India has test launched its first long-range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), capable of reaching deep into China and as far as Europe, with a scientist at the launch describing the mission as successful.
“It has met all the mission objectives,” SP Dash, director of the test range, told the Reuters news agency on Thursday. “It hit the target with very good accuracy.”
It took the missile about 20 minutes to reach its target somewhere near Indonesia in the Indian Ocean.
The launch of the Agni V, which can carry nuclear warheads and has a range of 5,000km, thrusts the country into an elite club of nations with intercontinental nuclear capabilities.
Only the UN Security Council permanent members – China, France, Russia, the US and Britain – along with Israel, have such long-range weapons.
“The successful launch of Agni V missile is a tribute to the sophistications and commitment to national causes on the part of India’s scientific technological community,” Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, said.
Singh said he hoped Indian scientists and technologists would in the future contribute a “lot more to promoting self reliance in defence and other walks of national life”.
Al Jazeera’s Prerna Suri, reporting from New Delhi, said the launch was “significant because Indian scientists have been working for years to get the programme off the ground”.
“It is the most strategic and ambitious programme this country has undertaken in recent years,” she said.
“What’s important is that this missile has been completely indigenously produced and designed. It’s cost the Indian government over $500m to do that.”
Harsh Pant, a defence expert at King’s College London university, described the launch as a “confidence boost”, adding that the mission “signalled India’s arrival on the global stage [and] that it deserves to be sitting at the high table”.
But Richard Bitzinger, a military specialist at Nanyang Technological University in Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera that India would need to carry out “several more tests” before it could declare Agni V missile operational.
“It’s not going to happen overnight,” he said.
The launch came as India nears completion of a nuclear submarine that will increase its ability to launch a counter strike if it were attacked. Delhi insists its nuclear weapons programme is for deterrence only.
One of the fast emerging economies known as the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – India is keen to play a larger role on the global stage and has been clamouring for a permanent seat on the Security Council.
It has in recent years emerged as the world’s top arms importer as it rushes to upgrade equipment for a large but outdated military.
There was no immediate criticism from world powers over the launch, which was flagged well in advance, but China noted the launch with disapproval.
“The West chooses to overlook India’s disregard of nuclear and missile control treaties,” China’s Global Times newspaper said in an editorial published before the launch, which was delayed by a day because of bad weather.
“India should not overestimate its strength,” said the paper, which is owned by the Chinese Communist Party’s main mouthpiece the People’s Daily.
State-owned China Central Television said the missile “does not pose a threat in reality”, enumerating some of its shortcomings, from a problem with guidance systems to its 50-ton-plus weight.
CCTV said the missile would have to be fired from fixed positions, making it more vulnerable to attack.
Delhi has not signed the non-proliferation treaty for nuclear nations, but enjoys a de facto legitimacy for its arsenal, boosted by a landmark 2008 deal with the US.
On Wednesday, NATO said it did not consider India a threat while the US state department urged restraint and said India’s non-proliferation record was “solid”.
India lost a brief Himalayan border war with its larger neighbour, China, in 1962 and has since strived to improve its defences. In recent years, the government has fretted over China’s enhanced military presence near the border.
Experts said the launch could trigger a renewed push from within India’s defence establishment to build a fully fledged intercontinental ballistic missile programme capable of reaching the Americas.
“Policy-wise it becomes more complicated from now on, until Agni V, India really has been able to make a case about its strategic objectives, but as it moves into the ICBM frontier there’ll be more questions asked,” said Pant.