India successfully test-fired a new long-range missile on Thursday capable of delivering a one-tonne nuclear warhead anywhere in regional rival China and countries outside Asia.
The 17-metre (56-foot) Agni V, with a range of more than 5,000 kilometres (3,100 miles), was launched at 8:05 (0235 GMT) from a test site off the eastern state of Orissa.
It was an “immaculate success” and “a major milestone in India’s missile programme”, Defence Minister A.K. Antony said in comments released by his spokesman.
India views the 50-tonne Agni V as a key boost to its regional power aspirations and one that narrows — albeit slightly — the huge gap with China’s technologically advanced missile systems.
The successful test leaves India knocking at the door of a select club of nations with inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with ranges of up to 8,000 kilometres.
Currently only the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — possess a declared ICBM capability.
“I am announcing the successful launch of Agni V… making history and making our country proud in the area of missile technology,” said V.K. Saraswat, head of India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), which made the missile.
DRDO spokesman Ravi Gupta insisted the Agni V was a “non country-specific” deterrent, but analysts noted it extends India’s missile reach over the entire Chinese mainland, including military installations in the far northeast.
Agni, which means “fire” in Sanskrit, is the name given to a series of rockets India developed as part of its ambitious integrated guided missile development project launched in 1983.
While the shorter-range Agnis I and II were mainly developed with traditional rival Pakistan in mind, later versions with a range of 3,500 kilometers are perceived as China-centric deterrents.
“The Agni V can strike targets across China, potentially freeing up other short- and intermediate-range missiles for use against Pakistan and much of west and south-central China,” said IHS Jane’s analyst Poornima Subramaniam.
“Extensive land- and sea-launched missile development programmes have become important elements in India’s nuclear strategy, and in that context the Agni V is a significant development,” Subramaniam told AFP.
Shannon Kile, an expert on nuclear weapons at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) think-tank, said Agni V was partly a “prestige” development, supporting India’s aspirations to be global player.
At the same time, its increased range “will also give Indian defence force planners greater leeway about where missile launchers can be placed,” Kile said.
The Agni V test came just weeks after India returned to the elite group of countries with a nuclear-powered submarine when it inducted a new vessel leased from Russia.
India has fought three wars with arch-rival Pakistan since independence in 1947, but it is China that New Delhi increasingly views as the greater long-term strategic threat.
China’s military arsenal is far larger and far more technologically advanced than India’s, which is why, according to Monika Chansoria, a senior fellow at the Delhi-based Centre for Land Warfare Studies, the Agni V is so important.
“What this missile does is enable India to upgrade its present strategic posture towards countries like China from one of dissuasion to one of credible deterrence,” Chansoria said.
India and China fought a brief but bloody war in 1962, and 15 rounds of talks on their frontier disputes have yielded no progress, amid fears in New Delhi that Beijing is becoming increasingly assertive about its territorial claims.