BEN DOHERTY, DELHI
Given the incendiary moniker ”the China killer” by the more sensationalist press, India’s newest nuclear-capable missile will be its most powerful yet, and an unmistakable signal to its neighbours.
Agni V – formally named after the Hindu god of fire and acceptor of sacrifices – is set to be tested within three months.
It will be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead 5000 kilometres, meaning it can reach not only Beijing and Shanghai, but all of northern China. India’s existing arsenal can already reach every corner of Pakistan.
Indian officials are at pains to reiterate the country’s ”no first strike” policy, but the newly muscular armoury is feeding regional anxieties about an arms race. Foreign Policy magazine identified India’s military build-up as one of the major overlooked stories of 2011.
India was recently declared by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute as the biggest arms importer in the world – ahead of China – with 70 per cent of a $32.5 billion defence budget spent on buying hardware and weapons from overseas.
”But we are not looking at how many missiles China or Pakistan has,” says V. K. Saraswat, chief of the Defence Research & Development Organisation.
”With a ‘no first use’ nuclear weapons policy, we only want a sufficient number of missiles to defend the country in the event of a crisis. Ours is a defensive mode strategy, even if others have offensive postures.”
India’s muscle flexing comes at a sensitive juncture for Australia, too.
At the Australian Labor Party’s national conference this weekend, one of the pre-eminent agenda items is a motion to end the ban on selling uranium to India.
The move, publicly unveiled by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, a fortnight ago, is expected to win sufficient support to be adopted as Labor policy.
Australian uranium sales to countries with nuclear weapons programs come with strict provisos that Australian uranium is used only for civilian purposes.
But uranium is fungible. And a new market offering high-grade uranium ore for India’s civilian reactors frees up the country’s limited indigenous supplies for boosting its military program.
India has been developing its Agni-category ballistic missiles for nearly a decade, with each edition capable of greater range, and carrying a larger warhead, than its predecessor.
It was three years between the testing of Agni III and the first, failed, test of Agni IV.
But Agni IV was successfully fired on November 15, and already there are rumours Agni V will be ready to test before the end of the year.
”Agni V is presently undergoing integration and we may test-fire it by the end of February next year. It is right on schedule and the successful test of Agni IV will prove to be a building block in development of this missile,” Mr Saraswat says.
This new haste of missile development is of particular concern to China, which feels that the latter Agni iterations are being built specifically with it in mind.
The People’s Daily, official organ of the Chinese Communist Party, wrote scathingly of India’s build-up: ”India is expanding its military strength, but it is still uncertain whether India will realise its dream of being a leading power, because India’s weak economy is severely unmatched with the image of a leading military power.
”In addition, international communities and India’s surrounding countries are all suspecting and even being on guard against this kind of unbalanced development mode … international communities do not want to see a severe military imbalance in South Asia.”
China’s nuclear arsenal dwarfs India’s – it is believed to have about 410 nuclear warheads to India’s 70.
Pakistan, meanwhile, has long resented India’s Agni missile program, the first two instalments of which Pakistan felt were built specifically to target it.
Pakistan proclaims the superiority of its Shaheen missiles – despite international anxiety over their security – and often derides its neighbour’s attempts as ”incompetent”.
”It is interesting to watch that Indian missile program facing tragedies,” Samar Mubarakmand, chairman of Pakistan’s National Engineering and Science Commission, said when India’s first Agni III test failed. ”Indian technology has been exposed in clumsy manners.”
Pakistan officials are saying less now India’s missiles have a greater range than theirs.