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The successful test-firing of the shorter 700-kilometre range Agni-I missile was an essential step in the implementation of India's indigenous Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) which aims at putting in place a missile warfare capability in keeping with the country's long term strategic and tactical needs.

India does not yet have a missile with a range between those of the Prithvi series with ranges from 150 to 250 kilometres (depending on the payload) and the solid and liquid fuel two-stage Agni-I with a range of 1,500 kilometres. This is a crucial gap considering that Pakistan has in the production and assembly stages the 700-kilometre range Shaheen-a variant of the Chinese M-9-and 1,100 kilometre range Ghauri missiles. Besides, Agni-I, being only road mobile, poses problems of deployment in north and north-western India because many of the bridges in Punjab and Rajasthan cannot bear its weight. Its 700-kilometre version, on the other hand, is meant to be rail-mobile and, therefore, faces no such problem-a fact which is of crucial importance in the context not only of India's no-first-strike nuclear doctrine but also of the fact that Pakistan has recently ordered 100 mobile missile launchers from China!

Not surprisingly, global reaction has been along predictable lines. Russia, India's old and dependable ally, has expressed its understanding of this country's action; China, with whom India's ties are improving, noted it without adverse comment. Pakistan, which test-fired the 1,300 kilometre-range Ghauri I and 2,000 kilometre-range Ghauri II missiles in 1998-99, and is setting up a solid propellant manufacturing plant with Chinese help, has stated that the test was "prejudicial" to regional stability especially given the current tension between it and India, and has asked the international community to take not of "India's behaviour". Though the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, Ms Nirupama Rao, has made it clear that the timing of the launch was guided solely by technical considerations and did not have any political significance and relationship with other events, and India had given advance information of the test not only to the Deputy High Commissioner of Pakistan but also the heads of mission in Delhi of the five permanent members of the United Nations' Security Council, the US and Britain have been disapproving of it, viewing it in the context of the recent tension along the India-Pakistan border and the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). While lamenting the test the US Secretary of State Colin Powell did not think that it would further inflame tensions between India and Pakistan. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said it would send the wrong signals and that India and Pakistan "should resolve their disputes through diplomatic means".

Given the new warmth in India's ties with the US and Britain, these observations perhaps need to seen as irritating and ritualistic reiteration of old positions which do not signify much. India's missile programme, which includes the eventual development of Inter-continental ballistic missiles has to take into account the country's security compulsions and not the views of others who have done little to prevent China's transfer of missile and nuclear technology to Pakistan.
Published in Dailypioneer