By Girish Linganna
The world has eagerly awaited Agni V’s successor since its first test in 2012. A year hence, the then Chairman of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), VK Saraswat, confirmed that the work on a long-range ballistic missile was underway. He also hinted at multiple warheads capability that could hit multiple targets simultaneously. At that time, the designs were finalised, and the project was in the phase of hardware realisation.
Nine years since the remarks, there has been an eerie silence on the Agni VI. Why is there radio silence? Can India develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a range of 10,000 KM?
Two Sides of the Same Coin:
A nation with a successful space programme is often believed to be able to target and use nuclear weapons anywhere in the world. If they can launch even a medium-sized satellite into a higher earth orbit, they can aptly rework their space launch vehicles to destroy any location on the planet. Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has been the pillar of India’s successful space programme.
New Delhi launched its first satellite in 1980 using the indigenous SLV3 rocket. The rocket, developed by the DRDO, kick-started the development of ballistic missiles under Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. In under a decade, India conducted the first test flight of its surface-to-surface Agni Technology Demonstration missile, utilising the knowledge and technology from the SLV3 rocket.
The first in the series, Agni I, boasted a 700-1200 KM range. After the success of Agni I, ISRO developed the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) that had four stages using a mix of solid and liquid fuel stages. This development heavily inspired the Agni II missile, especially its second stage. The rocket has two solid fuelled stages. This 2-stage design has been touted for its mobility and adaptability. With a 2000 KM range, India could reach all of Pakistan and most of southeastern China.
India’s Agni series missiles were upgraded concurrently with the country’s advancements in space technology. India also made other Agni missiles, such as the Agni III, which can travel up to 3500 kilometres and the Agni IV, which can travel up to 4000 kilometres.
In 2012, the Agni V ICBM was a game changer with a range of about 5500 kilometres. India successfully demonstrated its counterforce capability thanks to Agni V’s increased payload and multiple independently-targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) capabilities. High accuracy in both further added lethality to the Agni V.
This is most definitely a message of a higher degree directed at the possible adversary. With the launch of Agni V, India has signalled to the rest of the world that although it does not engage in preemptive nuclear strikes, it has maintained a counterforce capability. Thus, if anyone employs a nuclear weapon against India, India can now launch a counterforce capability against the nuclear strike forces of its adversary. The successful launch of India’s Agni V missile continues to ruffle feathers in China, which has said India has deliberately downplayed its capabilities.
Chinese analysts believe that the missile has the capability of reaching targets up to 8000 kilometres distance. However, Indian officials have said that the missile can cover a distance of over 5000 kilometres.
The Curious Case of Agni VI
The United States believes India could convert its PSLV into an ICBM with a significant range increase within a year. The fact is that most of the components required for an ICBM are already available in India due to India’s indigenous space programme.
In 2018 the head of the DRDO, Dr Christopher, stated that the organisation is capable of developing an ICBM that could hit targets at a distance greater than 10,000 kilometres. He further divulged that the organisation was working on a ground variant and an underground variant. According to him, when the United States, the United Kingdom and other nations prohibited the import of components for laser technology, India was able to develop its own and has since been self-sufficient in this area.
So if the nation is capable, why hasn’t it been developed? One possible explanation is that India doesn’t want its western allies to worry. Since the United States and most of Europe are not within the strike range of the Agni V, there is little cause for concern. This became abundantly clear when India was authorised to join the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).
If India demonstrates an ICBM with a range capable of striking vital cities around the globe, the allies may perceive it differently. The effective range of ballistic missiles is a hotly debated topic. Many Europeans and Americans have voiced that India need not develop an ICBM with a range as high as 10000 KM as its most distant adversary is China, which it can aptly hit given its capabilities at present. If India publically accepts the Agni VI and its 10,000 KM plus range, the US and European nations are bound to be irate.
However, many in India argue that if China has been permitted to develop ballistic missiles with ranges beyond 10,000 kilometres, then there is no reason why India should be left behind.
India has been capable of testing its anti-satellite missile since the launch of the Agni V missile in 2012. However, it was tested in 2019. Even in 2019, India’s anti-satellite missile surprised the world, with only Russia and the US standing behind the country. The US Pentagon told its Senate Armed Services Committee that India’s anti-satellite weapons test was only done because the government worried about space threats. It was the ideal time for India to test the weapon so it would not startle its other allies. Most likely, Agni VI is undergoing the same predicament.
More so than technical, the geopolitical holdup deters immediate testing of India’s ICBM without scaring allies in the West.
Agni VI is believed to have the code-name Surya, the sun. It was shown at an exhibition at IIT Kanpur, which proves its existence, and DRDO scientists have never denied that this programme exists. It is safe to assume that India has an ICBM with a 10,000+ KM range. However, the big question is when will India test the Agni VI? Will it be in the next three years?
Author is Defence and Aerospace Analyst.
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