By Ajai Shukla
Wheeler Island, Odisha
Business Standard, 16th Sept 13
Three hours after the sun rose out of the lake-calm Bay of Bengal, another ball of fire, the Agni-5 intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM), roared into the sky on Sunday morning.
Twenty minutes later, the warhead --- a real nuclear bomb in every respect except for the nuclear core --- splashed down almost 5000 kilometres away in the southern Indian Ocean. Two Indian ships were stationed there to capture the warhead explosion, the footage relayed in real time to the Mission Control Centre on Wheeler Island.
Surrounded by a wildly cheering throng of normally staid scientists and engineers from the Defence R&D Organisation, the DRDO chief, Dr Avinash Chander declared victory.
“(The second launch of the Agni-5) is a perfect and complete success, meeting all our mission objectives. We have got the data right up to impact, including the terminal event. Congratulations to all of you,” he said.
This eventually successful mission saw plenty of unforeseen drama, which had seemed a mere theoretical possibility when the day began with the DRDO’s leadership praying for success at a small temple on Wheeler Island.
After that scientific nod to the need for divine support, a simulated political order for a nuclear strike was received from New Delhi. Vice Admiral SPS Cheema, who heads the Strategic Forces Command, keyed in the appropriate launch codes and preparations began for the launch. But then a fault was discovered in the telemetry systems of one of the ships positioned along the missile’s flight path, which meant that flight data might not be gathered for part of the missile’s flight.
Drawing on their experience of tens of missile launches, the DRDO missile team decided to go ahead with the launch. The missing data, said Chander later, would be captured at various other telemetry stations.
The countdown began but was halted just 14 seconds from launch, when one of the missile components signalled a malfunction. By now, storm clouds were gathering over the island, the weather another concern. Mission Control quickly determined that it was a false alarm and, amid knife-edge tension, the countdown began again.
As the rocket engines burst into life and the Agni-5 smoothly lifted off the lauch pad, a roar went up from the packed gathering. After that, it was a textbook mission all the way.
After 90 seconds, the giant 40-tonne first stage dropped away, having propelled the Agni-5 to an altitude of about 36 kilometres. 75 seconds later, the 10-tonne Stage 2 rocket was jettisoned, having propelled the missile up to 110 kilometres. Four minutes after launch, with the Agni-5 now 220 kilometres above the earth, the 2.5-tonne Stage 3 rocket fell away.
By now, the 19-metre-high, 50-tonne missile that blasted off from Wheeler Island was a mere 1.2 tonne projectile, hurtling through space at almost 6 kilometres per second. Inside this was a simulated nuclear warhead and the navigation package that would guide it precisely to its impact point.
Re-entering the atmosphere about 80 kilometres above the earth, the missile encountered its final test, which was to maintain the temperature inside the projectile at a balmy 40 degrees Centigrade even as atmospheric friction heated the carbon composite outer casing to 2500-3000 degrees. The Agni-5 passed that test too; the warhead’s arrival at the target was evident from the explosion visible on the live feed from the ship in the target area.
Said former Strategic Forces Command chief, Air Marshal KK Matthews, at a debriefing after the mission, “This was a special launch; one where I saw fantastic decision-making amidst great tension. We had three small big problems and the decision could easily have been to cancel the launch.”
After its second successful Agni-5 test, the DRDO is developing a canisterised version of the missile. Congratulating his scientists after the launch, the DRDO chief urged them to test-fire the canisterised Agni-5 within “a few months”.
Chander also said that today’s test demonstrated that the Agni-5 was ready for production. In fact, at least three test-flights of the canisterised Agni-5 (which is the form in which the operational missiles will be deployed) are planned before production begins. But the production stage involves placing orders of “long lead items” with suppliers well ahead of time, and that is likely to be done soon. The Agni-5 project has been cleared by the cabinet, which means that funds can be allocated without lengthy procedures.
India’s military has so far operationally deployed the Prithvi missile (350 km), the Agni-1 (1000 km), Agni-2 (2000 km) and Agni-3 (3000 km). The Agni-5 will extend the reach of India’s nuclear deterrent to 5000 kilometres, covering of China, West Asia, South East Asia and large parts of Africa.
The DRDO is simultaneously developing technologies for the Agni-6 missile. In an earlier conversation with Business Standard, the DRDO chief said that the Agni-6 will carry a massive three-tonne warhead, thrice the weight of the one-tonne-class warheads that Agni missiles have so far carried. This expanded payload will allow each Agni-6 missile to launch several nuclear warheads, called multiple independently targetable re-entry payloads (MIRVs), with each one capable of being directed towards a different target. Each warhead --- called a maneuverable reentry vehicle (MARV) --- can perform evasive maneuvers while hurtling towards its target, confusing enemy air defence missiles that are trying to destroy them mid-air.