India’s Bid To Checkmate The ‘Carrier Killer’: Agni-P Missile Will Counter DF-21D Threat From China – Analysis


India’s Agni-Prime (Agni-P) showcases the Defence Research and Development Organisation’s (DRDO’s) commendable progress in missile technology. Over the years, the organization has improved its skills with each missile it created, beginning with the Prithvi and continuing with the Agni missile series.

The Agni-P missile was created by integrating decades of the DRDO’s advancements in various fields. These include rocket motors, flight control and navigation systems, warhead technology and terminal manoeuvring. Its capabilities truly impress and are a cause of pride for every Indian citizen.

The DRDO refers to the Agni-P as a ‘new-generation missile’, which is an accurate description without any overstatement. The nuclear-capable Agni-P is a state-of-the-art missile and an advanced version in the Agni missile series.

The Agni-P is much lighter than the previous Agni missiles as it uses composites and lighter electronics. The Agni-P can destroy targets between 1,000 kilometres and 2,000 kilometres away with a precision of less than 10 metres circular error probability (CEP).

Origins and Development

The Agni-P is a medium-range ballistic missile with two stages and uses a solid propellant. The Indian defence industry is developing it for the Strategic Forces Command. Most missiles use solid fuels, which are pre-loaded, instead of liquid fuels. Liquid fuels need to be filled into the missile just a few hours before launch, similar to how one fuels up a car or an aeroplane. This makes the process more complicated and harder to manage.

Following the 1999 Kargil War, India developed the Agni-A1, with a range of more than 700 kilometres, which bridged the gap between the 250-kilometre range Prithvi-II and the 2,500-kilometre range Agni-II. The Agni-P (earlier known as A1P), with its range of 1,000-2,000 kilometres, effectively fills this gap. For context, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are those that are capable of travelling distances greater than 5,500 kilometres.

Engineering Excellence

The two main advancements of the Agni-P compared to the Agni-A1 are:

  • Its ability to be launched from a canister
  • An extended range

Sealed Container Launch

A canister launch refers to the capability of a missile to be stored, transported and launched from a sealed container, or canister. This method enhances the missile’s mobility, protection and ease of deployment, as well as reducing the time required for launch preparations.

A non-canister launch means that the missile is launched directly from an open platform, or launcher, rather than from a sealed container. This method typically requires more preparation time and may involve more exposure to environmental elements, which can affect the missile’s readiness and longevity.

Manoeuvring Technique

In addition to the canister launch, the Agni-P missile incorporates advanced technologies from the Agni-4 and Agni-5 missiles. For instance, instead of using fins for stability and manoeuvring, it uses a more efficient method, called differential thrust, which refers to the practice of using different amounts of thrust from multiple engines on an aircraft, or vessel, to control its movement. By adjusting the power output of each engine independently, pilots or operators can steer, turn, or stabilize the vehicle without relying solely on such traditional control surfaces as rudders or ailerons.

Better Guidance, Accuracy

The Agni missile’s Prime variant is fitted with advanced sensors and navigation and guidance systems, which make it more accurate and effective against enemy targets. It is also the smallest and lightest version in the Agni series of Indian ballistic missiles and is set to replace the older versions.

Agni-P’s Anti-Ship Capability

The missile’s accuracy and ability to manoeuvre during its final phase mean it could hit a moving ship if it had an active radar-seeker. The DRDO has created an RF seeker for its Pralay missile, which lets it home in using radar images. An RF seeker uses RF signals by emitting radio waves towards a target and then analysing the reflected signals. This helps the missile locate, track and home in on moving targets, such as ships, with high accuracy.

It is quite possible that a version of the Agni-P missile could be made into an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) similar to China’s DF-21D.

Agni-P’s Real-Time Targeting

One of the big challenges in deploying an ASBM is not just creating a fast, manoeuvrable warhead with a guidance system, but also getting real-time targeting information. The Indian Navy is making significant progress in this area with its plan to acquire surveillance drones.

In December 2023, Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Hari Kumar had announced that Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) had been approved for buying 15 MQ-9B high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS). Of these, eight drones have been deployed for maritime operations and stationed at the INS Rajali. The procurement is expected to be completed by end-2026.

The Indian Navy has brought in two MQ-9B Sea Guardian drones on lease for surveillance tasks. These are already in operation from the INS Rajali base.

Growing Sino Naval Presence

China, at present, has two aircraft-carriers in operation. One is the Liaoning and the other, the Shandong. They are also testing a third one, the Fujian—their first with nuclear power. By 2025, China will, possibly, increase its strength to four aircraft-carriers. As China keeps building and deploying these large carriers, it is expected that a Chinese carrier group will eventually be based in the Indian Ocean all the time.

The DF-21D versus the Agni-P

The DF-21D missile measures 10.7 metres in length and 1.4 metres in diameter, with a weight of 14.7 tons. It can carry a payload of 600 kilograms, which can include one or more warheads. The DF-21D has an estimated range of 1,450 kilometres to 1,550 kilometres. The Agni-P missile is 10.5 metres long and 1.15 metres wide and weighs 11 tons. It can carry a payload of 1.5 tons, which includes a single manoeuvrable re-entry vehicle (MaRV)—a type of warhead that can change its trajectory during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. This renders it more difficult for missile defence systems to intercept the Agni-P. As shown in the comparison, the Agni-P is a smaller missile, but offers better performance than the DF-21D due to its more advanced technology.

Testing Milestones of the Agni-P

The Strategic Forces Command and DRDO last tested the Agni-P on April 3, 2024. Development testing had begun with its first flight on June 29, 2021. On December 18, 2021, a second test, confirmed that all the cutting-edge technologies of the missile were performing reliably. In a follow-up test on October 21, 2022, the missile reached its maximum range.

On June 7, 2023, Strategic Command Forces personnel conducted the first pre-induction night launch, validating the system’s accuracy and reliability. The regular testing of the missile suggests that its development has been consistent and demonstrates the maturity of the DRDO’s strategic missile technology.

To Sum It All Up

The Agni-P’s advanced technology, strong performance and smooth development process showcase the high level of design, development and manufacturing expertise of India’s DRDO. Comparing the DF-21D with the Agni-P clearly demonstrates that the Agni-P is the more sophisticated. In future, specialized versions of the Agni-P are likely to play various strategic and tactical roles, carrying either nuclear or conventional warheads.

Girish Linganna

Girish Linganna is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru. He is also Director of ADD Engineering Components, India, Pvt. Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany. You can reach him at: [email protected]

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