India plans this week to test-fire for the first time the longest-range missile in its arsenal, a weapon that would enable the South Asian nation’s military to target parts of northern China and eastern Europe.
The Agni V, with a range of more than 5,000 kilometers (3,107 miles) and the capacity to carry a nuclear warhead, may be launched from the eastern India state of Odisha as early as tomorrow, according to a government official. He declined to be identified because he is not authorized to publicly discuss the timing of the event.
“This missile is about neutralizing the threat coming from China,” said Uday Bhaskar, a former commodore in the Indian navy and now an analyst at the New Delhi-based National Maritime Foundation, a research group. “The tests are about trying to create equality with China rather than trying to outdo it.”
A successful test of the rocket would take India a step closer to becoming the sixth country known to deploy intercontinental ballistic missiles, those that can travel more than 5,500 kilometers. The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council -- the U.S., China, Russia, the U.K. and France -- are the only other countries with that capability, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies based in London.
Sitanshu Kar, a defense ministry spokesman, declined to comment on the date of this week’s test. V.K. Saraswat, head of the state-owned Defence Research & Development Organisation, which makes the missile series, said March 19 that a test-firing of the Agni V was likely in April.
The rocket weighs about 50 tons and is almost 20 meters high, according to Ravi Kumar Gupta, a DRDO spokesman. The timing of the test depends on factors including weather conditions, he said.
Economic growth that has averaged 8.5 percent over the last decade is enabling India to increase spending on military and space programs as it bids to keep pace with its northern neighbor, China.
India, the world’s second most populous country after China, is in the final stages of negotiating the purchase of 126 Rafale fighter jets from Paris-based Dassault Aviation SA in what will be the world’s biggest military contract for warplanes in 15 years. This month, it inducted a Russian-made nuclear-powered submarine into its navy.
India will increase total defense spending by 13 percent this financial year as it seeks to modernize its armed forces to counter China’s military buildup and threats from traditional rivals such as Pakistan. Total spending will rise to $38 billion, more than four times government spending on health, according to figures in the federal budget, released March 16.
China is set to raise military spending by 11 percent this year as rising economic interests, territorial disputes and expanding global commitments drive demand for warships, missiles and fighter jets. Its defense outlays of more than $100 billion per year are second only to the U.S., which along with Europe has maintained an arms embargo against the leadership in Beijing since a 1989 crackdown against protesters.
The development of the Agni V is significant because it means India will be capable of reaching distant yet strategically important targets in parts of northern China for the first time, according to Bhaskar. The missile will have to be successfully tested four to five times before it can become operational, perhaps around 2014, he said.
Agni, named for the Hindi-language word for fire, is a series of missiles that India has tested since 2002. The smallest has a range of 700 kilometers aimed at fortifying the country’s borders.
China and India share a disputed 3,550-kilometer Himalayan border, with each country claiming territory the other has ruled since a 1962 war. India has also fought three wars with Pakistan since the two countries gained independence from British colonial rule in 1947.
India accuses China of occupying 38,000 square kilometers (14,670 square miles) of territory in Jammu and Kashmir, while the government in Beijing lays claim to 90,000 square kilometers of land in Arunachal Pradesh, a state in India’s east. The two sides have been unable to resolve their disputes after more than a dozen rounds of discussions since 2005.
The test-firing of India’s missile comes at a time of rising international tension over North Korea’s recent failed test of a long-range rocket.
While North Korea said the launch was intended to put a satellite into orbit, the U.S. said it violated United Nations sanctions 1718 and 1874, which ban any usage of ballistic missile and nuclear technologies by the impoverished state.
The U.S. scrapped a February plan to provide 240,000 tons of food aid after the rocket was fired. It disintegrated within minutes of liftoff on April 13 and disintegrated into 20 pieces, according to South Korean officials who monitored the launch.