Indian Defence Ministry, AFP/Getty Images (m2pvqzpd20120419023829/600 )
NEW DELHI — India on Thursday successfully test-fired a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile that landed 20 minutes later in the Indian Ocean.
The 50-ton, 55-foot three-stage Agni V rocket, named after the Hindu god for fire and dubbed the "China killer" by some in India's hyperactive news media, reportedly reached its target at the outer end of its 3,100-mile range, confirming that the weapon system can reach Shanghai and Beijing. It lifted off from an island in the eastern state of Odisha.
Video released shortly after the 8:07 a.m. launch showed the rocket's white exhaust stream searing across an overcast sky. The test missile held a dummy payload, but it reportedly is capable of carrying a 1-ton nuclear warhead. Reporters at the launch site described scientists jumping in the air with delight after the test proved successful.
"It gives India the ability to strike anywhere except the U.S. landmass," said Ajai Shukla, a defense analyst and former army colonel. "They've kept the range down to 5,000 kilometers because they don't want to ring any alarm bells in the U.S."
The results make India the sixth nation with an intercontinental ballistic missile capability, after the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France. Analysts said the mission difficulty was pared down to reduce the risk of failure.
Officials have been keen to emphasize India's "no first strike" policy. But a rapidly expanding economy and New Delhi's status as the world's largest weapons importer have fueled a regional arms competition. India, which is slated to increase defense spending by 13% this year, sees nuclear neighbors Pakistan and China as its greatest threats.
Earlier generations of Agni missiles, developed over the last decade, were capable of striking anywhere in Pakistan, with which India has fought three wars since they gained independence from British rule in 1947.
The extended-range Agni IV and V models are built with China in mind. China defeated India during a short war in 1962, and tension remains high along their disputed 2,100-mile border. By some reports, China has almost 100 short- and medium-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles and about 15 radar stations in Tibet.
Analysts said Thursday's launch — an attempt Wednesday evening was canceled because of bad weather — could give India's unpopular government a short-term political dividend and engender chest thumping in the local media.
"The Agni V is all about political implications," said Pravin Sawhney, editor of Force, a defense publication. "This is seen as a deterrent against China. But China is not worried about one Agni V. It's a puny weapon system."
Analyzing the test, which was monitored by ships and tracking stations along the flight path, could take weeks, and the missile's real capabilities will fully emerge only over the next six to eight expected tests.
The Agni V is India's first three-stage rocket, significantly more complex than earlier, two-stage models. And having been pushed to the limits of its 3,100-mile range, its nose cone and outer surface had to withstand reentry heat as high as 9,000 degrees Fahrenheit, compared with about 5,500 degrees for earlier generations. Officials also will be looking closely at how well its navigation systems performed.
The real payoff on the defense front will come in transferring lessons learned about accuracy and range to India's submarine-launched ballistic missiles, analysts said.
India's plans call for a "nuclear triad" in which atomic weapons can be launched from land, sea and air. Last month, India conducted a 420-mile test of its K-15 Sagarika submarine missile. And this month, it inducted a Russian-made nuclear-powered submarine into its navy.
Even before the missile launch, India's news media gushed with pride and excitement.
"Agni V will make the world fear India," the NDTV network wrote on its website. "It travels faster than a bullet.... Why, it can even be launched from a roadside!"
Said competitor Times Now, "This is one of India's biggest moments."
Amid India's pleasure over its entry into the intercontinental ballistic missile club, some voiced concern.
"Bigger missiles, longer ranges; this travels down a road of no return," said Mohan Guruswamy, founder of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a New Delhi think tank.
"It's a mindless game that goes on. Once you're caught in the logic of it, you can't get off."
Tanvi Sharma in The Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.