Total silence by DRDO adds to the riddle of Thursday’s test

The country may have been agog with the sudden news flash on Thursday evening that the Agni-5 missile may have been tested, but there are questions being raised as to whether it was indeed so at all. And if it was actually a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) test.

What may have added to the quick conclusion was the fact that the timing could have been apt for India to send a strong message to China. On December 9, Indian and Chinese troops had clashed in the border in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang Sector, causing injuries to troopers on both the sides.

The timing would also have been suitable on the eve of Vijay Diwas, a day celebrated on December 16, to commemorate India’s victory over Pakistan when the latter’s forces surrendered to India in 1971 after a short war.

TV channels and social media carried visuals of a bright light taking off into the dark Thursday sky—seemingly shot on a smartphone by some locals from near the Abdul Kalam Island off the Odisha coast.

Hinting that the test could be that of a HGV, a source familiar with Thursday’s test said, “It may not be a test of the Agni 5, and can be something much bigger. But whatever it is, it definitely adds one big feather on the cap of India.”

Meanwhile, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the country’s premier military R&D entity and the apex entity that conducts such tests, had maintained total silence on the issue.

What also makes the Agni-5 test doubtful is the low velocity of the projectile as seen in the camera-shot images, but would be valid for a hypersonic glide vehicle test.

The nuclear-capable Agni-5 with a rage of about 5,000-7,000 km would have brought within India’s striking range the whole of China, including some parts of Europe.

India has been test-firing the Agni-5 since 2016 onwards but hasn’t deployed the missile yet.

Already, India has in its arsenal Agni-I (700-1,200 km range), Agni-II (2,000-3,000 km), Agni-III (3,500-5,000) and Agni-IV (3,000-4,000). Agni-VII (7,000-10,000) is in the developmental stage.

While further tests may be needed to validate the deployment of the Agni-5 under the Strategic Command Forces of the Indian military, it is but the logical culmination of ongoing scientific research and development.

While the speed of the Agni-5 is supersonic or purportedly between 2-3 Mach (2-3 times the speed of sound), hypersonic missiles are those with a speed of 5-24 Mach.

A hypersonic capability will leapfrog India into the big league. Only the US, Russia and China has the capability to field hypersonic missiles.

The HGV had been identified as one of the 18 major platforms for industry-led design and development under various routes.

Working on hypersonic missiles since 2018, the DRDO successfully demonstrated its hypersonic air-breathing scramjet technology with the flight test of Hypersonic Technology Demonstration Vehicle (HSTDV) on September 7, 2020.

The PM had then tweeted: “Congratulations to DRDO for successful flight of the Hypersonic Test Demonstration Vehicle today. The scramjet engine developed by our scientists helped the flight achieve a speed 6 times the speed of sound! Very few countries have such capability today.”