The latest Agni-5 missile test piqued the curiosity of defense observers, based on videos of its exhaust trail in the night sky over eastern and northeastern India and even Myanmar and Bangladesh.
The trajectory has been noted to be unusually lower in Earth’s atmosphere and not the pronounced high parabolic arc of ballistic missiles that briefly enter space before re-entering Earth.
The test was conducted Thursday and was referred to as a “night test” in news reports. It was launched at 5.30 pm from APJ Abdul Kalam Island off the Odisha coast in the Bay of Bengal.
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The Agni-5 is India’s longest-range ballistic missile with a range of 5,000 km and uses a three-stage solid-fuel engine. The Agni-5 can be stored and launched from canisters, making it road mobile.
Unusual ‘Arc’ and ‘Altitude’
According to Indian Aerospace Defense News (IADN), the launch likely tested a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) based on its “quasi-ballistic role (and) low speed rather than a standard ballistic launch.”
In a Twitter threadIADN released images of China’s 2018 DF-ZF HGV launch in Shaanxi Province and Inner Mongolia and compared it to the Agni-5, saying it showed “same launch characteristics.”
The pictures came from the recent past #Agni5 missile test does not appear to be a standard ballistic missile test.
The missile’s low speed indicates its quasi-ballistic role, which is usually depicted by a Hypersonic Glide Vehicle, which is a fairly standard nuclear missile launch.#IADN pic.twitter.com/xQwEuImSOG
— Indian Aerospace Defense News (IADN) (@NewsIADN) 15 December 2022
“The images came from the recent Agni-5 missile test does not appear to be a standard ballistic missile test. The low speed of the missile indicates its quasi-ballistic role, which is usually depicted by a Hypersonic Glide Vehicle rather than standard nuclear missile launch,” the IADB said.
The thread posted videos taken by locals showing what appears to be the missile taking steep curves and changing direction, again not common in regular ballistic missile tests.
The chances of it being a hypersonic test also cannot be ruled out as DRDO successfully tested a hypersonic air-breathing scramjet technology with the flight of the Hypersonic Technology Demonstration Vehicle (HSTDV) on September 7, 2020.
DRDO has been working on hypersonic missiles since 2018.
Another comment from defense enthusiasts on social media sites speculated that the test may have been aimed at assessing the performance of microelectronics and Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) systems. “But why they used a depressed trajectory is still not clear,” the commentator said.
MIRVs are propelled and possibly guided munitions on the tip of a nuclear missile which is released in its terminal phase. They fan out from the nose cone, with some being decoys that confuse anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems as to the actual warheads carrying the nuclear explosive.
However, the military can also make all of their MIRVs nuclear-tipped to increase the chances of a successful attack if they anticipate that enemy air defenses are capable of intercepting all of the MIRVs.
DRDO expert speaks
However, former Defense Research Development Organization (DRDO) scientist Dr. Prahlada that it is not similar to a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) test, with the only difference being that the time of the test is late evening or night hours.
“Also, the curvature of the Earth and its position in space cause objects that are farther away or higher to appear as they descend.
This is all the more reinforced in videos and it would be difficult to conclude whether it was an HGV test or some other purpose until the launch video is available,” said Prahlada.
At the time of filing this report, DRDO was yet to comment on the test or release the launch footage.
There were allegations that DRDO was using low speed and a depressed trajectory to hide its actual range and true potential. “If they had used true potential, speed and optimal trajectory, the missile would have gone further. This means the actual range is far greater than 5000 km. DRDO fired along the lowest line on the graph to achieve the target range of 5000 km,” remarked one observer.
By “the lowest line on the graph,” the comment referred to the three different trajectories of ballistic missiles, all of which follow a parabolic trajectory and exit the atmosphere before re-entering to descend on its target.
Plotted on a graph, they become three large parabolas of different heights and arcs, with the lowest almost hugging and running parallel to the curvature of the earth, possibly still inside the atmosphere – or ‘endo-atmospheric’ in military technical terms.