- The Washington Times - Friday, April 20, 2007

NEW DELHI — Buoyed by the successful test of a missile that can hit China, India says it can extend its nuclear range beyond Asia, but analysts say it is unlikely to take such a step for fear of upsetting the West.

The launch on April 12 of the intermediate-range Agni-III missile capped New Delhi’s drive to produce a device capable of striking targets 2,170 miles inside China, which has an unresolved border dispute with India.

The government’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) now says it has the technology to build intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that would extend nuclear-armed India’s reach beyond Asia.

“We have achieved the capability to make missiles with a range of 5,500 kilometers but the decision to develop an ICBM has to be taken by the political leadership,” DRDO chief M. Natarajan told reporters in New Delhi April 13.

Mr. Natarajan, India’s chief military scientist, said a day after the Agni-III’s test flight that the DRDO, which launched India’s guided-missile development project in 1983, had already begun to design an ICBM.

“DRDO scientists are working on miniaturizing systems of Agni-III so that a third stage can be squeezed into the 16-meter-long missile to enable it to go up to 5,500 kilometers with the same 1.5-ton payload,” he said.

Agni-III project chief Avinash Chander told AFP that a second test of the intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) would take place either in August or October.

DRDO sources said the agency, which is also jointly developing a supersonic cruise missile with Russia, would seek New Delhi’s clearance before it actually began building an ICBM prototype after the second Agni-III test.

India started working secretly on nuclear weapons after China conducted its first atomic test in 1964 — two years after Beijing fought a brief but bloody border war with its neighbor.

New Delhi detonated its first atom bomb in 1974 and, 24 years later, declared itself a full-fledged nuclear weapons state following a series of tests including that of a 46-megaton-yield thermonuclear device.

Former DRDO chief K. Santhanam said while India was capable of building an ICBM, production of one “would unnecessarily affect ties” between India and the United States, which in 2005 agreed on a historic civilian nuclear energy deal.

“Even in its wildest dreams, India does not plan to be a global superpower but in the regional perspective a 3,500-plus-kilometer range IRBM is enough to deter adventurism from across our two borders,” Mr. Santhanam said, referring to Pakistan and China.

Since the subcontinent’s 1947 independence, India has fought three wars with Pakistan, which declared itself a nuclear weapons state after carrying out copycat tests in 1998.

“Given our robust economic growth, resurgent markets and our nuclear-tipped stockpile of [625-mile-range] Agni-Is and [1,250-mile] Agni-IIs, we should be satisfied as a leading regional power,” Mr. Santhanam said.

Kapil Kak, director of the independent Center for Strategic Studies think tank, agreed.

“Given the international security situation and emerging power configurations, a program to develop ICBMs is definitely unsuited for India’s interests,” he said.

“It would raise hackles in the U.S.,” said Gen. Kak, a retired air marshal.

Sources say the DRDO’s most treasured dream — denied in public — remains the development of an ICBM with a range of 9.375 miles, already christened Surya or sun, to match Chinese DF-3 ICBMs that can hit U.S. cities.

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