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India Developing MIRVs

Issue: 10-2009By Air Marshal (Retd) V.K. BhatiaIllustration(s): By 370.jpg

India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is reportedly validating technologies that will help India deploy multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRV) warheads on its missiles. The DRDO has confirmed it has made significant progress over the past few years in developing an indigenous technology for the single-rocket-multiple-warhead system, and DRDO expects this ultimate war machine will be ready in another three to four years. Scientists of the organisation claim the guidance system will have a high degree of accuracy to offset even a small circular error of probability or a negligible deviation from the intended target.

If true, India would indeed join the elite club of the first five ‘Nuclear Haves’ countries—the US, Russia, China, UK and France—which also possess MIRV warheads in their respective nuclear arsenals. It would also greatly enhance the country’s nuclear deterrence capability. But what exactly is an MIRV? The multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicle is a type of payload fitted on long-range guided missiles. An MIRV payload allows a single missile to carry several nuclear warheads and attack a number of targets in quick succession in the enemy territory. The concept was initially 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 arms race between the US and Russia (then USSR), the two major adversaries of 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/heavier warheads into one missile with much higher individual and collective weapon yields. Subsequently, the remaining ‘nuclear weapon countries’ also followed suit by developing indigenous capabilities of their own.

Today, all Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) and some Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) of the US are fitted with MIRV warheads. Russia uses MIRVs on its ICBMs and SLBMs as well, whereas France and UK operate only SLBMs with MIRV warheads. China has developed MIRV technology for use on its ICBMs. It may also be extending this capability to its SLBMs.

An MIRV payload separates from an ICBM/SLBM as the missile reaches the top, or apex, of the ballistic arc. The individual warheads can then be directed to a number of different targets as the warheads fall toward earth. The use of MIRV makes it much more difficult to defend against a ballistic missile attack. Even if some warheads malfunction or are intercepted by anti-ballistic missile defences, the increased number of warheads provided by the MIRV payload greatly increases the chances of destroying the intended targets. In the same vein, several MIRVs may be aimed at a single, heavily defended target, in an attempt to ensure its destruction.