The significance of Agni-I

Print edition : February 02, 2002

With a range of 700 km and the ability to carry nuclear warheads, Agni-I adds more teeth to India's deterrence posture.

THE successful launch of the surface-to-surface missile Agni-I on January 25 is significant in terms of bridging the felt gap between the Prithvi-II missile, which has a range of 250 km, and the Agni-II, which can strike targets 2,500 km away. Agni-I has a range of 700 km and can carry nuclear warheads, thus giving teeth to India's deterrence posture. The January 25 launch from a road mobile launcher at the Interim Test Range on Wheelers' Island, Chandipur-on-Sea, Orissa, carried a one-tonne dummy payload.

Agni-I on its road mobile launcher before it was launched on January 25.-

Defence experts do not fight shy of admitting that Agni-1 is Pakistan-specific. "You can view it that way," a defence specialist said. "If you look at its range," he added, "there is only one place it can target. There is no place in China which can be reached with a 700-km range. It is intended as a maximum range and all of Pakistan will be covered... The entire western range will be covered."

The Agni-I flight has put India's credible, minimum nuclear deterrence on a firm footing. The 15-metre-tall, 12-tonne, single-stage missile powered by solid propellant fuel reached an altitude of 300 km, re-entered the atmosphere and splashed down in the Bay of Bengal. The guidance and re-entry systems worked with clock-work precision.

The success of Agni-I is notable for the speed with which it was conceptualised, developed, mounted on a road launcher and flight-tested. Soon after the Kargil war broke out in June 1999, and in the wake of nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in May 1998, it was felt that India should develop a short-range missile that would fill the gap between Prithvi-II and Agni-II. Incidentally, the first flight of Agni-II was on April 11, 1999. Its second flight on January 17 last year marked a milestone in developing a triad of land-, sea- and air-launched missiles.

The Agni-I project had been kept top secret. Describing the flight as "marvellous", Dr. K. Santhanam, Director of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi, said, "From the concept stage in October 1999 to the first flight in 15 months' time signals a speed you cannot see elsewhere. The enormous credit for this must go to R.N. Agarwal, Mission Director, and V.K. Aatre, Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister."

Dr. A. Sivathanu Pillai, Chief Controller, Research and Development, Defence Research and Development Organisation, called it "an accurate and successful flight," which met its mission objectives. According to him, the Agni-I incorporated new guidance and control systems. There were also significant improvements in its re-entry technology and manoeuvrability. Agni-I can blast off from both road and rail mobile launchers. With only one stage, the weight is less but the thrust is the same, giving the missile more acceleration.

The Project Director of the Agni-I flight was D. Purushotama Rao.The Project Director of the Agni was Avinash Chander. Instead of developing a new missile from scratch, DRDO decided to scale down Agni-II, which has two solid stages. It used only the first stage. "So the range got reduced," a missile technologist said. Test and evaluation assumed more importance in the design of the missile, in concept validation and in terms of proving the systems for production of the missile, he said.

Asked about the significance of the flight having taken place on the eve of Republic Day, and when troops were massed on the border with Pakistan, one missile scientist said, "We were developing the system. We have to conduct the flight whenever we are ready. The flight will not wait for anybody. When to fly it, when to deploy it and how make use of it for national security are political questions."

Defence Minister George Fernandes, Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy, Vice Chief of the Army Staff Lt-Gen N.C. Vij and Director-General designate (Artillery) Lt-Gen R.S. Nagara witnessed the launch.

Asked why it was called Agni-I, Dr. Sivathanu Pillai said it was christened so because it had a shorter range. When the DRDO started the Agni project, it was part of the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) and the first flight was intended as a technology demonstrator. After its successful completion, the Agni-II programme was taken up. Since the 700-km range of the new missile lay between that of Prithvi-II and Agni-II, it was called Agni-I. The requirements for the shorter range were met with some modifications to the Agni-II. An important modification was the removal of the second stage of Agni-II. The series is now called Agni, Agni-II and Agni-I, said Sivathanu Pillai.

Personnel at the DRDO's Ahmednagar-based Vehicle Research and Development Establishment (VRDE) and the Pune-based Research and Development (R and D) Engineers played important roles in validating the tractor-cum-transporter-cum-launcher.

Information posted on the IDSA website,, on January 22 said, "Realising the design and manufacture of a new road mobile launcher for this missile in 15 months is noteworthy because it confers operational advantages (e.g. survivability) in movement, deployment and launch... Given India's No-First-Use doctrine and Pakistan's NATO-like adherence to First Use, some strategists in India had the perception that Prithvi deployment, even with conventional warheads would provoke Pakistan to undertake a pre-emptive nuclear strike because Pakistan may perceive the Prithvi as deployed with nuclear warheads. This theory led to an assertion that the Prithvi deployment would lower the nuclear threshold. Further, given the short range of Prithvi, its storage from depots to launch points would be tracked by Pakistan intelligence." Hence the significance of the development of Agni-I, which has a range of 700 km and the kind of manoeuvrability that enables it to be launched from both road and rail launchers.

Vajpayee said the launch of Agni-I was one of "several steps" taken by India to bolster its security. "For the nation's security and protection, we are taking several steps and Agni is one of them," he added. According to Vajpayee, the decision to test Agni missiles in different configurations had been taken earlier and it was an ongoing project.

Adding to India's missile strength in the near future will be Agni-III. It will have a range of 3,500 km and its first flight may take place in a few months. On June 12, 2001, the BrahMos missile took off from its launcher at Chandipur-on-Sea, and reached a speed of up to Mach 2. It was the first-ever supersonic cruise missile that used liquid ram jet technology. BrahMos (from the rivers Brahmaputra and Moscow) is the product of an Indo-Russian joint venture of the same name. It is a two-stage missile that has a solid propellant booster and a liquid propellant ram jet system (Frontline, July 6, 2001).