After the mischief played by weather gods a day earlier, the god of fire or “Agni’’ came into his own on Thursday morning to hurl a potent fireball more than halfway across the Indian Ocean at over 20 times the speed of sound. India heralded a new era in its “credible” strategic deterrence capability by testing its most ambitious nuclear missile—the over 5,000-km range Agni-V — that brings all of China and much more within its strike envelope. With the launch of the 50-tonne missile from the Wheeler Island off Odisha coast at 8.07 am, and its 20-minute flight to an “impact point towards western Australia’’, India also yanked open the door to the super-exclusive ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) club that counts only the US, Russia, China, France and the UK as its members. India can, however, can sit at this high table only when Agni-V becomes fully operational after “four to five repeatable tests’’ and user-trials. It will be around 2015 that the threestage, solid-fuelled missile will be ready for deployment by the tri-service strategic forces command. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and defence minister A K Antony congratulated the scientists for “doing us proud”.
India, with a declared “no first-use’’ nuclear doctrine, could have gone in for a much higher range ICBM, say top officials. But Agni-V, with its “very short reaction time as well as very high mobility for requisite operational flexibility’’, takes care of “current threat perceptions.”
After testing the over 5,000km Agni V missile, which went up to 600km into space during its parabolic trajectory, the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) now feels it can fashion deadly anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons in doublequick time. The ASAT weapon would include marrying Agni V’s propulsion system with the “kill vehicle” of the under-development twotier BMD (ballistic missile defence) system that has been tested a few times to track and destroy hostile missiles both inside (endo) and outside (exo) the earth’s atmosphere.
China’s strategic experts and official media on Friday said the Agni V missile has a longer range than India admits, and the nuclear-capable projectile can hit cities in Europe.“The Indian missile has a range of 8,000km and not 5,000km as claimed by India,” said an expert Du Wenlong, adding that the Indian government had deliberately downplayed the missile’s capability to avoid causing concern to other countries. Wenlong, an expert at the PLA Academy of Military Sciences, was not alone. Zhang Zhaozhang, professor with PLA National Defence University, too, was quoted by the paper, Global Times, as saying, “According to China’s standard, an ICBM should have a range of at least 8,000km. The Agni-V’s range could be further enhanced to become an ICBM.” There were also signs that China will try to pressure the US and Russia into not selling their missile guidance systems to India.