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Technical tune to Agni test before talks

New Delhi, Aug. 29: The test-firing of Agni II has little to do with sending diplomatic messages and everything to do with technical requirements, Indian military sources said. But in South Asian militaryspeak, test-firing missiles is a different language altogether, often used to send not-so-subtle diplomatic messages.

Why India should time its test-firing of the Agni II missile now — the missile is already in limited series production and is being readied for induction in the armed forces — is a question that will be answered only by technologists and not the strategists. According to one estimate, it costs between Rs 25 crore and Rs 35 crore to produce the missile.

Today’s Agni II was test-fired from a mobile launcher at 12.55 this afternoon from the Interim Test Range at Wheeler’s Island on the Orissa coast. A defence ministry spokesperson said this was a longer-range version of the Agni II. The Agni II was test-fired twice earlier — in April 11, 1999, and on January 17, 2001.

The range of the solid-propellant Agni II intermediate range ballistic missile can be varied according to payload and trajectory. The objective of today’s test would be to reduce the circular error of probability for the longer-range variant, meaning that the missile was probably carrying a reduced payload.

The Agni II is designed to hit targets from 2,000 to 2,500 km and can carry both conventional and nuclear warheads weighing up to 1,000 kg. In military terms, it can be described as a counter to the Pakistani longer-range Ghauri II that Islamabad claims has a range of 2,000-plus km.

Defence sources said the 20-metre-long, two-stage Agni II was fired from a road or rail mobile launcher. The firing was witnessed by defence minister Pranab Mukherjee, the scientific adviser to the defence ministry, V.K. Aatre, and the project director, Agni, R.. Agrawal, and over more than 100 scientists.

The sources said it was a “contained testfire”. This probably means that the Agni II was not flown for the full range it is designed to fire and its trajectory was altered to simulate the distance. A series of telemetry stations on the ground and on a naval vessel at sea tracked its flight.

Earlier tests were said to have checked the missile’s re-entry control and guidance technology, the sources said. It takes the Agni about 12 minutes to travel its full range with a conventional payload.

Today’s was the ninth test in the series of Agni missiles. The Agni I (700 km) has already been inducted into the armed forces as has been a variant of the Agni II.

If the timing of the testfire is intended to send a diplomatic message, it cannot augur happy news for the India-Pakistan peace talks. But even the test-firing of the Ghauri by Pakistan in June was just days ahead of a crucial India-Pakistan secretary-level meet on nuclear confidence-building measures.

Indian foreign minister K. Natwar Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri are slated to meet in New Delhi next week after the first round of talks on eight subjects, including nuclear and military confidence-building measures, at the level of secretaries under the composite-dialogue framework.

It is of some significance, however, that though the political circles and the foreign ministries of the two countries have been sending out positive signals on the talks, the Indian military establishment, at least, has not been quite so enthused.

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