In the early morning of April 19, Agni V,India’s new big boy, stood tall on the launch pad on Wheeler Island off the Odisha coast. The sun peeped out dispelling the overnight clouds and exposing an azure sky. The missile was glistening white, interspaced with black, red and orange bands.
For the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO), this would be the 25th launch of the Agni series of missiles and without doubt its most prestigious. With a range of 5,000 km, Agni V would travel a distance of 2,000 km more than any other Indian missile making it the longest range missile currently available in India’s strategic armoury.
It is also the fastest of the missiles, travelling at 24 times the speed of sound or 6,000 metres per second, covering the distance of 5,000 km in just 20 minutes. Agni V’s navigational system is a quantum jump over its cousins, making it the most accurate of the lot. It will soon have an unenviable mobility when it is made ready for what is known as a ‘canister launch’ so that it could be launched from anywhere in India at anytime.
Mission Director Avinash Chander, DRDO’s Chief Controller of R&D (Strategic Missiles Systems), proudly states that it took just three years to bring the missile to the launch-pad from the drawing board. That is an achievement for missiles of this class normally take 8 to 10 years to develop. Tessy Thomas, a senior scientist at the Advance Systems Laboratory (ASL), which puts together Agni, says when they were first tasked with designing Agni V, they were apprehensive. “We had never had a missile cross the equator so this was a first,” she says.
Missiles of the Agni class require mastery over vital technologies that include building powerful light -weight rocket motors, a sophisticated navigation and guidance system and material to withstand the high temperatures experienced during re-entry. For Agni V, the missile team developed two new rocket motors using composite material rather than maraging steel that made the overall missile far lighter. The team saved as much as 40 per cent of the weight, thereby enabling it to add more propellant to power the missile to greater distances.
The team also worked on developing a carbon composite covering for its warhead to withstand the incredibly high temperatures of 6,000 degrees celsius when the missile reenters the atmosphere. As important was vastly improving the navigation and guidance system that despite the tremendously long range piloted the missile to the target and then exploded the payload within minimum error over the Indian Ocean.
VG Sekharan, ASL’s director says, “Agni V was built on the experiences of the others in its class. In doing so, we have taken a quantum leap in technology as Agni V had to go the longest distance, withstand the highest temperatures and go at the fastest velocity that we have ever done before.”