World: India stakes claim in space

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The Independent Online
After yesterday's successful rocket launch, and the announcement that it had started producing the Prithvi missile, India is entering a new and assertive phase of self-reliance. Peter Popham in New Delhi charts the changes.

With two initiatives over the past two days, India has declared its determination to hold its own in the balance of military power with China and Pakistan, and also its ability to enter the market for launching satellites into space.

On Sunday, the government announced that it had started production of the Prithvi medium-range missile, designed to counter the Chinese M-11 missiles which are supposedly targeted at India from Pakistan (a fact the Pakistan government has always denied).

Then yesterday the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) successfully launched a locally built and developed rocket carrying a small earth observation satellite from a site on the south-east coast, confirming both India's emancipation from the Russian rockets on which it had previously relied and the success of the government's privatisation of the defence industry.

The Prithvi announcement was not actually news, as the missile has been in production for almost two years: between 50 and 150 are believed to have been produced, and the weapon has been supplied to the army.

In June, the Washington Post caused a rumpus with an article "revealing" that Prithvi missiles had been deployed close to the Pakistan border. The government argued they were not deployed, merely stored there.

But Sunday's announcement, and yesterday's announcement that another missile in the programme, the Nag anti-tank missile, had successfully completed tests, suggests a new bullishness in Delhi, and reinforced India's commitment to its missile development programme.

At present the jewel in the crown of that programme is the Agni ballistic missile which, with its range of 2,500 kms, could menace Peking. It has been tested, but is believed to be several years away from deployment.

Beyond Agni is Surya, which with a range of 12,000 to 20,000 kms would put India among the major powers. The production of such a missile is only a gleam in the government's eye, but yesterday's successful rocket launch makes it more plausible, for the technology is basically the same.