India will enhance its deterrent reach with the launch of its first intercontinental ballistic missile. However, China and Pakistan have powerful missiles of their own as well.
For India, Agni V is more than just its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). With a range of over 5,000 km, this road-and rail-mobile missile can be fired from deep within the country and still reach all parts of China, especially the latter's populous and economically important eastern seaboard.
The Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) created Agni V by adding a third stage to Agni III, a missile with a range of 3,500 km while carrying a 1.5 tonne payload that was first successfully tested five years ago.
Both Agni III and V have a diameter of two metres, making them capable of carrying several warheads known as Multiple Independently Targeted Re-entry Vehicles (MIRV). (Agni I and II have a diameter of one metre and the first stage of the Agni IV has a diameter of 1.2 metres.)
Firing MIRVs requires what is known as a “Post Boost Control Vehicle,” a manoeuvrable platform that sits atop the rocket and holds the warheads. After the missile has lofted it into a ballistic trajectory, the platform must be able to release each warhead with the orientation and velocity needed to reach its target.
As India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) has already demonstrated the ability to put multiple satellites into orbit in the course of a single launch, developing a Post Boost Control Vehicle should be technologically straightforward. However, developing compact nuclear warheads could be a significant hurdle in acquiring MIRV capability. Published information on U.S. systems suggests that each re-entry vehicle will need to weigh less than 500 kg. First generation missile-borne nuclear warheads typically weigh twice as much.
India now has a range of nuclear-capable Agni missiles in its arsenal, starting with Agni I that can strike targets 700 km away. These missiles use solid propellants and can therefore be launched at short notice. They are also carried on mobile launchers, making it more difficult for an enemy to locate and destroy them.
In China and Pakistan
But India's nuclear-armed neighbours, China and Pakistan, have powerful missiles of their own.
China's strategic forces still rely heavily on ballistic missiles using liquid propellants. Its first missile, the “Dong Feng 1” (DF-1), was a copy of the Soviet R-2 missile, and relied on technology and designs provided by the Soviet Union in the late 1950s. The next missile, DF-2, was designed to be capable of landing a nuclear warhead on Japan.
The country then went on to build more advanced ballistic missiles, still using liquid propulsion, which also became the basis for its Long March launch vehicles. These include the DF-3, the DF-4 and the DF-5.
China switched to solid propulsion when it developed its first submarine launched ballistic missile, the “Ju Lang 1” (JL-1). The land version of the missile was designed as the “DF-21.”
A more powerful, solid propellant missile, the DF-31, is now beginning to be deployed. The submarine version of the missile, the JL-2, will be carried aboard China's new Type 094 Jin-class nuclear-powered submarines, the first of which was launched in 2004.
“China is progressively replacing its older liquid-fuelled DF-3 and DF-4 missiles with the new solid-fuelled two-stage DF-21 missile,” according to a 2010 assessment prepared by the International Strategic and Security Studies Programme at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) in Bangalore.
Although it was within China's capabilities to equip the DF-31 with MIRVs, there was no clarity on whether this had actually been done, the assessment noted. Official U.S. sources have maintained that as the country was developing this capability, its DF-31 and all variants of that missile were currently equipped with only a single warhead.
A 2007 report from the NIAS group pointed out that China has deployed the DF-3, the DF-4 and the DF-21 missiles in bases in the Qinghai and Yunnan provinces. From those locations, these missiles would be able to reach all of India.
Pakistan, for its part, has produced a range of missiles using a mix of imported technology and indigenous capability.
Improving on sounding rocket technology supplied by the French company, Sud Aviation, to the Pakistan Space & Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO), it developed the Abdali (also known as Hatf-1). But the missile is estimated to have a range of only about 100 km.
Its Ghaznavi missile, which can carry a nuclear warhead, is a shortened version of China's M11 solid propellant missile supplied by the latter in the 1990s.
Ghauri, which uses liquid propellants, is based on North Korea's No Dong missile. The technology for this missile was imported by the A.Q. Khan Laboratories, which provided uranium enrichment technology to the North Koreans. The range of this missile has been put at about 950 km with a 1,000 kg nuclear warhead.
China also appears to have supplied the technology for the solid propellant M9 missile, with the Pakistani version being called the Shaheen-1. The NIAS team believes that the Shaheen-2, which was first tested in March 2004, has involved a second stage being added.
The missile would then have a range of 1,200 km compared to 730 km for its predecessor. If so, large parts of India, including places as far south as Hyderabad, would be within its reach.
But the range estimated for the Shaheen-2 assumed that it has a diameter of one metre, notes Rajaram Nagappa, who heads the strategic studies group at NIAS. But it was difficult to accurately estimate the diameter from publicly available images of the missile. If, as some reports suggest, the missile has a diameter of 1.4 metres (the same as China's DF-21), then its range would be considerably greater.
“Though constrained by the availability and production of uranium, Pakistan has a credible deterrent structure in place that would be largely organised around the Shaheen-1 and -2 missiles,” according to the NIAS 2010 assessment.