India is a step away from gate-crashing into the super exclusive club of countries with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with the successful “first pre-induction trial” of Agni-V that, with a range of over 5,000 km, brings all of Asia and China within its nuclear strike capability.
The range of the missile places parts of Europe and Africa within reach but India’s security concerns are closer home. Sources said India’s most formidable missile will undergo one more pre-induction trial “within this year” before it is inducted into the Agni-V regiment already raised by the Tri-Service Strategic Forces Command (SFC) with the requisite command and control structures.
Once that happens, India will rub shoulders with countries the US, UK, Russia, China and France. While a belligerent North Korea over the last six-seven months has rattled US with tests of its two new ICBMs – Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 – expert opinion is divided whether they are fully-operational and deployed as of now.
On Thursday, in its first pre-induction trial conducted by the SFC, the 17-metre Agni-V was launched from a canister atop the road-mobile launcher from the Dr Abdul Kalam Island off the Odisha coast at 9.53am. The three-stage missile zoomed to a height of over 600-km in its parabolic trajectory and then splashed down around 4,900-km away towards Australia in the Indian Ocean barely 19 minutes later.
The missile’s canister-launch version makes it deadlier because it gives the armed forces the requisite operational flexibility to swiftly transport and fire the missile from anywhere they want. “Since the missile is already mated with its nuclear warhead before being sealed in the canister, it drastically cuts down the response or reaction time for a retaliatory strike…only the authorised electronic codes have to be fed to unlock and prime it for launch,” said a source.
India, of course, wants a credible strategic deterrent against an aggressive and expansionist China, which has a large arsenal of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. The SFC already has regiments of the Prithvi-II (350-km), Agni-I (700-km), Agni-II (2,000-km) & Agni-III (3,000-km) missiles, which are mainly meant to deter Pakistan from any misadventure. The Agni-IV (4,000-km) and Agni-V (over 5,000-km), in turn, have been developed with China in mind.
Designed to carry a 1.5-tonne nuclear warhead, Agni-V has been tested four times in “developmental or experimental trials” earlier.
The missile was tested in an “open configuration” in April 2012 and September 2013, while it was test-fired from hermetically sealed canisters mounted on transport-cum-tilting launcher trucks in January 2015 and December 2016.
“The missile’s flight performance was monitored by radars, range stations and tracking systems all through the mission. All mission objectives were successfully met. This successful test of Agni-V reaffirms the country’s indigenous missile capabilities and further strengthens our credible deterrence,” said a defence ministry official.
Though the DRDO has often proclaimed it can develop missiles with strike ranges of 10,000km to match the Chinese DF-31A (11,200km) and DF-41 (14,500km) missiles, the Indian defence establishment believes Agni-V is sufficient to take care of existing threat perceptions. There is, however, interest in ongoing DRDO work on developing “manoeuvring warheads or intelligent reentry vehicles” to defeat enemy ballistic missile defence systems, as well as MIRVs (multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles) for the Agni missiles. An MIRV payload means one missile can carry several warheads, each for different targets.