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India’s new chariot of fire: Agni V

BY Sultan M Hali

Implications for the region

India tested its Agni-V intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in its final operational configuration from Wheeler Island off Odisha on December 26, 2016, paving the way for its eventual induction into the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) after user-trials, reported Times of India (TOI).

The nuclear-capable Agni-V, according to Indian media, quoting Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) officials, can even reach the northernmost parts of China with its strike range of over 5,000-km. Agni-V, was test-fired from its canister on a launcher truck. The DRDO official claimed that “All the test parameters of the missile, which was tested for its full range, were successfully achieved and the missile splashed down near Australian waters.”

TOI also reported that this fourth and final experimental test of the three-stage Agni-V, comes after a gap of two years due to minor technical tweaking required in the ballistic missile as well as the need for India to exercise some strategic restraint when it was seeking entry into the 48-country Nuclear Suppliers Group (which was thwarted by China) and the 34-nation Missile Technology Control Regime (which India joined earlier this year). The tri-Service SFC, established in 2003 to manage India’s nuclear arsenal, will have to conduct at least two user-trials before the 50-tonne missile is produced in adequate numbers for induction.

Indian media reports that while the 17-metre tall Agni-V was tested in an “open configuration” in April 2012 and September 2013, the third test in January 2015 saw it being fired from a hermetically sealed canister mounted on a Tatra launcher truck. DRDO claims that the missile’s canister-launch version makes it even deadlier since it gives the armed forces requisite flexibility to swiftly transport and fire the missile from anywhere they want. Apparently this is a requirement for India’s much touted “Cold Start Strategy”, which has already been successfully countered by Pakistan by developing lethal battlefield tactical nuclear weapons.

Analysts opine that once the Agni-V is inducted, India will join the super exclusive club of countries with ICBMs (missiles with a range of over 5,000-5,500km) alongside the US, Russia, China, France and the UK.

Apart from the shorter-range Prithvi and Dhanush missiles, the SFC has inducted the Agni-I, Agni-II and Agni-III missiles. While these missiles are mainly geared towards Pakistan, the Agni-IV and Agni-V are specifically meant for deterrence against China. Beijing, of course, is leagues ahead in terms of its missile and nuclear arsenals.

But the Indian defence establishment believes the Agni-V is sufficient to take care of existing threat perceptions. Indian media also claims that DRDO has also done some work on developing “maneuvering warheads or intelligent re-entry vehicles” to defeat enemy ballistic missile defence systems, as well as MIRVs (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles) for the Agni missiles. An MIRV payload basically means a single missile is capable of carrying several nuclear warheads, each programmed to hit different targets.

Social media savvy Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, tweeted gleefully: “Successful test firing of Agni V makes every Indian very proud. It will add tremendous strength to our strategic defence.”

Amidst the entire chest thumping and back slapping, gloating with claims of huge success, India is losing sight of two important aspects. Firstly, as reported by TOI, on December 21, Nirbhay missile, touted to carry nuclear warheads to a range of 1,000km, failed for the fourth time. It had been tested four times since March 2013 but failed to achieve the set parameters. Not only it was unsuccessful in yielding the expected results, the missile had to be destroyed in the air as it had deviated from its path and was termed as ‘utter failures’.

Nirbhay, which had been in the making for almost a decade, was meant to provide the Indian armed forces with nuclear-tipped land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs). If it had been a success, India would have been in a position to counter the much dreaded Pakistani Babur LACM.

DRDO, tauntingly called “Dodo” by its own officials and media, was set to be overhauled in 2005 by then Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh to clear it of hubris, corruption and the DRDO’s own bureaucratised culture, which are to blame for its constant failures, as well as its penchant for needless publicity and reinventing the wheel. Apparently there has been no change.

Uncritical and downright wrong-headed media coverage leads to the DRDO getting credit for even missiles like the workhorse surface-to-air missile Trishul and Akash and the Nag anti-tank missile, which were to have entered service in 1993-94, and were delayed by decades. In an era in which unmanned aerial aircraft play such a key role, all that the DRDO has to boast about is the Lakshya, a minor aerial vehicle used simply as a target for air-to-air missiles. The Nishant UAV is being kept alive through artificial life-support, as is the Arjun MBT. Tejas, DRDO’s Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), plagued by various disasters, became obsolete even before it entered service.

Pakistan has expressed concerns over India’s mad race to acquire weapons of mass destruction but going by Indian record of massive technical failures, there is little to worry about. According to Indian analysts, the Pakistani missile arsenal is at least a decade ahead of Prithvi and Agni.

Corruption, sleaze and demanding kickbacks by Indian defence planners have sullied the Indian defence acquisition process to an alarming extent. Former Indian Air Force Chief, Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi – who suffered the ignominy of recently being arrested by the Indian CBI for alleged corruption in the Rs 3,600 crore AgustaWestland VVIP choppers deal – is just the tip of the iceberg.  Induction of defective weapons in all three services has led to unnecessary casualties. Readers may recall some of the major scams like the 1948 Jeeps scam, 1987 Bofors scandal (involving former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi), 1999 Kargil coffins scam, Barak Missile scandal, 1999 Tehelka.com sting operation (in which then defence minister George Fernandes was indicted), the 2009 Sudipta Ghosh case and the 2012 Tatra Trucks Scam are but a few of them.

The second aspect, which Indian planners should concern themselves with is the mass poverty in India, which is causing a high suicide rate; the poor housing facilities leading to teeming millions residing on sidewalks for generation, the lack of medical services and absence of medical amenities.

If Narendra Modi, in his blind hatred for Pakistan and China and mad desire to establish India as a major world power at the cost of the much needed welfare of his people, then the Indian media should be grilling him. Modi believes that through his belligerence against Pakistan, testing weapons of mass destruction and trying to run with the big boys of the world, he can make Indians forget their miseries. Indians themselves should question the megalomania of Modi in painting China and Pakistan as arch enemies of India, whereas both countries have extended India the olive branch to peace and have invited India to join in regional development projects which will uplift the quality of life of Indian masses rather than squander scarce resources in amassing weapons of mass destruction.

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