India’s Strategic Advancements: From Agni-V to Agni-VI and Beyond
by Girish Linganna
Agni-VI ICBM is anticipated to possess a range spanning from 9,000 kilometers to 12,000 kilometers when carrying a 3-ton nuclear payload, and a range of 14,000 kilometers to 16,000 kilometers when equipped with a lighter 1.5-ton payload. The inclusion of both Agni-V and Agni-VI missiles in India’s robust ICBM arsenal establishes a formidable security shield. India’s Agni-V ICBM has undergone nine successful trials since its inaugural flight in April 2012. On December 15, 2022, India accomplished a successful night trial of the Agni-V missile at the Abdul Kalam Island in Odisha, aimed at validating new technologies and equipment incorporated into the weapon system.
Substituting maraging steel, known for its exceptionally high tensile strength, with lightweight composite materials reduced the weight of the Agni-V missile by 20% compared to its earlier versions. This launch also demonstrated the missile’s impressive capability to reach distances beyond 7,000 kilometers. However, the Agni-V’s restricted payload capacity of 1.5 tons continues to hinder the realization of a robust Indian nuclear deterrence against China.
India’s integrated guided-missile development program is facing the challenge of advancing in several areas. Concurrently, Indian scientists and engineers are dedicatedly involved in the development of ‘DRDO Veda, (Vehicle for Defence Application) ‘ a satellite launch vehicle (SLV). This initiative aims to empower all three branches of the Indian armed forces to launch military satellites into low earth orbit swiftly, reducing their reliance on ISRO and bolstering their pursuit of self-reliance in meeting their objectives.
DRDO Veda will introduce a distinct approach to assembling the launch vehicle, employing the horizontal stacking of stages and payloads, which stands in contrast to ISRO’s SSLV rocket’s vertical stacking method. This innovative vehicle will possess exceptional agility and mobility, making it capable of launch from a multi-axle TEL (Transporter Erector-Launcher) vehicle.
DRDO Veda is a road-mobile, canister-based, three-stage solid-propellant space launch vehicle (SLV) under development by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) of India. It is capable of lifting a payload of up to 2,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit. Veda is expected to be used to launch military satellites and other payloads on-demand.
“AGNI-V’s Enduring Impact”
Despite the nine successful test flights of the nuclear-capable intercontinental range ballistic missile (ICBM) Agni-V since 2012, progress on the long-anticipated Agni-VI missile project has remained minimal. Following Agni-V’s inaugural trial on April 19, 2012, the former DRDO Chairman, Dr. Vijay Kumar Saraswat, unequivocally affirmed India’s commitment to extending the Agni missile program, promising additional missiles in the Agni series as a natural follow-up to Agni-V in the years ahead.
The Agni-V missile boasts an impressive effective range of nearly 5,500 kilometers when equipped with a 1.5-ton nuclear warhead. In the realm of physics, a fundamental principle dictates that there exists an inverse correlation between a missile’s range and the weight of its warhead, primarily due to the influence of gravity and momentum. By employing the same rocket boosters as those on the Agni-V, which are optimized for slow-burning propellant, and carrying a lighter payload of 500 kilograms, it becomes feasible to extend the missile’s range significantly, potentially reaching up to 10,000 kilometers.
According to this theory, the Agni-V could indeed be considered a 10,000 km-class ICBM, although it may have a less potent warhead. Addressing this gap in India’s nuclear deterrence is one of the primary objectives of the Agni-VI missile. Agni-VI is anticipated to offer a range spanning from 9,000 kilometers to 12,000 kilometers when carrying a 3-ton nuclear payload, and an extended range of 14,000 kilometers to 16,000 kilometers when equipped with a lighter 1.5-ton package. The guidance system of Agni-VI will incorporate an inertial navigation system with a Ring laser gyroscope, optionally enhanced by IRNSS (Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System), along with terminal guidance featuring possible radar scene correlation. This terrain contour mapping method will enhance the missile’s accuracy.
Compelling Arguments For AGNI-VI
In 2011, Pradeep Vasant Naik, the former Chief of Air Staff of the Indian Air Force and the head of the Chiefs of Staff Committee at the time, strongly advocated for expanding India’s nuclear strike capabilities beyond its immediate vicinity. The extended range of Agni-VI will encompass the strike capability to reach at least four major world capitals, thereby significantly enhancing India’s reach and influence on the global stage.
A range exceeding 12,000 kilometers would greatly enhance India’s flexibility, a crucial element for effective deterrence. It would also enable India to target Chinese ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), aircraft carriers, and naval vessels attempting to conceal themselves in the distant reaches of the Southern Indian Ocean and Central Pacific Ocean. This assumes that India develops more precise ICBM guidance systems, akin to China’s DF21D anti-ship ballistic missile, designed for warships, aircraft carriers, and submarines. India aspires for Agni-VI to possess a minimum range of 9,000 kilometers, surpassing China’s JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile, to underscore the significance and capability of its ICBM program.
AGNI-VI: A Significant Force Multiplier
The Agni-VI or SURYA ICBM is a solid-fuelled, multistage intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that is currently under development in India. It is expected to have a range of 9,000 to 12,000 kilometers and be capable of carrying up to 10 nuclear or thermonuclear warheads. The missile will be equipped with MIRV (Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicle) and MaRV (Manoeuvrable Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicle) technology, which will allow it to deliver multiple warheads to different targets. It may also be equipped with light decoys and chaffs to help it evade enemy anti-ballistic missile systems.
India has developed a deadly arsenal of nuclear weapons, including thermonuclear fusion devices and boosted-fission bombs. Each MIRV warhead in this arsenal can be as powerful as 250 kilotons of TNT, which is about 16 times the power of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. This means that a single MIRV warhead could wipe out an entire metropolitan area and kill tens of millions of people.
“Prominent defense experts highlight the imperative for India to develop genuine ICBMs with a range surpassing 12,000 kilometers. They advocate swift approval of the Agni-VI project, underscoring that a nation’s capacity to withstand geopolitical pressures is contingent on its determination and strategic foresight. These experts emphasize the need for the incumbent union government to exhibit resilience against such pressures, a pivotal factor in India’s pursuit of becoming a great power.”
“The establishment of a substantial ICBM force comprising Agni-V and Agni-VI missiles would establish a robust security shield on the strategic battlefield, significantly deterring major powers from any attempts to destabilize India during future conflicts. While the previous UPA-1 and UPA-2 administrations were often perceived as ‘pacifist’ by some policymakers, the current NDA-3 government faces the pivotal task of demonstrating its political resolve. Swift approval of the Agni-VI program and the upcoming test launch of its first prototype in the coming years are essential steps toward positioning India among the world’s elite military superpowers, alongside the USA, Russia, and China. Such a capability would grant India substantial diplomatic influence on the global stage.
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“A comprehensive test of the Agni-VI missile, extending beyond 9,000 kilometers, may attract attention in Western media circles. An alternative approach would be to officially declare the missile’s range as up to 9,000 km, subtly acknowledging its relevance concerning China, while conducting the flight test with a 3-ton super heavy warhead. This strategy would effectively demonstrate the new missile’s capabilities without risking a diplomatic dispute with Western nations. Furthermore, such a test could offer substantial political advantages to the BJP-led central government, allowing the Prime Minister to present this scientific achievement to the domestic electorate as a significant historical milestone, akin to the ASAT test conducted in March 2019.”
“Emulating Vajpayee’s Example”
“Upon successful testing and validation of Agni-VI, Prime Minister Narendra Modi might consider declaring a permanent voluntary halt to the further development of longer-range missiles, officially capping the ICBM program at 9,000 km. This approach draws parallels with former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who declared a comparable permanent voluntary moratorium on nuclear tests following the Pokhran-2 series of explosions in May 1998. Vajpayee’s decision contributed to his international recognition as a statesman.”
“The current government must prioritize the timely completion and showcasing of the Agni-VI and DRDO Veda projects. Without a credible ICBM force, India risks being perceived merely as a subcontinental power, attempting to assert itself but ultimately side lined on the global stage. The responsibility for action now rests with the ruling administration.”
Girish Linganna is a Defence & Aerospace analyst and is the Director of ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany with manufacturing units in Russia. He is Consulting Editor Industry and Defence at Frontier India