Ups and Downs of India’s Missile

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The New York Sun

NEW DELHI — India’s first test firing of a new missile designed to carry nuclear warheads across much of Asia and the Middle East was unsuccessful, the defense minister said.

Although initially reported as a success by officials, the Agni III missile plunged into the Bay of Bengal short of its target, Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee told reporters late Sunday.

Following the failed missile launch, an Indian rocket carrying a satellite for TV broadcasts veered off course and exploded after takeoff yesterday, Indian press outlets reported.

The missile launch came as President Bush tries to push a civilian nuclear deal with India past a skeptical Congress. The deal permits India to keep making nuclear weapons, and critics say the pact could undermine the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Even though the deal does not cover missiles, a Hindu newspaper reported yesterday that the top American general, Peter Pace, gave Indian officials the green light to conduct the test when he visited India last month. The missile test reportedly had been delayed for two years by technical issues and fears of international condemnation.

Mr. Mukherjee, who witnessed Sunday’s missile launch, said India would press ahead with the Agni III program. He termed the failure a snag, but offered no other details.

Indian press outlets reported that the missile’s second stage failed to separate after it was launched from Wheeler Island off the eastern state of Orissa.

India’s current crop of missiles has been largely intended to confront archrival and neighbor Pakistan. The Agni III, by contrast, is to be India’s longest-range missile, designed to reach 1,900 miles. That would putting China’s major cities well into range, as well as targets deep in the Middle East.

It’s also said to be capable of carrying a 200- to 300-kiloton nuclear warhead.

“This is going to help in establishing the credibility of India’s deterrent profile,” an Indian defense analyst, C. Uday Bhaskar, said.

Still, he dismissed speculation the missile was designed with China in mind.

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