Three hours after the sun rose out of the lake-calm Bay of Bengal, another ball of fire, the Agni-5 Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM), roared into the sky on Sunday morning.
Twenty minutes later, the warhead — a real atomic bomb in every respect except for a nuclear core — splashed down, almost 5,000 km away in the southern Indian Ocean. Two Indian ships were stationed there to capture the explosion, the footage relayed in real time to the Mission Control Centre here.
Surrounded by a wildly cheering throng of normally staid scientists and engineers from the Defence R&D Organisation, the DRDO chief, Avinash Chander, declared victory. “This (second launch of the Agni-5) is a perfect and complete success, meeting all our mission objectives. We have got the data right up to impact, including the terminal event,” he said.
This eventually successful mission saw plenty of unforeseen drama, which had seemed a mere theoretical possibility when the day began, with the DRDO’s leadership praying for success at a small temple on this island, about 150 km from Bhubaneswar, off the state’s coastline.
After that scientific nod to the need for divine support, a simulated political order for a nuclear strike was received, from New Delhi.
Vice Admiral S P S Cheema, who heads the Strategic Forces Command (SFC), keyed in the appropriate launch codes and preparations began. Then, a fault was discovered in the telemetry systems of one of the ships positioned along the flight path, which meant data might not be gathered for part of the missile’s flight. Drawing on their experience of tens of missile launches, the DRDO team decided to go ahead.
The missing data, said Chander later, would be captured at various other telemetry stations.
The countdown began but was halted just 14 seconds from launch, when one of the missile components signalled a malfunction. By now, storm clouds were gathering over the island, the weather another concern. Mission Control quickly determined it was a false alarm and, amid knife-edge tension, the countdown began again. As the rocket engines burst into life and Agni-5 smoothly lifted off the launch pad, a roar went up from the packed gathering. After that, it was a textbook mission all the way.
After 90 seconds, the giant 40-tonne first stage dropped away, having propelled Agni-5 to an altitude of about 36 km. About 75 seconds later, the 10-tonne stage-2 rocket was jettisoned, having propelled the missile up to 110 km. Four minutes after launch, with Agni-5 now 220 km above the earth, the 2.5-tonne stage-3 rocket fell away.
By now, the 19 metre-high, 50-tonne missile that had blasted off from here was a mere 1.2-tonne projectile, hurtling through space at almost six km a second. Inside this was a simulated nuclear warhead and the navigation package that would guide it precisely to the impact point.
Re-entering the atmosphere about 80 kms above the earth, the missile encountered its final test, to maintain the temperature inside the projectile at a balmy 40 degrees Celsius, even as atmospheric friction heated the carbon composite outer casing to 2,500-3,000 degrees.
Agni-5 passed that test, too; the warhead’s arrival at the target was evident from the explosion visible on the live feed from the ship in the target area.
Said former SFC chief, Air Marshal K K Matthews, at a debriefing after the mission,“This was a special launch, one where I saw fantastic decision-making amidst great tension. We had three small-big problems and the decision could easily have been to cancel the launch.”
After its second successful Agni-5 test, DRDO is developing a canisterised version of the missile. Congratulating his scientists after the launch, the DRDO chief urged them to test-fire the canisterised Agni-5 within “a few months”.
Chander also said Sunday’s test had demonstrated that Agni-5 was ready for production. In fact, at least three test-flights of the canisterised Agni-5 (the form in which the operational missiles will be deployed) are planned before production begins.
The production stage involves placing orders of long lead items’ with suppliers well ahead of time and that is likely soon. The Agni-5 project has been cleared by the cabinet, which means funds can be allocated without lengthy procedures.
India’s military has so far operationally deployed the Prithvi missile (350 km), the Agni-1 (1,000 km), Agni-2 (2,000 km) and Agni-3 (3,000 km). The Agni-5 will extend the reach of India’s nuclear deterrent to 5,000 km, covering China, West Asia, Southeast Asia and large parts of Africa.
DRDO is simultaneously developing technologies for the Agni-6 missile. In an earlier conversation with Business Standard, the DRDO chief said Agni-6 would carry a massive three-tonne warhead, thrice the weight of the one-tonne-class warheads that these missiles have so far carried.
This expanded payload will allow each Agni-6 missile to launch several nuclear warheads, called Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs), with each one capable of being directed towards a different target. Each warhead — called a Maneuverable Re-entry Vehicle (MARV) — can perform evasive maneuvers while hurtling towards its target, confusing enemy air defence missiles that are trying to destroy these mid-air.