India is all set to launch its first ICBM — the Agni V, which has a range of 5,000 km plus, on Wednesday (April 18) and a successful launch will be a significant achievement for the Indian DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) which embarked upon the IGMDP (Integrated Guided Missile Development Project) in 1983 under the stewardship of then PM Indira Gandhi.
India, it may be recalled, was under severe US-led technological sanctions at the time and three decades after the nascent steps taken with the short-range Prithvi missile, it is a matter of considerable satisfaction for the domestic scientific and strategic community that the Agni V is on the anvil.
The technical characteristics of the three-stage solid propellant Agni V merit notice and are testimony to the commendable strides made by the Indian DRDO and its affiliates in the public and private sector in the many diverse engineering and industrial disciplines that contribute to the design and production of a ballistic missile.
Agni V can carry a one-ton payload (meaning a nuclear warhead) and is configured for carrying multiple warheads which can be guided to separate targets independently — thereby giving the missile a MIRV (multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicle) capability. This is a major technological achievement combining as it does guidance and control with miniaturisation of the warhead. Thus, Agni V will be fitted with a PBCV (post boost control vehicle) and a rigorous post-launch technical evaluation will establish the credibility of the missile and its MIRV index.
Indian metallurgy has also contributed in no small measure and it has been suggested that the use of carbon composite in the second-stage motor has led to significant weight reduction and improvement in overall performance. Considerable mobility and time criticality is in-built with the use of solid propellant and this allows the Agni V to be launched from a mobile rail-road platform. However, these are features that will be proven at a later stage — after the successful completion of the first test.
The April 18 test would be a significant technology demonstrator and its strategic implications need to be placed in appropriate context. When inducted into India's strategic forces command (SFC), a proven ICBM capability would enhance India's deterrent capability. This in turn would enhance the credibility of Delhi's No First Use (NFU) commitment as regards the use of nuclear weapons. The Indian doctrine is predicated on not being the first party to use the apocalyptic nuclear weapon — but conveying to its potential adversaries who chose to go down this path that the retaliation which will inevitably follow will be ‘massive'.
The run-up to the Agni V missile launch has seen many references to China and the fact that with a 5,000-km missile India will now be able to 'balance' its imposing neighbour. The reality is more modest. China already has a range of proven ICBM in its inventory that straddle the 5,000 to 10,000 km bandwidth. India cannot acquire any equivalence with China in the WMD domain, nor is it warranted. More importantly, Beijing has a geo-political missile in Rawalpindi and the scope and depth of the Sino-Pak nuclear-missile cooperation adds to the Indian security challenge.
As and when Agni V moves from technological proficiency to assured, credible and proven operational induction — maybe by 2014 — India will move towards acquiring that elusive mutuality it seeks with China. More generous claims or exaggerated interpretation about what the maiden launch of the Agni V implies would be premature and imprudent .
— C Uday Bhaskar is the former Director of the New Delhi-based National Maritime Foundation. The views expressed in the column are his own