India's ballistic missiles could be a game-changer

India just test-launched an indigenous, nuclear-capable ballistic missile.

On February 15, the India’s Economic Times reported that the country’s military had fired a Prithvi-II missile from a mobile launcher.

According to the Economic Times, the missile was “randomly chosen from the production stock,” meaning that it wasn’t specifically modified for testing purposes.

This isn’t the first test of the Prithvi-II, which has a range of over 200 miles according to Economic Times, and over 150 miles, according to the Arms Control Association.

But although the missile entered service in the Indian military in 2003 and was first test-launched in 1996, it’s experienced test failures as recently as 2011, while the missile used in this week’s test did not hit its intended target even though it reached its intended distance and altitude.

The fact the Indian military has had even mixed success in firing an apparently randomly selected Prithvi-II from a mobile launcher suggests that the country really has developed a semi-reliable nuclear delivery system that it can indigenously produce.

The Prithvi II gives India the ability to make its own mobile nuclear-capable ballistic missiles with a far-enough range to hit nearly every major city in Pakistan from inside Indian territory.

An indigenous missile capability is crucial for India, which is a confirmed nuclear weapons state but not a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.


lthough India’s nuclear program has been semi-recognised through its landmark 2008 nuclear treaty with the United States, the fact that the country has developed nuclear weapons outside of the NPT makes it highly unlikely that an outside country would provide Delhi with a strategic delivery system.

India also faces a ballistic missile asymmetry.

China has aided Pakistan in its ballistic missile development, providing nuclear-capable missiles with a 186-mile range along with suspected technological assistance on longer-range delivery systems.

In contrast, the US discouraged India from developing the Prithvi class of missiles throughout the 1990s.

Washington is understandably nervous about the appearance of encouraging strategic weapons proliferation, and one of the rationales of the 2008 nuclear treaty was to give the US additional leverage over the development of India’s program.

The Prithvi II encompasses the tensions of India’s nuclear weapons program.

On the one hand, Delhi aspires to a position of global leadership that an overly reckless nuclear weapons program would arguably undermine.

At the same time, India needs to keep up its deterrent capability against its primary strategic opponent, a nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Pakistan is determined to have a nuclear edge on India, building warheads at a faster pace than its rival and testing an intercontinental missile that would be capable of covering the entirety of Indian territory.

In contrast, India is more populous and less diplomatically isolated — and can produce road-mobile missiles capable of hitting just about any major city inside of Pakistan.

Both countries’ ballistic missile development show that India and Pakistan’s rivalry is as dangerous as ever.

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