Wilson JohnThe Agni III success will pave the way for a submarine-launched IRBM, which is what will make the theory of credible nuclear deterrence in India’s ‘No First Use’ doctrine that requires a multitude of retaliatory weapon systems, a reality.
In simpler words, without the capability to deliver nuclear weapons beyond a range of 3000 km, India’s nuclear weapons capability would have remained a paper tiger. Thus, on April 12 in 15 minutes India swept aside years of diffidence and anxiety to, finally, signal that it is willing to play the big boys’ game. Power projection is one such game and Agni III is the perfect bat to play the game with.
Technically, the successful launch of the Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile, Agni III, broke several new grounds and ushered in new hope and ambitious ventures for future. First, the doubts. Indians are by nature doubters and failures only strengthen this trait. When the first launch of Agni III on July 9, 2006, failed miserably – an over-heated shield causing the missile to crash into the Bay of Bengal several hundred kilometres off its intended impact site – there were many pundits who sniggered at defence scientists, particularly the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), an umbrella organisation of small but highly technical cluster of laboratories and institutes, valiantly attempting to prevent India from becoming a global arms dump. It took only nine months for the same group of scientists, working under pressure and incessant criticism, to correct the technical faults and relaunch the missile, with great success.
Second, the missile, its delivery vehicle and tracking system, besides a spectrum of logistical accessories, are primarily indigenous, developed in a unique partnership between public and private entities. In statistical terms, 85 per cent of Agni III is Indian; research and development is in progress to whittle down the balance 15 per cent imported component by the next launch which should take place within the next one year.
Agni III was conceived and developed by 258 private-public enterprises, 28 DRDO laboratories and innumerable academic institutions over the last several years. This is a very critical development for India. It clearly underlines India’s growing strength to develop high-calibre missile technologies like re-entry, guidance and control, mission sequencing, all-carbon composite re-entry heat shield, mobile launch systems and modern launch complex without foreign assistance and create a synergy between private and public entities – both with its own set of strategic implications in the years to come.
Third, the launch has successfully proved many small but critical technological innovations developed by Indian scientists. An important one is the flex nozzle control of rocket motors. Agni III uses flex nozzle control in the second stage, a step forward from Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles where it is used in the third stage. This nozzle can be manipulated through a closed loop guidance and control system to make small changes in the flight course of the missile, thus achieving a more accurate trajectory.
Another important achievement is the use of specially developed composite propellant with high specific impulse for the rocket. A propellant is the fuel used in the rockets and the high specific impulse is the amount of thrust generated per unit mass of the propellant used. Agni III uses two-stage solid-fuelled rockets, which is a natural progress from the critical change in rocket technology adopted for Agni II which was first launched in April 1999.
Agni II was fired by two solid-fuelled motors unlike Agni I which ran on a solid-fuel first stage and a liquid-fuel second stage. Although the type of fuel to be used has been a matter of intense debate, Agni III has clearly underscored the decision to go the solid-fuel way. This could mean that the planners have preferred to achieve a ready-to-fire mode (15 minutes to launch) rather than to have control over its trajectory by controlling propulsion (feasible in liquid fuel).
Quite a few conclusions can be drawn from the above developments, all of which have strategic imports. The choice of solid-fuel (apart from the enormous valuable experience gained in the space programme) to fire the rockets makes Agni III and its future variants mobile and flexible, besides battle-ready. Agni III can be launched from rail-based missile launcher which means the missile can remain camouflaged to a great extent and in times of crisis can be dispersed to a safer environment.
The launcher as well as the mobile launch control centre can be easily camouflaged as an ordinary bogey of a freight train, enabling its mobility and safety. Since a silo-based missile system could be highly vulnerable to even stray bombing, the rail/road mobility ensures safety and flexibility. Rail mobility will enable the missiles to be launched from anywhere in the country.
An added advantage is that the rail-launch capability will make it possible for the missile to be launched from as close to the borders as possible. For the past several years, India has been laying new lines and upgrading existing ones in the border areas. The most notable and recent one is the rail connection between Jammu and Srinagar via Udhampur.
The successful validation of various technical parameters during the Agni II and Agni III tests (it will require at least two more tests before becoming operational) has renewed hopes and ambitions about launching a still more advance version, Agni IV, with a range of 5,000 km. This has become possible with the success of Agni III’s bigger rockets- a diameter of two metres which helps the missile vehicle to get a higher thrust for a longer range and higher payload capability. This is an important requirement for a long-range surface-to-surface missile positioned as a key nuclear deterrent. Scientists believe that India could test launch a Limited Range Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (LRICBM) in three years with an additional third stage engine (some say liquid-fuelled) to the present Agni III system. In all likelihood, this missile could become a stepping stone for an Indian ICBM with 8,000 km-range, popularly known as Surya.
Copyright 2007 The Pioneer