New Indian Missile Moves Closer to Deployment

July/August 2023
By Jupiter Kaishu Huang

India completed the first pre-induction night launch of its latest medium-range ballistic missile, the Agni-Prime (Agni-P), from an island off the coast of Odisha on June 7, marking a significant milestone in the development of the missile.

The Indian Defence Ministry considers the Agni-P part of a new generation of ballistic missiles. The launch aimed to validate the “accuracy and reliability of the system,” and “all objectives were successfully demonstrated,” the ministry said in a press release shortly after the flight test.

Observed by senior officials from the Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the Strategic Forces Command, the test “has paved the way for the induction of the system into the armed forces” following three prior developmental trials of the missile, the ministry added. The Agni-P, a two-stage, solid-fueled rocket with a range of 1,000 to 2,000 kilometers, can carry nuclear or conventional warheads and features a host of novel technologies first incorporated into India’s newest long-range ballistic missile, the Agni-V.

Notably, the new missile can be stored in a sealed, climate-controlled tube that protects it during transportation. This process enables the warhead to be mated and stored with the missile, significantly reducing the time required for preparation and launch. (See ACT, September 2021.) A test in June 2021 with two decoys also indicates that the DRDO may develop and deploy multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles on the Agni-P.

India’s draft nuclear doctrine calls for the fielding of a credible minimal deterrent, and the government reiterated its commitment in 2020 to a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons. But the development of improved surveillance technology and delivery systems with higher readiness puts that posture
under scrutiny.

“[A]vailable evidence suggests that India may be developing options toward Pakistan that would permit it to engage in hard nuclear counterforce targeting, providing India a limited ability to disarm Pakistan of strategic nuclear weapons,” Christopher Clary and Vipin Narang wrote in a 2019 analysis for International Security.

Given the missile’s range, analysts at the International Institute for Strategic Studies believe the Agni-P primarily counters Pakistan and will replace older, less compact short-range ballistic missiles such as the Agni-I and Agni-II.

But some Indian media outlets laud the Agni-P as the nation’s own “carrier-killer missile” similar to the Chinese Dongfeng-21D missile. A December 2022 article published by the Centre for Air Power Studies, an Indian think tank, asserted that the weapons system fields a maneuverable reentry vehicle that “can hit a mobile target on land or at sea,” a capability that “will give India an edge in the Indian Ocean [r]egion where China is looking to increase its influence.”

The latest test moves the Agni-P closer to deployment amid ongoing Chinese-Indian border disputes and enduring distrust between India and Pakistan.