Full of fire

Print edition : June 06, 2008

Preparing to launch Agni-III on May 7, from Wheeler Island off Orissas coast.-DRDO

The Indian Army will shortly acquire the Agni-III missile, which was successfully flight-tested on May 7.

THE successful launch of the Agni-III surface-to-surface ballistic missile from Wheeler Island off the coast of Orissa on May 7 portends two important developments. The first is that the missile, with a range of 3,500 kilometres, and successful for the second time in a row, may be inducted into the Army in 2009 after a flight trial. It is already packaged to be in a deliverable mode. The second development is that Agni-III will form the building block for the Agni-V missile, which can target places 5,000 km away.

With the addition of a third upper stage and with minor modifications, the two-stage Agni-III can metamorphose into an awesome Agni-V. Avinash Chander, Programme Director, Agni-III, told Frontline: We are working on Project Agni-V. It will take two years to have the first flight trial. All the Agni variants are capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Agni-III can carry a nuclear warhead weighing 1.5 tonnes.

A crucial step towards building Agni-V was taken when the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) developed last year a large rocket motor casing made entirely of carbon filament-wound composite. This casing, developed indigenously, will form the third upper stage of the Agni-V missile. It went through full qualification tests in 2007.

This is a major breakthrough because it provides us the key technology for going into longer missions with light-weight missiles We have flight-tested Agni-III twice successfully. When we want to go in for missiles with higher ranges, one key technology is the composite rocket motor casing. That has been developed now, said Avinash Chander, who is also Director, Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL), Hyderabad. The ASL, which is a unit of the DRDO, designs and builds the Agni family of missiles.

Agni-IIIs flawless performance capped a series of successes in the DRDOs missile programme in 2007 and 2008. These successes include the launch of Agni-III on April 12, 2007; the firing of a hypersonic interceptor missile from Wheeler Island on December 6, 2007, which intercepted an incoming target missile in a direct hit over the Bay of Bengal at an altitude of 15 km; a series of flight trials of the surface-to-air Akash missile the same month, which has paved the way for the induction of Akash into the Indian Air Force; the launch of the K-15 Sagarika missile on February 26 from a submerged pontoon in the Bay of Bengal, which simulated the conditions of a submarine; the firing of BrahMos, the supersonic cruise missile, on March 5; and a flight trial of Agni-I on March 23.

Tension was evident at the Launch Control Centre on the otherwise serene Wheeler Island, off the coast of Damra village in Orissa, on May 7 morning. Avinash Chander and Dr. V.G. Sekaran, Vehicle Director, sat in front of their computer consoles as the countdown progressed. M. Natarajan, Scientific Advisor to the Defence Minister, and Dr. V.K. Saraswat, Chief Controller, Research and Development (Missiles and Strategic Systems), DRDO, were scanning the plot-boards in front of them. About a kilometre away, the two-stage, 17-metre-tall Agni-III with a lift-off weight of 50 tonnes stood majestically on its rail-mobile launcher.

At 9-56 a.m., the first stage erupted into life, rose steadily into the atmosphere and sliced a parabolic path in the sky. As hundreds of subsystems on board the missile worked with clockwork precision, the second stage ignited and the first stage fell into the Bay of Bengal. The missile climbed to an altitude of 350 km and reached a peak velocity of 4 km per second. The re-entry system with a dummy payload inside plunged into the atmosphere, withstanding a searing 2,500 degrees Celsius. The payload was protected by a carbon-carbon, all-composite heat shield. The payload impacted 3,000 km away from the launch point, in the Indian Ocean.

The entire flight lasted 13 minutes and 20 seconds. The trajectory of the missile followed the set path to a T. The curve, the velocity and the altitude were exactly as predicted. Data on every second of the flight were available right from ignition until the dummy payload landed in the sea.

The DRDOs Integrated Test Range with its array of sophisticated radars at Chandipur-on-sea, Wheeler Island, Konark, Paradip (all in Orissa) and Port Blair (in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago) tracked the trajectory of the missile. Besides, naval ships fitted with radars were positioned near the impact-point of the payload. These radars provided the data on the terminal phase of the flight and the impacting of the payload in the waters. The flight was so error-free that even during the plasma effect, which disturbs communication, telemetry was received. This meant that data were available continuously right from the missiles launch point until it hit the waters.

DRDO officials and members of the Agni-III team before the launch.-DRDO

Natarajan, who is also Director-General, DRDO, called it a golden launch in the golden jubilee year of the DRDO. This success, coming as it did after Agni-IIIs successful flight in April 2007, established its consistency path, Natarajan said.

Saraswat said: The launch went to such levels of perfection that are beyond our imagination. Our objective has been achieved in its totality.

The great performance of the missile, asserted Avinash Chander, proved that its earlier success was not a one-shot affair. The system has inherent robustness and strength. The performance parameters demonstrated them so well. All the events took place exactly as expected, he added. The missile had a special ring-laser gyro-based inertial navigation system for the missions accurate performance.

Sekaran said: This particular flight was crucial in proving some of the major systems which will take us to the longer range. This is the achievement of this mission. We will now go for a missile with a range of 5,000 km.

The importance of Agni-III lies in the fact that it is not a mere missile but a system for the future with which various configurations can be developed. It gives teeth to Indias nuclear deterrence capability. It is built with the potential to carry heavier payloads. With the same dimensions and the addition of a third stage powered by solid propellants, the missile can hit targets more than 5,000 km away.

It will be a minor change in terms of the system. If you see the overall size, it practically remains the same. We can use the same launch facility, the same transportation facility. That is why I said Agni-III is a system for the future, explained Avinash Chander.

The innovative modular structure of Agni-III lends itself to building missiles that have longer ranges and those that can carry multiple warheads. Besides, Agni-III can be wheeled both by rail and road. Hence, it can be launched from anywhere in India. It can be modified to be launched from other platforms as well. Its mobility and dispersal, therefore, makes it superior to missiles of a similar class. Agni-III has high survivability and agility of response, too.

Besides, it is a fire and forget missile. It has sophisticated software developed by DRDO engineers and all that has to be done is to feed the coordinates into the missiles onboard computer. The missile will assess the performance of each and every subsystem during the flight, compute the best path it should take and reach within metres of the target. A separate software guides it to the target. The missile is immune to external interference after its lift-off.

January 26, 2008: Nuclear-capable Agni-III (left) and Dhanush missiles on display during the 59th Republic Day parade in New Delhi.-RAVEENDRAN/AFP

Agni-III will be inducted into the Army after one or more trials by the Army. Agni-II, with a range of 2,000 km, and Agni-I, with a range of 700 km, are already in the armoury of the Army. Both Agni-II and Agni-I are nuclear-tipped.

Natarajan said the DRDO might have one flight trial of Agni-III. We are ready for induction [of the missile into the Army]. It will take some time to manufacture some numbers of the missile, he added.

Saraswat said, We have basically completed the packaging so that the missile system is in a deliverable mode to the user-agency.

According to informed sources, Agni-III can cover most parts of China while the soon-to-be-developed Agni-V will be able to cover all parts of China. Agni-I, with its range of 700 km, is apparently Pakistan-specific. India has no plans to build Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) because it has no global ambitions, the sources said. If you see the landmass around India, there is no landmass other than the American continent which requires a range of more than 6,000 km. So there is no need for an ICBM. So why should you spend your resources on an ICBM unless you see a direct threat? a source said.

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