On Monday 27 November 2006, with the successful interception at high altitude of a Prithvi surface-to-surface ballistic missile by another modified Prithvi, over the Bay of Bengal, India announced its entry into the high technology arena of ballistic missile defence (BMD).
The country's newly anointed defence minister, A K Anthony, rushed to offer his congratulations to the scientists of the defence and research development organisation (DRDO). Defence analysts at home chose to adopt a discrete posture. International observers, however, expressed surprise, as the successful missile interception test now allows India to stand alongside a few countries, such as the US, Russia and Israel, that possess a missile defence capability.
"The technology is hard and you have to be working for years," Robin Hughes, deputy editor of the prestigious defence journal Janes Defense Weekly told The Guardian. "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, incidentally, it has also been trying to interest the Indian defence services with, Russia has the S-300 and Israel the Arrow. 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 for its anti-missile defence.
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 the Indian state of Orissa. The exercise involved a "hostile" Prithvi ballistic missile, operating as the adversary, being destroyed in the skies by another modified interceptor Prithvi missile.
According to DRDO officials, the new missile had inertial guidance in mid-course and active-seeker guidance (i.e., 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' which will '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 DRDO officials, many technologies, like the high manoeuvrability of the interceptor missile, were validated in the test. The response time, as quoted in these reports, is significant, as the flight time for nuclear capable missiles launched from Pakistan will be a bare 5 to 8 minutes.
DRDO authorities concede that any effective anti-ballistic missile system would need time to develop, but they stressed 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 is Dr V K Saraswat, chief controller, missile and strategic systems, DRDO.
It was hardly surprising that Indian defence observers exhibited a muted response to the development. This has to be understood in light of the fact that DRDO had failed to operationalise the much touted 9 km-range Trishul and the 25 km-range Akash air-defence missiles up to the time of the PADE test. These missiles had been undergoing "successful" tests for years. The two air defence systems, Trishul and Akash, 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 150 km and deploys a conventional or low-yield nuclear warhead for use against troops or armoured formations. Its two variants, Prithvi-II, with a lower payload, has an increased range of 250 km, while Prithvi-III, with a similar payload as Prithvi-I, has an enhanced range of 350 km. 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 Prithvi-II into service.
However, in the light of PADE, it may now be pertinent to observe that in October 2006, 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 had then 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. Compounding the confusion further, post-PADE, the government issued a clarification that the Trishul was now operational as a technology, and that it was now available for user trials by the defence services. Since these contradictory statements, made over a period of time, are difficult to reconcile, it may be useful to adopt another line of inquiry with respect to PADE.
In October, apart from shutting down further development work on the Trishul, the government also decided to extend fiscal grants for another DRDO project, the Astra, a 'beyond visual range' air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) being developed for the Indian Air Force. The missile has a projected range of 80 km in head-on chase and 15 km in tail-chase. Reports would 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 15 km, and though a proximity and a radar fuse for the Astra's pre-fragmented warhead already exist, scientists would appear to be working on a laser fuse version as well.
In the light of the successful Prithvi Air Defence Exercise at the end of November 2006, it is very likely that a lot of DRDO technological birds, including unsighted ones such as the Trishul and the Akash, have now finally come home to roost with this exercise. The Integrated Guided Missile Project, that delivered all the products and technologies such as the Prithvi, Agni, Trishul, Akash, the Nag and the Astra has now delivered another product, an unnamed one. Judging by reports, this unnamed bird is possibly the most integrated one of them all.