Officials and defense experts said that if testing of the Agni-V missile proved successful, it would mark a significant improvement in India’s nuclear deterrent capability and strengthen the country’s hand in a hostile neighborhood, where it is sandwiched between nuclear-armed rivals Pakistan and China.
“It will be a quantum leap in India’s strategic capability,” said Ravi Gupta, a spokesman for India’s Defense Research and Development Organization, which built the missile.
India has a “no first use” policy for its nuclear weapons that depends on the threat of massive retaliation if attacked. Defense experts say the Agni would help make that threat more credible.
“We are located in one of the most complex and adversarial WMD environments in the world, by virtue of our geography,” said defense expert Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar of the National Maritime Foundation,referring to weapons of mass destruction. “This makes India’s deterrent capability more robust and more credible, and your ‘no first use’ commitment is also made more credible.”
India fought a brief border war with China in 1962, and relations have remained mutually wary since then. Although trade is growing, the two countries still contest vast swaths of territory along their Himalayan border.
India has become the world’s largest arms buyer as it embarks on a major modernization of its armed forces, and its navy took command of a Russian nuclear submarine earlier this year.
The new Agni, the Hindi word for fire, is seen as part of this military buildup, and although China’s nuclear-missile capability is far greater than India’s, experts said the new missile would help redress the imbalance. “If you are in a hostile environment, power respects power,” Bhaskar said.
The planned test, on Wheeler Island off the country’s east coast, comes just days after failed long-range rocket launch by North Korea, although India is unlikely to face any of the international condemnation directed at Pyongyang. North Korean officials called their launch a peaceful bid to send an observation satellite into space, but the United States and other countries said it was a covert test of long-range nuclear missile technology.
Some experts characterized the Agni-V as an intercontinental ballistic missile, which would make India one of the few countries to have that capability, but Gupta said its range falls short of that category.
Currently, the longest-range Indian missile, the Agni-III, can travel about 2,100 miles, which puts most major Chinese cities beyond its reach. The Agni-V was built at a reported cost of almost $500 million and can be used to carry multiple warheads or to launch satellites into orbit.
“It is India’s dream missile — I call it a game changer,” V.K. Saraswat, head of the Defense Research and Development Organization, told TimesNow television. “It is going to completely change the scenario with respect to our strategic defense.”