It was not for nothing that the test of Agni-V in 2016 forced China to turn to an 18-year-old United Nations Security Council resolution to condemn India’s move. China was rattled. India had credibly demonstrated the ability to target important Chinese cities, and Beijing was quick to identify the implications of this tectonic change in New Delhi’s capability through its belligerent rhetoric.
However, back then, the development of the missile was far from complete. Five years down the line, despite multiple successful tests, the missile may still be some time away from being inducted into the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) and produced in numbers. But today’s test – its third this year – was crucial. It was carried out by the tri-service SFC, the body which controls all of India’s nuclear warheads and delivery systems, and is responsible for operationalising the directives of the Nuclear Command Authority headed by the Prime Minister.
Once inducted, the Agni-V will prove to be a game changer for India.
One, the long range of the Agni-V, reported to be around 5,000-8,000 km, enables India to bring all important Chinese cities, including Beijing, under threat. With this missile inducted, India can respond to a Chinese nuclear attack with massive retaliation, as laid-out in the nuclear doctrine. Thus, the missile will play an important role in establishing the credibility of deterrence viz-à-viz China.
Two, Agni-V is a solid-fueled missile. Solid-fueled missiles offer the benefit of a quick response and longer storage life. Prearranging a liquid-fueled missile for launch, in comparison, takes more time. Also, in case of non-use, liquid fuel must be drained out from the missile due to its highly corrosive nature and stored separately. Therefore, it is easy to store and transport a solid-fueled missile.
This also gives India the option to canisterise the missile. While the first two tests of the Agni-V – in April 2012 and September 2013 – were of the standard Indian uncanisterised missile, the next four were of a canisterised system. Today’s launch, a press release read, was conducted from a “mobile launcher” at Dr Abdul Kalam Island. In this configuration, a missile mated with a nuclear warhead is sealed in a canister, which is placed atop a road-mobile launcher.
Canisterisation enables a missile to be kept in a state of readiness, makes camouflaging the missile easier and permits rapid launch. Being placed on a road-mobile launcher, the missile can be moved from one location to another in times of heightened conflict to avoid detection by enemy satellites. This, in turn, increases its survivability in a preemptive counterforce strike.
Three, India, for long, has chosen to keep its missiles and nuclear warheads unmated to avoid accidents. However, this is set to change with Agni-V. In the canisterised configuration, the missiles are required to be mated with nuclear warheads before being loaded onto mobile launchers. Other missiles in the Agni series, Agni-I through IV, are not encapsulated in a canister. While nuclear warheads in case of these missiles can be mated and de-mated whenever required, Agni-V will not have that option. This marks an important change in India’s nuclear deployment strategy.
India’s deployment of Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) to arm its nuclear submarine also reflects this change. INS Arihant, India’s first domestically built, nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine recently completed its first deterrence patrol and is presently armed with 12 750 km range K-15 SLBMs.
Four, the development of Agni-V has buttressed India’s capability to develop and operationalise Anti-Satellite (ASAT) weapons. Although India is against the weaponisation of space, China has been moving in this direction for at least a decade and has reportedly tested its capability too. If its assets in the space are threatened, India can quickly develop ASATs in response.
Former DRDO Chief, Dr Saraswat, had in 2012 admitted that the Agni-V had “ushered in fantastic opportunities in, say building Anti-Satellite (ASAT) weapons and launching mini/micro satellites on demand”.
“An ASAT weapon would require to reach about 800km altitude… Agni V gives you the boosting capability and the ‘kill vehicle’, with advanced seekers, will be able to home into the target satellite,” he had noted back then.
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