India’s longest-range ballistic missile, Agni-III has more serious problems than have been reported. Unless rectified and successfully proven, the failed Agni- III test will continue to have serious implications for India’s credible minimum deterrence. Test-fired on July 9 from the integrated test range on Wheeler’s Island off the eastern Orissa coast in the Bay of Bengal, the missile failed after the initial 50 seconds of the launch. According to the defence minister, Pranab Mukherjee, who witnessed the test firing, “The take-off was successful but there were problems later.” Senior Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) officials projected the impression to the media that the snag was a minor one. For example, all reports including the one carried by the UK-based ‘Jane’s Defence Weekly’ attributed the failure to the unsuccessful stage separation.
The ‘Times of India’ newspaper said that because the second stage did not separate from the payload, additional drag was felt on the payload in space resulting in its falling into the sea. Here then are two types of reports: One suggesting that the first and the second stage of the rocket did not separate, and the other saying that the second stage did not de-link itself and fall-off before the re-entry vehicle containing the payload entered space after the powered flight. Successful stage separation, it is well-established, is a difficult business. To fully appreciate the problems encountered by Agni-III test-firing and its implication, it is necessary that the Agni programme be viewed in its entirety.
It may be recalled that the Agni-I test conducted in 1992 was a failure. Called the technology demonstrator, the Agni-I had a total of four test-firings, including the failed one, between 22 May 1989 and 19 February 1994. The first Agni-I test used the ullage motors to power the vehicle for the split second duration when stage one burnt out and stage two got ignited. The second Agni-I test dispensed with the ullage motors resulting in the failure when stage two failed to ignite just before stage one burnt out. Consequently, the other two Agni-I successful tests used the ullage motors. It was realised that stage separation was a complex business especially when two different types of propellants were used.