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Agni Failure Bad News For India

India's doomed Agni missile.
by Martin Sieff
UPI Senior News Analyst
Washington DC (UPI) Jul 17, 2006
The failure of two major India missile launches in two days Sunday and Monday proved intensely embarrassing for the nation's prestige and threw major doubt on its military-industrial high-tech capabilities.

An analysis from the Inter-Press Service that was published in the Asia Times Tuesday argued that the problems are deep-rooted in the Indian defense establishment.

On Monday, a $50 million geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle, or GSLV, with a communications satellite on board was ordered to self-destruct as it veered off course soon after liftoff on Monday. Authorities at the civilian Indian Space Research Organization said one of its four strap-on rocket motors had failed.

The day before, the Agni III intercontinental ballistic missile, the pride of India's strategic missile forces, failed shortly after take off. The Agni III was designed to have a range of 2,100 miles to 2,400 miles -- a capability that would have allowed it to deliver a nuclear weapon payload as far as the Chinese cities of Beijing and Shanghai. But on its first, and much delayed test launch, it crashed instead into the Bay of Bengal after flying less than 600 miles.

Of the two unsuccessful launches, "the failure of the Agni III was in some ways more serious because it exposed the political limitations of India's attempts, despite its ambitions, to pursue a military capability which is truly independent of the U.S.'s strategic calculations," analyst Praful Bidwai wrote in the Asia Times.

The Agni-III was originally meant to be tested in 2003-04. However, its first test was repeatedly postponed owing to technological problems. More recently, as we have noted previously in these columns, the Congress Party-led government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh deferred a scheduled test launch this year so as not to risk hostile reactions in the United States while the U.S. Congress was considering ratification of India's nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States.

However, committees of both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives have given overwhelming approval to the nuclear agreement that was finalized in March and its passage through both main chambers of the U.S. legislature now appears assured. Also, Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, assured Indian officials in New Delhi in June that testing the Agni III would not be viewed as a concern by the Bush administration.

Previously, some tests of the shorter range Agni-II with a range of around 1,200 miles also proved unsuccessful, Bidwai noted. "But what makes the Agni-III's failure significant is that unlike its shorter-range predecessors, it was a wholly new design, developed with the specific purpose of delivering a nuclear warhead," he wrote.

"The causes of the failure of the test flight are not clear," Pridwai wrote. "Scientists at the DRDO (India's super-secret and prestigious Defense Research Development Organization) which designed and built the missile, have been quoted as saying that many new technologies were tried in the Agni-III, including rocket motors, "fault-tolerant" avionics and launch control and guidance systems. Some of these could have failed. Other reports attribute the mishap to problems with the propellant."

"The DRDO isn't the world's most reliable weapons R&D agency," Admiral L. Ramdas, a former chief of staff of the Indian Navy, told Inter Press Service. "The Indian armed services' experience with DRDO-made armaments has not been a happy one. Their reliability is often extremely poor. We often used to joke that one had to pray they would somehow work in the battlefield."

Despite an annual budget of $670 million, comparable to that of India's massive Department of Atomic Energy, "The DRDO has delivered very little,"

Anil Chowdhary of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace told Bidwai.

"None of the three major projects assigned to the DRDO has been completed on time or without huge cost-overruns," Bidwai noted. The organization's project to build India's first home-produced main battle tank began more than 30 years ago in 1974. Yet the tank has still failed to meet service requirement tests and is reportedly too heavy and undependable to be used in combat operations, he wrote.

The equally venerable DRDO project to build India's first home-manufactured nuclear submarine is still not completed, despite expenditures on it of nearly $1 billion, Bidwai wrote. And a Light Combat Aircraft, or LCA project, launched in 1983, is also mired because the DRDO has failed to develop the right engine for it, he wrote.

Even if the DRDO can manage a successful test launch of the Agni III ICBM in the next few months, Bidwai's analysis suggests that the structural problems of India's military-industrial sector are widespread and deep-rooted and unlikely to be satisfactorily resolved soon. That condition is likely to give an added impetus to India's efforts to develop ever-closer high tech ties with the United States.

Source: United Press International

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