Missed Missiles: Finding a Failed Missile Test in India

Dave Schmerler, Michael Duitsman, and I were gathered around my computer, admiring satellite images we found of an Indian missile on a launch pad from May 2017. I pointed to some cloudy streaks on the screen and joked, “That’s probably smoke from a failed test.”

We zoomed out to see more of the image.

“Holy s***,” we said simultaneously, “That’s actually smoke from a failed test. The missile crashed.”

Smoke emanating from Abdul Kalam Island, India                                Image Source: DigitalGlobe

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Agni-II on the launchpad                                                                  Source: Odisha Sun Times

The Agni-II is a 20 meter long, two-stage, solid-fueled MRBM with a range of up to 3,000 km. Its sharp-angled nosecone, canards, and vented interstage give it a distinct profile that is recognizable even in satellite images.

The Indians tested the Agni-II on May 04, 2017 at a missile test site on Abdul Kalam Island (20.77° N, 87.05° E). While several Indian news sources reported that this test was successful[1], a source for the Times of India claimed that the test had failed. High-resolution, high-frequency satellite imagery depicts the sequence of events that day, and ultimately provides strong evidence that the test likely went awry and was aborted.

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The earliest image shows the distinct profile of the Agni-II erected on a TEL at the largest launchpad on the island.

Image Source: DigitalGlobe

The second image, taken at a more off-nadir angle, shows off a better profile of the distinct Agni-II missile. But there are no other significant changes on the launchpad or the surrounding AOI.

image Source: DigitalGlobe

The third and final image from that day shows the TEL post-launch. The burn scars present on the ground appear darker and more pronounced in this image, although this could be due the different sensor.

The Indians also tested a larger missile, the Agni III, from the same launch pad a couple weeks earlier on April 26 (whether this test was actually successful or not is work for another day.) The burn scars from the Agni-III launch could also conceal the burn scars from the Agni-II test, if they were launched from the same point. Burn scars from additional tests can be seen further down the rail.

We can see the tell-tale smoke clouds that sparked my sarcastic comment from this zoomed-in view of the launchpad.

Image Source: DigitalGlobe

Closer inspection of the ground shows that the debris from the missile dispersed across the lightly forested area to the northeast of the launch pad and along southern coast of the island. The main debris fields appear to be concentrated in vegetated areas that continued to burn and smoke, while the debris in the sand burnt out relatively quickly. The spread of the debris indicates the missile likely separated in midair and would be consistent with the source that claimed the test was intentionally aborted. Cracks or bubbles in the solid-fuel grain can cause internal stress and thrust imbalances, ultimately causing the missile to fail and even explode during the boost phase.

The distance from the launch site to the sources of the largest smoke plumes is approximately 550 m, which remains consistent with the source who claimed that the missile “went awry” about half a kilometer into its boost phase.

Image Source: DigitalGlobe

Image Source: DigitalGlobe

Processing the images to display near-infrared bands shows the burned vegetation:

Most notably, India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) declined to comment on this test and failed to publicly discount false reports that claimed this test was successful.

It is not outlandish to believe that the Indian government would want to conceal the failed test of one of its nuclear-capable missiles, especially considering the tensions between India and Pakistan, and the delicate stalemate sustained by strategic posturing and threat messaging.

To check out the full high-resolution images for yourself, visit the Abdul Kalam Island campaign on Geo4Nonpro.

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A special thanks to my friend and esteemed GRA Joseph Rodgers for putting this site on our radar, and to Dave and Michael for extensive imagery perusing and lots of excited yelling.

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[Sources]

1) http://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2017/may/04/india-successfully-test-fires-agni-ii-ballistic-missile-1600976.html

2) https://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/india-successfully-test-fires-nuclear-capable-agni-ii-ballistic-missile-117050400370_1.html

3) http://zeenews.india.com/india/india-successfully-test-fires-agni-ii-ballistic-missile-2002111.html

Comments

  1. paralysisofanalysis11 (History)

    Failures due to some minor faults are fairly common in deployed missiles. Even minutemen missiles have suffered failures. You forgot that Agni 2 was retested in Feb 2018 and worked perfectly.

  2. Vinayak @ Raj47 (History)

    The failed test was reported by most leading media houses.
    https://www.livemint.com/Politics/uCnDGP0CUlIirwG3IYEg1I/AgniII-missile-testfired-but-fails-to-meet-desired-paramet.html
    https://idsa.in/idsacomments/agni-ii-trial-failure-evaluation-rather-than-flagellation-is-needed_sbmaharaj_150517
    https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/agni-ii-test-fire-fails-desired-parameters/article18385466.ece

    The so called burn scars existed even in the pre-launch image.

    It is not only outlandish but also foolish to believe that Indian government would want to or it could “conceal a failed test”.

    • Toby Fenwick (History)

      It is neither “outlandish” or “foolish” to believe that the Indian Government (or any other) would wish to conceal a failed test – it’s embarassing and raises questions about the effectiveness of the system, esp. if it is already deployed.

      It is to the Indian media’s credit that it is harder to do there than, say, in North Korea.

  3. Rajesh (History)

    lol dog island XD

  4. James Baldwin (History)

    User trail failures are surprisingly common around the world. Agni-2 is a pretty mature system by this point with a strong track record of successful tests. If this was a brand new system still in development stage it would be something to be concerned about.

  5. Raj (History)

    India is not Pakistan or North Korea, where no one ever heard a missile test failing! Only God can guarantee that kind of technological capabilities.

  6. nit (History)

    The failed test was widely reported. A simple google search would have yielded news report about the test.

    • M B (History)

      Google is at the heart of Fake news reports. It’s all in Fox News.”Fair and Balanced reporting”…

  7. Sukwinder Dixit (History)

    It seems to me to be a false flag operation with the attempt to intimidated the ceyloni influencers in the region

  8. paralysisofanalysis11 (History)

    I find many comments about Indian missile program from Americans so full of ignorance that it is mind boggling. Both Trident D5 and Minuteman missiles have failed multiple times in user trials. Yet no body calls US Government failing to inform of these tests as coverups, but lo behold an Indian failed missile test of a missile which was successfully tested twice in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 and then successfully retested after this failure in Feb 2018 is an attempted coverup.

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