India is preparing to test a missile with a range of 5,000 kilometers early this year and possibly develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in the future, Indian defense officials have indicated in recent weeks.
India conducted its first successful test of the Agni-4, which has a 3,500-kilometer range, Nov. 15. In a press release that day, New Delhi’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) said the test marks a “quantum leap” in India’s indigenous technological capabilities.
Following the test, the defense officials said their country had mastered a series of technologies that would allow it to field longer-range systems. However, there appear to be some differences within India’s defense community over whether New Delhi should use those technologies to cross the ICBM threshold by developing missiles with a range exceeding 5,500 kilometers.
Only five countries—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—have a demonstrated ICBM capability. North Korea has unsuccessfully tested missiles in the ICBM range.
The technologies India claimed it has successfully developed include a re-entry heat shield to protect the warhead from extreme temperatures as it returns into the atmosphere, an improved navigation system, and a composite rocket motor. Indian officials claimed the country’s scientists made these advances even though it has been subject to international technology controls to prevent the spread of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. India is not a member of the 35-nation Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which was formed in 1987 to restrict the spread of missile technology. New Delhi committed in 2008 to adhere to MTCR rules, and Washington announced in November 2010 that it would support India’s membership in the group. (See ACT, December 2010.)
DRDO Director-General Vijay Kumar Saraswat told reporters Nov. 16, “The technologies proven in this mission will give us the necessary confidence to go in for the Agni-5 launch in a couple of months.” Indian defense officials have since said that the Agni-5, which is to have a range of 5,000 kilometers, will undergo its first test in February.
Michael Elleman, a former UN weapons inspector who is now a senior fellow with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said in a Dec. 21 e-mail to Arms Control Today that India’s missile development pattern was “highly unusual.”
“They conduct a limited number of tests, declare development completed and then embark on an improvement effort,” he said. “[A]t least a half-dozen flight tests would be needed to validate the performance and reliability of the new missile under a range of operational conditions,” he added.
The two-stage, solid-fuel Agni-4 failed its first test, in December 2010 as the Agni-2 Prime, and was not tested again until Nov. 15.
India fields a number of systems geared toward South Asian rival Pakistan, but it has been increasing the range of its ballistic missiles in order to place a larger number of Chinese targets in range. The Agni-5 would be capable of covering all of China while being deployed deep within Indian territory.
For some current and former Indian defense officials, such a range is all that is necessary for India’s deterrence needs. Former Indian President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, who is regarded as the father of India’s missile program, told the Indian newspaper The Tribune Nov. 18 that a missile that can reach 5,000 kilometers “was enough as the potential enemies were well within this range.”
Saraswat similarly told reporters in February 2010 that India is focused on “threat mitigation” and does intend to develop an ICBM.
However, in comments to reporters last June 11, Air Chief Marshal Pradeep Vasant Naik said, “India should pursue an ICBM program” with missiles having a range of 10,000 kilometers “or even more,” the Hindustan Times reported.
“Breaking out of the regional context is important as the country’s sphere of influence grows,” Naik said.
In a Dec. 13 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Bharat Karnad, one of the authors of India’s 1999 draft nuclear doctrine, said, “The technological momentum driving the Indian missile program is going to take it well beyond the 5,000 km range Agni-5 and into producing genuine ICBM category delivery systems, if only to match China.” He added that although Kalam’s suggestions would be “taken on board, his influence on current missile programs should not be overstated.”
According to Karnad, “[L]onger range, more accurate missiles will be developed [by India] as a technological imperative."