Strategic Weapons: India Gets Its IRBM


April 26, 2012:  The successful launch of an Indian Agni 5 missile on April 19th was dismissed by China as inconsequential, but it did make China vulnerable to nuclear attack by India. China has some air defense systems with anti-missile capability but not enough of them to cover much of the country or to stop an attack using dozens of missiles.

The solid fuel Agni 5 with a range of 5,000 kilometers is often called an ICBM (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile) but missiles of that class require a range of over 8,000 kilometers. The Agni 5 would be termed an IRBM (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile). The Indian government calls Agni 5 a LRBM (Long Range Ballistic Missile). Only three other nations have ICBMs. America developed the technology in the 1950s, Russia followed a few years later. China developed the tech in the early 1980s, and France in the 1990s. China developed IRBM technology in the 1970s. France had developed an IRBM similar to Agni 5 in the 1980s and an ICBM a decade later. France has since retired its land based ICBMs and only uses them in submarines.

Agni 5 is not ready for service yet and will require 5-6 more tests. Each Agni 5 costs $25 million and the project has cost about half a billion dollars so far. India should have Agni 5 in service by the end of the decade, if not sooner. This missile, obviously aimed at China, can also hit targets in Russia, China, Europe (Italy and points east), Japan, and Africa. It can be fired on short notice and is compact enough to be moved around on a truck to avoid surprise attack.

Agni 5 is the most potent weapon in the Indian arsenal and not just because it can nuke China. For example, it has the capability to function as an anti-satellite missile. Agni 5 can also launch a satellite. Thus in wartime, if an enemy destroys Indian military satellites, a satellite equipped Agni 5 on standby could replace at least one of the military satellites (for communication or reconnaissance) in a few hours. Agni 5 can only carry a small satellite (a few hundred kg) into low orbit but smaller satellites are becoming more useful because of improved miniaturized technology. As an IRBM, the one ton warhead enables Agni 5 to deliver three or more separate nuclear warheads.

A number of new technologies developed locally were successfully tested in the Agni 5. The redundant Navigation systems, Ring Laser Gyro based Inertial Navigation System (RINS), and the most modern and accurate Micro Navigation System (MINS) provided the ability to land the warhead within a few meters (ten feet) of the aiming point. The missile guidance system computer and software worked flawlessly.

Agni 5 has demonstrated to the world that India could develop technology that China created in the 1970s, and France in the 1980s. Agni 5 is 80 percent Indian made components. This included one of the more difficult technologies, a nose cone for the warhead that can handle high temperatures (over 2,000 degrees Celsius) generated as the missile plunges back to earth.

Many Indian officials now want a true ICBM, a missile with a range of over 8,000 kilometers. An ICBM with a range of 10,000 kilometers could reach the United States, which would provide India with some interesting diplomatic options. There would also be economic consequences. The U.S. has anti-missile capabilities now and that is increasing. So to really threaten the U.S., India would have to have fifty or more ICBMs. Each of these would cost about $50 million, with the entire force costing over $2.5 billion. Spending that much to threaten a potential ally against China might cause an interesting debate in the Indian parliament, even if developing ICBM technology does something for national pride. In fact, only a few leftist Indian politicians, who still see the U.S. as the Cold War era villain, see any reason to spend a lot of money to build an ICBM that can reach North America. For most Indians, being able to hit China is what really counts. – RAJEEV SHARMA





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