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In May 1989, India test-fired its first intermediate-range ballistic missile, the Agni. It is a two-stage missile with the first stage using the first-stage solid-fuel booster motor of the SLV-3 satellite launch vehicle. This marked the first time that India had used directly a component of its civilian space research program for military purposes. (12)The second stage is possibly a shortened version of the Prithvi. (13)The 18-meter long, 7.5-ton Agni has a range of up to 2,500 km (allowing access to southern China) and is capable of delivering a 1,000-kg payload. Although accuracy is reduced with increased range, the Agni is believed to be fairly accurate, employing a closed-loop inertial guidance system, said to have been developed with a great deal of West German assistance. (14) The second experimental flight of Agni was conducted in May 1992 but the mission objective could not be achieved fully. The post flight analysis was carried out and necessary modifications were incorporated for the next flight test. A second successful test of the Agni occurred in February 1994, firing at a sea-based target 1,200 km into the Bay of Bengal. The last test of Agni-1 in 1994 was tested at a trajectory designed to simulate a range of 2500km, with an actual range achieved of 1450km.

In 1994, the United States persuaded India to suspend testing of the Agni missile after three test flights.

India refers to the Agni not as a weapon system but as a "technology demonstrator project" to establish re-entry vehicle technologies. (15) As with the Prithvi, the U.S. has opposed the program as another potential proliferation affront to the MTCR, which India has criticized as biased in favor of the major powers. Notwithstanding its justifications for the Agni development, India formally suspended the program at the end of 1995. (16) Whether the suspension is real and the result of diplomatic pressure, technical problems, or other factors, is not evident. India may have decided to put the Agni under wraps until it decides the larger related issue of whether to test nuclear (perhaps thermonuclear) warheads for its missiles in the face of US and other diplomatic pressures to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the ratification process for which began in the fall of 1996. (17) In March 1997 Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda indicated that India would not give up the development of the Agni missile programme, a position echoed in July by Defense Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, who denied that India had any immediate plans to further test fire the Agni missile. (17a)

India's turning point came when an openly pro-nuclear government took office in March 1998. The new coalition elected to power pledged, in the words of A.B. Vajpayee, to "exercise all options, including the nuclear option." The new government announced that a new version of the Agni with an extended range was under development.


Authorization for the development of the longer range Agni-II was given by the BJP-led coalition government in March 1998. The Agni-II uses a solid propellant second stage replacing the liquid propellant Prithvi short range missile used as upper stage of the Agni-I. It can be launched within 15 minutes as compared to almost half a day of preparation for the earlier version of the Agni. Another major development is a highly mobile platform for it to be transported secretly by rail or road anywhere in the country. The far more accurate terminal navigation and guidance system that the Agni II incorporates, which constantly updates information about the missile flight path using ground-based beacons, improved accuracy by a factor of at least three over that of the Agni-I.

On 11 April 1999 India successfully test-fired the Agni-II ballistic missile, with a range of 2000-km. The missile was launched from the IC-4 pad at Wheeler Island, a new launch site on the Orissa coast in Balasore district. Splashdown was 2,000-2,100 km. (1,250 mi.) down range in the Bay of Bengal, on a trajectory designed to simulate a range of 2800-3000km. The test had been in preparation since January 1999, but India delayed it in the hope of extracting concessions from the US. Pakistan responded on 14 April 1999 with a test firing of its Ghauri II missile from the Jhelum region in northeast Pakistan. After the successful Agni-II test, Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes said the Agni missile was ready to go into production, though he didn't specify the production or deployment schedule. The cost of the Agni missiles is estimated at Rs. 20-35 crores [$4.5 million to $8 million] per copy. It is anticipated that India may deploy several dozen of these missiles. Agni-2 has a theoretical ability to hit a target 3000km away with a 1000kg payload, and it is suggested that- a 200 kiloton 'boosted-fission' warhead has been designed for the Agni system. Should this be reduced to a 15-20 kiloton system, the payload could be reduced to as little as 250kg.


Although the Agni-II does reach deep into China it still does not threaten its major cities. As of early 1999 India was reportedly developing a longer-range Agni-III with a 3,500-km reach, capable of engaging targets deeper inside China. Other reports sugges that India is contemplating the development of the 5000 km range variant of the Agni, with a solid-fueled second stage. Although India has claimed that this missile will be used only to carry a conventional warhead, the cost of the system would be difficult to justify unless used as a nuclear delivery vehicle.

As of early 2000 it was suggested that there were between 5 and 9 Agni-1 missiles in existence, at least 1-2 Agni-2 and 2 prototypes of the Agni-3. These are all test models which could be fitted with warheads and used in an emergency. BDL has the capacity to produce up to 12 Agni IRBMs per year. It is believed that no real production has taken place since neither the Agni-1 or the Agni-2 is the definitive production variant of the Agni system.


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Maintained by Robert Sherman

Updated Saturday, June 03, 2000 11:55:46 AM