The DRDO shoots down criticism of its track record with a new Prithvi interceptor missile. Rajiv Singh reports.
On Monday 27 November, 2006, with the successful interception of one Prithvi surface-to-surface ballistic missile by another modified Prithvi at high altitude over the Bay of Bengal, India announced its entry into the high technology arena of ballistic missile defence' (BMD).
Even as the country's newly anointed defence minister, A K Anthony, rushed to offer his congratulations to the Defence and Research Development Organisation (DRDO) scientists, defence analysts at home adopted a prudent posture with regard to the development. They had sufficient reasons to be prudent given DRDO's patchy track record in developing high-tech defence systems for the country's defence services.
International observers expressed surprise at the development, as the successful missile interception test now allows India to stand alongside a few countries, such as the US, Russia and Israel, that posses a missile defence capability. "The technology is hard and you have to be working for years," said Robin Hughes, the deputy editor of the prestigious defence journal Janes Defense Weekly to The Guardian paper. "If they have done that in the first test, it is an exceptional advance in technology."
While the US has developed the Patriot (PAC-3 ) system, which it has also been trying to interest the Indian defence services with, Russia and Israel have developed the S-300 and Arrow systems respectively. Informed speculation over the years would suggest that India may already have deployed a few batteries of the Russian S-300 system as an interim arrangement.
The Prithvi Air Defence Exercise (PADE), as the interception exercise was termed, was conducted at the Integrated Test Range at Chandipur-on-sea and the rocket-testing base at Wheeler Island in Orissa. The exercise involved a "hostile" Prithvi ballistic missile, operating as an adversary missile, being destroyed in the skies over the Bay of Bengal by another modified interceptor Prithvi missile.
According to DRDO officials, the new missile had inertial guidance in mid-course and active-seeker guidance (ie a radar-seeking warhead) in the terminal phase. While the first stage of the interceptor was similar to the Prithvi missile, its second stage was a totally new segment. The yet to be named "high supersonic" interceptor missile has been developed by the DRDO as part of an "exo-atmospheric intercept system" designed to "hit-to-kill" incoming ballistic missiles.
The domestic media quoted DRDO officials as saying that the newly developed missile system is capable of detecting a target in less than 30 seconds and launching an interceptor missile within 50 seconds as a counter. According to the officials, many technologies, like high-manoeuvrability of the interceptor missile, were validated in the test. The flight time for nuclear capable missiles launched from Pakistan is a bare 5 to 8 minutes.
Crossing the threhold
DRDO authorities concede that any effective anti-ballistic missile system would need time to develop, but they said that the PADE is an important first step - a crossing of the threshold, as it were - with the exercise validating a combination of various systems that the organisation has developed over the years.
The Times of India quoted K Santhanam, former chief advisor at DRDO, and also a member of the core group responsible for the creation of India's nuclear arsenal, as saying, "Monday's test represents the crossing of a very significant milestone in anti-missile defence capabilities against theatre (short-range) missiles. Every long journey begins with a first few steps."
The Hindu newspaper quoted M Natarajan, scientific adviser to the defence minister, as saying, "With this, India has acquired the capability of air defence against the incoming ballistic missile threat. It is a significant milestone in the missile defence of the country."
Natarajan further clarified, "There was a lot of not only hardware but also software custom-built for this mission. They have been validated, and that is our greatest satisfaction. The credit should go to the whole team."
The project director was Dr V K Saraswat, chief controller, missile and strategic systems, DRDO.
Indian defence observers came out with a muted response to the development however; keeping in mind the fact that DRDO failed to operationalise the much touted 9km-range Trishul and the 25km-range Akash air-defence missiles. These missiles have been undergoing "successful" tests for as long as anyone can remember. The two air defence systems are part of the original Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme, along with the Prithvi series.
Prithvi-I, first tested in 1988, has a range of 150km and deploys a conventional or low-yield nuclear warhead for use against troops or armoured formations. Its two variants, Prithvi-II and Prithvi-III, with lesser payloads, have an increased range of 250 km and 350 km respectively. While the Prithvi-II was first tested in January 1996, Prithvi-III underwent its first test firing in October 2004. The Indian Army has already inducted Prithvi- I and II into service.
Prithvi and beyond
However, in the light of PADE, it may now be pertinent to observe that in October this year, the Indian government had announced that all research and development work on the Trishul would stop in December, and the focus, instead, would be on developing an advanced version of the Israeli Barak missile, a version of which has already been inducted into operational service with the Indian Navy.
Announcing the termination, official sources then had also been quoted as saying that the Trishul was intended only as a technology demonstrator, implying thereby that work expended on the programme would form the basis for developing missiles of the same category. This went counter to the impression that defence scientists had given over the years, making the induction of the Trishul appear as a near certainty.
Also, in October, the government decided to extend fiscal grants for another DRDO project, the Astra, which is a 'beyond visual range' air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) being developed for the Indian Air Force. The missile has a projected range of 80km in head on chase and 15km in tail-chase. Reports indicate that the missile will use an indigenously developed solid fuel propellant, though a rocket / ramjet propulsion system similar to that used in the Akash project is also under consideration.
The Astra's indigenously developed onboard radio-frequency seeker will apparently have an active homing range of 15km, and though a proximity and a radar fuse already exist for the Astra's pre-fragmented warhead, scientists would appear to be working on a laser fuse version as well.
In the light of the successful Prithvi Air Defence Exercise this week, it would now appear that a lot of DRDO technological birds, including unsighted ones such as the Trishul and the Akash, have now come home to roost.
As an aside it may also be pointed out that Monday's successful test was announced even as Indian foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee held informal talks with his Pakistani counterpart, Khursheed Kasuri, in New Delhi.