NEW DELHI – The first test-firing of a new Indian missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads across much of Asia and the Middle East was unsuccessful, the defense minister said.
Although initially reported as a success by officials, the Agni III missile plunged into the Bay of Bengal short of its target, Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee told reporters late Sunday.
The launch came as U.S. President George W. Bush is trying to push a civilian nuclear deal with India through a skeptical U.S. Congress. The deal would permit India to keep making nuclear weapons without ratifying the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and critics say it could undermine the treaty.
Although the deal does not cover missiles, The Hindu newspaper reported Monday that American's top general, Peter Pace, gave Indian officials the green light to conduct the test when he visited India last month.
The test had been reportedly delayed for two years by technical issues and fears of international condemnation.
Mukherjee, who witnessed Sunday's test, said India would press ahead with the Agni III program.
He termed the test failure a snag, but offered no other details. However, Indian media reported that the missile's second stage failed to separate after it was launched from Wheeler Island off the eastern state of Orissa.
India's current crop of missiles have been largely intended to confront neighboring archrival Pakistan. The Agni III, in contrast, is India's longest-range missile, designed to reach 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles) -- putting China's major cities well into range, as well as targets deep in the Middle East.
It's also said to be capable of carrying up to a 300 kiloton nuclear warhead.
"This is going to help in establishing the credibility of India's deterrent profile," said Indian defense analyst C. Uday Bhaskar.
He dismissed speculation the missile was designed with China in mind.
"Any strategic capability is not aimed at any particular nation. To say it is China-specific is misleading," Bhaskar said.
India and China have shared decades of mutual suspicion and fought a 1962 border war. But relations have warmed considerably in recent years as the two Asian giants have boosted trade and economic ties.
India's missile program, together with its nuclear program and drive for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, is part of its ongoing efforts to establish itself as a world power.
While past Indian missile test-firings were seen as attempts at saber-rattling with Pakistan, which would in turn test its own missiles, the Agni III test was seen as a routine step in furthering India's missile program, which aims at eventually producing a long-range ICBM.
India's homegrown missile arsenal already includes the short-range Prithvi ballistic missile, the medium-range Akash, the anti-tank Nag and the supersonic Brahmos missile, developed jointly with Russia.
India notified Pakistan ahead of the launch, in accordance with an agreement between the two nations, said Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since they gained independence from Britain in 1947.