MIRV Missile Overview

The successful test launch of India’s ‘Agni Prime’, a new-generation nuclear-capable ballistic missile, marks a significant advancement in India’s strategic capabilities. This two-stage, canisterized missile is notable for its enhanced portability and deployment efficiency, attributed to its lightweight design—being at least 50% lighter than the Agni 3 missile. The integration of advanced guidance and propulsion systems further distinguishes the ‘Agni Prime’, optimizing its accuracy and reliability over a range of 1,000 to 2,000 km. Such technical specifications not only should be seen as India’s commitment to bolstering its defensive posture but also have profound implications for regional stability, particularly concerning Pakistan. 

Given the missile’s range, it is evident that the ‘Agni Prime’ could cover significant parts of Pakistan, thereby altering the strategic balance in the region. This development should be perceived in Islamabad as a shift in the military equilibrium, potentially necessitating a reassessment of Pakistan’s own strategic deterrence capabilities. The mobility and readiness conferred by the ‘Agni Prime’, due to its canisterized nature and cold launch mechanism, could shorten the response times in a crisis situation, thereby raising concerns in Pakistan about its ability to effectively deter or respond to an Indian strike.

The induction of such a missile into India’s arsenal not only serves as a force multiplier for its military but also sends a strong signal regarding its technological prowess and strategic intentions. For Pakistan, this may translate into an imperative to advance its own missile development program, possibly leading to an arms race that could heighten tensions and reduce the threshold for conflict in the region. Consequently, the ‘Agni Prime’s’ deployment could necessitate renewed efforts towards bilateral dialogue and confidence-building measures to mitigate the risks of escalation and ensure strategic stability in South Asia.

After testing the Agni V MIRV missile, the integration of MIRV technology in other Agni series, of importance to Pakistan especially  in the ‘Agni Prime’ missile system, represents challenges for strategic stability in our region. MIRV technology allows a single ballistic missile to carry multiple nuclear warheads, each of which can be directed towards a different target. This advancement significantly multiplies the offensive capability of a single launch, enabling it to overcome anti-missile defense systems more effectively by saturating them with multiple warheads. And since Pakistan does not have its own BMD system, it is especially problematic. 

Implications for Pakistan

The adoption of MIRV technology by India could compel Pakistan to reconsider its strategic stability and deterrence posture. Given that each ‘Agni Prime’ missile could potentially deliver multiple warheads across different targets within Pakistan, the strategic calculus shifts, possibly necessitating an escalation in Pakistan’s own missile defense and offensive capabilities.

Pakistan already possesses MIRV technology and tested it much before India did. Pakistan’s Ababeel is a surface-to-surface ballistic missile equipped with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) technology, making it a significant advancement in the country’s strategic capabilities. Introduced by Pakistan in January 2017, the Ababeel has a reported range of approximately 2,200 kilometers, enabling it to reach targets across the South Asian region. The missile’s MIRV capability allows it to deploy multiple nuclear warheads on separate targets within a wide radius, potentially overcoming ballistic missile defense systems by saturating them with multiple inbound threats. This technological milestone underscores Pakistan’s efforts to enhance its nuclear deterrence and maintain strategic stability in its region, particularly with respect to its longstanding rivalry with India. The development of the Ababeel missile is a reflection of the country’s strategic foresight on advancing its missile technology to ensure its security and strategic interests.

There are severe implications of India’s Agni-V and Agni-P MIRV variants for crisis management in South Asia. The ability to target multiple sites simultaneously escalates the risk of miscalculation or misinterpretation in times of crisis. With MIRV-equipped missiles, the stakes in any potential conflict are higher, as these weapons could be perceived as first-strike assets designed to cripple an opponent’s retaliatory capability. This could lead to a lower threshold for nuclear use in a crisis, as each side might fear losing its nuclear forces in a preemptive strike.

The expansion of MIRV capabilities by India (against China and Pakistan) should attract international scrutiny and concern, particularly from nations advocating for non-proliferation and global disarmament. The introduction of MIRV technology into the subcontinent underscores the urgent need for India and Pakistan to engage in comprehensive security and diplomatic dialogues. These discussions could focus on arms control measures, confidence-building initiatives, and transparency protocols to mitigate the risks associated with this new level of strategic capability. But will there be an appetite with the traditional crisis managers when strategic alliances are being formed with India which trump any goals for non-proliferation or capping the ensuing arms race?

Pick your side. There are arguments on both sides of the MIRV divide. From one perspective, the deployment of MIRV-capable systems could lead to an arms race, with each country seeking to outpace the other’s technological advances to maintain a credible deterrent. Such competition may increase the risk of miscalculation or misinterpretation of military maneuvers as offensive postures, potentially lowering the threshold for nuclear conflict.

Moreover, MIRV technology complicates the already delicate balance of deterrence. The ability to target multiple cities or strategic sites with a single missile might incentivize a first-strike policy in crisis situations, under the belief that a decisive blow could significantly degrade the opponent’s retaliatory capability. This could erode the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD), which has traditionally acted as a deterrent against the use of nuclear weapons.

However, for deterrence optimists, advancements in missile technology, including MIRVs, could lead to a more stable deterrence relationship by ensuring that neither side could hope to escape unscathed in a nuclear exchange, thus reinforcing the logic of MAD. The increased survivability of a state’s nuclear forces, afforded by advancements such as mobile launchers and MIRVs, could contribute to strategic stability by ensuring second-strike capability.

In the context of India and Pakistan, the introduction of MIRV technology necessitates careful management and communication to avoid escalatory spirals. Confidence-building measures, transparency initiatives, and diplomatic engagement become even more critical to prevent misunderstandings and manage the inherent risks of this more complex and potentially destabilizing strategic environment.


Prof. Dr. Rabia Akhtar is Director, Center for Security, Strategy and Policy Research (CSSPR), University of Lahore, Pakistan