India must develop strategic missiles with intercontinental reach to deliver warheads more than 5,500 km away, the country's senior-most military commander has said, proposing a dramatic increase in the country's strike range.
India plans to cap its strategic missile reach at 5,000 km, establishing a posture of deterrence against China and Pakistan.
India's rising global stature demands developing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), air force chief Air Chief Marshal PV Naik told HT in an exclusive interview.
This is the first time that a serving military chief has argued for broadening India's strike capabilities beyond the immediate neighbourhood.
Naik, who heads the chiefs of staff committee, said, "India should pursue an ICBM programme to acquire ranges of 10,000 km or even more. Breaking out of the regional context is important as the country's sphere of influence grows. We have no territorial designs on any country, but India needs the capability to match its sphere of influence."
The air chief believes that an ICBM is within India's grasp: "There's no point capping the missile programme at 5,000 km. If we have the technical capability, we should build on it."
ICBMs can hit targets up to 15,000 kilometre away.
Ballistic missiles exit earth's atmosphere and re-enter to hit their targets.
Currently, the 3,000-km range Agni-III is the only missile in the Indian arsenal that can strike targets inside China. The maiden test of the 5,000-km range Agni-V intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) is being planned by the end of this year.
Five countries have deployed operational ICBMs with nuclear warheads - the US, Russia, China, France and the UK.
China's 14,000-km range Dong Feng-31 ICBM can target virtually the entire world.
A top Defence Research and Development Organisation scientist said India had the building blocks to develop ICBMs, "but where the warhead should go or what the range should be will have to be a political call."
Development of an ICBM could cost India upwards of Rs 10,000 crore, about 6% of the country's defence budget.
Ashley J Tellis, senior associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said, "As of now, New Delhi has no strategic need for deploying ICBMs. But there's no legal regime that stops India from acquiring intercontinental reach."
Apart from Agni-III, the 750-km short-range Agni-I and the 2,000-km medium-range Agni-II have been inducted into the armed forces.