India’s latest strategic weapon

With the flawless flight of Agni-III on Wednesday, a powerful new weapon — and one that can be built upon in the years to come — is practically ready to enter India’s strategic arsenal. While Agni-I can reach places 700 km away and Agni-II can take its warhead some 2,000 km, the all-solid, two-stage Agni-III missile has a range of over 3,500 km. Thus, the new missile will give the country’s strategic forces the ability to strike well beyond the immediate neighbourhood. Moreover, adding a small third stage to the Agni-III configuration would produce a missile with a range of 5,000 km or more. Given DRDO’s proven solid propulsion capabilities, this should pose no major problem. Indeed, senior officials of the Defence Research and Development Organisation have stated that design work on Agni-IV has begun. It is noteworthy that Agni-III and its future variants, with a diameter of two metres, will be the first Indian missiles having the potential to be equipped with Multiple Independently-Targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRV). A single missile with MIRV can carry several nuclear warheads, each of which can target a different place. However, unlike the addition of a third stage, creating MIRV capability could pose significant technological challenges, especially in terms of reducing the size and weight of the warheads.

Across the border, Pakistan has been repeatedly testing Shaheen-II, its missile with the longest range that can strike much of India. Last month, the missile was fired twice in a space of three days. China, meanwhile, is in the process of modernising its strategic forces and switching from liquid-fuelled ballistic missiles to solid-propellant ones that can be launched quickly. Its latest submarine-launched ballistic missile, the JL-2, and the land-based variant of the missile, the DF-31, could soon be operationally deployed. A study published last year by analysts at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore indicated that the JL-2/DF-31, with a diameter of two metres, was in fact a three-stage missile with MIRV capability. The missile’s three warheads might be arranged around a small third stage with a diameter of about one metre. They estimated that the missile in its MIRV configuration could have a range of about 8,000 km. With just a single warhead, the JL-2/DF-31’s range would increase to 12,000-14,000 km. Fortunately, all this activity on the missile front has not dampened overtures of friendship and efforts to reduce sources of tension between India and its nuclear-armed neighbours. Rather, it reflects a strategic mindset that seeks to augment military capability as a way of keeping the peace.

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