Thursdays test-firing of the Agni V,the longest-range missile developed by India,stands out for one more reason.
The world reaction has been much more tempered than on past occasions when India tested nuclear-capable systems. The US said India has a solid nonproliferation record though it added the standard remark that all nuclear-capable states should exercise restraint. Even China,the nation most affected by Indias new capability,noted the launch and said the two nations have a sound relationship.
India has carefully worked on the range and capability of the Agni V to ensure it does not alarm the world. The revealed range,over 5,000km,makes it an LRBM,or long-range ballistic missile,something that does not carry the more sinister connotation of an ICBM,or intercontinental ballistic missile,which would have had a range over 5,500km.
An ICBM,by convention,carries a deeper message,that the holding nation can strike with nuclear weapons at any continent it wishes to target. In Indias case,the Agni V can reach all targets in Asia and some parts of Europe and Africa,but the Americas and Australia are out of its range.
This limitation is,however,no comment on Indias capabilities to develop long-range missiles. The DRDO made sure a message was driven home: its chief V K Saraswat said that with the launch,India has demonstrated that it has the capability to design,develop and manufacture missiles of the ICBM category.
The LRBM classification reflects a very careful position taken up by New Delhi,that it has no extraterritorial ambitions. The reluctance to join the select ICBM club,which includes the US,Russia and China,is to make the point that nuclear capabilities being developed by India,be it the Agni V or the Arihant nuclear missile submarine,are strictly for deterrence.
Even now,the Agni Vs capabilities go beyond launching nuclear weapons to great distances. As the DRDO has said,the missile can be used to deploy anti-satellite weapons,given that it is capable of reaching heights over 600km.
While Indias official position is against the weaponisation of space New Delhi has said it is not interested in developing anti-satellite weapons the fact is that the Agni V has demonstrated the capability to launch such weapons,if needed. Saraswat has said the missile can also be used to deploy mini- and nano-satellites in space,another application that could be useful to the military.
The Agni V is part of the nuclear triad envisaged by India as part of its no-first-use policy. The missile gives India true land-based deterrence against China. India already has air-based options in the form of the Mirage and Su 30 MKI fighter bombers. The third link of the triad sea-based deterrence is under development in the form of the Arihant nuclear missile boat,undergoing trials and expected to be operational by next year.
Having cleared the first test,during which it went through all three stages as per the plan and landed on target,the missile will later be integrated into a canister. The plan is to make it rail-mobile and road-transportable to give it flexibility of launch.
According to its developers,the missile will undergo two more validation tests over the next one year to test all parameters. After that,it is likely to go into production. The actual induction of the missile into the strategic forces will,however,take much more time. The strategic forces will want to carry out a few field tests before placing their confidence in the missile as a valid,nuclear-delivery platform.
Saraswat has said the technology available,now validated by the launch,will help India develop a new range of missiles that will be faster to deploy and more robust,and will carry heavier payloads. The DRDO will now work on the technology for a multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) for the Agni V. This will essentially make the missile capable of carrying multiple warheads that can be launched during flight to take out different targets. The technology is essential to evade modern anti-missile shields.
The Agni V,like most of its predecessors in the series,is said to be 80 per cent indigenous. DRDO says most major systems like the rocket motors,propelling system and mission control systems are being produced in India. The challenge is to eliminate the need of assistance from nations like Russia and Israel that are involved at some stage or the other.
The DRDO has been gradually scaling up its capabilities since the first test of the 700km Agni I in 1989. However,it was only in October 2007 that the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) fully operationalised the missile after a successful user test firing.
The Agni II,with a range of 2,000km,was first tested in 1999 but became operational 11 years later after the SFC test-fired it in May 2010. The Agni III,3,500km,faced problems during its first test-firing in 2006,when it failed. Three later,consecutive tests were successful,the latest in February 2010.
The DRDO had then claimed that it would have the Agni V ready for test by the middle of 2011. While details have not come out,the development agency has taken twice the time that it had estimated for the success of the Agni V. In November,in a semifinal of sorts,the Agni IV with a range of over 3,500km was tested.