As India gets ready to carry another test of its first ICBM, Agni V, before its induction into its arsenal, here's all you need to know about the missile

First, it was nuclear submarines for Australia and now a test of a long-range missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads. If you are a preeminent power in the neighbourhood with global superpower ambitions, such developments would be enough to rile you up. And that is exactly how China responded to news that India was planning a test of the Agni V missile ahead of its formal induction into its arsenal. Though it’s not the first test of the inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM), it does represent another move towards deterrence. Here’s all you need to know.

Why Is The Test Significant?

Agni-V is India’s first ICBM — normally regarded as having a range of more than 5,000 km — and has been under development for more than a decade. After its fifth test firing in January 2018, the Ministry of Defence had said that all the objectives for the test of the “long-range surface-to-surface ballistic missile… have been successfully met" and it “reaffirms the country’s indigenous missile capabilities and further strengthens our credible deterrence".

However, although reports have said that the missile was to be inducted into the Armed forces after two more tests the same year — in June and December — making it seven successful tests in total, another test was lined up, which got delayed, however, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The upcoming test — said to have been scheduled for September-end, it’s set for some time in October, reports said — described as its “first user trials" was reportedly to assess the ability of the missile to carry multiple warheads, known in defence jargon as multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV).

However, a report in Times Of India said that while India is working on MIRVs, the first tests of the technology won’t be held before two years. Reports say that a test on June 28 this year of the Agni P (for Prime), “a new generation advanced variant of Agni class of missiles" also involved a trial of MIRV capabilities, although it’s been suggested that that test had used “decoys" instead.

What Is MIRV?

MIRV capability allows a missile “to deliver multiple nuclear warheads to different targets" and was first developed by the US in the 1960s.

“In contrast to a traditional missile, which carries one warhead, MIRVs can carry multiple warheads," says the US-based Centre for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation (CACNP).

The warheads on such missiles can be released “at different speeds and in different directions" with some known to be capable of hitting targets “as far as 1,500km apart", CACNP says, adding that “although MIRVs were not initially intended to defeat ballistic missile defences, they are much more difficult to defend against than traditional missiles".

CACNP says that “the development of MIRV technology is not easy" as it involves a “combination of large missiles, small warheads, accurate guidance, and a complex mechanism for releasing warheads sequentially during flight".

In the neighbourhood, both China and Pakistan are said to possess MIRV-capable missiles.

What Is A Ballistic Missile?

According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), India has the “capacity to deploy short-, medium-, and long-range ballistic missiles". It says that the country “views its nuclear weapons and long-range power projection programs as the key to maintaining strategic stability in the Asia-Pacific region".

It lists the Prithvi-II, Agni-I, Agni-II, Agni-III, and Agni-IV as “India’s fully operational land-based ballistic missiles", noting that the country also has submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

Arms Control Association, another US-based organisation, says that ballistic missiles are “powered by rockets initially but then they follow an unpowered, free-falling trajectory towards their targets". It notes that as of December 2017, there were 31 countries that had such missiles with only nine among them known or suspected to possess nuclear capabilities — China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, UK, US.

Why Is China Fuming?

China habitually uses its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC) to condemn missile tests by India. After reports emerged of plans for another test of the Agni V, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a press briefing that “maintaining peace, security and stability in South Asia meets the common interests of all, where China hopes that all parities would make constructive efforts".

Touching specifically upon the topic of another missile test, he referred to the UNSC Resolution 1172 of 1998 — passed in the wake of nuclear tests held by India and Pakistan — which asks the two countries “immediately to stop their nuclear-weapon development programmes, to cease development of ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons and any further production of fissile material for nuclear weapons".

Zhou said that “as for whether India can develop ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, the UNSCR 1172 already has clear stipulations".

China hitting out against Indian weapons development is nothing new and it would have noted that with a range of 5,000-plus kilometres, Agni V brings most of the Chinese mainland under its range, enhancing its strategic deterrence vis-à-vis Beijing.

The news of the test also came at a time when the US and UK announced the formation of a new strategic defence triad with Australia, called AUKUS, in the Indo-Pacific, promising the island nation nuclear submarines to patrol the waters where China has long tried to aggressively push its territorial claims.

Australia, along with Japan, India and the US has also revived the Quad grouping which, though not a military alliance, is seen as being geared towards containing China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region.