New Delhi: India's top missile scientist said Wednesday that the country is on the verge of enhancing its strategic weapons capabilities manifold. According to Dr VK Saraswat, chief of the DRDO's missiles and strategic systems, already on the design boards was a ballistic missile capable of hitting targets up to 6,000 kilometres (3,800 miles) away.
Such a distance would be nearly double the strike range of the long range Agni-III missile, which would bring even Europe within reach, and certainly the Chinese capital, Beijing.
Incidentally, Indian announcements in this regard have come a day after Pakistan conducted another test of a longer-range sub sonic cruise missile. The Pakistani test, quite expectedly, took place a couple of days after India conducted a high profile anti-ballistic missile test, which now makes them members of an exclusive four-country club consisting of the US, Russia, Israel, and now India.
The Advanced Air Defence system
The Indian BMD test was the second part of a two stage testing process, the first of which was conducted last year. In last year's test, conducted in November, and dubbed the Prithvi Air Defence Exercise (PADE), Indian scientists tested an exo-atmospheric anti-missile system that could intercept targets 50-km above the atmosphere.
The current test, in the early part of December 2007, dubbed the Advanced Air Defence (AAD) system, fires supersonic interceptors that can engage targets 15-km within the atmosphere. Scientists said that the current test was entirely successful and further validation tests would be carried out over the next two years before the system would be deemed to be operational.
Dr VK Saraswat dubbed the Indian BMD system as being slightly superior to the much-touted US Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) system, mainly in terms of range.
Dr Saraswat also said that India needed a missile defence shield as the country had a no first-use policy as far as nuclear weapons was concerned. This could be a problem for the country as there was no means to verify whether missiles fired at the country were tipped with nuclear or conventional warheads.
With a ballistic missile defence system in place, a country with a small missile arsenal would be forced to think to twice before it ventures into adventurism of such a nature.
"It is essential you have a system which will first take on that kind of a threat,'' he said.
As it stands, the BMD system can cover an area of 200 sq km and would be fully capable of protecting metropolitan areas in the country. ''Thus, for Delhi and the NCR (National Capital Region), we would require two batteries,'' he said, adding that the interceptor can also function in other roles.
The December tests have shown that the AAD could also be used as an Extended Range Surface-to-Air Missile, besides being used as a ballistic missile interceptor.
According to Dr Saraswat, the missile defence shield, backed by a string of coastline radars and high-end monitoring systems, would also make it almost impossible for hostile aircraft to penetrate Indian airspace.
"The AAD could be used to target aircraft," Dr Saraswat said, adding that its successful development had opened up a 'new era' with the development of supersonic interceptor missiles that can be used for defence against cruise missiles. He said that the AAD has an accuracy factor of 0.5mts.
The supersonic interceptors and long-range radars would easily take on threats posed by hostile aircraft and such a BMD system would also take on conventional air defence tasks.
He also mentioned the fact that a few of the technologies developed for the anti-ballistic missile system could also be brought to bear against cruise missiles. M Natarajan, scientific advisor to the ministry of defence and chief controller, DRDO, likened the capabilities of the BMD system as akin to a ''bullet hitting a bullet.''
Dr Saraswat disputed the contention that such a system would alter the balance of power in the region. "It is a defensive posture and so it doesn't alter the balance (of power) in the region," he said.
Meanwhile, India is moving ahead with further tests aimed at improving the range and efficacy of its long-range ballistic missiles. Dr Saraswat said that a 6,000-km Agni-IV missile was at the design stage and work was in progress. With reference to the Agni III, he said that more tests were required before commercial production for the 3,500-km range missile could be considered.
According to the scientific advisor, M Natarajan, flight tests of Agni-III ballistic missiles would begin within months. "We want to repeat the tests and we have plans for a minimum two such repeats," Natarajan said. "One, sometime within the first quarter of next year, and another within nine to 12 months."
India last tested the Agni III in April 2007, which effectively brought distant Chinese cities and infrastructure within range for the first time, altering the balance of power in the region. Saraswat said that the weapon was being further upgraded.
The Agni IV, with a 6,000km range, would effectively bring China's capital Beijing and also the European continent into range of Indian missiles.
New Delhi has already deployed two variants of the Agni -- a 700-kilometre (434-mile) Agni-I and the 2,500-kilometre (1,550-mile) range Agni-II after numerous flight-tests.