by Nishank Motwani
The naming convention of Indian missiles serves a dyadic relationship with Pakistan’s and they are best understood if compared to each other. The names of Indian and Pakistani ballistic missiles express the symbolic language and culture of nuclearization of the sub-continent.
The ballistic missile programs of both India and Pakistan are key components of their strategic weapons arsenals and are critical to establishing a credible minimum nuclear deterrent, as established in their nuclear doctrines. India was first to develop an indigenous missile and named it Prithvi (earth). The Prithvi is a short range surface-to-surface nuclear capable ballistic missile and is in service with the Indian army, air-force and navy with ranges of 150km, 250km and 350km respectively. Although by definition the Hindi word Prithvi denotes earth, its other and perhaps more important meaning lies in the fact that its name is also a derivative of Prithviraj Chauhan, the last Hindu king that ruled India from Delhi in the 12th Century. Incidentally, Pakistan’s Ghauri (range 1500km) missile is named after the Muslim sultan – Sultan Shahab-ud-din Mohammad Ghori – who defeated Prithviraj Chauhan and established Muslim rule in India. Similarly, a second Pakistani missile is named Ghaznavi (range 600km-900km) after Mahmud Ghaznavi (translated as Mahmud of Ghazni) who invaded and plundered Western India’s temples more than a dozen times and conquered Punjab in 1021. Incidentally, Ghazni is also the location where Prithviraj Chauhan was taken to and executed after his defeat by Sultan Ghori. Furthermore, a third Pakistani missile is named Babur (range 700km) after the first Moghul ruler who laid down the Moghul Dynasty in India in 1483. The symbolism of the naming designation on all three counts by Pakistan seems to have been intentional.
In addition to the Prithvi, New Delhi has developed a medium and intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) family of nuclear capable missiles under the name of Agni (fire). The symbolic value in the Sanskrit word Agni is that it is traditionally seen as both a creator and destroyer of life in the Hindu belief. Agni in this case can be weaponized and wreak destruction on the enemy near and afar, which fits comfortably with the family of Agni missiles that have varying strike ranges. The Agni family of missiles (all nuclear capable) have three variants: Agni I (range 700km), Agni II (range 2500km), Agni III (range 3500km) and work on a fourth variant, the 5000km range Agni IV is currently in progress. The Agni is capable of striking any target in Pakistan and the latest variant being developed is intended to provide targeting options for reaching Beijing and inland China. Countering the Agni missile is Pakistan’s Shaheen (eagle), which is estimated to have a range of 2500km and is Pakistan’s longest range missile. By some accounts, the Shaheen has also been translated to “death” due to it being part of the Hatf (deadly armour/target/death) family of missiles.
Pakistan’s development of long-range missiles places most of India’s urban centres within striking distance and this has impelled India to develop an anti-ballistic missile shield named Pradyumna. In Sanskrit, the word Pradyumna refers to a form of the Hindu god Vishu due to his power to preserve life, hence the relevance of the name for an anti-ballistic missile shield.
Other missiles in India’s arsenal include: the Akash (sky), a 30km medium range surface-to-air missile; Astra (weapon), a 20km-80km beyond visual range air-to-air missile; Dhanush (archer’s bow), a 350km range ship-to-surface nuclear capable ballistic missile; Nag (cobra), an 8km range anti-tank guided missile; Prahaar (to strike), a 150km short-range surface-to-surface nuclear capable tactical ballistic missile; Sagarika (oceanic), a 700km range submarine launched nuclear capable ballistic missile fitted on India’s Arihant (destroyer of enemies) nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine; Shourya (valour), a 700km range nuclear capable surface-to-surface ballistic missile and a land based version of the Sagarika missile; and BrahMos, a 290km range supersonic cruise missile – the latter’s name represents the fury of the Bhramaputra and the grace of the Moskva Rivers. India is also reportedly working on an intercontinental ballistic missile designated the Surya (sun) with a strike range of 8000km-12000km, however it is only in the development phase and has not been tested to date.
Although the naming convention of most Indian missiles is drawn from Sanskrit and reflects the power and/or tools of war of some celestial beings, they are not named after Hindu gods or deities themselves. In contrast, Pakistan has named most of its missiles after Afghan rulers that either conquered Indian Hindu kings and/or established Muslim rule in India. In addition to Ghauri, Ghaznavi and Babur, the fourth Pakistani missile bearing the name of an Afghan ruler is the Abdali-I, which is a 180km range short-range nuclear capable ballistic missile. The Abdali-I is named after the Afghan King Ahmad Shah Abdali, the founder of the Durrani Empire in 1747 and regarded by many to be the founder of the modern state of Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, Afghanistan has objected to Pakistan’s naming of its missiles after Afghan rulers’ names. The Afghan Information Minister Sayed Makhdum Rahnin had asked Islamabad not to link Afghan rulers’ names with “tools of destruction and killing.” In response, Pakistan’s foreign office spokeswoman Tasneem Aslam rejected Minister Rahnin’s objection and instead stated that Muslim conquerors were heroes in both countries and naming missiles after them was not controversial. Other missiles in Pakistan’s arsenal are the Ra’ad (thunder), a 350km range cruise missile and the Nasr (which denotes victory in Arabic), a 60km tactical ballistic missile. Both missiles are nuclear capable.
From 1989 to June 2008, India has conducted forty-nine ballistic missile tests, whereas Pakistan flight-tested thirty-seven times. As both countries attempt to develop and maintain the credibility of their nuclear deterrence postures, tests of new and existing missiles with varying ranges and perhaps controversial names will continue to be developed and tested. The names of the missiles can be seen as an expression of the historic enmity and the distinct identities that have formed in South Asia since 1947.
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 These tests are strictly surface-to-surface ballistic missile tests and do not include air-to-air, air-to-surface, surface-to-air, submarine launched ballistic missiles and/or cruise missile tests. Vipin Narang, “Strategic Weapons Behavior in South Asia”, pp. 137-183, in Scott D. Sagan (ed.), Inside Nuclear South Asia, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2009.