NEW DELHI >> India says it has successfully test launched a new nuclear-capable missile that would give it, for the first time, the capability of striking the major Chinese cities of Beijing and Shanghai.
The government has hailed the Agni-V missile, with a range of 3,100 miles, as a major boost to its efforts to counter China’s regional dominance and become an Asian power in its own right.
The head of India’s Defense Research and Development Organization, Vijay Saraswat, said the missile was launched at 8:07 a.m. Thursday from Wheeler Island off India’s east coast.
It rose to an altitude of more than 370 miles, its three stages worked properly and its payload was deployed as planned, he told Times Now news channel.
"India has emerged from this launch as a major missile power," he said.
The window for the launch opened Wednesday night, but the test had to be postponed because of weather conditions.
Avinash Chandra, mission director for the test, said that when the launch took place Thursday morning (Wednesday afternoon in Hawaii) the missile performed as planned. "We have achieved exactly what we wanted to achieve in this mission," he told Times Now.
The Agni-V is a solid-fuel, three-stage missile designed to carry a 1.5-ton nuclear warhead. It stands 57 feet tall, has a launch weight of 50 tons and was built at a reported cost of $486 million. It can be moved across the country by road or rail and can be used to carry multiple warheads or to launch satellites into orbit.
The missile will need four or five more trials before it can be inducted into India’s arsenal at some point in 2014 or 2015, Indian officials said.
China is far ahead of India in the missile race, with intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching anywhere in India. Currently, the longest-range Indian missile, the Agni-III, has a range of only 2,100 miles and falls short of many major Chinese cities.
India hailed Thursday’s test as a major step in its fight to be seen as a world power.
"India has today become a nation with the capability to develop, produce, build long-range ballistic missiles and today we are among the six countries who have this capability," Saraswat said.
India and China fought a war in 1962 and continue to nurse a border dispute. India has also been suspicious of Beijing’s efforts to increase its influence in the Indian Ocean in recent years.
"While China doesn’t really consider India any kind of a threat or any kind of a rival, India definitely doesn’t think in the same way," said Rahul Bedi, a defense analyst in New Delhi.
India already has the capability of hitting anywhere inside archrival Pakistan, but has engaged in a splurge of defense spending in recent years to counter the perceived Chinese threat.
The Indian navy took command of a Russian nuclear submarine earlier this year, and India is expected to take delivery of a retrofitted Soviet-built aircraft carrier soon.
The new Agni, named for the Hindi word for fire, is part of this military buildup and was designed to hit deep inside China, Bedi said.
Government officials said the missile should not be seen as a threat.
"We have a declared no-first-use policy, and all our missile systems, they are not country specific. There is no threat to anybody," said Ravi Gupta, spokesman for the Defense Research and Development Organization, which built the missile. "Our missile systems are purely for deterrence and to meet our security needs."
The test came days after North Korea’s failed long-range rocket launch. North Korea said the rocket was launched to put a satellite into space, but the U.S. and other countries said it was a cover for testing long-range missile technology.
One Delhi-based Western diplomat dismissed comparisons with the international condemnation of North Korea’s launch, saying that Pyongyang was violating U.N. Security Council resolutions requiring it to suspend its missile program, while India is not considered a global threat. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on India’s security affairs.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States urges all nuclear-capable states to exercise restraint regarding nuclear capabilities.
"That said, India has a solid non-proliferation record," he told a news briefing. "They’re engaged with the international community on non-proliferation issues."
Some reports characterized the Agni-V as an intercontinental ballistic missile — which would make India one of the few countries to have that capability — but Gupta and analysts said its range fell short of that category.
India has no need for such sophisticated weapons, said Rajaram Nagappa, a missile expert and the head of the International Strategic and Security Studies Program at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore.
"I don’t think our threat perceptions are anything beyond this region," he said.