The victory came without the date having been announced in advance. The Defence Research and Development Organisation succeeded in its surprise test on Tuesday, as the new Agni-4 missile was launched “flawlessly” — to quote the MoD — from the Odisha coast, establishing India as a builder of cutting-edge intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs).
While Agni-4 was fired out to just 3,000 kilometres this morning, the DRDO claims it can comfortably deliver a nuclear weapon to a target 3,500 km away.
That would make Agni-4 India’s first true IRBM. Its predecessor, Agni-3, with a 3,000-km range, was a medium range ballistic missile. The 1958-formed DRDO is now readying for its debut launch is the 5000-km range Agni-5. It will be only marginally short of the 5,500-km range needed to be classified as that Big Daddy of rockets: an intercontinental ballistic missile. The DRDO states that its plans is to launch Agni-5 as early as next month.
The Agni-4 project has been overseen by Tessy Thomas, called the “missile woman” after she became the first woman to head an Indian ballistic missile project. (It is another matter that the media prefers to call her Agni Putri, or daughter of fire, a play on the Agni name.) Thomas has ensured that Agni-4 makes a major technological leap from Agni-3, testing out several systems that will be crucial to the success of Agni-5.
Launched from a road-mobile missile carrier at Wheeler’s Island off the Orissacoast, the two-stage, solid-fuel Agni-4 roared off its launch pad at exactly 9 am in what the DRDO describes as a “textbook fashion”. After reaching a height of 900 km, tracked by a chain of radars along India’s eastern seaboard, it began its descent, encountering temperatures above 3,000 degrees centigrade, while re-entering the atmosphere. Two ships of the Indian Navy that had been pre-positioned in the target area witnessed the final splash down.
DRDO’s public relations chief Ravi Gupta said Agni-4 represents an entirely new class of missiles. “It uses advanced technologies to improve capabilities, even while reducing the missile’s weight,” he told Business Standard.
A crucial first for Agni-4 is the successful use of a composite rocket motor, made of lightweight composites rather than the heavier “maraging steel” from which earlier rocket motors were fabricated. This composite rocket motor will be key to the success of Agni-5. Ditto will the case be with other first-time technologies — such as a high-accuracy ring-laser gyroscope-based inertial navigation system (RINS), a micro-navigation system (MINGS) and a powerful new onboard computer. Through on Tuesday’s surprise Agni-4 test, the DRDO has technologically de-risked the high-profile Agni-5 test that the world will be watching carefully.
“This test has paved the way ahead for the success of Agni-5 mission. It will be launched shortly,” said Avinash Chander, who heads the DRDO’s missiles division. He also talked up the RINS and the MINGS, describing Agni-4 as ushering in major advances in long-range navigation systems.
Navigation is critical for long-range ballistic missiles. For, striking very close to the target allows smaller nuclear warheads to inflict as much damage as heavy “megaton class” nuclear bombs delivered by less accurate missiles — several hundred metres, or even a kilometre, away. The Agni missiles’ high accuracy would allow India to restrict itself to smaller nuclear warheads, Chander told Business Standard.
“Megaton warheads were used when accuracies were low,” he noted. “Now we talk of [the accuracy of] a few hundred metres. That allows a smaller warhead, perhaps 150-250 kilotonnes, to cause substantial damage. We don’t want to cause wanton damage (with unnecessarily large warheads).”
Even as Agni-4 tests several technologies will go into Agni-5, it is not a mere technology demonstrator, the DRDO emphasises. Instead, it will be deployed with the military as an operational missile. According to a press release by the agency, Agni-4 “has provided a fantastic [nuclear] deterrence to the country and it will be produced in numbers and delivered to the Armed Forces as early as possible”.