July 21, 2024
India's partnerships throughout the last six decades have swung from East to West to suit the developmental needs of the nation's nuclear program. It has capitalized on regional conflicts, its strategic location and a bipolar world to gain support, training and funding for its indigenous missile programs. WAR ROOM welcomes back Andrew Narloch as he takes a look at India's path to nuclear powerhouse and a leader in manufacturing space-based technologies. He explains how the U.S. must maintain a close partnership while voicing opposition to India's missile programs.

Like a coquettish date, India has been able to manipulate rival world powers into granting technological aid for the promise of long-term allegiance.


For the past sixty years, India has sought to become a technological peer of major Eastern and Western powers alike. It has often used geopolitical rivalries to escalate research and secure funding for co-development projects. India’s strategic location, large population, and strong non-aligned policies made it the ideal state to tease out critical information and supplies to aid in its quest for self-reliant missile production. Like a coquettish date, India has been able to manipulate rival world powers into granting technological aid for the promise of long-term allegiance. This strategy has culminated in India’s ability to indigenously produce Mid-Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBMs) and Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). These Indian made missiles (Prithvi I and Agni I), which are still in use today, have the capacity to carry both advanced conventional and nuclear warheads. The program completes India’s triad of missile, ground, and air-based nuclear capabilities. In order to properly understand Indian missile defense deployment, it is essential to understand its ballistic missile development. While the accuracy of these missiles may not rival that of the United States or Russia’s missiles, the establishment of an Indian missile program has positioned India as a regional power and represents a grave concern to many of its neighbors, most notably Pakistan and China.

Path to Acquiring Technology: Solid Fuel

In the early 1960s, the Soviet Union used the promise of technology sharing in missile development to sway many non-aligned countries (p14) to come under its sphere of influence. Persuaded by this promise, several states developed Scud-like ballistic missile platforms to use for both “scientific research” and defense. India became the only state to use this technology to independently create a domestically produced ballistic missile with satellite launch capabilities. As a result of Soviet military aid and, later, aid from Western powers, India has become a leader in manufacturing space-based technologies.

Throughout the 1960s, many states including the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and France were vying for influence over India. All of these states eventually entered into partnerships to help foster India’s rocketry capabilities. For example, in 1963, the United States built the International Indian Testing Facility in 1963 on the Thumba Range. The United States went on to educate the first generation of Indian aerospace scientists, including A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who later became a pioneer of Indian space development and President of India. Seeking to gain further influence, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) unveiled specifications for the Scout sounding rocket to Indian scientists. However, the United States limited further support fearing the unknown consequences of Indian weapons proliferation. The United States limited its aerospace interactions with India until the 1980s.

Wishing to advance their space program, India turned to the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s to develop and produce a sounding rocket, modeled after the U.S. Scout. Sounding rockets are essentially instrument-carrying rockets designed to take measurements and perform scientific experiments during sub-orbital flight.

India’s space research and development facilities have historically provided a channel through which foreign powers have overtly trained Indian engineers and scientists. India has received international approval for missile technology transfer under the provision of conducting “necessary” space research. Thus, the growth of India’s space industry (p. 40-48) occurred with minimal scrutiny from other global powers. Ultimately, the program initiated many large-scale changes including an open technological dialogue between India and the Kremlin which included the education of personnel, the development of small-scale production capabilities and the transfer of proper test procedures for advanced equipment. These experiments with sounding rockets culminated in the development of a joint Soviet-Indian Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) in 1979. The SLV program was critical for the development, testing, and production of capable ballistic missiles by India in later years.

 To foster these co-optive measures with more advanced countries, India formed the National Committee for Space Research in 1962. Equipped with designs from the Soviet Union for basic sounding rockets, the Indian space industry learned proper space age manufacturing techniques which they further improvised to suit a ballistic missile platform. As India’s capabilities progressed, it required additional scientific and bureaucratic cover to justify the development of a more advanced launch program. To bolster its case that it remained within the bounds of international law, India created the Indian Space Research Organization in 1969 which coordinated government resources in the production of its sounding rockets. India also bolstered its military capacities to accommodate newly developed space technologies. The cabinet-level Department of Space was created along with the Indian Defense Research and Development Organization in 1958 to oversee defense industrial development and incorporate advancements made in the space sector. (p40-48) India made no effort to conceal its intentions in this endeavor. The technical director of the Indian Prithvi (p25) projects was the former head of the effort to develop the SLV-3 rocket, which put India’s first satellite into space.

In 1971 the Soviet Union and India signed an agreement for joint development of a rocket which would successfully launch India’s first satellite, Aryabhata, in 1975. While India manufactured most of the subsystems for this venture, the Soviets provided many critical elements. It was not until 1979, with the launch of the Bhaskara, that India demonstrated its potential to be an independent competitor. However, India’s quest for true technological independence was stifled by the Russians. The critical components needed to create independent guidance and engine parts were still closely guarded by Soviet engineers at this point. In addition, both of India’s satellite launches still relied on Soviet boosters to achieve orbit. Indian scientists were, however, able to gain the necessary expertise in systems manufacturing and satellite tracking to build their own solid stage rocket late in 1979.

From 1979 to 1990, the SLV-3 program engaged 45 Indian industries and employed over 300 Indian scientists. Although its performance was suboptimal and it had a limited payload capacity, the SLV-3 provided critical lessons for future missile development. Within four years of the program’s start, India produced a four-stage SLV-3. This rocket successfully launched the Rohini satellite into near-Earth orbit making India the seventh nation to have this capability. However, this system only had the capacity to carry a 77 lb. payload. It wasn’t until 1991 when Indian officials launched the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) which had four stages and six SLV-3 rocket boosters and carried a 2,200 lb. payload. This payload capacity was critical to delivering conventional weapons as opposed to just a nuclear warhead. By this point India was adept in using the stacking method and using multiple solid fuel engines from the previously mastered SLV-3 to power both ballistic missiles and space ventures.

The advancement of the PSLV was later overshadowed by the Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle, which was designed to carry a 5,500 lb. payload into geostationary orbit. This new platform was completed and launched in the early 2000s. It had unique features such as the use of cryogenic engines which combine liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. According to A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, India focused on perfecting cryogenic engine capabilities believing them to be the most efficient use for thrust and space. This new lift capability marked a significant turning point for India and allowed for the development of the Agni missile.

 The Agni is a two-stage system with a payload of 1,000 lb. and a range of 1,500 miles. The first stage is based off the SLV-3 and uses stacked solid fuel. The second stage uses liquid fuel based off of the Prithvi system, but it has a reentry payload structure. It is also guided by two onboard microprocessors that India claims to have manufactured. However, the early shielding used for reentry and microprocessors were both likely of German origin. In addition, other essential technology required for the Prithvi, including testing radar and gyroscopes, were likely imported from the United States, France, and Germany under the disguise of fighter jet procurement. However, India claims that all of the components are indigenously produced. The Agni I, tested in 2002, currently has the documented capacity for a 2,200 lb. with a range of 900 km. It wasn’t until the development of the Agni II in 2012 that had an extended range of 3,000 km that India would truly become a credible threat to coastal China. Both of these missile developments were directly influenced by the solid stage developments of the PSLV and SLV programs.

After the looming threat of Pakistan became apparent, Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India from 1966 to 1977 and again from 1980 to 1984, officially recognized ballistic missiles as a part of the Indian defense strategy in 1983.

Path to Acquiring Technology: Liquid Propellent

The Prithvi missile was essentially the “Frankenstein’s monster” of short-range ballistic missiles—India utilized many components supplied from around the world to create a credible liquid-propelled rocket. The missile featured a Russian surface-to-air missile body, a French engine, and a German brain. The Russian SA-2 was acquired and re-engineered by India in the 1970s. France assisted India in co-production of the Centaure sounding rockets in the late 1960s and in developing an indigenous version of the French Viking liquid-fuel cryogenic engine rocket. The development of this weapons system was fairly linear, although direct progress on the cooperation was done in secret. In the 1970s, Germany also aided in the provision of technology and research testing, likely selling New Delhi critical microprocessors and manufacturing capabilities. Additionally, in the 1970s, France began selling dual-use technology for these new engines and shielding which was eventually used to make the Prithvi rocket.

After the looming threat of Pakistan became apparent, Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India from 1966 to 1977 and again from 1980 to 1984, officially recognized ballistic missiles as a part of the Indian defense strategy in 1983. Since its inception, the Indian defense rocketry program has received critical support from West Germany and France which, unlike the Soviet Union, did not adhere to precautionary technology transfers, especially with the more maneuverable liquid propellant systems. India has favored cryogenic propellants over solid or liquid fuels due to their increased power and smaller size. Thus, India has focused on the refinement of this capability. The Prithvi I came online in 1991 but was not fully equipped with nuclear capabilities until the Prithvi II was integrated into the Indian military in 2004. Both are short range missiles with a payload of roughly 2,200 lb. and 1,100 lb. respectively and have a 250 meter accuracy. The production of the Prithvi missile demonstrated India’s propensity for acquiring, integrating, and improving upon established foreign technology.

Looking Forward

Currently, there are four generations of the Agni and 3 generations of the Prithvi systems in use. Since the Prithvi’s development in 1983, India has proven its ability to achieve self-sufficiency in the development and production of a wide range of ballistic missile variants. Possessing sophisticated mid-range and inter-continental ballistic missile technology is critical to India’s deterrence strategies. It is worth noting that India continues to ambitiously enhance its missile force. In 2018, India tested at least seven ballistic and cruise missiles. Currently it is estimated that India has produced enough high-grade uranium for approximately 130-140 nuclear weapons in its arsenal. It is believed that India’s Strategic Forces Command currently controls 68 of these land-based weapons. Recently, India re-tested the Prithvi-II tactical surface-to-surface short-range ballistic missile carrying a 1,500 lb. warhead with a 350 km accuracy. It seems as though India has acquired enough missile expertise to become not only a definitive regional hegemony but a prominent global power as well.

While the United States is officially opposed to the advancement of India’s missile technology, the United States is cautious of placing any sanctions on the non-aligned nation. To the United States’ benefit, India acts as a regional counterweight to Chinese and Russian influence in the area. One limiting factor of Indian missile development, independent of U.S. or Russian guidance, is the tremendous financial cost that it incurs. It is unlikely that India’s economy can sustain the research necessary to drastically innovate its current missile technology. Thus, a close partnership with the United States, the most advanced space-faring nation, would be India’s most viable and economical option for keeping its missile arsenal state-of-the-art.

Andrew is a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, Security Studies Master’s Program. He is an aspiring policy analyst focusing on security issues and U.S. policy. Andrew previously interned at the Department of State Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, Weapons Removal and Abatement. He has published several articles on Sub-State Actors in the MENA region. His Twitter handle and Linkedin are @AndrewNarloch and Andrew Narloch respectively. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Description: An Indian Agni-II intermediate range ballistic missile on a road-mobile launcher, displayed at the Republic Day Parade on New Delhi’s Rajpath, January 26, 2004.

Photo Credit: This photograph was produced by Agência Brasil, a public Brazilian news agency and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil license

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