India on Sunday overcame its "self-imposed restraint" to test-fire its most advanced intermediate range ballistic missile, Agni-III, but it developed a snag and fell into the sea off the coast of Orissa without hitting the target.
A successful launch would have put India's credible minimum nuclear deterrence on a firm footing as no missile in the Indian arsenal has the range to strike eastern China. Capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and of hitting targets over 3,500 km away, Agni-III was intended to fill that gap and offer credible deterrence against China.
Reports from Orissa said the missile went up vertically to a height of about 12 km before "design failure" caused technical problems and the second stage did not separate. But there was no official confirmation of the "mission failure" from the Defence Ministry. Reports quoted a spokesman as saying "the missile took off successfully" at 11.03 hours IST and "the flight performance" was being analysed.
Agni-III was ready for launch in 2004-end but the government held back from test firing it for different reasons, including technical glitches. Tests were put off twice in the past one-and-half years.
Strategic-affairs analysts attributed the delay to apprehensions that the test launch could hamper US Congressional ratification of the bilateral civilian nuclear cooperation agreement.
However, during a visit to the Capital last month, US joint chief of staff, general Peter Pace, who serves as the principal military adviser to the American president, said Agni-III would only multiply India's deterrent force and not trigger an arms race.
A successful launch would have also marked the next stage in the natural progression towards the development of an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile, which would propel India into the big league of nuclear weapon states.
Strategic analyst air commodore (retd) Jasjit Singh feels India should increase the frequency of missile testing to establish the reliability of weapon systems under operational conditions.