India has kicked off the process to induct its first intercontinental ballistic missile Agni-V into the Strategic Forces Command (SFC), 20 years after the country conducted the five Pokhran-II underground nuclear tests under ‘Operation Shakti’.
Defence sources on Friday said “several systems and subsystems” associated with the over 5,000-km-range missile, which brings the whole of China as well as parts of Europe and Africa under its strike range, “are being handed over” to the new Agni-V unit raised under the SFC.
“The second pre-induction trial of Agni-V is slated to take place soon (the first one was on January 18 this year, after four developmental trials since April 2012). If successful like the earlier tests, the Agni-V unit with its missiles can be shifted to a strategic base,” said a source.
The tri-service SFC already has Prithvi-II (350-km), Agni-I (700-km), Agni-II (2,000-km) and Agni-III (3,000-km) missile units. While some Sukhoi-30MKI, Mirage-2000 and Jaguar fighters have also been jury-rigged to make them capable of delivering nuclear bombs, the third leg of the “nuclear triad” is represented only by the solitary nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) INS Arihant as of now.
While the “weak” underwater leg is a continuing concern because SSBNs are considered the most secure and effective platforms for retaliatory nuclear strikes, especially for a country like India that has a declared “no first-use (NFU)” policy, sources say the SFC and the PM-led Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) have taken “big strides” since they were created in January, 2003.
There is, of course, the longstanding controversy over whether India actually achieved its “declared yields” in the 1998 Pokhran-II nuclear detonations, which included a 15 kiloton fission device, a 45 kiloton thermonuclear device (hydrogen bomb) and three sub-kiloton devices.
Some experts have even called for junking the NFU policy because India is faced with two nuclear-armed hostile neighbours.
But such debates apart, sources say a lot of work has been carried out to establish underground nuclear command posts, command and control centres as well as strategic missile bases at different locations. “Redundancies, alternative chains of command, targeting strategies for retaliation and operating procedures for ‘launch on attack’, among other things, have been ensured,” said another source.
“Till SSBNs with nuclear missiles over 3,500-km range are inducted, the Agni missiles and nuclear glide bombs delivered by fighters will remain the mainstay of India’s deterrence posture,” he added.
Operational deployment of the over 50-tonne Agni-V, which will take about a year, will add some much-needed teeth to the deterrence posture against China. Agni-V, which carries a 1.5-tonne nuclear warhead, is more deadly than the earlier Agni variants because it’s a canister-launch missile to ensure swift transportation and firing. “It reduces the response time as well as ensures higher reliability with less maintenance,” said the source.
Before the test in January, the three-stage Agni-V underwent four “developmental trials”, with “open configuration” tests in April 2012 and September 2013. Then, it was test-fired from hermetically sealed canisters mounted on transport-cum-tilting launcher trucks in January, 2015 and December, 2016.
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