Missile power

The success of the canister-launched flight trial of Agni-V reaffirms India’s status as a world-class missile power.

Published : Feb 18, 2015 12:30 IST

The ship-launched Dhanush, a variant of Prithvi-II.

The ship-launched Dhanush, a variant of Prithvi-II.

“A game-changer” and “a giant leap in the country’s deterrence capability” was how Avinash Chander, Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister, characterised the success of the canister-launched flight trial of Agni-V on January 31, also the day he laid down office. The strategic missile has a range of more than 5,000 kilometres and confirms India’s status as a world-class missile power.

India now ranks fifth or sixth in the world, behind the United States, Russia, France, China/Israel, having missiles that can carry nuclear warheads and can be launched from land, sea and air.

The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), of which Avinash Chander was Director-General, is behind the development of India’s missiles. The strategic missiles, capable of carrying nuclear warheads, are a varied lot: Prithvi-II , Dhanush , Agni-I, II, III, IV and V, all surface-to-surface missiles.

The single-stage, liquid-propelled Prithvi-II (10 metres long, weighing six tonnes and 1 m in diameter), the earliest to be developed under the country’s Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP), can strike at targets situated more than 350 km away. Dhanush is the ship-based variant of Prithvi-II.

The five Agni variants , all ballistic missiles, form the bulwark of India’s nuclear deterrence. The single-stage, 15-metre-long, 12-tonne Agni-I, with a range of 750 km, was developed in 15 months after the Kargil war ended in June 1999. The two-stage Agni-II (20 m, 17 tonnes) followed. Agni-III’s weight of 50 tonnes was a quantum jump. Agni-IV used several new technologies, including rocket motors made of composites, to bring the weight down to just 17 tonnes to have modern avionics in order to accommodate navigation and guidance systems.

With the addition of an extra (third) stage, Agni-III/IV metamorphosed into the redoubtable Agni-V. The January 31 launch was significant for one more reason than the long range of the missile: it was the first canisterised launch, from a truck, of an Indian-made intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

According to informed sources, a missile that can carry a conventional warhead of 500 kg or more is also capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

In the surface-to-air category, “a great success story”, according to DRDO spokesman Ravi Gupta, has been the Akash weapon system, for which the Army and the Air Force have already placed production orders worth Rs.23,000 crore. The 710-kg Akash, carrying a 55-kg payload, is the equivalent of the U.S.’ “Patriot” missile and can destroy fighter aircraft, cruise missiles, helicopters and manoeuvring targets such as unmanned aerial vehicles, flying 25 km away. It can fly at 2.5 Mach and climb to an altitude of 18 km.


India ranks after the U.S., Russia, China and Israel in interceptor missile capability, providing the country with a ballistic missile defence (BMD) system. The BMD system detects, identifies and tracks the flight path of incoming ballistic missiles. Two interceptors, called Advanced Air Defence (AAD) and Prithvi Air Defence (PAD) , with seekers can intercept ballistic missiles coming from adversarial locations 2,000 km to 5,000 km away.

India’s hidden asset, the submarine-launched K-15 , which carries a nuclear warhead, is under production, while K-4 , another submarine-launched missile, with a range of 3,000 km, is under development. Shourya is the land version of the K-15 and is launched from a canister. BrahMos , jointly developed by Russia and India, is a supersonic cruise missile and can fly at Mach 3. Cruise missiles are called so because they cruise at a constant altitude. BrahMos carries conventional warheads. Its block II version with target discrimination capability and block III version with steep diving capability even at supersonic speeds have also been developed.

Nirbhay is a long-range subsonic cruise missile, flying at 0.7 Mach. Its second flight on October 17, 2014, was a big success. Nirbhay is an innovative amalgam of missile and aeronautical technologies—it lifts off like a missile, but once it jettisons its booster engine, its wings spread out and its turbo-jet engine in the second stage kicks in to enable the contraption to fly like an aircraft. While BrahMos can strike targets 290 km away with conventional warheads, Nirbhay, carrying conventional or nuclear warheads, has a reach of 1,000 km.

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