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India tests intermediate-range missile

Looking to boost global status with nuclear muscle?

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The Indian government claims it has significantly increased its nuclear delivery capability, with a successful test today of the uprated Agni-III ballistic missile.

According to the India Daily, defence officials said today's launch was successful, and that Agni-III would offer a range of 3,000km. That would put the main cities of China firmly under the Indian nuclear footprint; not to mention Iran and the former-Soviet 'Stans. Much of Pakistan is already within India's reach.

The two-stage Agni missiles have been under development for a long time, with the first launch taking place back in 1989. Initially, the Indian government preferred to describe the system as a "technology demonstrator project", exploiting work done in the country's civil space programme.

Under US pressure, New Delhi actually announced it was cancelling Agni in 1995. At that time India was unwilling to publicly admit that it had aspirations toward nuclear weapons, and the Agni rockets made little sense without atomic warheads.

Time's moved on and subsequent generations of New Delhi politicians were avowedly pro-nuclear. Successful atom-bomb tests were carried out, and the Agni missile programme moved forward. The first trial for Agni-III took place in July last year, but was unsuccessful. Now it appears that India will soon be able to menace its most powerful neighbours, though in fact relations with both Pakistan and China have grown significantly chummier in recent times.

Some analysts would suggest that in the absence of a standoff with any regional power, the primary usefulness of the Agni-III might be to enhance India's global status. Many in India feel that their nation should have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, like the UK, US, France, China, and Russia. Today's announcement may strengthen this lobby somewhat.

However, purely in terms of weapons technology, a nuclear-tipped Agni-III isn't quite top-table stuff. The permanent five all deploy the gold standard of atomic deterrents: triple-stage intercontinental rockets ranging beyond 5,000km, launched from invulnerable nuclear-propelled submarines.

That said, Indians might point out that the UK has no indigenous rocket industry of its own and has to buy its missiles from America. British chauvinists would no doubt counter by pointing out that India hasn't yet built nuclear submarines, arguably an equally complex technology. However, some reports indicate that India might have home-grown nuclear boats at sea as soon as 2010.

Such arguments might be rendered somewhat irrelevant by the Security Council's typical paralysis on any given issue (due, perhaps, to the existing big five being unable ever to agree). The level of genuine national benefit conferred by a permanent UNSC seat is a matter of opinion, and there can't be a lot of doubt that it would become less valuable if more countries had one. It's also possible to suggest that awards of enhanced UN status as a result of weapons tests might send the wrong message to other aspirant nations.

None of that will dampen a certain sense of satisfaction in New Delhi today. ®

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