India is scheduled to test a domestically developed long-range intercontinental ballistic missile on Wednesday that, if successful, will be among the most advanced weapons in its artillery. The Agni V missile, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, is expected to be launched this evening from Wheeler Island, off the coast of the state of Orissa.
The test is being interpreted as part of India’s ongoing strategy of nuclear deterrence directed at both Pakistan and China. The country has been focusing on beefing up its military might, but even with a 17% hike this year in the defense budget, the roughly 2% of GDP that India spends on its military pales compared with what its regional neighbors shell out. The Agni V, which has a range of 3,100 miles (5,000 km), is capable of striking major Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai, though Indian officials told AFP that the military’s focus on developing deterrent technology has not been “country specific.” At a briefing in Brussels, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said, “We do not consider India a threat to NATO allies or NATO territory.”
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Only a handful of nations, including China, the U.S., the U.K., France and Russia, have intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). India has been working on its missile program since 1983. In November, the Defense Research and Development Organization, the body developing the Agni family of missiles, successfully launched the Agni IV with a range of 2,200 miles (3,500 km). The Agni V, which stands at over 57 ft. (17.5 m) tall and weighs 50 tons, is designed to carry a one-ton warhead.
Today’s test, which could launch India into that ICBM club, has been highly anticipated, with the Hindu reporting that “tiny Wheeler Island has been a beehive of activity for more than 20 days with a few hundred missile technologists and scientists working at frenetic pace for meeting the scheduled deadline.” But some caution that the strategic significance of the launch should not be overplayed. As C. Uday Bhaskar, former director of the New Delhi–based National Maritime Foundation, wrote in the daily DNA: “As and when Agni V moves from technological proficiency to assured, credible and proven operational induction — maybe by 2014 — India will move towards acquiring that elusive mutuality it seeks with China. More generous claims or exaggerated interpretation about what the maiden launch of the Agni V implies would be premature and imprudent.”
— With reporting by Ishaan Tharoor in Brussels