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13 Mar, 2024 10:21

Modi announces first launch of India’s most powerful missile

New Delhi has been working for more than a decade on a weapon capable of carrying multiple warheads
Modi announces first launch of India’s most powerful missile

India has conducted the first test flight of the locally developed Agni-5 missile equipped with multiple warheads, after more than a decade of work on the technology, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on Monday.

Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV) technology means warheads can be directed from a single missile at enemy targets thousands of kilometers apart, making them much more difficult to defend against. They can also be equipped with decoys alongside conventional warheads to confuse enemy defense systems. The nuclear-capable Agni-V, which reportedly costs about $6 million per missile, has been developed as a successor to the 3,500km-range Agni-III.

The upgrade will have a range of 5,000km and is considered to be India’s response to potential threats in the region, according to the national media. ‘Pralay’, a surface-to-surface short-range missile similar to Russia’s ‘Iskander’, is also being readied for deployment along disputed borders with China and Pakistan, reports suggested last year.

Beijing questioned New Delhi’s missile program in 2021, citing a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution issued after nuclear tests conducted by India and then Pakistan in 1998. The response came amid reports that India was planning to test-fire an inter-continental ballistic missile, now revealed as the Agni-V. The UN body condemned the 1998 firings and asked both New Delhi and Islamabad to “refrain from further nuclear tests.” 

Pakistan has also been developing a medium-range MIRV, the ‘Ababeel Weapon System’, capable of striking targets at a distance of 2,000km. The first publicly announced test launch was conducted in January 2017, followed by another in October 2023.

The USSR and the US initially spearheaded MIRV technology during the Cold War. By adding it to its arsenal, India has joined a handful of nations that possess the technology, including Russia, China, the US, the UK, and France.

India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), the research wing of the Defense Ministry, first announced that it was working on the project in 2007. On Monday, Modi said he was “proud” of the organization’s scientists, calling them part of ‘Mission Divyastra’ – referring to a divine weapon capable of massive destruction in Indian epics.

The first Agni-V trial was conducted at the Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Island, named after a former president, off the coast of Odisha in eastern India, according to reports.

Following the development, Indian media outlets claimed that a Chinese vessel had been deployed off the country’s east coast, presumably to collect data on the MIRV. India has viewed the presence of Chinese research vessels near its shores, including in Sri Lanka in 2022, as problematic. Speaking in New York in September last year, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said India is observing Chinese naval activity “very carefully.” 

Addressing India’s concerns, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin last month insisted that the research vessels are being deployed for “peaceful purposes” and aim to contribute to better scientific understanding of the ocean.