Agni-VI is expected to have a range between 9,000 kms and 12,000 kms with a 3-ton nuclear payload, and a range between 14,000 kms and 16,000 kms with a lighter 1.5 tonne package. A large ICBM force consisting of Agni-V and Agni-VI missiles will ensure a very strong security shield for India

by Amartya Sinha

India’s Agni-V ICBM (Intercontinental-Range Ballistic missile) has undergone nine successful trials since its maiden flight in April 2012. On December 15, 2022, India successfully carried out the night trial of the Agni-V missile from the Abdul Kalam Island in Odisha. The test was to validate new technologies and equipment on the weapon system.

Replacing maraging steel (very high tensile steel) with lightweight composite materials made the Agni-V missile 20 per cent lighter than its previous avatars. The launch also proved a striking capability beyond 7,000 km. But an effective Indian credible nuclear deterrence against China still remains unfulfilled due to Agni-V’s limited payload carrying capacity of 1.5 tonnes.

India’s integrated guided-missile development program needs to go the extra mile in many aspects.

Meanwhile, Indian scientists and engineers are working on ‘DRDO Veda’ (Vehicle for Defence Application)- a satellite launch vehicle (SLV). All three wings of the Indian armed forces will be able to launch military satellites into low earth orbit at a very short notice by using DRDO Veda which will significantly decrease their dependence on ISRO and boost their objectives of self-reliance.

DRDO Veda will also implement the method of horizontal stacking of stages and payloads for assembling the launch vehicle before launch, which will be completely different from the vertical stacking method used in ISRO’s SSLV rocket. The vehicle will be highly agile and mobile, and can be launched from a multi-axle TEL (Transporter Erector-Launcher) vehicle.

Legacy of  AGNI-V

While the Agni-V, the nuclear capable intercontinental range ballistic missile (ICBM), has undergone nine successful test flights since 2012, there has been very little movement on the much-awaited Agni-VI missile project. After Agni-V’s maiden trial on April 19, 2012, former DRDO Chairman, Dr Vijay Kumar Saraswat had very clearly stated that India had no intention to cap the Agni missile program and that there would be more missiles in the Agni series as a follow-up of Agni-V in the coming years.

The Agni-V has an effective range of almost 5,500 kms with a 1.5-tonne nuclear warhead. A basic law of physics is that, due to gravity and momentum, there is an inverse relationship between the weight of a warhead and the range of a missile. If the same rocket boosters of Agni-V (better with a slow burning propellant) for the heavy load is used for a lighter load amounting to a 500 kg warhead, the range of the missile can be enhanced up to 10,000 km.

So, by this theory, the Agni-V is already a 10,000 km-class ICBM albeit with a less powerful warhead. And this is one of the prime gaps in India’s nuclear deterrence which the Agni-VI is supposed to plug. Agni-VI is expected to have a range between 9,000 kms and 12,000 kms with a 3-tonne nuclear payload, and a range between 14,000 kms and 16,000 kms with a lighter 1.5 tonne package. Guidance system of Agni-VI will include inertial navigation system with Ring laser gyroscope, optionally augmented by IRNSS (Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System) along with terminal guidance with possible radar scene correlation (this is a kind of terrain contour mapping which will improve the accuracy of missile).

Strong Case of AGNI-VI

In 2011, IAF’s former Chief of Air Staff, Pradeep Vasant Naik, who was also the head of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, had vehemently argued in favour of broadening India’s nuclear striking capabilities beyond the immediate neighbourhood. The higher range of Agni-VI will bring at least four of the capitals of major world powers within India’s strike envelope.

A 12,000 km-plus range will increase India’s flexibility, which is very important for effective deterrence and will also enable the country to hit Chinese ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), aircraft carriers and warships attempting to hide as far out as the Southern Indian Ocean and Central Pacific Ocean. This is assuming that India develops more accurate ICBM guidance systems (on the lines of China’s DF21D anti-ship ballistic missile) against warships, aircraft carriers and submarines. India must wish that the Agni-VI should have the minimum range of 9000 kms (more than China’s JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile), which will make the ICBM program worthy of its stature.

AGNI-VI A Big Force Multiplier

Agni-VI is supposed to be a solid-fuelled multistage ICBM capable of carrying up to ten nuclear/ thermonuclear warheads in MIRV (Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicle) and MaRV (Manoeuvrable Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicle) configurations. The rocket may also have the capability to carry light decoys and chaffs (radar countermeasures) to beat the most formidable anti-ballistic missile systems (ballistic missile defence units) and to confuse hostile air defences.

As India has reportedly developed a deadly arsenal of double-staged thermonuclear fusion devices and single-stage boosted-fission bombs, each MIRV warhead may have explosive yields of up to 250 kilotons, thus capable of wiping out entire metropolitan areas and vaporising tens of millions of people into thin air with a single strike.

Having a gross weight of up to 70 tonnes, Agni-VI is supposed to be a four-stage rocket made up of composite materials which will also enable the Indian military to launch military satellites into low earth orbit (LEO) during contingencies, thus also validating its FOBS (Fractional Orbital Bombardment System) capability. Renowned strategic experts like Bharat Karnad, Brahma Chellaney and Rakesh Krishnan Simha have repeatedly argued in the past that India must develop a global striking capability with a credible ICBM force in the near future.

“It is high time for India to develop genuine ICBMs with a 12,000+ kms range. The Agni-VI project should be immediately approved for development. Geopolitical pressures faced by a country are always the result of a nation’s will and its strategic vision. The incumbent union government must show the spine to stand up to such pressures without which India can never aspire to become a great power”, says Bharat Karnad, Emeritus Professor for National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research and a popular national security expert.

A large ICBM force consisting of Agni-V and Agni-VI missiles will ensure a very strong security shield for the country on the strategic level battlefield and will severely deter big powers from attempting the Balkanisation of India during future conflicts. While the erstwhile UPA-1 and UPA-2 governments were considered as ‘pacifist’ by many policymakers, it is high time for the incumbent NDA-3 government to prove its political will by swiftly approving the Agni-VI program and by test launching the first prototype over the coming years, thus pushing India into the elite league of military superpowers like USA, Russia and China. Such a capability will give India tremendous diplomatic leverage at the global table.

Doing IT Smartly

A full-range test of Agni-VI (beyond 9000 km) will probably raise eyebrows in Western media circles. The best way to execute the test is to declare the missile’s official range up to 9000 km (tacitly stating the China-factor), but carry out the flight with a 3-tonne super heavy warhead. This will totally validate the new missile’s capability without creating a diplomatic row with the West. Moreover, such a test will also yield significant political advantage for the BJP-led central government as the scientific achievement can be narrated by the Prime Minister to the domestic electorate as a major historic milestone (on the lines of the ASAT test carried out in March 2019).

Following Vajpayee's Footstep

As soon as Agni-VI is tested and validated, Prime Minister Narendra Modi may also declare a permanent voluntary moratorium on the development of longer ranged missiles and officially cap the ICBM program at 9000 km. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had declared a similar permanent voluntary moratorium on nuclear tests after the Pokhran-2 series of explosions in May 1998, and this had aided in his rise as a global statesman.

The union government needs to complete and demonstrate the Agni-VI and DRDO Veda projects at the earliest, as without a credible ICBM force, India will always be looked upon as nothing more than a subcontinental bully- a nation that aspires to play hardball with the giants but ends up relegated to the minor league. The ball is now in the ruling dispensation’s court.