India & MIRV Technology

All these discussions have one basic premise and that is: one missile would deliver one nuclear warhead. India’s nuclear triad: a delivery system for nuclear missile from an aerial platform, ship/land based platform or a submarine also essentially caters for one nuclear warhead per one missile launch. However, all this could change and the debate on ‘quantifying’ nuclear deterrence would have to take an additional parameter into consideration in near future and that is India’s MIRV (multiple independently targetable 

re-entry vehicles) capabilities. India’s Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) is proposing to develop a new strategic weapon technology called MIRV.

 MIRV technology is not a new technology. Rather it is a technology of the 1960s and was first developed by the US, followed by USSR. MIRV is a set of nuclear weapons carried on a single missile (intercontinental or submarine launched ballistic missile). This technology allows striking several targets in a single launch. During the launch the main rocket of this system pushes the set of warheads up in the atmosphere. Each warhead strikes a target separately. The launch of such missile constitutes firing a missile having multiple stages. During its ballistic path every stage gets separated at a predetermined time after the launch. Along with every stage one or more warheads get fired. A four stage missile could fire eight to ten warheads on the targets. For a standard launch normally 60 seconds after the launch the first stage separates and other two or three stages separate roughly with an interval of 60 seconds each.

The post boost vehicle which separates from the missile prepares for re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. During all these maneuvers, warheads get fired after a gap of few seconds at pre-identified targets. The exact technology of firing sequence and how it actually happens has, for obvious reasons, always been kept a secret by states possessing this technology.

For better understanding, parallels could be drawn from the multiple satellite launches undertaken by few states with a single launch vehicle. There have been cases where around eight to ten satellites have been launched in one go. The major difference is that these satellites are positioned in different orbits in space while in case of MIRV the warheads re-enter the earth’s atmosphere and fire on the target. The system is designed in such a fashion that the damage caused by several small warheads could be much more than that caused by a single warhead.

There are reports that now India’s premier defence research organization DRDO is validating technologies towards testing MIRV. According to DRDO officials, the platform for re-entry vehicles would be dissimilar from their earlier successful designs used in Agni series of missiles. It appears that they are testing a more modern technology.

Another challenge for the Indian scientists would be to design and develop a guiding system with a high degree of accuracy. Some are of the opinion that MIRV technology need not be viewed only with a nuclear backdrop and even conventional warheads could be placed onboard of such missile. It also needs to be noted that India is yet to prove its ICBM capabilities and is expected to test 5,000-km-range Agni-V missile shortly.

MIRV testing has received a significant amount of criticism too. This technology is known for reducing the impact of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks agreement (SALT). SALT talks about limiting the number of missiles but with MIRV the issue of number of missiles becomes irrelevant since a single missile can carry many warheads and cause significant destruction. Also, this technology reduces the importance of a missile defence shield. This is because such systems are capable of addressing only one missile threat at a time.
Possession of MIRV technology is expected to boost India’s defence preparedness. DRDO’s willingness to invest in this technology clearly indicates that India’s missile programme has matured considerably. Coming years would see greater Indian investment in micro-electro mechanical systems (MEMS), nano-sensors, nano-materials and advanced information technology tools.
Such investments would be essential for creating reliable and robust but highly accurate systems like MIRV. This technology would certainly boost India’s nuclear deterrence capabilities. It also needs to be appreciated that the technologies developed for MIRV would find direct or indirect applicability in various other fields of defence too. 


First, India's progress in launch vehicle technology is evident in the following areas: First, the launch capacity of India's launch vehicles has increased. India began to develop launch vehicles in 1963 and made substantial progress in launch vehicle technology in the 1980s. Its launch vehicle technology matured in the 1990s. Later, India improved its PSLV launcher to enhance its launch capacity. Today, it is developing a more powerful launch vehicle, GSLV-MK3, which can deliver a payload of 4 tons to the geostationary transfer orbit and a payload of 10 tons to the low earth orbit. It will develop a cryogenic upper stage for its GSLV launcher and accelerate its research on air-breathing engines and reusable launch vehicles. Reusable launch vehicles, which can help reduce the costs of space transportation, will further increase India's launch capacity.

Second, India is a player in the international commercial launch market. It became the world's fifth commercial launch service provider when it put an Italian satellite into space with its PSLV launcher in April 2007. Its GSLV-MK1 launcher, on which it takes only $15,000-$16,000 to send 1 kg of payload to the geostationary transfer orbit, is competitive in the international market. The ISRO said India would take 10 percent of the international commercial launch market in the next five years due to its stable performance, multi-satellite launch capacity and low launch costs.
Third, India has gained an initial command of some basic technologies of the multiple independently targeted reentry vehicle (MIRV). India put a cluster of 10 satellites into orbit on a PLSV launcher in April, becoming the fifth country to be able to launch more than one satellite on a single launch vehicle after the United States, Russia, the European Space Agency and China.

Multi-satellite launch technology and MIRV technology share some similarities, and a mastery of the former can pave the way for the latter. India is expected to gain a complete command of MIRV technology in 15 to 20 years. This technology will enable it to use a single launched missile to strike several targets.

Fourth, India has forged ahead with its research on intercontinental missiles. India now possesses short- and medium-range ballistic missiles and is developing long-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Indian defense experts said it would not be difficult to convert PSLV launchers to intercontinental ballistic missiles. India has test-fired its Surya missile, whose range is close to an intercontinental missile. Its Ministry of Defense also has disclosed that the country is speeding up research on intercontinental missiles. All these moves provide evidence to India's improving intercontinental missile technology.

VK Saraswat, DRDO's Chief Controller of Missiles and Strategic Systems, told Business Standard in May 2008 that DRDO is working on a 5,000kme range Agni-5 missile, with multiple warheads (MIRVs) that can maneuver and send out decoys to confuse enemy anti-missile defenses.

In October 2008, ASL Director Avinash Chander told Business Standard:

“We have made major progress on the MIRVs in the last two years.”

MIRV technology is very similar to the multiple satellite launch technology that ISRO has mastered and repeatedly demonstrated using its PSLV launcher. However, warhead separation requires a higher degree of accuracy than satellite separation. MIRV is effective only when accuracy of the individual warheads is high, allowing relatively small warheads to be targeted at widely dispersed targets.

MIRVed missiles deployed on nuclear submarines represent a potent second strike capability in support of a no first use nuclear doctrine like the one embraced by India.

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