The DRDO must take the Agni program to the logical next step: the development of a full-fledged ICBM with a range of 8,000 kilometres or more

The successful testing of the surface-to-surface Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM), Agni-V, from APJ Abdul Kalam Island in Odisha on October 27 brings India closer to developing the Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) technology. The test-firing of the missile was conducted by its user agency, the tri-service Strategic Forces Command.

The Agni-V has a range of 5000 kilometres, which is 500 kilometres short of an ICBM’s range of 5,500 kilometres. Only a handful of countries in the world like the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain, and — unofficially — Israel have the ICBMs in their arsenals. Not that nomenclature would be weighing heavily on the minds of India’s defence planners as they celebrate this remarkable achievement.

At launch, the Agni-V’s three-stage, solid fuel-engine powers it to an altitude of 500 kilometres before it follows a ballistic trajectory, traversing one-eighth of Earth’s circumference of more than 40,000 kilometres in 20 minutes. This enables Agni-V to reach, and hit targets anywhere in Asia and Europe with great accuracy. As the Agni-V is cannisterised, it is easy to store, and can be fired from mobile launchers, and trains from anywhere in the subcontinent, which makes it highly manoeuvrable, and hard to track by enemy missiles.

The Agni-V’s Multiple Independently-Targeted Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV) capability also makes it an ideal test-bed for more powerful variants of the missile. A MIRV weapon consists of a number of nuclear warheads carried on a single ICBM, each warhead zeroing in on a separate target. It is extremely difficult for air defence systems to shoot down MIRV targets than to intercept single missiles. To further reduce the odds of MIRV warheads being intercepted, decoy re-entry vehicles can also be deployed. India's ‘no first use’ nuclear policy is based on second-guessing a full-fledged nuclear strike which could destroy most of the enemy’s nuclear arsenal. MIRVs form a key second line of defence in such a scenario.

Taking into account India’s potential strategic threats that lie within a range of 5,000 kilometres, the Agni-V has been developed with a China-centric focus, and is meant for an eastward launch rather than a westward one. The threat from Pakistan to the west is to be tackled by the Agni-Prime (Agni-P) variant that was test flown last June. Also cannisterised, the Agni-P has a range of 2,000-kilometres, and it is earmarked for replacing the Prithvi, Agni I and Agni II missiles that were developed more than 20 years ago. The 3,000-kilometre range of Agni-III and Agni-IV covers only parts of China, and cannot target many Chinese strategic locations.

India began its indigenously-designed integrated guided missile development program (IGMDP) in the early 1980s, and successfully developed the Prithvi, Akash, Nag, Trishul, and Agni series of missiles. But the Prithvi’s maiden launch in 1988, followed by the Agni test three years later, caused exaggerated jitters in the west that led to the US and its allies imposing technology sanctions on India under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

Washington and other western capitals alleged that India adapted its civilian satellite launch vehicle to build the Agni medium-range ballistic missile. While this was a serious setback for the Agni program, Indian defence planners promptly responded by pooling the resources of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to make all the restricted missile components indigenously: one of the first ‘Make in India’ initiatives in the defence sector.

After Agni-III was unveiled in 2006, New Delhi decided to cap the IGMDP. The reasoning was that India needed to build only missiles with a range of around 5,500 kilometres, which was enough to target the whole of China — anything more than that would be redundant. But as it happened, this reduced the elbow room for India’s defence planners to effectively adjust to the evolving regional strategic calculus.

So in hindsight, New Delhi did well to eventually reverse its earlier decision to let the crucial Agni program drift. A powerful long range missile like the Agni-V is vital for giving credibility to India’s deterrence posture. As the Ministry of Defence said in a statement last week, "The successful test of Agni-V is in line with India’s stated policy to have credible minimum deterrence that underpins the commitment to no first use."

But for that to happen, the DRDO must take the Agni program to the logical next step: the development of a full-fledged ICBM with a range of 8,000 kilometres or more. From all accounts, the next avatar of Agni-V, the Agni-VI, is already on the drawing board, and is expected to have that range.

Any deterrence posture which does not include global-range missiles such as ICBMs would merely give India a sub-strategic deterrent capability. India's security constraints today call for nothing short of powerful missiles, and these missiles are instruments of deterrence only when they carry what they are supposed to counter — weapons of mass destruction.

In that sense, Agni-V represents a real game changer in the regional strategic scenario.