversary. MIRVs are generally considered a weapon against the BMD system, however, they were first developed for counterforce striking options.

The Successful test has enabled India to join states like the US, China, Russia, the UK, and France to have this technology.  Pakistan also tested in 2017 ( Ababeel-2200km) in response to India’s Hawkish and offensive posture and growing Indian Ballistic Missile Defense(BMD) system.

In 2019, India tested an Anti-Satellite weapon capable of destroying a missile in space also known as a killer missile.  In 2021, India tested the Agni 5 missile, a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile that can cover the whole of China and Pakistan.

The missiles specially ICBMs have become a matter of status and prestige for India and a test of Agni 5 MIRV technology suggests that India is acquiring offensive capabilities and wants to be seen as a major power compatible with other major powers that exacerbate the arms race in South Asia. The reinforcement of Indian capabilities increases the vulnerabilities of strategic competitors encouraging others to boost the destabilizing nuclear arms race. The growing Indian capabilities and acquiring Ballistic Missile Systems is destabilizing as it give a false sense of security to Indian decision-makers encouraging their hawkish attitude. It also creates a perception that their Missile Defense Systems will intercept Pakistan’s Missile systems and therefore launching an offensive against Pakistan may be an option in a future crisis. As highlighted by Prof Zafar Nawaz Jaspal, “the strategic dilemma for Pakistan is that India has invested immensely in missile defense systems”.

Moreover, it has also a political angle as elections are approaching and PM Narender Modi wants to use every possible tactic such as building a temple on a Mosque and testing sophisticated weapons to appeal to its vote bank.

Impact of these advancements on Regional and Global Environment

The advancements in these missile defense systems are creating challenges for maintaining stability at both regional and global levels. Strategic Stability is achieved when states take certain measures to avoid war. It can be understood as a trinity where deterrence and arms control are two different but complementary subordinates to achieve the objective. While both aim to prevent war, the former prevents war by threatening the use of nuclear weapons and later helps to avoid war through peaceful means.




As highlighted, that too much arms control without deterrence could lead to vulnerability and too much deterrence without arms control can lead to conflict or war. The present regional and global environment is more competitive, the existing arms control between Cold War powers US and Russia has eroded and both are modernizing their forces. The US aims to deter China and that is leading to the creation of security alliances like Quad and AUKUS. The Russia-Ukraine war has complicated the understanding of stability through arms control. The US withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 and Russia Ukraine War also led to the suspension of New Start (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty- a bilateral arms control mechanism to reduce nuclear forces). Russia also de-ratified CTBT- a multilateral treaty whose objective was to ban the testing of nuclear weapons comprehensively.

South Asia is already a volatile region where under nuclear overhang, India and Pakistan have faced each other in various crises leading to a stability-instability paradox. There has been no mutual understanding between South Asian powers to negotiate towards the good cop of strategic stability that is arms control. The growing Indian capabilities are challenging the stability of South Asia as it exacerbates the security dilemma of Pakistan compelling it to move towards acquiring sophisticated technologies. Moreover, the intercontinental nuclear weapons of India go beyond China and cover other continents which may also be a source of concern in the future for Western states that are strengthening strategic partnerships with India. India has successfully created this perception of building it against China. And China is not interested in entangling itself with India as it is a much bigger power. However, India is benefitting militarily by playing the China card creating instability in the region.

Challenges to Arms Control and Non-Proliferation:

The political and situational context, in which India has tested its MIRV-capable nuclear missile, is of critical concern for the world order. Firstly, on the regional level, China is not the only nuclear state that is likely to be the target of India’s enhanced capabilities, Pakistan is residing right next to India. Pakistan has its Nuclear capability as well as doctrinal position, framed on the principle of Minimum Credible Deterrence. Considering the nature of the nuclear equation between the two states as well as the history of their respective nuclear tests, India’s pre-emptive posture can instigate the need for Pakistan to continue the arms build-up too. The overall chain of events can lead to further deterioration of an already unstable environment in the region.

Secondly, the ongoing global rift between the U.S. and China, and the Indo-U.S. cooperation to counter China, makes the development even more precarious. The debate and evolution of the global Nuclear non-proliferation regime has also been at a halt since the end of the Cold War, so this new development has also challenged the loopholes in the existing laws and regulatory mechanisms. Even during the Cold War, the developing Nuclear non-proliferation regime or the Arms Control regulations could not challenge technological developments like MIRV. Therefore, the development has raised critical concerns about the dilapidated nature of the existing International Order.

Straining Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Arms Control Apparatus in the wake of new technologies:

The existing international order and its supplementary regulatory mechanism, has failed in many instances during the last few decades. In the case of Nuclear Non-Proliferation as well as Arms Control and Disarmament, the international apparatus has not only failed to persuade even a single state to comply with the provisions, but it has also failed to evolve with the evolving developments. Despite all the discrepancies in this apparatus, it has nevertheless, been accepted as the consented-upon regulatory mechanism by the states. The Agni-V missile test has revealed the deficiency of both the Nuclear Non-proliferation regime as well as the conventional arms control and disarmament mechanism, as none contains any provision regarding the test of MIRV capability by the states. The existing postulates of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are too shallow to advise on the matters of usage of a particular technology, however, the test-ban treaties (CTBT) could have been relevant if they were functional. Furthermore, the conventional arms control apparatus also proves insufficient to provide regulations regarding the development and usage of MIRV capability. Does this insufficiency of the existing international regulatory apparatus mean that states will be left with their will and national interests to pursue their actions? Can the existing international order pay the cost of the disorder that this self-sufficiency will entail?

Tayyaba Khurshid is an Associate Research Officer at the Center for International Strategic Studies, AJK, and an MPhil scholar of International Relations at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. She works on the Arms Control and Disarmament desk and South Asian Strategic Affairs.

Ayesha Shaikh is an MPhil International Relations Scholar at the National Defense University Islamabad. She is serving as a researcher at the Strategic Vision Institute Islamabad. Her areas of interest include the security dynamics of  South Asia.

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