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Indian ICBM Agni-III test imminent?

Preparations for a Agni-III launch have been underway for at least a month.

india Updated: Jul 08, 2006 04:40 IST

India on Friday seemed to be on the verge of test firing the nuclear-capable Agni-III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and there were indications the preparations had been underway for a month.

The defence establishment, however, said it was "not aware" of this.

"I do not know from where they have got the report from. I am not aware of any such test," a defence ministry official said, not wanting to be identified.

He was reacting to a report by a TV news channel that the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) that developed the missile which is capable of reaching China, was on the point of sending it aloft.

Inquiries in Orissa capital Bhubaneswar revealed that preparations for a Agni-III launch have been underway for at least a month and that President APJ Abdul Kalam, who has mentored India's missile programme, had visited the test site earlier this week.

Kalam, who was on a three-day visit to the state, had visited Wheeler Island, a DRDO facility off the Orissa coast, where he was given a detailed briefing on the Agni-III launch, sources said.

Kalam, when he was scientific advisor to the defence minister and DRDO head, had in 1992 selected Wheeler Island for testing the Agni series of missiles.

Avinash Chandra, the director of the Agni-III programme, has been camping at the site for a month, the sources added.

There have been indications since 2004 that Agni-III, a three-stage missile that adds a third stage to the first and second stages of Agni-II, was ready for launch.

Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee has repeatedly stated the launch had been put off due to India's "self-imposed restraint" on testing the missile.

Media reports in May said the Agni-III test flight had been put off under pressure from Washington, which felt this would send all the wrong signals at a time when the US Congress, as also the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), were considering the proposed India-US civilian nuclear deal.

Mukherjee immediately rubbished the suggestion, saying: "We have no pressure on us. We have decided on a self-imposed restraint," Mukherjee said May 15.

"As responsible members of the international community, we want to keep our international commitments on non-proliferation," he added.

Last month, Indian officials had dismissed a media report that claimed the US had given its nod for test firing Agni-III, saying this was only the interpretation of Washington think tank Stratfor.

"The think tank has interpreted a statement Gen. Peter Pace (chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff) made (in New Delhi) here (this week) to imply that the US had given its go ahead for the test. India has made it amply clear that we have imposed a voluntary ban on testing and that is where the matter stands," a defence ministry official said.

Pace, while replying to a question on Agni-III at a press conference, had said: "India is a sovereign nation and can decide for itself what weapons it needs. Missile tests do not necessarily destabilise the region."

The think tank has taken this as tacit US approval for the test, the official said.

Deployed from rail or road mobile launch vehicles, Agni-III is understood to be equipped with inertial guidance systems with improved optical or radar terminal phase correlation systems.

This would give it a high degree of accuracy with a medium to large nuclear payload of between 200 and 300 kilo tonnes (KT).

The Agni-I, with a range of 700-800 km, and Agni-II, with a 2,000 km range, have already been inducted in the Indian Army as part of country's minimum deterrent.

Agni-I can reach Pakistan while Agni-II and Agni-III can reach targets in China.