India successfully test-fired its nuclear capable Agni-V Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) from the Abdul Kalam island, off the coast of Odisha, on Thursday. This 17-metre-long ICBM, with a payload of 1.5 tonnes, can transport a fusion-boosted fission weapon — nuclear device. The Agni-V has been tested five times since 2012, the last one before the current launch taking place in December 2016. India did not undertake any ICBM test in 2017, though US, Russia, China and North Korea (despite UN sanctions) had all test-fired ballistic missiles last year. The launch on Thursday coincided with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s state visit to India and during the Raisina Dialogue 2018. In fact, confirmation of the successful test came during a panel titled ‘Nuclear Unpredictability: Managing the Global Nuclear Framework’ of the Raisina Dialogue.
The first test of Agni-V by India was conducted on 19 April, 2012, the second on 15 September, 2013, the third on 31 January, 2015 and the fourth on 26 December, 2016 from the same base. The first two successful flights of Agni-V in 2012 and 2013 were in open configuration. The third, fourth and the Thursday launches from a canister, integrated with a mobile sophisticated launcher, were in its deliverable configuration that enables launch of the missile with a very short preparation time as compared to an open configuration. It also has advantages of higher reliability, longer shelf life, less maintenance and enhanced mobility.
India has in its weaponry Agni series, Agni-I with 700 km range, Agni-II with 2,000 km range, Agni-III and Agni-IV with 2,500 km to more than 3,500 km range. The 18 January user associate test-flight of the missile has further boosted indigenous missile capabilities and deterrence strength of the country. All radars, tracking systems and range stations monitored the flight performance. The missile travelled for 19 minutes and covered 4,900 km. After four successful developmental trials, this was the first user associate test of Agni-V missile, which is the most advanced missile in the Agni series with new technologies incorporated in it in terms of navigation and guidance, warhead and engine. It has a range of over 5,000 km. The high speed on board computer and fault tolerant software along with robust and reliable bus guided the missile flawlessly. The navigation systems, very high accuracy Ring Laser Gyro-based Inertial Navigation System (RINS) and the most modern and accurate Micro Navigation System (MINS), had ensured the missile reached the target point within few metres of accuracy.
Coming after four previous tests, the firing on Thursday of the Agni-V takes India closer to incorporating the missile into its Strategic Forces Command. Once the induction process is complete, India will join an elite group of countries possessing ICBMs, including US, Russia, China, France and Israel. Jericho III (YA-4) is believed to be Israel’s nuclear-armed ICBM which entered service in 2011. On 17 January, 2008, Israel had test-fired a multi-stage ballistic missile believed to be of the Jericho III type, reportedly capable of carrying conventional or nuclear warheads. According to the Federation of American Scientists, India is believed to have some 120-130 warheads compared to several thousands of the US. But then in March 2015, Israel already possessed 200 nuclear weapons.
China reportedly had 270 nuclear weapons in October last year. China's CSS-10 Mod 2 ICBM has a range in excess of 11,200 km and according to the US Department of Defence (DoD), the Peoples' Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) is continuing to enhance its silo-based ICBMs and is adding more survivable, mobile delivery systems. China is estimated to possess 75-100 ICBMs and 50-75 launchers that can fire the missiles to a range of 5,400-13,000+ km. Development continues of the road-mobile DF-41 ICBM, which is multiple independently targeted re-entry (MIRV capable) that can attack multiple targets. DF-41 ICBM can carry up to ten manoeuvrable nuclear warheads, each weighing 100 to 200 KT to a megaton size. The expected range of the missile is between 12,000- 15,000 km, and thus, will be capable of reaching every corner of the Earth.
China made no official statement after Thursday's Agni-V test. However, after the December 2016 Agni-V test, China had stated it hoped India's testing of the nuclear-capable Agni-V ICBM complied with UN Security Council rules and safeguarded South Asia's strategic balance. Hua Chunying, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said without elaborating, "On whether India can develop this ballistic missile that can carry nuclear weapons, I think relevant resolutions of the UNSC have clear rules. We have always believed that safeguarding strategic balance and stability in South Asia is conducive for the peace and prosperity of countries in the region." Her reference to strategic balance in South Asia obviously referred to the military balance between India and Pakistan.
What Chunying failed to mention was that while India is part of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), China is not, and this irks China tremendously.
Another Chinese apprehension came through Global Times, which — quoting Du Wenlong from the Chinese Academy of Military Science — stated that the Agni-V had a strike range of about 5,000 miles (8,000 km), rather than 3,000 miles (4,800 km), and that the Indian government had deliberately played down its range to avoid causing concern to other countries.
India is already working on enhancing the range of Agni-V and is also engaged in the development of Agni-VI. It does not matter whether China has longer range ICBMs because the Agni-V, on being commissioned, has entire Asia and almost 70 percent of Europe within its striking range. China’s economic hubs are mostly along its east coast, even as it plans to develop Xinjiang as the start point for the CPEC.
China understands that the nuclear strategic balance is not only between India and Pakistan but Agni-V has provided strategic deterrence to India vis-à-vis China. This may not deter China from her tactics of ‘salami-slicing’ of territory as being witnessed at Doka La and beyond Shaksgam, but will certainly make her think twice before indulging in major mischief against India. This should also negate thinking of some western scholars that China may use tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) to force India in giving up territory.
The author is a retired lieutenant-general of the Indian Army.
Updated Date: Jan 19, 2018 11:57 AM