When India successfully test-fired its nuclear capable Agni-V ICBM on January 18 this year, China made no official statement, but after the December 2016 Agni-V test China had stated it hoped India’s testing of the nuclear-capable Agni-V ICBM complied with UN Security Council rules and safeguarded South Asia’s strategic balance.
Hua Chunying, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson stated, “On whether India can develop this ballistic missile that can carry nuclear weapons, I think relevant resolutions of the UNSC have clear rules. We have always believed that safeguarding strategic balance and stability in South Asia is conducive for the peace and prosperity of countries in the region.”
Hua’s reference to strategic balance in South Asia obviously referred to the military balance between India and Pakistan, but her remarks whether Agni-V can carry nuclear warhead was more for consumption of the Chinese public. However, an article titled ‘China should enhance presence in Indian Ocean to counter India’s missile tests: experts’, published in China’s Global Times on January 18, 2018 stated that India’s latest Agni-V test constitutes a direct threat to China’s security, quoting Song Zhongping, a missile expert.
The same article quoted Hu Zhiyong of Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences saying, “Though the missile (Agni-V) could theoretically reach Beijing, India’s missile technique is far below the standard. Nevertheless, China should be on the alert and further upgrade its anti-missile techniques.”
Hu Zhiyong’s above skepticism whether Agni-V can reach Beijing is laughable because another earlier article in Global Times that quoted Du Wenlong from the Chinese Academy of Military Science, said that the Agni-V had a strike range of about 5,000 miles (8,000 km), rather than 3,000 miles (4,800 km), and that the Indian government had deliberately played down its range to avoid causing concern to other countries.
The above mentioned first article also states that Agni-V ICBM and India’s nuclear program per se is a challenge to global nuclear-nonproliferation efforts. This too is amusing since it is India’s impeccable record in non-proliferation that has enabled its entry into the global non-proliferation regimes of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Wassenaar Arrangement (WA) and Australia Group (AG), while China has been denied entry into all three.
The January 18, 2018 article in Global Times recommends China should enhance its maritime presence in the Indian Ocean to counter the missile tests by India. The article also says that “India is trying to build a military system with Australia, Japan and the US in order to keep a closer watch on China, which poses a direct threat to China”. It does not elucidate how ‘keeping a close watch’ translates into a ‘direct threat’. But it certainly indicates that Agni-V has raised serious concerns in China.
China appears to be coming around to the view that India, despite having a much smaller economy and military, is emerging as a strategic competitor of sorts by aligning itself with Japan, the United States and Australia. These concerns would have gone up further with the Indian announcement that India will induct the Agni-V into its military in 2018 itself, compared to China’s view that it would take few years. Besides, there is also news about the Agni-VI under development.
But now India is planning to test a BrahMos missile of more than 800 km range by end 2018. Presently the 3-ton BrahMos has extended its range from 290 km to 400 km, which became possible after India’s entry into the MTCR in June 2016. The DRDO had announced last year that the existing version of the BrahMos was being tweaked to enhance its range to 800 km.
With India having successfully launched the BrahMos from a Sukhoi-30 fighter jet in November 2017, India can launch BrahMos variants from land, air, sea and underwater. The air launch BrahMos is slated to become operational by end 2018. The Sukhoi-30 has a range of 3,600 km and arming it with the 800 km or more BrahMos increases the strategic targeting reach tremendously, especially with mid-air refueling. Two Sukhoi-30 aircraft have been modified for equipping them with the air launch version of the BrahMos, which weighs 2.5 tons – 500 kg lighter than the land and naval versions. Each Sukoi-30 can carry one BrahMos missile in a transport launch canister. Some 50 x Su-30 MKI aircraft are to undergo similar upgrades by the early 2020s.
At the same time the MoD and DRDO need to also focus on how the Sukhoi-30s carrying the air-launched BrahMos can effectively engage targets in the Indian Ocean on long ranges since the Indian Ocean has proliferation of vessels and submarines of multiple nations at all times, which makes designation of targets difficult. India must also note that China has deployed its H-6G electronic warfare aircraft in Western Pacific capable of high electronic jamming. Fitted with ECM pods, it can engage in combat missions using electronic jamming, suppression, and anti-radiation measures.
The Xian H6 bomber aircraft are copy of the Soviet Tu-16 twin-engine jet bomber built under license in China. The H-6G electronic version is a redesigned version carrying air-launched cruise missiles. It natural that after Western Pacific, China will be deploy the H-6G electronic aircraft in select bases in the Indian Ocean Region.
Interestingly, an article titled ‘China Wants missile Defenses To Stop India (And Kill Satellites) by Doug Tsuruoka published in ‘The National Interest’ on January 19 this year, highlights that though China is within range of India’s Agni-V, North Korea’s nuclear-capable missile and Japan is mulling whether to develop similar capabilities, there has been little focus in developing a missile defence system against these threats.
But it is likely that China is developing a missile defene system based on selective use of anti-missile interceptors to defend critical “point targets” like military facilities or key infrastructure like the Three Gorges Dam from possible attack by India or others. The article notes that India began deploying its canister-launched Agni-V ICBM in 2016 in a move that put all major Chinese cities within range of Indian nukes for the first time. Another longer-range, bigger-payload Agni-VI ICBM capable of carrying multiple warheads is believed to be under development, though Indian officials are tight-lipped and it isn’t clear when the new missile will be tested and deployed.
Another factor nudging China to deploy some type of missile shield is a fear that India may develop its own. China was internationally criticized in 2007 when it conducted a kinetic-energy (inert projectile) ASAT test on a target satellite that scattered hazardous debris in space. The test also negated China’s credibility of her earlier stance against the weaponization of space.
The missile defence shield no doubt is costly but China can be expected to develop a missile defence shield rapidly. China reportedly already has a base in northwest China with large X-band phased array radar which is usually part of a ballistic missile defense system. According to the report, the radar located on Qinghai plateau would cover possible launch from the Indian subcontinent and pass it on to a surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. This is supposed to be equivalent of the US Patriots or Russian S300s systems.
However, on April 13, 2015, the chief executive of the Russian state-run arms firm Rosboronexport had confirmed that China had secured a contract with his company for the purchase of the S-400 air defence systems (upgraded version of the S-300), while India is presently still in the process of negotiating similar S-400 deal with Russia. China has reportedly contracted six S-400 systems from Russia although there is no news of any deliveries till now. The S-400 is capable of firing three types of missiles, creating a layered defence, and can simultaneously engage 36 targets.
The system is able to shoot down aircraft (manned and unmanned) and missiles (ballistic and cruise) within a range of 400 km. It is effective against stand-off systems including flying command posts and AWACS. Of the four missiles that the S-400 has, the long range 9M96e2 missile flies at Mach 15 (around 5,000m per second), can engage targets as low as 5m and can maneuver pulling up to 20 Gs. It is designed to knock out penetrating aircraft and missiles including neutralizing cruise missiles.
Although China’s acquisition of the S-400 system has been viewed as a game changer in the region, several factors may constrain its effectiveness. Though the 40N6 missile has a range of 400 km, it is not known if such a missile is available for export. Even if China does acquire the missile, New Delhi would be at the limit of its range if the system is moved right on the LAC up the Himalayas. Same would be the case for Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands for China) if the S-400 is stationed along the coast.
Also, deploying the system along the coast at sea level would prevent it from locating low-level aircraft at long range due to the earth’s curvature. The shorter-range 48N6 would be even less useful against maneuvering targets at long range. Such issues coupled with identifying friend and foe at long distances would suggest the use of China’s S-400 primarily for defensive purposes.
How credible it would be against Agni-V, Agni-VI, supersonic missiles and multiple missile attacks in backdrop of what would be the coverage of China’s ballistic missile defence shield will remain a question mark. China can be expected to lace capabilities with propaganda – similar to its current proclamation that the Three Gorges Dam is nuclear-attack proof. India policy makers need to take into consideration abovementioned issues, including China’s ASAT capabilities and its anti-missile shield.