The missile test before the polls

On March 27, 2019, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) conducted ‘Mission Shakti’: India’s first anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test. After the event, the national broadcaster broadcast an hour-long speech by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Since the Election Commission’s restrictions on poll candidates’ screen time was in effect ahead of the Lok Sabha polls that year, some of us surmised the test had been timed to allow Modi a reason to get on TV without explicitly violating the rules.

Yesterday, on March 11, the DRDO conducted a test of its new Agni 5 missile in its MIRV – short for ‘multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles’ – configuration, a powerful defence technology that allows a single suborbital missile to deliver multiple warheads (possibly nuclear) to strike different targets. This time, however, the Commission’s restrictions are not yet in effect nor has Modi tried to deliver a speech ostensibly about the test, although he has been in Pokhran today talking about ‘Bharat Shakti’, which I believe is the name of India’s programme for self-sufficiency in defence.

Surely this is some kind of pre-election muscle-flexing bluster? After the first Agni V test in April 2012, DRDO’s then chief controller of missiles Avinash Chander told Business Standard: “The primary modules of MIRV are in an advanced stage of development. Realisation and integration of them into a weapon is just a question of threat perceptions and the need as it arises.” This ‘need’ seems to be signalling to both agam and puram actors just before the national elections. It holds for the ASAT in March 2019 as well, when there was reason to believe India was ready with ASAT capability during Manmohan Singh’s tenure as prime minister, if not earlier.

In the broader view, China tested both MIRV and ASAT missiles before India, most recently in 2017 (DF-41 missile) and in 2007, respectively, notwithstanding some claims in 2008 that it was modifying its submarine-launched JL-2 MIRV to have ASAT capabilities as well. The post-test bluster by BJP leaders on both occasions was directed at China. What will India test come March 2029, I wonder.