India successfully tested the Agni 5 missile Jan. 18, moving it closer to joining the small group of countries with access to nuclear-capable intercontinental missiles.
This is India’s first successful test of the Agni 5 at its full range, the Indian Ministry of Defense said in a release. The test also marks a significant step in India’s military development amid tensions with China and Pakistan.
The missile test was conducted on an island off India’s east coast, flying for 19 minutes and covering more than 3,000 miles. It was the fifth such test and the third consecutive one firing the missile from a canister on a road-mobile launcher, the Indian Ministry of Defense said. All five tests have been successful.
The ministry said “all objectives” of the latest test were met and that it “reaffirms the country’s indigenous missile capabilities and further strengthens our credible deterrence.”
The Agni 5 is the most advanced in the Agni series, part of a program that began in the 1980s. It has a range of more than 3,100 miles and puts India among countries like the U.S., China, and Russia that have access to intercontinental ballistic missiles. The missile is also set for incorporation into India’s Strategic Forces Command, which oversees the country’s nuclear-weapons stockpile.
The three-stage missile is 55 feet long and is capable of carrying a payload of more than 1.5 tons, which is enough to carry “fusion-boosted fission warheads with a yield of 200-300 kilotonnes,” according to an editorial by Saurav Jha, the editor-in-chief of the Delhi Defense Review.
Heightened tensions with India’s neighbors
India is currently in a tense period of relations with its western neighbor, Pakistan, with which it has long had a contentious relationship. New Delhi has said it faces a threat from Pakistan’s development of a nuclear missile program of its own.
New Delhi and Beijing went through a protracted standoff over a sliver of land in the eastern Himalayas over the summer — the worst border dispute between the two countries in three decades. The number of face-offs between Indian and Chinese personnel in disputed areas on their shared border increased considerably in 2017.
The latest period of border tension was punctuated by a brief hand-to-hand, rock-throwing clash in another disputed area in the western Himalayas.
India has been boosting its military development over the past few years, largely in response to the growing Chinese presence in the region, which is home to heavily trafficked and strategically valuable shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean.
Beijing now has a presence at ports in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Djibouti, and has a growing relationship with the Maldives. China’s navy, its submarines in particular, is increasingly active in the Indian Ocean, especially around the Malacca Strait, through which the country passes about 80% of its fuel supplies.
India has expanded its anti-submarine-warfare capabilities and its acquisition of military hardware, like warships and fighter jets. It is also looking to boost its domestic military industry through partnerships with international firms.
Advances in India’s missile technology
With the Agni 5, New Delhi is now able to hit targets in most of China — including major cities on its east coast. The missile’s mobile-deployment capacity also makes it harder to track and boosts India’s second-strike capabilities. Its reentry vehicle may also mitigate ballistic-missile defenses being developed by China.
“If there are hostilities, and if there are contingencies, then India has something which can deter China or at least make China think twice,” Nitin A. Gokhale, an independent national-security analyst in India, told The New York Times.
While some aspects of India’s missile development have faced setbacks in recent weeks, there have been significant advances in its missile technology as well.
In late November, India’s air force said it become the first air force in the world to successfully test an air-launched Brahmos supersonic cruise missile, after firing one of the 5,500-pound, two-stage missiles from a modified Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jet at a sea target off India’s east coast.
The successful test in November gave India the ability to launch the missile from sea, land, and air.
The Brahmos, which is based on Russia’s P-800 Oniks sea-skimming cruise missile, was a joint project between New Delhi and Moscow. Russia provided 65% of the missile’s components, while India supplied the majority of the rest.
The Brahmos is reportedly able to carry a 660-pound warhead up to 250 miles, traveling at speeds up to Mach 3. That combination of speed, range, and explosive power makes the missile a threat to large surface ships, like aircraft carriers, as well as to fortified targets on land. Its speed and low altitude may also mean that anti-missile defenses, especially shipboard ones, would have trouble intercepting it. There is also speculation the missile could be modified to carry a nuclear warhead.