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India's mutliple-warhead system

This one is on the lines of free-market commercials: Ask for one and get at least four free! The difference is that it is not a shirt or a pair of jeans. It's a single rocket capable of delivering multiple warheads - even non-conventional nuclear systems - at different targets.

The country is on the verge of getting one as the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is validating technologies that will help India deploy multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV) on its missiles.

Currently, the country has missiles that can deliver only one warhead at a time. The defence research establishment has confirmed that it has made significant progress over the past few years in developing an indigenous technology for the single-rocket-multiplewarhead system. In another three-four years, this ultimate war machine will be ready.

The DRDO says the platform for re-entry vehicles would be different from the indigenously developed Agni series of missiles. Since it would be precision device, sources said the guiding system would require a high degree of accuracy to offset even a small circular error of probability or a negligible deviation from the intended target.

Another reason for this overbearing inclination for detail and accuracy is that the destructive potential of smaller warheads on multiple vehicles is low. Hence, these warheads will have to hit the intended targets at the accurate point and optimise the damage. That apart, the scientists will have to miniaturise the size of the warheads and develop a superior guidance system.

The MIRV system is not a new concept. Senior analyst G. Balachandran of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses said the technology was conceived in the early 1960s by the US to enhance the limited capacity of its nuclear submarines carrying ballistic missiles.

It triggered a major escalation of the arms race between the US and Russia (then USSR) in the Cold War period. The Soviets retaliated by developing a similar technology but placing the warheads on larger rockets. This enabled them to put more warheads into one missile.

Eventually, the two countries signed several strategic arms limitation agreements, reducing the number and weight of the warheads.

The Indian MIRV could also kick up a storm on whether it is against the principle of "nuclear restraint" that guides the country's nuclear doctrine.

Senior journalist Praful Bidwai, also an anti- nuclear activist, said the move would "escalate a disastrous arms race with China". In 2002, China successfully tested its first MIRV - to offset the advantage the US enjoyed with its American National Missile Defence System.

Bidwai said China would surely view the Indian development as threat. "It also strikes at the root of the concept of minimum, credible deterrence as multiple warheads on a missile would surely hike the Indian arsenal manifolds." But Balachandran and Air Commodore (retired) Jasjit Singh, who is now the director of the Centre for Air Power Studies, begged to differ.

"Escalation is a condition that the other party denotes on the basis of its perception. If a single missile delivers multiple warheads, it actually reduces the number of launch vehicles," Singh explained.

Prominent strategic analyst K. Subrahmanyam said the multiple warheads would increase the survival chances of the weapons in case of a nuclear attack.

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