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India’s Agni V Test: A Bang or a Whimper?

India's Agni V Test: A Bang or a Whimper?


While the ruckus over the failed DPRK missile test cum-satellite launch continues to linger, another non-NPT country recently followed suit with its own test.  But this time, the uproar, well, didn’t happen.  Or at least, that’s what the media wish us to believe.

Here is what the NYT reported after Thursday’s test:

“The United States, which led the criticism of North Korea’s missile launching last Friday, appeared to warily endorse the Indian missile test. ‘We urge all nuclear-capable states to exercise restraint regarding nuclear capabilities,’ said Mark C. Toner, a State Department spokesman. ‘That said, India has a solid nonproliferation record,’ he added, and noted that India had a ‘no first use policy on nuclear weapons.”

Hm.  Wonder what the folks convening for the upcoming NPT RevCon might have to say about that ringing non-endorsement?

And, more importantly, why the difference?

I’m not sure I would agree with AP reporter Ravi Nessman’s characterization that “The vastly different responses [to the DPRK versus the Indian missile tests] show the world has grown to accept India as a responsible and stable nuclear power, while shunning North Korea as a pariah.”

As Eric Margolis pointed out in the HuffPo, while the Agni V tested was not an ICBM, as was erroneously reported (that means you, Time Magazine), “India has become the world’s largest importer of arms. India’s navy is to deploy three aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines with ballistic missiles, a powerful air force, and armed forces of 1.3 million. India has long land and maritime frontiers and needs large, well-equipped military forces.”  India has also been long working to develop an ICBM, reportedly called the “Surya”, that can reach North America, Europe and Australia.  This is a bad thing, right?

Certainly, the Administration does not put the rogue hermit state in the same category as our purported ally to the south east.  But, let’s face facts.  Neither country is in the NPT, much less the MTCR.  So a missile test by either country is not cause for celebration, tacit acceptance or anything less than condemnation, particularly a test of a three-stage missile capable of carrying a 1-ton nuclear warhead 3,100 miles.  Incidentally, besides the missile tests, these two countries have another thing in common:  lots of starving people and, outside of the upper echelons of government, countries both mired in extreme poverty.  Call me crazy, but isn’t that a wee bit more pressing than the “mine is bigger than yours” contest going on in Asia right now?

Don’t get me wrong: I understand that matters of strategic and regional stability and the like are at issue: China looms large for both countries.  In fact, China has reportedly eclipsed Pakistan as India’s number one on its list of scary countries.  But, why would either country devote so much time, energy and resources to defending countries that won’t be terribly valuable if they cease having populations that they are supposedly trying to defend?  Isn’t your populace the reason for defending your country in the first place?  There I go thinking rationally again.

Clearly, India is gunning for a seat on the UN Security Council.  It also wants to bolster its street cred against China.  And the U.S. may or may not be secretly wishing they succeed in taking China down a peg or two.  But, as I’ve written before, our partnership with India is far from in the bag.

Regardless, the U.S. cannot stand on the nonproliferation bully pulpit by cherry-picking applications of the NPT and MTCR.  Just as I have been harping on for months regarding application of the “Gold Standard”, it would be consistent for the U.S. to be as unhappy about the Indian missile test as it has clearly been about the DPRK test.

But, there I go thinking rationally again.




Jodi Lieberman

Jodi Lieberman is a veteran of the arms control, nonproliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear safety trenches, having worked at the Departments of State, Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She has also served in an advisory capacity and as professional staff for several members of Congress in both the House and Senate as well as the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Jodi currently spends her time advocating for science issues and funding as the Senior Government Affairs Specialist at the American Physical Society. The views expressed in her posts are her views based on her professional experience but in way should be construed to represent those of her employer.

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