Agni V, the Fat Boy is 10; India among top six in the world missile club

April 19 marks a historic day for Indian Space and Defence prowess. It was on this day in 1975 that Aryabhatta, the country’s first satellite was launched. Again, that day in 2012, Agni V was successfully tested for the first time.

If Aryabhatta put India on the firm journey into tapping space technology for national development, the launch of Agni V, the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), signalled the entry  of India into an exclusive club of nations–US, Russia, Britain, France and China, with the capability.

The Agni V launch in 2012, with a range of 5000 km plus also rattled China, which was forced to react immediately as the missile had the capability to reach targets deep into that country. Chinese experts said “India was downplaying the range and said it had potential to reach targets up to 8000 km”.

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The State run Global Times, which echoes the Official position of the Communist Party of China said India should not overestimate its capabilities even if it can reach most parts of China. India stands no chance in an overall arms race with China in the foreseeable future.

The Chinese have acquired the ICBM capabilities by developing missiles that are in a way re-engineered from the erstwhile Soviet Union, with whom it had close collaboration. Given the strong industrial base the country managed to build a complete arsenal of missile that can strike most parts of the world.

The Agni V has put India far ahead of Pakistan in the missile strike power. The Agni series 1-4 with ranges starting from 700 km to 300 km have the capacity to hit any target in the neighbouring countries. The missiles have also been inducted into the defence forces.

The official Indian position has been that the nuclear capable missile development programme is a deterrent. It is not in any arms race and the intention is to build a strong defence against inimical forces. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), under the leadership of Dr G Satheesh Reddy also test fired the Agni-P version in 2021.

The new generation, nuclear capable, two stage, canisterised, solid propellant fuelled, Agni Prime, ballistic missile is an advanced variant of the Agni class of missiles. It’s range is between 1000-2000 kms, according to the DRDO, under the Union Ministry of Defence.

India’s missile development programme, especially the Agni versions has come a long way since the first successful test conducted in May 1989, under the leadership of A P J Abdul Kalam, former President of India and Chief of the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP), which was sanctioned in 1983, by Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. Dr R N Agrawal, was the Project Director.

The ‘Fat Boy’ story

The missile complex based in Hyderabad consisting of the ASL (Advanced Systems Laboratory), the RCI (Research Centre Imarat), DRDL (Defence Research and a development Laboratory), BDL  (Bharat Dynamics Limited) etc. coordinated in a massive effort to build the Agni V,  nicknamed the ‘Fat Boy’ with nearly 10,000 components.

The missile weighing nearly 50,000 kg is 17.5 metre tall (double story building), diameter of two metres and is capable of carrying and delivering 1500 kg warhead (nuclear capable). The three stage rocket boosters are powered by solid propellant. Guided by an advanced navigational system and satellites and controlled by an onboard computer, the missile travels 24 times faster than the speed of sound.

Development work on the totally indigenous version of Agni V was started in 2009. In April 2012, the missile was moved to the Wheeler Island (renamed now as the A P J Abdul Kalam Island) off the coast of Odisha. On the morning of April 19, it was successfully test fired and met all the expectations to the ‘huge delight and relief’ of the defence scientists led by Dr V K Saraswat, Chief of the DRDO, Dr Avinash Chander Programme Director, Dr R K Gupta, Project Director, Dr V G Sekharan, Director, ASL etc., who were on the Island guiding the mission.

Subsequently, the missile was again test fired on September 15, 2013.Both these were from the Launchpad. On their success, the DRDO announced that the mission and system design of Agni-5 were proven. In January 2015, the first canister version of the country’s longest distance ballistic missile was demonstrated marking a significant leap in missile technology and fire power capabilities
The launch versatility-both mobile and static achieved and the repeated successes demonstrated were seen as ample proof of the country’s nuclear deterrence and preparedness. With a range of over 5,000 km and nuclear warhead carrying capacity, the ability to potentially hit targets in entire Asia, including China, parts of Africa and most of Europe had considerably bolstered the morale of the defence scientists. By end of 2018, the DRDO completed a total of 7 trials of the missile.

In first user trial of the missile was conducted in October 2021 by the Strategic Forces Command of the Indian Army and the DRDO. This paved the way for the induction of the missile into the defence arsenal. Once inducted, the defence forces can launch the ICBM from different locations with higher road mobility.

Agni V– the game changer

Avinash Chander, the Chief of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and one of the key architect’s of the Agni programme, described Agni-V as a ‘game changer’. As Programme Director of the Agni for more than a decade and brain behind the Agni-V version, he was instrumental in guiding its technology developments and successes.

The Canisterized Version (Cold Launch) from a Road Mobile Launcher gives the flexibility of launching the missile from land anywhere in the country. It incorporates some new technologies related to inertial navigation and guidance developed at the ASL and RCI in Hyderabad. Incidentally, Hyderabad also is the home for the development and manufacture of BrahMos (Indo-Russian), supersonic cruise missile.

The Agni family of missiles consists of the Agni-1 with a range of 700 km which has been inducted into the defence forces. The other versions from Agni-II to Agni-V provide the country with multiple options. In the IGMDP, Agni was the crown jewel, while Prithvi, Akash, Nag and Trishul were the other missiles with different strike capabilities and roles.

However, given the strategic nature of the Agni missile, it was separated into an exclusive programme and fast tracked. In nearly 4 decades of sustained development work, the missile scientists have given India the clear edge.

Similarly, starting from Aryabhatta in 1975, Indian space scientists have in the last 45 years brought India into the top half a dozen countries with a wide range of capabilities.

Somasekhar Mulugu, former Associate Editor & Chief of Bureau of The Hindu BusinessLine, is a well-known political, business and science writer and analyst based in Hyderabad

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