The sky over Wheeler Island off the Odisha coast on Thursday morning was not leaden like the previous evening when a lightning storm had forced India's defence scientists to postpone the launch of Agni 5. In the control room, hunched over consoles, men and women in white overalls listened intently as overhead speakers relayed the resumed countdown. "Three, two, one, zero, one, two, three ..." and then there it was - the most sophisticated missile India has ever built, climbing majestically on a plume of fire into the morning sky. The missile zoomed high into Earth's outer atmosphere and, travelling at 25 times the speed of sound, covered 5,000 km in about a quarter of an hour, before plunging earthward towards its predetermined impact point in the Indian Ocean.
In those 15 minutes, India crossed a major milestone en route to achieving long-range nuclear strike capability. But the thought was probably lost on the 400-odd technicians and engineers at the launch site who hugged and congratulated each other. Indeed, the textbook launch of Agni 5 is a tribute to the fine band of Indian missile-men and women who staked their credentials on the first flight of the missile. The trickiest bit about designing an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) is making the warhead smaller and building an accurate, independent navigation system for the missile. India's defence scientists seem to have mastered both, the way the missile reportedly excelled in crucial operational areas like re-entry, long-range manoeuvring, and three-stage propulsion and stage separation. It will take another couple of years, though, before the missile's systems can be finetuned and made deployable.
The maiden flight of Agni 5 means more to India than its much-hyped entry into an 'elite club' of countries flexing long-range ballistic missile biceps. India's capability to build and launch sophisticated long range missiles is important since ICBMs are as much the currency of power in international relations as economic equations. A nation's capability for deterrence and power-projection is predicated on hard power - something that India has failed to acquire even decades after Independence. Therefore, it is of crucial importance for the country to develop Agni 5 - and its longer range ICBM variants - to strengthen its doctrine of minimum but credible nuclear deterrence.
With some not-so-friendly neighbours pursuing nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons development programmes, it's crucial for India to have proven, deployable nuclear-capable missiles of immense deterrence value. Having rightly kicked the chemical and biological habits, it is a Hobson's choice for India to develop such missiles to meet its security imperatives.
It is probably one of the worst kept secrets that Agni 5 has been exclusively developed for an eastward launch rather than a westward one. Its earlier avatars, Agni 1 (700 km) and Agni 2 (2,000 km) had a Pakistan-focus, while Agni 3 and Agni 4 were meant for China and other neighbouring countries. But the 3,000 km range of Agni 3 and 4 was not enough to reach several strategic targets in China. Agni 5 rectifies this. Being road-mobile, the missile can actually hit targets far beyond its designated range of 5,000 kms. From a launcher in, say, northeastern India, the three-stage solid fuelled missile can even reach some of China's northernmost cities. That this would also help New Delhi cope better with the dilemma of Beijing using Islamabad as a proxy to extend its atomic ambitions is a bonus.
India's Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP), launched in 1982-83, has come a long way and looks set to enter an exciting new phase, which will see the development of a new generation of beyond visual range and precision missiles with seek-and-hit capabilities, carrying multi-munitions to home in on several targets. Agni 5 is the country's first long range missile with Multiple Independently-Targeted Re-entry Vehicles (MIRV) capability. A MIRV weapon consists of several nuclear warheads carried on a single ICBM with each warhead assigned to a separate target. Air defence systems would find shooting down MIRV targets much more difficult than intercepting single missiles. MIRVs form a key dimension of India's declared "no first use" nuclear policy that anticipates a full-fledged nuclear strike by an enemy, which destroys most of the country's nuclear arsenal.
The assumption is that the surviving Indian missiles would retaliate with enough force to inflict unacceptable damage on the enemy. The MIRV-ed Agni 5 fits this bill. With ICBMs like Surya - which would be able to reach even targets in the US and Europe - ready to roll off the drawing board, India can finally stop punching below its weight.
Prakash Chandra is a defence analyst
The views expressed by the author are personal