By Shashank Sinha


New Delhi, 26 July 2006  


“We have to draw correct lessons from the partial success of Agni-III’s test launch …..”

–– Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee

(addressing the parliamentary consultative

committee on defence. July 12, 2006.)

The test launch of India’s latest IRBM, Agni-III was far from a partial success, in fact there are no partial successes in the missile business. Your missile either performs the exact task of transporting a warhead of particular size and mass to a predestined range on a predetermined trajectory, within a certain set of accuracy parameters, or it doesn’t. What DRDO had in Agni-III was a perfect lift-off and satisfactory functioning of the first stage of this two stage rocket, while the failure has been preliminarily attributed to a snag in the guidance system which affected the stability of the missile.

The test however, was not a complete failure. It did validate many design features and fabrication technology, not to mention the conceptualisation of the whole project. The Agni-III was a completely new design and not an augmentation of the earlier Agni-II variant.

Built to achieve an increase in range and war load parameters amongst other things, its design followed the latest trend in development of long range missile systems elsewhere, a design philosophy similar to Russian RSD-10 Pioneer IRBM (NATO: SS-20 Saber) and Chinese DF-21(CSS-5) theater missiles and DF-31 ICBM (CSS-9).  As opposed to pencil thin and long shapes of earlier Agni variants it was a stubby and short missile. The Agni-III had two stages with an overall diameter of 1.8 m. The first stage mass was about 24 tonnes and 7 m long, the second stage mass was about 8 tonnes and 2.5 m long. The missile was likely to support a wide range of warhead configurations, with a 3,500 km range and a total payload weight of 1000 kg.

The main importance of the Agni-III principally lay in the increase in range and flexibility in basing restrictions vis a vis China. Currently operational Indian IRBMs suffer from range restrictions in relation to their intended targets. While the Agni-II remains the longest range Indian missile system, it has little operational value as its 2000+ km range is at the best a threat weapon against parts of western Chinese territory. Its best utility was as a technology demonstrator and proving system for follow on series of long range systems such as Agni-III. The Agni-I was a later design, born out of tactical exigencies of nuclear primacy during the Kargil conflict. It had a single stage rocket using the first stage of the Agni-II and was developed in a short period to counter the North Korean and Chinese supplied rockets in the Pakistani arsenal which reportedly went active at some stage of the standoff. The claimed range of 850 km was suited to target the Pakistan heartland, without taking recourse to deployment in border areas as in the case of short range battlefield missiles like the Prithvi.

The Agni-III itself can only be an interim step on the way to a true long range system such as a 5000 km or more range missile approaching ICBM capabilities. Road and rail mobile variants will be best suited to undertake deterrent duties against China, by using quick relocation and dispersal capabilities to escape pre-emptive decapitation or subsequent counter force strikes. A sea based variant was also expected to follow into service as part of the K-15 sub-surface launch platform project of DRDO. All that of course can only follow after achievement of penultimate stages such as the Agni-III.

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