The massive trailer stood isolated on a patch of concrete on the thickly wooded Wheeler Island, from which a cylindrical canister rose 17 m into the sky. A few hundred metres away, inside a reinforced concrete launch centre, a crowd of scientists tensely counted down to the launch of the Agni-5 missile, being fired exactly as it would be in the most cataclysmic moment of a war.
Sitting quietly in the launch centre was Avinash Chander, on his last working day as chief of the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO). After more than 42 years of almost unalloyed success at the cutting edge of India’s strategic missile programme, Chander had learned through the media on January 14 that his employment was being terminated from January 31.
At precisely 8.09 am the 50-tonne missile leapt towards the sky, a 300-tonne charge of compressed gas propelling the Agni-5 from its sealed canister. Twenty metres out, its first stage ignited in a giant orange ball of fire.
As the launch centre erupted in cheers, the missile gathered speed. Ninety seconds later, exactly on schedule, the all-composite second stage ignited. The third stage was an innovative conical motor that propelled the payload – in wartime, most likely a 200-kilotonne nuclear warhead – deep into space, 600 km above the earth. Twenty minutes later, precisely as planned, the payload splashed down in the southern Indian Ocean, more than 5,000 km from Wheeler Island.
The Agni-5 is now just a couple of test-launches from operational service with the military’s Strategic Forces Command. The SFC’s trailer-mounted, canisterised Agni-5 fleet can be quickly moved on existing roads, providing the ultimate deterrent against any enemy within 5000 km.
Minutes after the test, emotional DRDO scientists gathered on the launch pad to bid goodbye to Chander. “It was only fitting; this launch pad was his karmabhoomi”, one told this correspondent over the phone.
(Karmabhoomi, a term made famous in an epic novel by Munshi Premchand, refers to the land where ones life-work is done.)
Typically, Chander was brief and cut-and-dried. “I cherished every moment of my service in DRDO and I thank you all for the relentless support given to me all through. I am leaving with a great satisfaction of equipping the country with such advanced missiles. I wish the entire DRDO community a great future,” he said.
Perhaps for the first time, neither the prime minister nor the defence minister offered their congratulations on the success of a major launch. That job was left to the National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval.
This was the third test of the Agni-5 missile, all successful. This, however, was the first time a missile had been fired from a canister, which provides a hermetically sealed environment that protects the missile during years of operational deployment in harsh conditions.
The DRDO said on Saturday that the canister “enables launch of the missile with a very short preparation time compared to an open launch. It also has advantages of higher reliability, longer shelf life, less maintenance and enhanced mobility.”
The Agni-5 missile is developed and built by the DRDO, supported by almost one hundred private sector small-and-medium industries around Hyderabad, which supply components and sub-systems for the missile. Two companies – Larsen & Toubro, and Walchandnagar Industries – build canisters. An L&T canister was used in this launch. Tata Power (Strategic Engineering Division) fabricated the trailer.
The DRDO terms the Agni-5 an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). By most international conventions, however, it is an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) – a class ranges from 3,000-5,500 km. It is widely believed that the Agni-5 can be easily ramped up to 6,000 km, striking targets anywhere except for America and Australia.
The longest-range missile currently on the military’s operational inventory is the Agni-3, which is estimated to have a range of 3,500 km.
Former DRDO chief, V K Saraswat, told Business Standard that DRDO was also working on advanced variants of the Agni-5, including MIRVs (multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles), anti-satellite systems and the capability to launch military satellites on demand.