Military & Aerospace

India's Strategic Missiles
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Issue Vol 22.1 Jan - Mar 2007 | Date : 15 Oct , 2014

The Agni series of strategic missiles were developed as part of Integrated Guided Missile Programme (IGDMP). The IGDMP was launched in 1983 to achieve self-sufficiency in missile capability, with simultaneous development of a wide range of missile: Nag, Prithvi, Akash, Trishul & Agni-Technology Demonstrator.

It envisaged common development and reuse of key technologies, and manufacturing facilities, ranging from propulsion system, aerodynamics, avionics, flight control, sensors and warhead.

The range of a missile determines the minimum speed that the rocket imparts on the RV. Longer range requires greater velocity. A launch velocity of 7.7 km/sec (relative to earth) is enough to insert the payload into low earth orbit, yet a full range ICBM that can reach furthest corner of earth (range 20,000 km) requires velocity of 7.5 km/sec.

The IGDMP missiles involved close end-user involvement in all phases, from weapon specifications to development. It is important to note that in 1983 military users had specific domain expertise in weapons systems related to their services, viz Air Force, Army and Navy.

At that time Strategic Forces Command (SFC) or Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) did not exist to take on the role of end-user. That role as we know now was played by a joint team of strategic thinkers, military technologist and select military officers. One can notice that strategic missiles are a different class not only in this aspect but also in the technology & system development aspects.

Strategic missiles have to blend with other key elements that make a complete strategic weapon system viz:

  • Strategic policy organisation
  • Strategic nuclear warhead
  • Strategic missiles
  • Precision navigation
  • Command and control

India’s strategic weapons programme started in early 70′s with Project Devil (SRBM) and Project Valiant (ICBM). Project Valiant was an attempt to build 8,000 Km range missile. Valiant missile had three liquid fuel stages. The first stage consisting of cluster of four engines, each of 30 tonnes thrust, second stage of two 30 tonnes thrust engines and last stage with a single 30 tonnes thrust1. The missile lift off weight was about 85 tonnes. The 30 tonnes thrust liquid engine was first test fired on 10 May 1974, but soon thereafter the project was cancelled because of insufficient progress, weak programme management and organisation structure2.

Re-entry Vehicle (RV)

Unlike most other military weapons, long range ballistic missiles are designed and customised around the Re-entry Vehicle. Like other long range ballistic missiles Agni RV design is driven by the following vital specifications:

  • Payload3 weight and shape
  • Range
  • Launch platform

Impact of Payload Mass on Rocket Weight

For a given maximum range the MTOW (Maximum Take off Weight) of missile is almost directly proportional to the payload weight. Reducing payload mass involves realising compact and small weapon. Equally important is realisation of light weight RV and other gear that ride the RV.

Smaller payload mass result in other overheads that limits the lowest missile mass. On the other hand, heavy payload mass (say for MIRV configuration) incurs the penalty of providing for a payload nose shield that must be carried up to an altitude of 90 km before it can be jettisoned.

Effect of Fabrication Technology on Weight

For a given range and payload the MTOW (Maximum Take-Off Weight) of missile is largely dependent on rocket motor’s MF (Mass Fraction) and number of motor stages. The fuel’s ISP (Specific Impulse) is also important, but all modern long range missile use solid fuel thus they have similar ISP.

Missile_weight_determinedIndian solid fuel chemistry choice, however, has better growth potential compared to US fuel standardised for Space-Shuttle SRB (Solid Rocket Booster)4. Motor’s mass fraction is the single most important factor in determining the weight of missile, especially those designed for 8000 to 18,000 Km range.A case to the point is the recently tested French M51 submarine launched missile5. The 56 tonne M51 has 3 stage and all three motor case are made of carbon-carbon fiber composite material to maximise the fuel mass fraction so the missile can fit into current launch tube of French nuclear submarines6 carrying the M41 missile, yet it carries 50% more payload over 50% more range.The M51 missile’s range is 9,000 km for 6 MIRV payload (1,400 kg including penetration aid). Yet the same missile delivers full ICBM range (20,000 km) for a configuration with fewer (2) MIRVs providing flexibility to France.

Impact of Payload Mass on Rocket Range

As can be expected the missile range increases for lighter payload. For lighter payload the range in particular is affected by the fuel Mass-Faction (MF) of the last stage.

Range_vs_payloadThe range for a set MTOW and fabrication technology is dramatically improved if the missile is partitioned into 3 stages. Increased number of stages does impact cost and reliability but its long range performance is much superior for reduced throw-weight configuration.Agni Re-entry vehicle evolved over 3 phases:

  • Concept evaluation
  • RV for Agni-TD, Agni-II, Agni-I
  • RV for Agni-III

Concept Evaluation of RV for Strategic Ballistic Missile

In mid-1980’s world’s contemporary strategic weapons development centered around weapon design of between 150-400 Kt yield, instead of Megaton yield that was the norm in 1960’s and 70’s. The Megaton yield of earlier nuclear age was necessary to account for and compensate for poor missile accuracy. Over period of time missile accuracy improved and the same effectiveness could be achieved with lighter and lower yield (150-300Kt) weapons. Lighter weapons also allowed many weapons to be launched on a missile (MIRV).


MIRV evolved from multiple satellite launch programme of civilian space agency7. MIRV greatly improved effective use of nuclear weapons in both counter-force as well as counter-value strike role. For identical net yield, the damage from many smaller yield weapons that are well spread out is many times more compared to a megaton yield weapon8. The era of 1970’s and early 80’s was that of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), but technological improvement in 80’s enabled nuclear war-fighting doctrines, i.e. counter-force nuclear weapon application, culminating in development of smaller yield battlefield nuclear weapons including enhanced radiation weapon.

India tested a pure fission nuclear explosive on 18 May, 1974. In 1975 BARC started developing a miniaturised design using fusion boosted fission, and military grade triggers9. By early 1980s BARC had confidence to make robust 200 Kt yield weapon using boosted fission design.

In 1987 IGDMP first envisaged developing a re-entry vehicle that was “designed for 100-250 Kg payload at speed of 7-8 km/sec”10 clearly corresponding to a light weight medium yield fission-weapon & ICBM range11. But strategic requirement also required high yield weapons (about 200 Kt yield) that impose bigger space and weight requirements. After more reviews and debates, the RV was designed for bigger payloads to match BARC’s high yield weapon. BARC’s contemporary 200 Kt boosted fission weapon designed for the purpose weighed about 1000 Kg, that defined REX12 (RV-MK.1) on Agni-TD and later used on Agni-II and Agni-I. IGDMP Director Dr APJ Kalam later said that they evaluated 180 different Agni configurations before settling on the final choice.

The 1000 kg payload mass was also compatible with conventional weapon payload making the missile useful in non-strategic role.

Effect of Range and Payload Mass on RV

The range of a missile determines the minimum speed that the rocket imparts on the RV. Longer range requires greater velocity. A launch velocity of 7.7 km/sec (relative to earth) is enough to insert the payload into low earth orbit, yet a full range ICBM that can reach furthest corner of earth (range 20,000 km) requires velocity of 7.5 km/sec.

Missile_velocity_vs_rangeThe kinetic energy builds up as square of the velocity, thus when payload re-enters the atmosphere at hypersonic velocity the RV encounters shockwave and supersonic drag that varies along the altitude. It encounters extreme temperature régime (about 3,000ºC) followed by extreme deceleration régime; corresponding to energy dissipation in excess of 100 Megawatt that can easily destroy anything but the toughest re-entry vehicle.Understandably ICBM RV undergoes the worst environment.

Dynamic_pressure_on_RVDuring re-entry the missile encounters extremely high temperature as the atmosphere tries to retard the speed of RV traveling at hypersonic speed.The high temperature can vaporise all known material and the only way to reduce the temperature is to spread the heat flux across a larger RV area and using an ablative material to form a blunt leading edge (typically a semi-hemispherical shaped body made of carbon-carbon reinforced composites).

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6 thoughts on “India’s Strategic Missiles

  1. Is making a deal of Dassault Rafale by the IAF be going to be of any use in coming task , beacause most of the nations that are posing a threat on India are making even advanced fighter air-crafts ( like J-20 by CHINA).As the time is passing by, the deal is getting even costlier (and meaningless)? Although these air-crafts are going to complement the proposed FGFA and AMCA air-crafts, still spending that amount of money on such a plan that cannot prove to be decisive in a war in out of clue to understand.And at this time when India needs these fighter planes (right now), the deal is still under consideration and all the responsibility of defending Indian skies lies directly on Su-30 MKI (& also on old MIG-29 flanker).

    • Deterrence is necessary to zero out a resolute enemy’s thought of complete annihilation.
      At the same time conventional weapons are to punish enemy in sub-nuclear engagement. Tejas is seed of our IAF backbone. SU30MKI is expensive to operate & maintain. Albeit good aircraft.
      -Arun S Vishwakarma

  2. Sir,
    You wrote an eye opening article & gave us the clear view about our choice of materials as well as principles we are adopting to built nuclear weapons and missiles. I read lot of articles full with irrelevant content they were merely stories.

  3. Sir,i have read yours articles time and again they give me immense confidence and at the same time reverence for you i have tried to look for an autopsy by you of Pak nuclear arsenal but have not found it could you please write a artic le about them

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