India successfully launched its first domestically developed long-range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Thursday morning, joining a handful of nations that possess ICBM technology. The Agni V missile, capable of carrying a one-ton nuclear warhead, was launched this morning from Wheeler Island, off the coast of the state of Orissa, after a bad-weather delay yesterday.
The Agni V was launched just after 8 a.m. local time and flew for 20 minutes before hitting its designated target in the Indian Ocean. Officials were thrilled with the smooth operation. “With this missile launch, India has emerged as a major missile power,” V.K. Sarawat, an adviser in the Ministry of Defense, told the Hindu. “We have joined a select group of countries possessing technology to design, develop, build and manufacture long-range missiles of this class and technological complexity.”
Today’s test is part of India’s effort at nuclear deterrence in the region, a defense strategy widely interpreted as a response to China’s military buildup and ongoing tensions with Pakistan. New Delhi has been 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 each year. 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 say the military’s focus on developing deterrent technology is not “country-specific.”
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China openly dismissed the importance of the test, responding in an article in the state’s official English-language website, the Global Times, that warns its neighbor not to overestimate “its strength” or “the value of its Western allies.” The article goes on to say: “Even if [India] has missiles that could reach most parts of China, that does not mean it will gain anything from being arrogant during disputes with China. India should be clear that China’s nuclear power is stronger and more reliable. For the foreseeable future, India would stand no chance in an overall arms race with China.”
Europe, parts of which are also within range of the Agni V, was less emphatic. At a briefing in Brussels on Wednesday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said, “We do not consider India a threat to NATO allies or NATO territory.”
Only a handful of nations, including China, the U.S., the U.K., France and Russia, have ICBMs in their arsenal. India has been working on its own 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 and is expected to be in operation by 2014 or ’15, pending further tests.
Amid the back-patting in this morning’s headlines, some in India were also cautioning officials not to get ahead of themselves. “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,” C. Uday Bhaskar, former director of the New Delhi–based National Maritime Foundation, wrote yesterday in the daily DNA. “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