India launched its Shaurya hypersonic weapon in October 2021. Image: Twitter

With little fanfare, India successfully tested its Shaurya hypersonic weapon with a strike range of 1,000 kilometers back in October. But analysts are now starting to wonder whether the weapon’s development could signal a move away from New Delhi’s stated “no first use” (NFU) nuclear policy.

The missile was launched from Abdul Kalam Island, maneuvered during its terminal phase and struck its designated impact point in the Bay of Bengal. Because India keeps the Shaurya program under a tight shroud of secrecy, scant technical details are publicly available.

The weapon is allegedly an improved land-based version of the Sagarika submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), which was first developed in the 1990s.

In September 2020, India successfully tested its Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV), which flew at Mach-6 speed while being tracked by a ship in the Bay of Bengal. That success was followed by a failed test in 2019, where the HSTDV’s Agni-I rocket booster became uncontrollable and it did not reach the desired altitude.

Significantly, India has a joint project with Russia to develop the Brahmos II hypersonic weapon, which shares design elements with Russia’s 3M22 Tsirkon missile. Brahmos II is under development by Brahmos Aerospace, established in 1998 through an intergovernmental agreement between India’s Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Russia’s NPO Mashinostroyenia.

Hypersonic weapons are designed to fly at Mach-5 to evade enemy missile defenses. They are useful in the early stages of battle to eliminate high-value targets and smooth the way for follow-up operations by conventional forces.

Such hypersonic targets could include early warning radars, airbases, missile batteries and command and control (C2) facilities, which are often linked to a nuclear-armed state’s nuclear warning systems.

The Shaurya hypersonic weapon, pictured above, could signal a change to India’s nuclear policy. Photo: Wikimedia

As such, India’s hypersonic weapons program may signal that the country is changing its NFU nuclear policy to a counterforce policy, which sets out exceptions to its present stance. As India is engaged in longstanding conflicts with nuclear-armed Pakistan and China, India has strategic cause to review its nuclear policy.

With Pakistan’s refusal to adopt a NFU nuclear policy of its own, India’s hypersonic weapons could signal to Pakistan that it could conduct counterforce strikes to disarm Pakistan of its strategic nuclear arsenal, thereby softening the ground for India to overwhelm Pakistan with its superior conventional forces.

Even if Pakistan were to limit the use of its nuclear arsenal to short-range tactical systems, there is a very likely possibility of nuclear escalation from a tactical to strategic level in a conflict scenario.

India’s hypersonic weapons program also adds teeth to the country’s deterrent posture vis-a-vis China. China has recently fielded the DF-19 road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and has substantially enlarged its silo-based missile arsenal.

China has also fielded the  DF-17 hypersonic missile since 2019 and tested a new type of hypersonic weapon in July 2021. These developments may have prompted India to accelerate the development of its hypersonic weapons program to maintain its deterrent posture against China.

To be sure, India may remain committed to its NFU policy, despite developing hypersonic weapons. India’s small nuclear arsenal means that carrying out a nuclear attack against Pakistan would leave it vulnerable to a Chinese nuclear strike.

If India opted to use nuclear weapons against Pakistan, the move could remove China’s reluctance not to use nuclear weapons against India in the Himalayas, where the two sides are pitted in a standoff.

In the 1960s, India considered developing its own tactical nuclear weapons to offset China’s conventional military superiority but dropped the idea on the basis that tactical nuclear exchanges would inevitably lead to strategic-level escalation.

A DF-17 missile is unveiled during the military parade in Tiananmen Square. Photo AFP / Greg Baker

That said, India’s hypersonic weapons program enhances the strategic ambiguity element in its nuclear policy. The weapons create a grey area between official policy statements and actual capability development, with the lack of officially declared red lines restraining an adversary from conducting actions that could spark a nuclear response.

 While India’s hypersonic weapons program gives it counterforce capabilities against Pakistan and China, India’s longstanding NFU policy, operational and capability constraints and the threat of nuclear escalation presents strong incentives against openly changing its NFU stance.

In that sense, India’s hypersonic weapons fulfill their purpose, which is to deter India’s adversaries from using nuclear weapons in the first place.