NEW DELHI -– India is expected to test-fire a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile as early as Thursday morning targeted to land in the Bay of Bengal, a device capable of reaching Shanghai or Beijing.
The 50-ton, 55-foot three-stage Agni-5 rocket, named after the Hindu god for fire and dubbed the “China killer” by some in India’s hyperactive press, has a maximum range of 3,100 miles and is set to take off from an island launch site in the eastern state of Odisha between now and Friday, depending on the weather.
“It gives India the ability to strike anywhere except the U.S. landmass,” said Ajai Shukla, a defense analyst and and former army colonel. “They’ve kept the range down to 5,000 kilometers because they don’t want to ring any alarm bells in the U.S.”
A successful test -- analysts said the range and mission difficulty have likely been pared down to reduce the risk of failure -- would make India the sixth nation with an intercontinental ballistic missile, after the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France.
In recent days, officials have been keen to stress India’s “no first strike” policy. But a rapidly expanding economy and New Delhi’s status as the world’s largest weapons importer has stimulated regional arms competition. India, which is slated to increase defense spending by 13% this year, sees nuclear neighbors Pakistan and China as its greatest threats.
Earlier, shorter-range generations of the Agni developed over the past decade were designed to be capable of striking anywhere in Pakistan, with which India has fought three wars since it gained independence from British rule in 1947.
The extended-range Agni IV and V models are built with China in mind. China defeated India during a short war in 1962 and tensions remain high along their disputed 2,100-mile border. By some reports, China has nearly 100 short-range, medium-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles and some 15 radar stations deployed in nearby Tibet.
Analysts said they expected this week’s launch -- an attempt on Wednesday evening was shelved due to bad weather -- will involve a relatively short flight to maximize the political dividends and allow chest-thumping in the local media. “The Agni V is all about political implications,” said Pravin Sawhney, editor of Force, a defense publication. “This is seen as a deterrent against China. But China is not worried about one Agni V. It’s a puny weapon system.”
Analyzing the results could take weeks, and its real capabilities will only fully emerge over the next six to eight expected tests.
That said, the Agni V is India’s first three-stage rocket, significantly more complex than earlier two-stage models. Once pushed to the limits of its 3,000-mile range, the temperature of its indigenously produced nose cone must withstand re-entry heat of up to 9,000 degrees Fahrenheit, compared with around 5,500 degrees for earlier generations. Officials also will be looking closely at how well its navigation systems perform.
The real payoff on the defense front, analysts said, will come in transferring lessons learned about accuracy and range to India’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles. India's defense plans call for a “nuclear triad” in which atomic weapons can be launched from land, sea and air. In March, India conducted a 420-mile test of its K-15 Sagarika submarine missile. And this month, it inducted a Russian-made nuclear-powered submarine into its navy.
Even before the missile launch, India’s media has gushed with pride and excitement. “Agni-V will make the world fear India,” the NDTV network said on its website. “It travels faster than a bullet .…Why, it can even be launched from a roadside!” Added competitor Times Now: “This is one of India’s biggest moments.”
Amidst India’s pleasure at this expected entry into the intercontinental ballistic missile club, some voiced concern. “Bigger missiles, longer ranges, this travels down a road of no return,” said Mohan Guruswamy, founder of New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Alternatives. “It’s a mindless game that goes on. Once you’re caught in the logic of it, you can’t get off.”
-- Mark Magnier and Tanvi Sharma