NEW DELHI: The tension sharpened at the launch area at Wheeler Island on the Odisha coast this morning as the massive, 50-tonne, 17.5-metre-high Agni-5 missile was elevated into the vertical launch position, and the pre-launch checks began. The previous evening, exactly at this stage, lightning and thunder in the skies above had led to the launch being put off till morning.
At 8.07 am the countdown went… 5… 4… 3… 2… 1… Now… and a giant ball of fire leapt out as the missile’s first stage ignited. As the Agni-5 rose smoothly off the launch pad, scientists checked off the health of its systems on the public address system, their voices calm, measured, almost surreal, given the tension amongst the viewers. After 90 seconds, the first stage burnt out and separated. The missile was travelling at exactly the speed it should have been. Then, on schedule, the second stage burnt out and separated, an all-new composite stage that had performed exquisitely. By now there was already the sense that this would be a perfect test.
Within minutes, the missile was in space, streaking southwards for 2,000 km until it crossed the equator. Then, it hurtled along for another 3,000-km, re-entering the atmosphere over the Tropic of Capricorn and splashing down between the southern tip of Africa and Australia. From launch to splash-down, just 20 minutes had elapsed.
“Indian naval vessels tracked the missile all along its course, including at the terminal stage. The accuracy of the missile was exactly as expected,” said the DRDO’s spokesperson.
For V K Saraswat, the Defence R&D Organisation chief, after a lifetime of working in the DRDO’s ballistic missile programme, this was the sweetest of moments.
“Any launch is tense, even after testing a hundred missiles; and this was the first launch of the Agni-5,” Saraswat told Business Standard soon after the test. “Over the last three-four days, the team had gone through the complete launch process, with each activity and system being put through our scanners: the propulsion system, navigation system, everything. By yesterday, I was completely confident of a successful launch.”
At the launch pad with Saraswat were Avinash Chander, the DRDO’s chief controller of missiles, a man of few words and big achievements; V G Sekaran, the laconic, wry-humoured boss of Advanced Systems Laboratory, the home of the Akash programme; Tessy Thomas, the self-effacing “missile woman”, who handled the Agni-4 project; and Dr Gupta, the project director for this test.
“For us, the Agni-5 success is the culmination of 30 years of work that began in earnest in 1983,” said Dr Saraswat.
Defence Minister A K Antony congratulated the team for “the immaculate success” of the Agni-5, hailing the efforts of “numerous unsung scientists of DRDO who have worked relentlessly years together to bring the nation to this threshold”.
In fact, the success of the Agni-5 was almost a foregone conclusion. Last November, several challenging new technologies that this missile incorporates were validated in an unannounced launch of the surprise Agni-4 missile.
That new 3,500-km range missile successfully tested a new composite rocket motor, made of lightweight composite materials instead of the heavier “maraging steel” that earlier rocket motors were fabricated from. The other brand-new technologies that the Agni-4 tested included: a highly accurate “ring-laser gyroscope based inertial navigation system (RINS)”; a “micro-navigation system (MINGS)”; and a powerful new onboard computer. By testing all these technologies in the Agni-4, the DRDO minimised the technology risks of Thursday’s Agni-5 test.
The DRDO chief told Business Standard the Agni-5 was not just a long-range rocket. “This missile incorporates unique technologies that will allow us to have multiple variants. We can achieve short ranges, higher ranges… all with the same missile,” he said.
Although the DRDO calls the Agni-5 an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), its range of 5,000 km puts it — by most conventional measures —in the class of intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), which have ranges of 3,000-5,500 km. The Agni-5’s range is carefully calibrated; it can reach targets anywhere except for America and Australia. This would allow it to strike all of India’s potential adversaries, even as friendly capitals in Western Europe and the US stay out of range. DRDO sources say that, in case of need, the Agni-5 could easily be ramped up into an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), with a range of more than 5,500 km.
For now, more testing lies ahead, says the DRDO chief. “We will have two more test launches of the Agni-5, and then productionise it for induction into field service with the Strategic Forces Command. We will also start working on different variants of the Agni-5, including MIRVs (multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles), anti-satellite systems, and on making the Agni-5 capable of launching military satellites on demand,” says Saraswat.
A distinctive feature of the Agni-5 is its “canisterisation”. Immediately after its manufacture, the missile is hermetically sealed into an airtight canister. Mounted on a flatbed truck, the missile can be easily transported to a launch site; and fired quickly by hydraulically raising the canister into the vertical firing position. The canister is made of maraging steel, allowing it to absorb the enormous stresses of firing, when 300-400 tonnes of thrust is generated to eject the 50-ton missile. The hermetically sealed atmosphere inside the canister allows the missile to be stored safely for years.
The DRDO claims the Agni-5’s advanced navigation system would permit the use of smaller nuclear weapons. Speaking earlier to Business Standard, Avinash Chander said, “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).”