The latest Agni-5 missile test piqued defense observers’ curiosity, based on videos of its exhaust trail in the night sky over eastern and northeastern India and even Myanmar & Bangladesh.
The trajectory has been noted to be unusually lower within the earth’s atmosphere and not the pronounced high parabolic arch of ballistic missiles that briefly enters space before it reenters earth.
The test was carried out on Thursday and was referred to as “night trials” in news reports. It was fired at 5:30 pm from the APJ Abdul Kalam Island off the Odisha coast in the Bay of Bengal.
Agni-5 is India’s longest-range ballistic missile with a range of 5,000 km and uses a three-stage solid fuel engine. Agni-5 can be stored and launched from canisters making it road mobile.
Unusual ‘Arc’ & ‘Altitude’
According to Indian Aerospace Defence News (IADN), the firing is likely to have tested a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) based on its “quasi-ballistic role (and) low velocity rather than a standard ballistic launch.”
In a Twitter thread, IADN posted pictures of China’s 2018 DF-ZF HGV launch in its Shaanxi province and inner Mongolia and compared it to the Agni-5, saying it showed the “same launch characteristics.”
The pictures came from the recent #Agni5 missile test doesn't seem to be a standard ballistic missile test.
— Indian Aerospace Defence News (IADN) (@NewsIADN) December 15, 2022
“The pictures came from the recent Agni-5 missile test doesn’t seem to be a standard ballistic missile test. The low velocity of the missile indicates its quasi-ballistic role, which is usually depicted by a Hypersonic Glide Vehicle rather than standard nuclear missile launch,” IADB said.
The thread posted videos taken by locals showing what appears to be the missile taking steep curves and changing directions, which again is not common in regular ballistic missile tests.
The chances of it being a hypersonic test also cannot be ruled out since the DRDO successfully tested a hypersonic air-breathing scramjet technology with the flight of the Hypersonic Technology Demonstration Vehicle (HSTDV) on September 7, 2020.
The DRDO has been working on hypersonic missiles since 2018.
Another comment by defense enthusiasts on social media pages speculated that the test possibly aimed at assessing the performance of micro-electronics 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 steerable munitions on the tip of a nuclear missile, which are released in its terminal phase. They fan out from the nose cone, with some being decoys, confusing anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems as to the actual warheads carrying the nuclear explosive.
However, the military may also make all their MIRVs nuclear-tipped to increase the chances of a successful attack if it anticipates enemy air defenses to be capable of intercepting all MIRVs.
DRDO Expert Speaks
However, former Defence Research Development Organization (DRDO) scientist Dr. Prahlada said it doesn’t look like a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) test, with the only difference being the timing of the test being late evening or night hours.
“Moreover, the curvature of the earth and its position in space makes objects going farther away or higher appear as they are heading down.
This is all the more amplified 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,” Prahlada said.
When filing this report, the DRDO was yet to comment on testing or release the launch footage.
There were claims that DRDO used 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 distance of 5000 km,” an observer noted.
By “lowest line on the graph,” the comment referred to the three different trajectories of ballistic missiles, all of which follow a parabolic path and leave the atmosphere before reentering it to descend on its target.
Plotted on a graph, they become three large parabolas with different heights and arches, with the lowest one almost hugging and running parallel to the earth’s curvature, possibly still within the atmosphere – or ‘endo-atmospheric’ in military-technical terms.