India Missile Update 1996 – Agni on Hold; More Prithvi Tests

The Indian Government announced on December 5, 1996 that it would suspend development of its most powerful missile, the two-stage, intermediate-range, nuclear-capable “Agni” (meaning “fire” in Hindi).

According to a Government report released in Parliament the same day, the Agni is a “re-entry technology demonstration project” which has been successfully completed and “does not envision the development of a missile system.” However, the report made clear that any future decision to manufacture and deploy the missile “can be taken at an appropriate time consistent with the prevailing threat perception….”

The decision to suspend the program rejected the views of the Indian Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defense, which recommended that the government decide “to go for serial production of this strategic missile for induction into the Armed Forces.”

The decision responded to a formal request made in August by Dr. A. J. P. Kalam, director of India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (Defence Research and Development Organization) (DRDO), to begin operational testing of the Agni. The December 5 announcement also came on the heels of a visit by Chinese President Jiang Zemin to India, raising the possibility that the suspension was taken in exchange for concessions from Beijing. During Jiang’s visit, the two leaders signed an agreement to pull back troops from a disputed Himalayan border where they fought a brief war in 1962.

The 21-meter long, 19-ton Agni missile has a range of 2,400 kilometers and could reach Beijing and Shanghai if fired from the easternmost regions of India. It was successfully tested for the third, and possibly last time in February 1994, when it traveled 1,400 kilometers before splashing down in the Bay of Bengal.

Following the December 5 announcement, DRDO officials said on December 22 that they planned to conduct the second test of the shorter-range nuclear-capable Prithvi-II missile within a few weeks. Officials said the test was being conducted to check modifications made to the missile’s ground support systems. The mobile-launched Prithvi-II can carry a 450 kilogram warhead 250 kilometers. The range is an improvement over the Prithvi-I, which can carry a 500-1,000 kilogram payload 150-250 kilometers.

The Prithvi-II was first tested by the DRDO in January 1996. It flew 250 kilometers and reportedly landed accurately at a pre-determined point in the Bay of Bengal. Production of Prithvi-I missiles is presently underway at Bharat Dynamics in Hyderabad, and the missiles are slated to be delivered to the Indian Air Force’s 333rd Missile Group stationed at Secunderabad. Approximately 15-20 missiles have reportedly been completed so far.