India allays fears over its latest ballistic missile launch
A week after successfully testing its maiden Long Range Ballistic Missile (LRBM) Agni-V, India sought to downplay the regional security implications of the launch by dubbing the missile as a “weapon of peace”.
“We were asked to develop a national deterrent as part of a government policy and we did it. That’s it. These are weapons of peace. If you are powerful enough and are committed to ‘no first strike’ there is no harm done to anybody. We always stand by ‘no first strike’,” Tessy Thomas, a senior scientist involved in the Agni-V missile development programme, told Manorama Online, a south Indian media website, on April 22.
India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while dubbing the launch “another milestone in India’s quest to add to the credibility of its security and preparedness”, called the scientists who developed the missile to “continuously explore the frontiers of science”.
But some global experts are not buying the ‘weapons of peace’ argument of India and suggest that the launch signified the intensifying of an arms race in the region.
Giving credence to their fears, Pakistan test-fired a nuclear-capable ballistic missile on April 25, less than a week after India tested Agni-V on April 19.
Mansoor Ahmed, a defence analyst based in Islamabad, said Agni-V added to India’s growing second-strike capabilities, particularly if India can construct a naval version of the Agni-V to deploy on its nuclear-powered submarines. A sub-based missile “can be deployed beyond the reach of a Pakistani first strike, thus ensuring survivability of its nuclear force,” he said.
While Pakistan’s launch was an obvious response to the Indian test, experts suggest that the Agni-V launch had an eye on China. They believe that India’s strategic planners now regard China, rather than Pakistan, as the country’s gravest military threat.
They believe the launch looked like a movement of India from balancing China to containing China.
India and China share a 3,380km border, which both countries have greatly militarised in recent years. But Agni-V would enable the Indian military, for the first time, to reach China’s most important cities, Beijing and Shanghai, with a nuclear attack.
Indian experts were quick to downplay the comparison between the weapons programmes of the two Asian giants.
“Agni-V is just a platform or a prototype. It has to go through several tests and changes before it is inducted in the defence forces. It will not be correct to compare it with China’s competence in missile technology. They [China] are five to six times ahead of us in defence preparedness and technology,” Bharat Verma, editor of the Indian Defence Review magazine wrote on April 24.
China already boasts a DF-31 (7,250 km), DF-31A (11,270 km) and several other long-range missiles, which are much more advanced than Agni-V.
India fired its first satellite into orbit in 1980, and began its missile development programme in 1983.
Analysts say that given India’s skills in launching heavy satellites and planetary probes, it could easily field a missile powerful enough to send warheads over intercontinental ranges.
Already, by launching the Agni-V, a ballistic missile capable of reaching deep into China, India joined a small club of nations with long-range nuclear capability, including China, Britain, France, Russia, Israel and the United States.
India initially called the latest missile ‘the 5,000km range surface-to-surface Agni-V ICBM (Inter Continental Ballistic Missile)’ but later officially changed the description to the technically correct ‘long-range ballistic missile’.
Technically, only those missiles that can reach targets beyond 5,500km fall under the ICBM category.
Stipulations aside, Agni-V matches the capability of an ICBM as it can reach the whole of Asia, almost three quarters of Europe and also parts of Eastern Africa, leaving only continental America out of its reach.
The fifth variant of Agni — which means fire in Hindi — adds to India’s burgeoning missile arsenal that already boasts Agni-I (700 km), Agni-II (2,500 km), Agni-III (3,000 km) and Agni-IV (3,500 km). The first two have already been inducted into the armed forces while the remaining two are in the final stages of testing.
A number of new technologies developed indigenously were successfully tested with the launch of Agni-V.
Avinash Chander, Chief Controller (Missiles and Strategic Systems), told The Times of India daily that the launch met all the mission objectives: “All the three stages of propulsion with locally developed Composite Rocket Motors (CRM) worked perfectly.”
The success of locally developed CRM demonstrated India’s self-reliance in building complex propulsion technology that only a handful of nations possess.
In the next 18 months, India will test fire Agni-V two more times to assess the capabilities of the warheads that would be attached to the missile.
Agni-V is expected to be delivered to the Indian military in 2015.