In the remote Wheeler Island off the Odisha coast, the countdown has begun for the first test of India’s most sophisticated and powerful ballistic missile ever built, Agni V.
If all goes well, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) which built the missile, is expected to launch Agni V on Wednesday, April 18, from the Island.
With a planned range of 5,000 km, the Agni V will traverse 2,000 km more than any Indian missile has ever done. Wednesday’s launch will see the missile first power its way to a vertical height of 500 km in the atmosphere before following a ballistic trajectory that will see it splash down in the Indian Ocean way beyond Indonesia.
A commercial jetliner would take over six hours to traverse such a distance. But Agni V, travelling at 24 times the speed of sound and 30 times faster than a commercial jet, will traverse that distance in just 18 to 20 minutes. In doing so, it will become not just the longest range ballistic missile in India’s strategic armoury but also its fastest. Most importantly, Agni V would put most of China’s major cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, within Indian missile range.
Speaking exclusively to The Tribune, Vijay Kumar Saraswat, DRDO Chief and Scientific Adviser to the Union Defence Minister, said, “In terms of performance, Agni V is the ultimate step for India in terms of ballistic missile technology. It is pushing at the outer limits of the Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) class.”
What Saraswat is unwilling to explicitly state, is that a successful test of Agni V would give India the capability of building long-range Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, ICBMs or missiles that can reach targets of 8,000 km or more.
With a warhead weight of 1,500 kg (1.5 tonne) Agni V will ultimately be capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads giving it deadly strike capability.
Agni V would be a significant step up from the range of Agni missiles that India currently has in its armoury. Agni I goes to 700 km and Agni II, 2000 km. Both these are primarily meant to target Pakistan, giving India a capability to strike its neighbour from any part of the country.
Agni III and Agni IV are missiles in the 3,000 km class meant for China and other regional neighbours. The distance though is a limitation as these classes of missiles would be unable to strike many of China’s strategic cities or locations. So the need for Agni V.
Speaking exclusively to The Tribune from the Wheeler Island, where final tests are being done for Agni V, Avinash Chander, DRDO’s Chief Controller R&D (Missiles and Strategic Systems), said, “There are many firsts we are incorporating in Agni V, these include two all new composite motors that would propel the missile to distances bordering ICBM capabilities.”
At 17 metres in height, Agni V is almost 5 stories tall and has a diameter of two meters – similar to that of the giant main sewage pipelines that are laid in most Indian cities. Agni V is short and squat as compared toIndia’s space rockets.
Almost three years in the making, Agni V is a three-stage rocket that, Chander says, has one of the most highly developed guidance systems that the DRDO has ever built to enable it to strike targets at great distance with stunning accuracy.
While the first stage motor is similar to the one used in Agni III, the second and third stage motors are brand new and built of light composite materials that are being flight tested for the first time. “It reduces weight and gives the missile greater punch,” says Chander.
Though the first launch would be from a static harness at the Island, Agni V would have tremendous road mobility once it is fully developed. These include a canister launch which means that it gives India “stop and launch” capability from any part of the country. “Once we successfully test Agni V we would have broken the barrier of long range ballistic missile systems,” says Saraswat.