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Maiden Test for India’s Agni-5 MIRV Missile

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Maiden Test for India’s Agni-5 MIRV Missile

MIRV is a complex technology, and India’s test this week puts it among a small group of countries that have managed to develop it.

Maiden Test for India’s Agni-5 MIRV Missile
Credit: Depositphotos

On March 11, the Indian Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) undertook the maiden test of its indigenously developed Agni-V MIRV (Multiple Independently Targetable Re-Entry Vehicle) missile. 

According to a Ministry of Defense press release, the flight test, named Mission Divyastra, was launched from a missile launch site on Abdul Kalam Island off the coast of Odisha in the eastern part of India. The launch was tracked and monitored by different telemetry and radar stations, and it was concluded that the mission “accomplished the designed parameters.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other senior leaders including Defense Minister Rajnath Singh congratulated the DRDO scientists on the successful undertaking of the MIRV missile launch. 

MIRV capability is a complex technology and India’s test this week puts India among a small group of countries – the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, France, and China – that have developed it. With MIRV technology a single intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) can carry and deliver multiple warheads at different locations several hundred kilometers apart. The Agni-V, which currently has an officially claimed  range of 5,000 km technically qualifies only as an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM), and not an ICBM because ICBMs are missiles with ranges over 5,500 km. But the official claim of 5,000 km probably understates the range of the missile, with many reports claiming it is a true ICBM with an 8,000 km range. 

Most analysts suggest that the MIRVed Agni-V will be able to carry four to six warheads, although Air Marshal Anil Chopra stated in an article that Agni-V can carry 10-12 warheads. Another Indian media story quoted Dr. Avinash Chander, former head of the DRDO and a key person behind the Agni missile program, as having said in 2007 that the next variant of the Agni missile “would be a multiple warhead missile with a capacity to carry four to 12 warheads.” MIRVed missiles can also carry decoys, making identification of actual warheads a lot more challenging for the adversary and reducing the effectiveness of missile defense systems.

MIRV capability is generally considered to enhance India’s nuclear deterrence capability. But experts argue that it will involve “several additional tests to complete the development of an operational MIRV capability for the Agni-V.” 

Prior to the launch, as per India’s commitments under the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (HCOC), India had to inform countries such as Australia and Indonesia as well as air and maritime traffic in the test area about the impending test. A media report also noted that there were Indian Navy warships with DRDO scientists as well as tracking and monitoring systems that were deployed in the southern Indian Ocean, which was the impact point of the missile test. 

The Agni-V missile has gone through various tests since 2012. In December 2022, the Indian Strategic Forces Command undertook the first night trial of the Agni-V. Following the test, defense officials spoke to India Today TV and claimed that the DRDO has done significant weight reduction on the Agni-V missile so that it can strike targets beyond 7,000 km. Defense officials reportedly claimed, “The weight reduction that has been achieved in the missile system is beyond 20 percent and if the government wants, the nuclear-capable strategic missile can go beyond 7,000 km.” Reportedly, the weight of the missile can be reduced by replacing its steel content with composite materials. Similar weight modifications were done earlier on Agni-III missiles with the same goal of extending the range of the strategic missiles. 

Ajai Shukla, an Indian military analyst wrote that the Agni-V missile could be made a lot lighter by “replacing older, heavier sub-systems with lighter, more reliable ones, including components made with lightweight composite materials.” Also, the “replacement of hydraulic actuators in the Agni-V’s giant first stage with the state-of-the-art, electro-mechanical actuators that already equip Stage 2 and Stage 3” are useful in reducing the weight of the missile, which can then enhance its range. He argued that in addition to the benefit of weight reduction, shifting from hydraulic to electro-mechanical actuators is helpful in addressing possible problems such as oil storage and leakage. Finally, electro-mechanical actuators are considered “more reliable and easy to maintain.” 

But, of course, there are challenges associated with MIRV technology too. Miniaturization of nuclear warheads, developing advanced guidance and navigation control systems, and ensuring the reliability of individual re-entry vehicles are all issues in general with MIRVed missiles. An Indian media report quoting anonymous highly placed sources noted that the MIRV system has “indigenous avionics systems and high-precision sensor packages, ensuring the re-entry vehicles precisely hit their target points.” 

It appears that MIRV capability is spreading, and more countries may be pursuing this technology. A Federation of American Scientists (FAS) report said that India’s pursuit is a follow up to China’s operationalization of MIRVs on some of its DF-5 ICBMs and possible development of MIRVs by Pakistan for its Ababeel medium-range missile. The report noted that North Korea may also be developing a MIRV capability.

As China expands and modernizes its nuclear wherewithal, India could feel compelled to keep pace with China, but that will also create a possible reaction in Pakistan. It could potentially lead to an expensive and spiraling arms race in South Asia. Moreover, China’s nuclear expansion and modernization could trigger responses in the East Asian neighborhood as well, resulting in a much wider arms buildup. 

Therefore, a lot hinges on China’s strategic capability development and its behavior. Unfortunately, at least under Xi Jinping’s leadership, China has not demonstrated the kind of prudence and care that makes anyone confident that Beijing will make the right choices.