by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 16th Nov 11
The Defence R&D Organisation’s surprise test of a new Agni-4 missile, which the MoD says was launched flawlessly from the Odisha coast today, establishes India as a builder of cutting edge intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs). While the Agni-4 was fired out to just 3,000 kilometres this morning, the DRDO claims it can comfortably deliver a nuclear weapon to a target 3,500 kilometres away.
That would make the Agni-4 India’s first true IRBM. Its predecessor, the Agni-3, with a range of 3,000 kilometres, was a medium range ballistic missile (MRBM). Readying now for its debut launch is the 5000-kilometre range Agni-5, which will be only marginally short of the 5,500 kilometre range needed to be classified as that Big Daddy of rockets: an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The DRDO has stated that it plans to launch the Agni-5 next month.
The Agni-4 project has been overseen by Tessy Thomas, who the media variously dubbed the “Agni putri” (daughter of fire, a play on the Agni name), and the “missile woman” after she became the first woman to head an Indian ballistic missile project. Thomas has ensured that the Agni-4 makes a major technological leap from the Agni-3, testing out several systems that will be crucial to the success of the Agni-5.
Ravi Gupta, the DRDO’s public relations chief, told Business Standard, “The Agni-4 represents an entirely new class of missiles, which use advanced technologies to improve capabilities even while reducing the missile’s weight.”
A crucial first for the Agni-4 is the successful use of a composite rocket motor, made of lightweight composites rather than the heavier “maraging steel” that earlier rocket motors were fabricated from. This composite rocket motor will be key to the success of the Agni-5, as will other first-time technologies like a high-accuracy ring-laser gyroscope based inertial navigation system (RINS); and a micro-navigation system (MINGS); and a powerful new onboard computer. Through this surprise Agni-4 test (which was not announced in advance) the DRDO has technologically de-risked the high-profile Agni-5 test that the world will be watching carefully.
“This test has paved the way ahead for the success of Agni-5 mission, which will be launched shortly”, said Avinash Chander, who heads the DRDO’s missiles division. Chander also talked up the RINS and the MINGS, describing the Agni-4 as ushering in major advances in long-range navigation systems.
Navigation is critical for long-range ballistic missiles; striking very close to the target allows smaller nuclear warheads to inflict as much damage as heavy “megaton class” nuclear bombs that less accurate missiles deliver several hundred metres, or even a kilometre away. Speaking earlier to Business Standard, Chander had indicated that the Agni missiles’ high accuracy would allow India to restrict itself to smaller nuclear warheads.
“Megaton warheads were used when accuracies were low. Now we talk of [accuracy of] a few hundred metres. That allows a smaller warhead, perhaps 150-250 kilotons, to cause substantial damage. We don’t want to cause wanton damage [with unnecessarily large warheads]”, Chander said.
The DRDO emphasises that, although the Agni-4 tests several technologies that will go into the Agni-5, it is not a mere technology demonstrator but will be deployed with the military as an operational missile. According to a DRDO press release, the Agni-4 “has provided a fantastic [nuclear] deterrence to the country and it will be produced in numbers and delivered to the Armed Forces as early as possible.”
Launched from a road-mobile missile carrier at Wheeler’s Island off the Odisha coast, the two-stage, solid-fuel Agni-4 roared off its launch pad at exactly 9 a.m. in what the DRDO describes as a “text book fashion”. After reaching a height of 900 kilometres, tracked by a chain of radars along India’s eastern seaboard, it began its descent, encountering temperatures above 3000 degrees Centigrade while re-entering the atmosphere. Two ships of the Indian Navy that had been pre-positioned in the target area witnessed the final splash down.