Nuclear-capable Agni-5 successfully test fired: Wide range, 1,000-kg payload of missile will boost India's defence capability

It was a magnificent sight by any account. The 17-metre-long missile, with its nose pointed into the blue sky, taking off in a cloud of dust, even as a monotonous voice ticked off the seconds towards launch. The Agni-5 is quite an achievement all around.

In its seventh test, the three-stage missile seems to have performed perfectly, as its trajectory was measured by a phalanx of monitors on land, sea and air. It seems that this is set to be the crown jewel of India’s Strategic Force Command, when it is inducted in 2019.

To understand the significance of the missile test, some basic facts about the missile and the test have to be understood. First, though the range was not part of the official announcement, it has so far been publicly presented as a 5,000-km range missile. On a regular map, this seems more than capable of reaching major cities like Beijing and parts of Europe, provided it is fired from the eastern coast, from where it was launched in the present test. Increase the range further, to its presumed capability of 8,000 km, and it can be fired from anywhere in the deep south. In other words, it’s not enough just to have a great missile. It has to be survivable. And no one’s getting close to peninsular India without the Indian Navy getting to hear of it.

 Nuclear-capable Agni-5 successfully test fired: Wide range, 1,000-kg payload of missile will boost Indias defence capability

Agni-5 will boost India's defence capability. Image courtesy: @DefenceMinIndia/Twitter

Secondly, the fact that it was fired from a mobile launcher makes the critical difference. Earlier, most countries – including China – developed their missiles to be fired from deep within a guarded missile site. That naturally meant that this static site would be the number one target for enemy aircraft and missiles. The march of technology has since allowed the shift of a missile onto a mobile Tatra truck, which means that the missile – now snugly encased in a canister – can be fired from almost anywhere — baffling those who are trying to destroy it.

During times of tension, a smart missile power will ensure that not only is the missile on the move, by rail or road to various parts of the country, but also that several dummy missiles are doing the same thing. Simply put, an enemy equipped with even the smartest satellite tracking capabilities would be hard put to find the real thing in a sea of possibilities. More livability and therefore more certainty, leading to a more muscular deterrence.

Third, the 1,000-kg payload – which is what it is designed to carry on its nose – means that it is capable of a wide range of warheads, including what is called a fission fusion bomb. That essentially means a boosted energy warhead, by including a small amount of deuterium-tritium inside the fission core. In theory, it can also carry a conventional warhead. A 1,000 kg of high explosives can cause considerable damage, though it pales to a shadow in comparison to a nuclear one.

According to one expert calculation, a one ton conventional warhead could cause less than 13 dead, as against 40,000 for a nuclear one of the same weight. Yet, countries like to keep a conventional alternative. After all, one can actually use it in a warlike situation. There’s no question of using a nuclear warhead unless one is in danger of being wiped off the face of the earth.

China, for instance, is known to have a large number of conventional warheads. Beijing could use this easily, especially in the mountains of the north east, where the towering mountains will do the rest of the damage. It could also use such warheads at sea against potential hostile warships. Therefore, India has no choice but to keep conventional warheads as well, though perhaps on lower range missiles for targets in the Indian Ocean or on the Tibetan plateau.

There’s another hiccup with conventional warheads. Given their (relatively) low destruction capability, you need as high accuracy as possible. Certainly, incoming Iraqi missiles – estimated at 118 in 52 days — against Iran created panic, but it was nowhere near creating enough destruction to cause Tehran to back off. A nuclear warhead requires far less accuracy, given its massive explosive power. Moreover, such missiles are usually used against fixed targets, where the location, coordinates and other data are known well in advance and fed into computers.

There’s far more to missiles and their capabilities, which includes the time taken for their launch – which is of interest to anyone wanting to shoot down a rising missile – or the time taken in a final stage, when they are prone to anti-missile fire of various kinds. China, for instance, recently performed tests on wide speed range vehicles which can fly from hypersonic to subsonic speeds, with the specific intent of being able to accurately hit incoming missiles.

The offense-defence cycle which has gone on for centuries since the invention of the bow and arrow, is still in favour of the defence – but only just. In short, to be sure of destroying a particular target – or more importantly being able to prove that one has the capability to do so – India may have to deploy more numbers at any given time, rather than the “minimal” arsenal that has been the case so far. No one said that deterrence and nuclear capability would be cheap.

Finally, there is the inevitable pointing of fingers at the intended target. To most observers, the obvious candidate is China. In January, Chinese sources were quoted as seeing the earlier test as a “direct threat”, hardly surprising since it occurred months after a face off at Doka La. Since then, India-China relations have gone some distance, which is probably why Chinese media seems to have declined to comment.

But in the final analysis, a nuclear armed missile is not for use against anyone. As the late K Subrahmanyam usually pointed out, it is the “currency of power”. It also stands invisibly behind your own paper currency, at a time of economic bullying with strong geopolitical implications. Once inducted, India joins a select few with inter-continental capabilities, which carries a certain bargaining power. That’s something no established nuclear power is going to be happy about. So no, a missile test is not aimed at anyone at all in times of peace. It’s simply aimed at convincing others that overturning that state of relative stability could be extremely unpleasant — for all concerned.

Updated Date: Dec 12, 2018 21:52:04 IST