Top US Scientist ‘Slams’ India’s Agni-V Missile Test; Says New Delhi Could ‘Disarm’ Pakistan With MIRV Tech

In what could be termed as adopting a more flexible deterrence vis-à-vis its two aggressive nuclear-powered countries – China and Pakistan – India on March 11 successfully test-fired a long-range ballistic missile Agni-V with Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV) technology.

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In one swoop, India entered the exclusive group of countries with MIRV technology, which would complicate China’s existing defensive strategies.

India has a stated “no first use” policy when it comes to nuclear weapons. Experts, however, argue that MIRV technology, which increases the survivability of its nuclear-tipped missiles, could also be useful for first strikes.

Developed during the Cold War, the missiles are associated with first-strike capabilities.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the test’s success. MIRVs allow a missile to carry multiple nuclear warheads, each independently targeted to different locations. These warheads can be released at varying speeds and directions, significantly enhancing a missile’s effectiveness.

MIRVs can penetrate ballistic missile defenses by overwhelming the defense system of the adversaries trying to intercept the multiple warheads. A MIRVed missile would be armed with multiple warheads, allowing a single missile to hit several different targets at once or hit a single target with multiple warheads. Such an arrangement would also make MIRVs harder to intercept with anti-missile technology.

MIRV is a complex technology that requires a combination of large missiles, small warheads, accurate guidance, and a mechanism for releasing warheads sequentially during flight.

The technology was first developed by the US, which deployed an MIRVed intercontinental ballistic missile in 1970 and an MIRVed Submarine-launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) in 1971.

The erstwhile USSR developed its own MIRV technology. Presently, the UK and France also have MIRV technology on their SLBMs. China has both ICBM and SLBMs. Pakistan has claimed to have tested the MIRVed missile the Ababeel in 2017.

The use of MIRVed missiles on submarines increases their survivability manifold as it is difficult to find nuclear submarines.

While the President and Prime Minister of India announced the success of the test of indigenously developed Agni-V ‘Divyastra’ (celestial weapon), the range of the missiles and how many warheads it can carry has not been made public.

Director of Nuclear Information Project, Federation of American Scientists Hans Kristensen expressed his disappointment at the test. “US/Russian decision to walk away from START II MIRV ban is looking less wise as more countries try to get MIRV,” Kristensen said.

In an article in 2021, he said that if India succeeds in developing an operational MIRV capability for its ballistic missiles, it will be able “to strike more targets with fewer missiles.”

“If either country believed that India could potentially conduct a decapitating or significant first strike against Pakistan, a serious crisis could potentially go nuclear with little advance warning. Indian missiles with MIRVs would become more important targets for an adversary to destroy before they could be launched to reduce the damage India could inflict. Additionally, India’s MIRVs might prompt Indian decision-makers to try and pre-emptively disarm Pakistan in a crisis,” Kristensen added.

In Kristensen’s view, MIRV capability would “allow India to add to its nuclear stockpile in the future, especially if its plutonium production capability can make use of the un-safeguarded breeder reactors that are currently under construction.”

Open source indicates India has approximately 700 kilograms (plus or minus about 150 kilograms) of weapon-grade plutonium, sufficient for 138 to 213 nuclear warheads (International Panel on Fissile Materials 2022); however, not all the material has been converted into nuclear warheads. It is estimated that India has produced 160 nuclear warheads. It will need more warheads to arm the new missiles that it is currently developing.

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India’s source of weapon-grade plutonium has been the operational Dhruva plutonium production reactor at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre complex near Mumbai and, until 2010, the CIRUS reactor at the same location.

India plans to expand its plutonium production capacity by building at least one more reactor. Fuel has already been loaded at the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR), which will soon achieve criticality. Once commissioned, India will be the second country after Russia to have a commercially operating Fast Breeder Reactor.

Indian scholar on nuclear missiles, missile defense, and artillery Debalina Ghoshal, author of ‘Role of Ballistic and Cruise Missiles in International Security,’ differs with this approach. She contends that the MIRVed missile can help penetrate the enemy’s existing missile defense system, thus strengthening India’s deterrence.

“For India, the MIRV technology will strengthen the no-first-use doctrine. Having capabilities in missile systems that can evade missile defense systems negates the concern of a ‘use them or lose them’ dilemma,” Ghoshal told the EurAsian Times.

She adds: “First use (of nuclear weapons) happens when you have a fear of a ‘use them or lose them’ scenario. But when you know, you can cause punitive retaliation credibly as your delivery systems are credible, your nuclear deterrence is strengthened.”

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said that MIRVed ICBMs undermine stability by greatly increasing one’s first-strike capability against an adversary’s forces, thus potentially inviting a preemptive strike. “Second, a MIRVed missile loaded with a large number of warheads is a tempting target; if the warheads’ owners believe that they are threatened by an enemy first strike, then there is a greater incentive to fire them first before they can be wiped out on the launchpad,” the think tank said in an article examining China’s MIRV capability.

Agni nuclear missile
File Image: Agni Nuclear Missile


The user trial of Agni-V in operational configuration with a range of over 5,000 km and a single 1.5-tonne warhead was conducted in 2021. It was the first user trial of the three-stage intercontinental ballistic missile, which was inducted into India’s Strategic Forces Command (SFC), which looks after India’s nuclear arsenal and vectors.

The 50-tonne Agni-V’s operational deployment enhanced India’s deterrence posture against China, which has missiles like the Dong Feng-41. With a range of 12,000-15,000 kilometers, the DF-41 can hit any Indian city. Agni-V brought the northernmost part of China within India’s striking range, and its canister launch paved the way for a swifter launch.

The first two launches of the Agni-V were done using a rail launcher. Since 2015, all launches have been conducted from a road-mobile launcher.

  • Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
  • The author can be reached at ritu.sharma (at)
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