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 “Next, a missile with multiple warheads”

By Syed Nazakat

When the nuclear-capable missile Agni-V blasted through the clouds from Wheeler’s Island off the Odisha coast,Indiabecame the fifth nation with intercontinental nuclear defence capability. Only the US,Russia,FranceandChinahad such capability. The most advanced in the indigenously built Agni series, Agni-V can drop a nuclear bomb deep insideChinaand in eastern Europe. Significantly, the launch has triggered a fresh debate onIndia’s missile defence system.  In an interview with THE WEEK, V. K. Saraswat, Defence Research and Development Organisation chief and scientific adviser to the defence minister, said the successful launch of Agni-V was the sweetest of moments in a lifetime of working in the DRDO’s ballistic missile programme. Excerpts:

How significant was the successful test of Agni-V?

It was an important milestone for us. We dreamt about this 30 years ago, whenIndiastarted its missile development programme under the leadership of [A.P.J. Abdul] Kalam. The journey from 1983 to 2012, through which we developed the Agni series of missiles, has takenIndiato the next level of missile technology.

What are the special features of Agni-V?

Agni-V is a three-stage, solid-propelled missile with a weight of 50 tonnes and length of 17.5 metres. A distinctive feature of the missile is, of course, its range and also its canisterisation. The launch was from an open launcher. The final configuration is a canisterisation version—the missile is put into a canister and then sealed completely. It is completely protected from the environment. Mounted on a vehicle, the missile can be easily transported to a launch site, and fired quickly by hydraulically raising the canister into the vertical firing position. The hermetically sealed atmosphere inside the canister allows the missile to be stored safely for years even in the most adverse field conditions and weather.

What next?

A force multiplier—the Multiple Independently targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRV) technology. In MIRV, we will use Agni-V’s basic vehicle to launch multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles. An x number of re-entry vehicles will be integrated on top of Agni-V, and they will be released against different targets. That will give us a large spread and a second strike capability. That is our next destination.

Will there be an increase in the missile’s range?

In MIRV, we make modifications to make the vehicle a different class. After the modification, some increase of range will take place.

What about Agni-V’s warhead carrying capability?

Right now, it is a unitary warhead. But MIRV will make the missile capable of carrying multiple warheads.

You called the Agni-V test a game changer. Why?

First, it has putIndiain a select group of countries, which have the capability to indigenously develop a long-range missile. Secondly, these missiles are meant for the strategic defence of the country. So when you have missiles of the Agni-IV and Agni-V variety, our strategic defence capability goes from one level to the next critical level. It changes the game with respect to national security and also technological advancement.

Will Agni-V provide you the base for the development of longer-range missiles?

Technologically speaking, yes. When we launched Prithvi and Agni missiles, the technology to build long-range missiles was denied to us. From 1983, our major efforts have been to develop a strong technology base in the country. Today, I am proud to say that we have practically developed all critical technologies which are essential for integrating a long-range ballistic missile. Once we have indigenous capability to design and develop these sub-systems, which are critical for the ballistic missile, we have a strong base to launch a missile of any range.

How do you compare India’s missile defence system with Pakistan’s and China’s?

Agni-IV and Agni-V are the missiles of the 21st century—with respect to their performance, their capability and their damage potential. We have state-of-the-art technology as far as ballistic missiles are concerned. It compares very well with what is available in the world, and with both our the neighbours.

In the past, the US pressured India to suspend testing of the Agni series. Today, what do you feel about the world’s reaction to India’s progress in the missile defence system?

The international community has realised there is no point in checking or controllingIndia’s progress towards self-reliance in this area. They have also realised the futility of the control regimes. Despite these control regimes, we have developed this complex technology on our own. This positive feedback indicates that the world realises thatIndiadoes not indulge in proliferation. We have a very clean non-proliferation record.

But critics say Agni-V will create a fresh race for long-range missiles.

I dismiss this assumption entirely. Many countries have had ballistic missiles for the last 25 to 30 years. If we had been indulging in some kind of ‘missile game’, or race for missile supremacy, we would have acquired the missile the day we acquired other conventional weapons. We never did that. The fact is we are not into any missile game. The fears are unnecessary.

Many say that Agni-V may prompt a renewed push for a full-fledged intercontinental ballistic missile programme. Your comments.

I can openly say that we have all the building blocks [for the ICBM] with us. So, if there is a requirement to build a longer-range ballistic missile, I would feel no constraint to do that. But, at the moment, we have no such requirement.

 (THE WEEK, April 26, 2012)

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