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India Should Take Forward Agni-V Legacy to Build Full Fledged ICBM

The successful Jan.31 flight test of Agni-V opens up the possibility of strengthening India’s nuclear deterrence capability. The need of the hour is to take forward the legacy of Agni-V to build a range of ICBMs covering 10,000-kms plus range.

The successful Jan.31 flight test of Agni-V opens up the possibility of strengthening India’s nuclear deterrence capability. The need of the hour is to take forward the legacy of Agni-V to build a range of ICBMs covering 10,000-kms plus range. The article focuses on why it should not be a problem for India to realize this objective.

The successful test firing of Agni-V long range, surface to surface, nuclear capable ballistic missile from a canister mounted on a Tetra truck on Jan 31, 2015 marked a major leap ahead in boosting the deterrence capability of the country in a big way. Describing the Agni-V launch from the missile test facility on the Wheeler Island, off the Odish coast of India, as a perfect, copy book exercise, the Defence Research and Development Organisation(DRDO) pointed out that though this was the third success in a row for this strategic missile, it was for the first time that the missile with a range of more than 5,000 km was launched from canister. For a canister launched missile makes for quick transportation and provides operational flexibility for the defence forces using this solid fuel driven missile often described as “China specific” by strategic analysts.

This flawless mission of this three stage, strategic missile described as Inter Continental Ballistic Missile(ICBM) stands out as a tribute to the technological excellence that DRDO(Defence Research and Development Organisation) has achieved in putting in place an advanced missile system designed to support Indian strategic objectives. Moments after the successful missile launch, a visibly delighted V.G.Sekaran, Director General (missiles and strategic systems) of DRDO said, “All mission objectives have been achieved. Down range ships have confirmed final splashdown. The mission is a great success and it is a momentous occasion”. The most striking feature of this mission was that Agni-V was launched from a canister in a deliverable configuration. In contrast, the earlier two flights of Agni-V were in open configuration.

As it is, the 50-tonne,17.5-metre tall Agni-5 can carry a nuclear warhead in the weight class of 1.1-tonne and can easily reach a large part of China, most of Europe and parts of Africa. China, which has time and again expressed concern and dismay over the capability of Agni-V missile to hit several of its cities is aware that Agni-V could very well serve as a platform for the development of a full fledged. long range ICBM(Inter Continental Ballistic Missile) capable of traversing a distance of more than 10,000-km. Chinese defence analysts believe that the range of Agni-V can be extended upto 8,000-km by scaling down the payload weight. Incidentally, Agni-V was first test fired in 2012.

Agni-V, a follow on to Agni-IV, has derived from the synergy unleashed by the highly successful. Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) spearheaded by DRDO in 1983. Of course, not long back, the Agni missile programme had invited the US opposition on the ground that it benefited substantially from the solid fuel system that Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) had developed for India’s four stage basic civilian launcher, SLV-3 successfully flight tested in 1980. Incidentally, former Indian President Dr.AP.J.Abdul Kalam, who is also a well known space and defence scientist, had during his stint in ISRO had provided leadership for the development SLV-3. By sheer coincidence he also came to be hailed as the architect of IGMDP of DRDO which he joined after the successful accomplishment of SLV-3 mission.

Indian strategic planners feel that there is a pronounced need for India to put in place a variety of long range nuclear capable missiles in the backdrop of China focussing on the development of an augmented version of its long range Dongfeng missile capable of reaching a target at a distance of more than 10,000-km. On another front, China is also known to be working on high technology hypersonic strike vehicle that can be launched atop a missile at extremely high speeds along the edge of the earth’s atmosphere. The glide vehicle that China is developing as part of the hypersonic missile system can easily deliver nuclear warheads to hit US strategic missile defence systems.

The idea to augment the capability of Agni-V with MIRV (Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicle) will be a force multiplier for the Indian quest to realize a credible minimum deterrence through its increased penetrative capability. The MIRV will help Agni-V launch a number of nuclear warheads simultaneously to widely dispersed targets with each of the warhead assigned to a different target, separated by several kilometres.

Right now only USA, Russia, UK, France and China possess the MIRV capability on their long range nuclear capable missiles. But then MIRV technology is by no means a recent innovation. The MIRV capabilities were first deployed in the long range missiles by the USA and the former Soviet Union in 1970s. There is no denying the point that an arsenal of MIRVed long range missile fits well within India’s nuclear weapons doctrine of no first use.

The complex challenge ahead of DRDO in its quest to build India’s home grown MIRV capability will be the realization of a booster rocket that can nudge and navigate the warhead to its pre determined target with a high degree of precision. To improve the hitting range and warhead carrying capability of long range Indian missiles, DRDO would need to go in for the liberal use of improved, smart materials including carbon fibres as well as micro miniaturization of the systems going into the missile configuration.

Incidentally, the multiple warhead delivery enabled by a strategic missile is somewhat similar to the multiple spacecraft launch atop a single launch vehicle. As it is, India’s reliable, four stage space workhorse, Polar Satellite launch Vehicle (PSLV) has already proved its multiple launch capability. In April 2008, it had created a sort of history by placing in orbit as many as ten satellites in one go. But then coming to MIRV, the warhead re-enters earth’s atmosphere to hit the target. This implies that the guidance and navigation system of a missile should be highly accurate for hitting the target with unfailing precision. In a mission involving the launch of satellites, there is always a scope for “flexibility’ in that there is invariably a clear room for minor deviation in orbital injection. For the orbital position of a satellite can be fine tuned after the launch. But that is not the case with MIRV. Clearly, in the case of MIRVed missile, there is no room for flexibility normally associated with a satellite launch. Thus a big challenge ahead of DRDO would be to develop a highly sophisticated navigation and guidance system.

Agni-V definitely heralds the beginning of the coming of age for India in terms of very long range payload delivery capability that is reliable, accurate and survivable. Significantly, Agni-V makes use of the contemporary guidance package that utilizes an indigenous ranging laser gyroscope inertial navigation system(RLG-INS) coupled with a micro inertial navigation system (MINGS). Both these systems are designed to receive multi constellation updates from a variety of satellite navigation systems. Sometime in the future, DRDO also plans to modify Agni-V so that it can also serve as a launch vehicle to orbit light weigh satellite payloads in quick succession and on demand. For such an alternate capability is a vitally essential to meet the satellite launch requirements during the moments of crisis.

With a view to take forward the Indian missile capability, DRDO is also working on Agni-VI, a sleeker and smarter as well as easily transportable and deployable advanced missile system It will have the capability to be launched from submarines and land based launchers with a range of 6,000-km. Its maiden flight is expected during 2017-18 timeframe. It will be able to carry a three tonne warhead, thrice that of Agni-V. The Agni-VI will be in 65-70 tonne weight class. Agni-VI will be formidable missile since it would be equipped with MARV (Manoeuvrable Re-entry Vehicle) in addition to the MIRV capability also featured in Agni-V. The MARV system that this missile system would incorporate will facilitate its warheads to perform evasive manoeuvres while hurtling down towards the target and in the process confuse the enemy air defence architecture.

The Agni range of missiles developed by India can meet the nuclear deterrence needs of the country under a variety of situations. Agni-1 can cover a distance of 700-km, Agni-II 2000-km, Agni III 2500-kms and Agni-IV 35,00-km.

In the context of India facing the prospect of fighting a two front war, there is an imminent need to accelerate development of a full fledged ICBM. Moreover, a well proven ICBM capability is crucially vital for India to be recognised as a global super power. Of course, both Agni-V and Agni-VI are being looked on as ICBMs. But then in the conventional strategic thinking, only a missile with a range of 10,000-km plus is counted as a full fledged ICBM. And India should not vacillate in taking up the challenge of developing a family of ICBMs with 10,000-km plus range.