India Tests Short-Range Agni Ballistic Missile

Alex Wagner

Amid a tense military standoff between India and Pakistan, New Delhi claimed it successfully tested a new, short-range version of the Agni-1 ballistic missile on January 25.

This is the first known test of an Agni 1-variant, an adaptation of the 1,500-kilometer, two-stage Agni-1. Because the Agni series is better configured for nuclear warheads than India’s short-range Prithvi missile, a shorter-range Agni could provide India with an increased capability to deliver nuclear payloads to targets throughout Pakistan.

India fired its new Agni over international waters from its “Island Test Range” at Chandipur. An Indian diplomat specified that the test’s “notified range” was approximately 725 kilometers. According to the Indian government, “The mission’s objectives were fully met as confirmed by data from the network of ground radars, telemetry stations, and visual observations.”

Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee cited national security considerations in justifying the missile test. “For the nation’s security and protection, we are taking several steps, and Agni is one among them,” he said following the test.

At a briefing that same day, Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Nirupama Rao described the flight test as “part of the technical evolution of our missile program,” with the timing “determined solely by technical factors.” Rao noted that Pakistan was given advance warning of the test, in accordance with a series of confidence-building measures agreed to at Lahore in 1999.

The test comes at a time of particularly high tensions that have followed a December terrorist attack on the Indian parliament building, for which New Delhi has held Pakistan responsible. India and Pakistan have both recently upgraded their armed forces’ alert status, including deploying short-range nuclear-capable missiles, and have had cross-border skirmishes in Kashmir.

In a January 25 interview with British Broadcasting Corporation television, Aziz Ahmed Khan, spokesman for the Pakistani Foreign Ministry, called the test’s timing “particularly deplorable” and said the test demonstrated “unwise behavior” that is “prejudicial to the pursuit of peace and stability in South Asia.” Khan added that although Pakistan “has capabilities to match those of India,” Islamabad “will not be provoked into abandoning the course of restraint and responsibility.”

At a press conference the next day, Pakistani Director-General for Inter-Services Public Relations Major General Rashid Qureshi suggested that Pakistan would not react to India’s test by firing its own ballistic missiles. “Pakistan is neither in a race with India nor is it going to do anything as a reaction to what India does,” Qureshi said.

Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed muted criticism of the test. Speaking to reporters January 25, Powell explained that although he did not believe that the test would “inflame the situation particularly,” he would have preferred that India not test-fire a missile “at this time of high tension.”

Testifying before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on February 6, CIA Director George Tenet added that the Bush administration is “deeply concerned” that once a conventional war has begun, it could escalate into a nuclear confrontation.

Rising tensions between the two nuclear powers prompted Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf to reiterate his longstanding offer to “denuclearize” the subcontinent. In a January 24 interview on NBC’s “The Today Show,” Musharraf stated that “we want to denuclearize South Asia and we want to sign a no-war pact with [India].” However, Musharraf was unwilling to match India’s pledge not to be the first to use nuclear weapons, claiming that his proposal went “far, far beyond this issue of no first use.” New Delhi has consistently rejected Musharraf’s offer, claiming that it is meaningless until Islamabad ceases its support for cross-border terrorism in Kashmir.