The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Silence burns Agni’s cover

Bhubaneswar/New Delhi, July 9: Agni III, India’s longest-range missile that is probably China-specific, “took off successfully” this morning but the deafening official silence that followed suggested all’s not well.

The worst suspicions were confirmed in the evening, several hours after the test-firing off Orissa at 11.03 am: the missile fell into the sea without hitting the target.

The launch of the nuclear-capable missile, designed to hit targets over 3,500 km away from Wheeler Island was “successful” but its second stage did not separate and it fell into the sea, sources said in Orissa.

They said the missile went up vertically to a height of about 12 km before a snag developed. The sources attributed the problem to a “design failure”.

Officially, a defence spokesperson confined himself to a terse statement that “the missile took off successfully” at 11.03 hours IST.

The surface-to-surface missile ' designed to have a range that can stretch from the Bay of Bengal to Beijing and Shanghai ' had blasted off from a fixed platform as defence minister Pranab Mukherjee and defence scientists looked on.

Soon after, an official spokesperson in Delhi spoke of the “successful launch” but the political leadership was uncharacteristically silent throughout the day, fuelling speculation that something had gone awry.

In sharp contrast, when Agni 1A (a shorter-range variant) was tested on July 4, 2004, the Prime Minister, the defence minister and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi had issued congratulatory messages.

Political sources initially tried to explain away the silence as a conscious decision to deflect a possible allegation that the government, which had a bad week in office, is resorting to diversionary tactics.

A scientist associated with the project said the missile could not attain the projected trajectory, without which targets cannot be hit. “The missile stayed about 288 seconds in the sky (instead of the required 15 minutes) before falling off,” the scientist said.

Until Agni III is successfully tested, India cannot claim to have a “minimum credible deterrent”, the euphemism for a second-strike capability with a nuclear weapon.

The test came three days after Delhi made its biggest friendship overture to Beijing by opening Nathu-la for trade.

China’s state media gave wide coverage to the missile test but there was no official comment till late tonight.

Agni III’s testing has been postponed at least four times since 2004, the last time because Delhi didn’t want to put its civilian nuclear energy deal with the US at risk. But Washington virtually gave the assent after the nuclear energy deal crossed its first hurdle in the Senate committee.

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