Nirbhay, India’s first long-range subsonic cruise missile, which was test-fired on October 17, can be a game-changer in India’s strategic calculus, defence analysts and strategic experts feel.
Capable of flying at a tree-top altitude for over 1,000 km, Nirbhay can carry out surgical strikes and thus back up India’s “cold start” doctrine that envisages limited, precise strikes across the border. The introduction of nuclear weapons in the subcontinent has virtually stalled a conventional Indian response to Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism.
“India is confronted with the problem of developing a strategy to counter Pakistan’s ‘first-strike’ and continuing proxy war,” says Dr. Monika Chansoria, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies. She points out that Pakistan cites “India’s conventional military threat” to maintain its own offensive strategic posture and India will have to develop a response to this.
In this context, “cold start” has been put forward as an offensive doctrine by the Indian strategic establishment. Though “officially denied,” its presence is widely acknowledged in strategic circles.
In the event of an Indian offensive, a volley of missiles flying low can effectively take out key command and control centres, blunting the resistance to the advancing armoured columns.
“The successful indigenous development of Nirbhay cruise missile will fill a vital gap in the war-fighting capabilities of our armed forces,” Avinash Chander, Director-General, Defence Research and Development Organisation, said after the test launch on October 17.
Defence analyst Rahul Bedi observes that Nirbhay will be a force multiplier to the in-waiting “cold start” doctrine, but the doctrine itself is a non-starter as of now for lack of critical assets such as artillery, armour and helicopters. The Army has to fast-forward acquisition and induction of these platforms.
In the short-term, experts believe that Nirbhay, along with its shorter-range supersonic sibling BrahMos, will form the backbone of the doctrine.