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Agni-5 to fly halfway to Antarctica

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

After three successful ballistic missile tests during the past fortnight, the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) is finalising preparations for the big one. In December, the giant Agni-5 missile will blast off from Wheeler Island, on the Orissa coast, travelling its full range of 5,000 km to a target in the southern Indian Ocean.

Agni-5 is debuting with a full-range test for two reasons. First, so that there is no question about how far it can strike. Second, to test not just the missile, but also whether the DRDO’s monitoring networks can cope with such enormous ranges, tracking the Agni-5 every moment en route to a target 5,000 km away. This will involve transporting a DRDO team and its tracking equipment on Indian Navy warships deep into the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean.

“The Agni-5 missile will travel halfway to Antarctica. The missile’s designers are certain (about the range) but we will demonstrate it for the users,” says Avinash Chander, chief controller for missiles and strategic systems at DRDO.

As director of the Hyderabad-based Advanced Systems Laboratory, he oversaw much of Agni-5’s development. Talking exclusively to Business Standard, he describes how the three-stage, 50-tonne, 17.5-metre high missile will be powered off the Wheeler Island launch pad by its giant first stage; within minutes, it will be in space, powered by a new, all-composite second stage. After heading southwards for 2,000 km, will cross the equator. Then, it will hurtle through space for another 3,000 km or so, re-entering the atmosphere over the Tropic of Capricorn and splashing down at the target somewhere between the southern tip of Africa and Australia.

Following international practice, the DRDO will issue advisories before the test, giving out the launch window and warning shipping and air traffic to stay clear of the target area.

Explains Chander: “No Indian missile has ever travelled so far, except for Isro rockets. But those remain in space and there is no requirement to monitor their re-entry. Besides, space is a collaborative environment, with establishments worldwide cooperating in tracking a rocket. For the Agni-5, we have to develop a network of tracking systems, which will do the job out to 5,000 km and beyond. And, our ships will have to be at the target area to collect the data.”

While the Indian Navy had declined to officially comment, senior sources confirm one of their Offshore Patrol Vessels would position itself at the target end, with a DRDO team on board, equipped with tracking and communications equipment.

The DRDO predicts a highly accurate missile, which will strike within a few hundred metres of the designated target, even after travelling 5,000 km. This would allow the operational version of the Agni-5 to carry a smaller nuclear warhead. “Megaton warheads were used when accuracies were low. Now we talk of (accuracy of) a few hundred metres. That allows a smaller warhead, perhaps 150-250 kilotons, to cause substantial damage. We don’t want to cause wanton damage (with megaton warheads),” says Chander.

The Agni-5’s 5,000-km range, say nuclear strategists, is carefully calibrated. It can reach targets across the globe, except for America and Australia. This prevents alarm bells from going off in friendly capitals, while establishing and strengthening nuclear deterrence against all possible enemies.

“Agni-5 will take us to the 5,000-km plus class of missile systems, which meets all our threat requirements,” said V K Saraswat, the DRDO chief, at a public function recently.

The range keeps it just in the class of intermediate range ballistic missiles, whose range is 3,000-5,500 km. DRDO sources indicate the Agni-5 could easily be ramped up into an intercontinental ballistic missile, having a range greater than 5500 km.

Agni-5 is similar in size and weight to its predecessor, the Agni-3, with a range of 3,500 km. The extensive use of composite materials allows Agni-5 to propel a warhead 1,500 km further. While the first stage remains unchanged from Agni-3, the second stage is significantly lighter, made of composites. This has allowed a third stage, also composite, to be fitted, extending the range.

Engineering the third stage was a major technology challenge. “The third stage, which slopes into the warhead stage, has a conical motor. So far, we have only been doing cylindrical motors, never a shaped motor,” explains Chander.

Another distinctive feature is its ‘canisterisation’. Hermetically sealed into an airtight canister that is mounted on a flatbed truck, the missile can be easily transported and fired quickly, by hydraulically raising the canister into the vertical firing position. Made from high-strength maraging steel, the canister must absorb enormous stresses during firing, when a thrust of 300-400 tonnes is generated to eject the 50-tonne missile The canister also provides a hermitically sealed atmosphere, in which the missile is stored safely for years.

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First Published: Sat, October 08 2011. 00:29 IST