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3,500km range Agni-III to be testfired this month

NEW DELHI: India plans to test-fire its most ambitious strategic missile Agni-III, which can hit high-value targets deep inside China with a strike range of 3,500-km, towards April-end.

Sources said the test-firing is likely to take place in the "window" between April 20 to 30, but the exact launch date will depend on technical, environmental and other parameters. This will be the third test of the rail-mobile Agni-III — which can carry a 1.5 tonne nuclear payload — from the integrated test range on Wheeler Island off the coast of Orissa.

While the first test of the two-stage, solid-fuelled Agni-III in July 2006 had flopped, with scientists losing control of the missile over the Bay of Bengal barely 65 seconds into its flight, the second test in April 2007 had proved successful during its entire flight path of 15 minutes.

"If the third test is successful, then the ballistic missile will require just one or two more tests before it can go for limited series production and training trials by the armed forces. Its operational deployment should be possible by 2010-2011," said a source.

Till now, the armed forces have inducted the 700-km Agni-I and 2,000-km-plus Agni-II missiles, which are primarily meant for Pakistan, apart from different versions of the short-range Prithvi missile.

The government, however, is yet to give defence scientists the green signal for an advanced version of Agni-III, with a miniaturised third-stage to increase the strike distance to around 5,000-km.

"If the political directive comes, we can test this Agni-III-plus missile in a year or so," the source said.

A missile is termed an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) if it can travel distances beyond 5,500-km. ICBMs have largely remained the preserve of the five UNSC permanent members, with US and Russia leading the pack since the 1960s. China, too, has made huge strides by developing new-generation solid-fuelled road-mobile ICBMs like DF-31 (7,250-km-plus) and DF-31A (11,270-km).

With China even having SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles) like JL-1 and the under-development JL-2 (8,000-km range), every major city in India is within the strike envelope of Chinese missiles.

But despite the stark asymmetry with China in terms of its huge missile and nuclear arsenal, Agni-III makes it possible to bring even Beijing and Shanghai within India's strike range. The 16.7-metre high Agni-III is a totally new system, with a massive lift-off weight of 48 tonnes, unlike the much lighter Agni-I (12 tonnes) and Agni-II (17 tonnes) missiles.

Scientists say Agni-III has many "firsts" to its credit like the "flex nozzle controls of rocket motor during the powered phase" and the "specially designed composite propellant with high specific impulse for the rocket".

The mobile land-based Agni missiles constitute a crucial part of India's nuclear deterrent posture. Though India has a declared "no-first use" policy, the nuclear doctrine holds that nuclear retaliation to a first strike by an adversary "will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage".

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