While international attention has focused on North Korea’s failed missile test last week, India has taken a shot at ascending to the exclusive club of countries possessing the necessary technology for Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capabilities.
On Thursday, India launched the nuclear-capable Agni-V on its maiden flight from Wheeler Island off the Odisha Coast. The test was originally scheduled for 7 p.m. local time on Wednesday, but was delayed due to heavy lightning.
The Agni-V is a three-stage, solid-fuel missile with a range of 5,000 kilometers. Agni-V is technically an intermediate ballistic missile because ICBM’s have ranges greater than 5,500 kilometers, but it still demonstrates that New Delhi has cleared all the significant technological hurdles on the pathway to an ICBM.
The most difficult of these is the missile’s ability to reenter the earth’s atmosphere. Because ICBM’s reenter the atmosphere at a much higher velocity than other ballistic missiles, the reentry vehicle’s (RV) nose tip must be able to withstand an enormous amount of heat, around 2,000 degrees Celsius. The Agni-V uses high ballistic coefficient strategy during reentry, which is the technologically more difficult option, but also the most accurate.
Currently only China, Russia and the United States have land-based ICBMs. France used to deploy them, but has since decommissioned them because of their cost.
The Agni-V is capable of delivering an atomic warhead anywhere in China, even when positioned deep inside India’s own territory. It was developed by India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and modeled off the Agni-III, a two-stage missile with a range of 3,500 kilometers that India first tested successfully in April 2007. The two missiles share the same size, shape, and height according to V.G. Sekaran, the Director of the Advanced System Laboratory (ASL) at DRDO. Sekaran was the chief designer of the Agni-V, according to The Hindu.
The missile launch is understandably a huge source of pride in India. Local media has covered the run-up to this week’s test extensively, with New Delhi Television saying of the event: “Tipped to be a game changer, Agni-V will make the world fear India. It will extend India's reach all over Asia, Africa and Europe. India can now strike any part of the world except America.”
There’s a something of a debate in India, however, on whether the country should seek to enhance the Agni-V to extend its range past the largely symbolic 5,500 kilometer marker. Former President APJ Kalam, who’s often referred to as the “Missile Man of India” for the pivotal role he played in developing New Delhi’s ballistic missiles as an aerospace engineer at DRDO, has suggested he wouldn’t be in favor of doing so.
“An ICBM with 5,000-km range was enough as the potential enemies were well within this range,” Kalam told a group of university students last November. When a student asked him if an ICBM with a longer range should be developed, Kalam simply replied that India didn’t face threats from the transatlantic community, The Tribune reported.
On the other hand, nuclear strategist Bharat Karnad has largely dismissed Kalam’s statements, telling Arms Control Today that although Kalam’s suggestions might be “taken on board, his influence on current missile programs should not be overstated.”
Karnad himself suggested: “The technological momentum driving the Indian missile program is going to take it well beyond the 5,000 kilometer range Agni-5 and into producing genuine ICBM category delivery systems, if only to match China…[L]onger range, more accurate missiles will be developed [by India] as a technological imperative."
After this week’s launch, Indian scientists intend to run similar tests of the missile over the next year. The Agni-V is expected to be operational by 2014-2015.