It is good to see India’s Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) finally picking up steam. The successful flight test of the nuclear-capable intermediate range ballistic missile Agni-III on Thursday was the latest in a series of triumphs for the IGMDP in the last six months, including the Prithvi interceptor missile and the Dhanush. Initial reports from the test site in Chandipur-on-sea in Orissa speak of remarkable circular area probable figures (that determine a missile’s strike accuracy) for Agni-III. This is a tribute to the fine band of Indian missilemen who staked their credentials on Agni III excelling in crucial operational areas like re-entry, long-range manoeuvring, and two-staged propulsion and stage separation. For the first test of the missile had failed last July when it crashed into the sea without hitting its designated target.
The Agni system forms a key component of India’s nuclear deterrence capability and it made no sense to delay its development after India tested nuclear weapons in May 1998. It would have been a shame if defence planners still only talked about an armed Agni that could be deployed at the drop of a Pakistani or Chinese helmet. The strategic value of missiles makes more than economic sense, shielding the country from external pressures and coercive diplomacy. With some not-so-friendly neighbours actively pursuing nuclear, chemical, and biological warhead development programmes, it is crucial for India to have a proven, deployable weapon of immense deterrence value like the Agni. Having rightly kicked the chemical and biological habits, it obviously hasn’t taken New Delhi long to acknowledge that India’s security imperatives call for nothing short of powerful long-range missiles. And these missiles can serve as instruments of deterrence only when they carry what they are supposed to counter: weapons of mass destruction.
The Agni III has an excellent configuration for the missile’s modification. Since its second-stage is based on the extensively tested Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), computer simulations can draw upon PSLV data to augment the missile’s range to over 5,000 kilometres. That wouldn’t be unlike the intercontinental ballistic missile, Surya, which is already on the drawing board, and which would be able to reach targets in the US and Europe.