More than anything else, the third flight test of the Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile Agni-III on Wednesday will help India achieve a credible nuclear deterrent. India’s strategic ambitions were shrouded in ambivalence till recently, with New Delhi caught in two minds about accelerating its Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP). In fact, at one point, the Defence Research and Development Organisation even thought of scrapping the 25-year programme. It is unfortunate that ever since the Agni became a part of the IGMDP in 1983, successive governments were content to showcase it as a technology demonstrator. After its second test ended in a partial failure in 1995, India suspended its development under US pressure. Never mind if this also had to do with New Delhi’s indecision regarding the future direction of India’s nuclear programme, especially the pursuit of thermonuclear weapons.
The Agni system is a key component of India’s deterrence capability, and it made no sense to delay its development after the nuclear tests of May, 1998. No wonder India became one of a handful of countries that possessed nuclear weapons, but had no means of delivery. As a result, the Indian Air Force continues to be the sole delivery mechanism for the country’s nuclear arsenal.
India’s security imperatives call for powerful missiles, and these missiles can serve as instruments of deterrence only when they carry what they are supposed to counter: weapons of mass destruction. It is high time defence planners trashed their rhetoric that an armed Agni “can, and will be” deployed at the drop of a Pakistani or Chinese helmet. Initial reports from the test site in Chandipur-on-Sea speak of remarkable circular area probable figures — which determine a missile’s strike accuracy — for Agni-III. Development of Agni’s submarine-launched version should now be speeded up so that the missile can be inducted into the armed forces without further delay. Agni’s guidance system and vehicle structure seem to form an excellent configuration for its future modification, and the next step would be to augment its range to over 5,000 kilometres. That would not be unlike the intercontinental ballistic missile, Surya, which has been on the drawing board for an inordinately long time.