I will use India as an example.

India seems to have only two real enemies: China and Pakistan.

The longest range missiles India would need to launch an attack on China should be roughly around 5000 km (4788.76 km, to be specific).

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However, India is developing a missile named Agni-III with a maximum range of 8000 km.

I have two questions:

  1. How does Indian justify its missile program having a range of 8000km to the international community?
  2. According to the current rules-based international order, could Pakistan field a missile of a range of 8000 km and point toward the Indian program as a justification?

N.B. I am not talking about China or Russia, as they have their self-described enemies, the West, to justify their missile programs.

  • 25
    About that close for aim to promote/discredit... by the standards of Pakistan-vs-India questions, this is about as neutrally-worded as they get. It's just a question about weaponry ranges, I don't really see who's supposed to get discredited from it. Jan 21, 2021 at 4:41
  • 17
    It's a pretty minor point, but the way you measured the distance is by placing the missiles right at India's border, where they would be most vulnerable to attack from China. From a cursory glance at the map it would seem more sensible to place missiles against China somewhere in the west or south of India, but still somewhere inland some distance away from any border.
    – Nobody
    Jan 21, 2021 at 11:10
  • 2
    According to the logic embedded in your question, the US would have put all their missiles in Nome, Alaska (but they didn't).
    – RonJohn
    Jan 21, 2021 at 19:19
  • 5
    You said, "The longest range missiles India would need to launch an attack on China should be roughly around 5000 km", but you're measuring from India's border with China. Part of the benefit of ICBMs is keeping your really expensive launch sites inland away from the border with the enemy.
    – Jamin Grey
    Jan 21, 2021 at 22:36
  • 6
    Justify to whom? Their own citizens, other countries, the UN?
    – chepner
    Jan 22, 2021 at 13:49

6 Answers 6

  • Longer range missiles could conceivably be sea-launched, as an SLBM, from a standoff position. Having a more capable platform would give that option.

    • (India does have SLBMs but not necessarily of same family)

    • as others have pointed out, a longer range allows India to site its missiles in safer areas, rather than on their borders.

  • Current geo-politics can change. Today's friend may be tomorrow's rival. That's especially true of countries that have world, rather just regional, ambitions.

  • Nor is it wise to forego plausible deniability by having single-target weapons. "India is a peaceful nation ready to defend itself against all enemies if attacked and does not wish war with anyone unprovoked" sounds a lot better than "You're next, China", which sounds like something Kim Jong Un in North Korea would say.

  • If indeed India and China went to a hot war, potentially with a network of alliances, India could under certain conditions prefer to fire a warning shot at remote Chinese military forces rather than escalating to the jugular by a strike on Chinese territory.

  • The way ICBMs work, by suborbital flight, do not necessarily mean that achieving 8000km range is much harder than 5000km.

  • Last but not least, the "threat perception" and "political dislike" of ICBMs is unclear with regards to distance. Some see really short range missiles as more dangerous as they perceive them as weapons more likely to be used earlier in a conflict, as part of a "limited nuclear war". This was partially the reason for Pershing deployment resistance in 1980s Europe (another, bigger, part is that they made Europe more of a target). On the other hand, 40000km range ICBMs, as mentioned in comments, would, in my opinion, generate significant international pushback as they could fairly easily be kept in orbit. 3000-15000 km is just "standard ICBM" and probably matters little either way, once the "main opponent countries" consider themselves within range. (You can bet that the US did very much care when Seattle came within North Korea's range and will so again if Washington follows).

  • 22
    Also, India might want to develop a capability to launch southwards, go into fractional orbit, and re-enter China/Pakistan from the north, thus avoiding anti-missile defenses.
    – jamesqf
    Jan 20, 2021 at 20:42
  • 1
    Interesting point. Though, re-entering China from the north is pointless - just because it would be in russian SAMs zone of control. Unlike re-entering Pakistan from the north - which can worth it. Jan 21, 2021 at 6:50
  • 4
    @user2501323 I don't think SAMs in Russia would be capable of defending against a ballistic ICBM with a target in China. These things have an apogee of +1,000km... Jan 21, 2021 at 13:51
  • 2
    +1 for the second point in particular. Aircraft and missiles often take a decade or more of R&D to get right and remain in service for many decades. The geopolitical landscape can change quite dramatically in that time.
    – reirab
    Jan 21, 2021 at 14:06
  • 3
    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica The fuel/range requirements are completely different for a fractional orbit missile so the distances can't really be compared. It still takes a lot of fuel, but it's not linear with the range. The outer space treaty in your linked article was created at least a decade before Russia dismantled their fractional orbit missile program so it probably does not ban them. Those missiles don't stay in orbit, they are only equipped to circle the Earth once and then deorbit.
    – Nobody
    Jan 22, 2021 at 13:05

Part of the question was about the rules-based international order, which is more of a political concept than a strict legal one. Many countries disagree what exactly it means. There is no rulebook which says, "if you didn't break any of these enumerated rules lately, you will be a trusted member of the international order." Pakistan has had military dictatorships, deals with North Korea, and unstable tribal areas. For some decisionmakers, religion may also play a role, but I believe it is less relevant than those three. India is perceived as more democratic and stable, which might underestimate their nationalists.

As to rules banning (or trying to ban) missile development:

  • The UNSC has passed resolutions banning specific countries from developing certain weapons, e.g. North Korea. I'm uneasy with the legitimacy of those -- the UN is no world government.
  • Various treaties ban the development of nuclear weapons, which is sometimes interpreted to include delivery systems. But look at the list of the non-member states.
  • Various countries have agreed on the Missile Technology Control Regime. That's simply the voluntary agreement of certain countries not to sell missile technology to some others. This doesn't stop non-members from buying, if they can find a seller.
  • Similar for the International Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation.

My interpretation is that "the West" -- a fuzzy concept -- strongly wishes to discourage Pakistan from developing strategic ballistic missiles because that is seen as destabilizing. There is no international law that "the West" must sell technology to Pakistan, or trade with people who do sell technology to Pakistan. There is a fundamental difference between a blockade (an act of war) and an embargo or multilateral sanctions (just trade policy, unless they go against trade and investor protection treaties a country might have signed).

"The West" also wishes to discourage India from developing strategic ballistic missiles, but that is seen as much less urgent because Indian missiles are seen as less destabilizing. Seen from the Pakistani side of a bitter conflict, that appears unfair. Seen from a western capital, less so.

  • 5
    I realise this has been accepted by the OP. But I would point out that it doesn't answer either of the OP's two questions. Namely, how does India justify it (you've merely described the West's point of view), and could Pakistan develop a 8000km missile within the rules (you've given a broad overview of the topic but not given a yes/no answer). This is probably why at the moment the accepted answer is substantially less upvoted than the next alternative.
    – JBentley
    Jan 21, 2021 at 12:13
  • 4
    @JBentley, I think timing also plays a role in the votes. Regarding answering the second question, in a nutshell: Q: Can Pakistan point to the Indian program under the rules-based international order to justify their own? A: No, because the rules-based international order doesn't work that way. Many Pakistanis feel discriminated against in international affairs because of their religion. I believe they are discriminated against, because of military dictatorships, unstable tribal areas, and ties to the DPRK. Western countries are allowed to discriminate on that basis.
    – o.m.
    Jan 21, 2021 at 16:08
  • 1
    @JBentley, edited, even if that makes my answer a bit repetitive.
    – o.m.
    Jan 21, 2021 at 18:00

Short Answer - Self Defence.

Long Answer - No matter how peaceful and well meaning a country may be, there will always be existential risks from unfriendly nations. The risks are reduced with alliances like NATO, but still exist at larger subcontinental level. This can only be eliminated with a world government which will take long time.

The reach of missile is less significant, the key is to have relatively better military technology. The ballistic missiles of today will be the bow and arrow of tomorrow. So all nations/alliance groups are compelled to continously upgrade for deterance.

India as Example

During last Indo-Sino war, India was completely unprepared and lost large areas to China. The threat from China is quite real as India's Democratic values and Spiritual roots are diametrically opposed and constant threat to ruling Chinese Communist Party's ideology.

  • 1
    @user366312, strange. Look at ICBM (which are part of in-fact-self-defence strategic nukes system) ranges. Of course, India do not have foes at such range now, but NOW is a keyword here. Who can say, what would be further? Jan 21, 2021 at 9:08
  • @user2501323, Then, why don't start a missile program to protect India from possible future attack from aliens from the neighboring galaxy? "FUTURE" is an undefined term as it can be composed of anything including imaginary ones. If "NOW" is the keyword here, India doesn't need missiles of more than 5000 KM of range.
    – user366312
    Jan 21, 2021 at 10:21
  • 3
    @user366312 This is a perfectly valid answer to the title of your question, which is "How do countries justify their missile programs". If what you're actually asking is "How does India justify having missiles with an 8,000km range", then edit the title of the question to reflect that.
    – F1Krazy
    Jan 21, 2021 at 11:17
  • 5
    @user366312 That is a very unrealistic analogy. Obviously it is unreasonable for a country to develop a missile program to protect from hypothetical aliens who live 25,000 light years away. Developing missiles to protect from potential future enemy states is far less unreasonable. You're also assuming too much of a one dimensional view of international relations. "India seems to have only two real enemies: China and Pakistan.". What about their allies? A large scale conflict involving international missiles is inevitably going to draw in other players.
    – JBentley
    Jan 21, 2021 at 12:21
  • 4
    @user366312 More broadly, which countries have faced no real warfare on their domestic lands in the last 70 years or so? The answer is those with the ability to strike anywhere in the world with large scale force. Having long range nuclear missile capability is (sadly) an effective way to achieve long term security. Why do you think N. Korea is so obssessed with this?
    – JBentley
    Jan 21, 2021 at 12:25

While I generally agree with JJJ's answer, I want to add two more reasons:

  • Strategic missiles should generally be placed as far from the potential adversary as possible in order to squeeze out few precious additional minutes before you have to launch the second strike or lose those missiles. In India's case that means deploying them at the Southern tip of the Indian peninsula, and the distance between that place and the Russo-Chinese border on the Far East is around 7,000 km.
  • Besides the minimal energy trajectory, which is almost always meant when missile ranges are discussed, there are other, non-optimal trajectories. In this case India may consider using so-called depressed trajectory which takes less time between the launch and the impact and hence makes the ballistic missile defense harder for the adversary.
  • 1
    It seems this Q has drug in some tech folks. I agree that published range is really just a proxy for a whole envelope of possible performance which may or may not be achievable in practice, but which has to be accounted for in any defense strategy. The range can be traded for more advanced penetration aids, MIRV capability, reentry trajectory versatility, and it's just harder to find and hit something traveling a lot faster.
    – Phil Sweet
    Jan 21, 2021 at 23:56

China and Pakistan are India’s main potential enemies today. But geopolitics changes faster than weapons development programmes, and perhaps tomorrow they’ll need an offensive or deterrent capability against Japan, or Germany, or South Africa.


A long-range missile means that you can throw a heavier payload (like a bigger bomb) a shorter distance.

  • Errrr, no, that doesn't. Jan 22, 2021 at 6:45
  • @user2501323 why not? IRBMs are rockets, after all, and here's a chart showing how rockets carry heavy loads a "short" distance, and not-as-heavy loads a longer distance: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_orbital_launch_systems
    – RonJohn
    Jan 22, 2021 at 14:16
  • There is very big difference between transport launches to space and military launches. Military warheads are usually typized. It's not that easy as constructor. Theoretically - yes. But usually there are plenty of other stuff to use on short distances, and I've never heard about such military system. After all, I doubt if Indian technology can afford such interchangeability, if it is at all present Jan 22, 2021 at 14:26
  • @user2501323 "typized"? "constructor"?
    – RonJohn
    Jan 22, 2021 at 14:52

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