Both India and Pakistan have been developing a variety of missiles with varying capabilities and range to assert supremacy in the subcontinent. These missiles can carry both conventional and nuclear warheads, and are primarily aimed to serve as deterrents.
India has achieved its nuclear triad which means that it can fire nuclear-tipped missiles from all three platforms- land, sea and air. The successful deterrence patrol of INS Arihant has ensured that India also has second strike capability. India also has developed a Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system to stop an incoming missile, but can it really stop a missile which is equipped with Multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) technology.
Ballistic missiles equipped with MIRVs release their warheads typically in the post-boost phase, and reduces the effectiveness of a missile defence system, which relies on intercepting individual warheads. It works like this, a BMD system has a radar which first tracks the incoming ballistic missile, then the computer system predicts the trajectory that the missile would follow, and based on this an interceptor is launched to meet the incoming missile mid-air. While an MIRV equipped attacking missile can have multiple warheads, interceptors have a single warhead.
The Pakistani military first announced its test of the MIRV-capable missile on January 24, 2017. With the 2017 test, Ababeel became the first ballistic missile in South Asia which is equipped with MIRV.
However, many experts have questioned whether Pakistan really had developed or tested a MIRV. A report published in nationalinterest.org quoted the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ as saying, “Some experts have expressed scepticism as to whether Pakistan has indeed surmounted the various technological hurdles required for MIRVed missiles. MIRV warheads are typically much smaller than unitary warheads, and thus require greater miniaturization. It is unclear if the country has manufactured a miniaturized nuclear warhead small enough to use in a MIRV.”
A BBC report claims that Pakistan may have developed MIRV-capable missile with the help from China, Islamabad’s ‘all-weather’ friend. A report published in delhidefencereview.com claims that the Ababeel thermal fairing (heat shield) has a larger diameter than its core vehicle. The extra volume thus available is consistent with the requirements for MIRV capabilities. The report, however, says that a number of other factors must to considered before inferring that Pakistan has succeeded in developing MIRV capability.
Coming to the question whether India has developed MIRV technology or not, there is no clear answer as there is no official confirmation. As per the information available in the public domain, India is working on a four-stage intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) – Agni VI – which may have a strike range of 8,000 km to 12,000 km. Agni-VI is expected to be capable of Multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle as well as Maneuverable re-entry vehicle (MaRV).
If Ababeel is equipped with full-fledged MIRV capabilty, then it is a cause of concern for India. It is not known how advanced is Ababeel’s MIRV capability or how many warheads can it actually release. The best way to stop an MIRV equipped missile is to intercept it before the warheads separate from main cone, but is extremely difficult. Once multiple warheads enter the atmosphere, then it is just too difficult to track them separately and launch interceptors to block them.
India has not openly made any announcement about MIRV technology, but many experts believe that India may have carried out the MIRV test with Agni 5.