by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 29 January 2008
There was scepticism on 27th Nov 06, when the Ministry of Defence (MoD) made a surprise announcement. In a secret test at Wheeler’s Island, off the Orissa coast, a missile launched by the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) had hit and destroyed a simulated incoming enemy ballistic missile (usually used to carry nuclear bombs to targets hundreds of kilometres away) while it was 78 kilometres above the Bay of Bengal, still outside the earth’s atmosphere. A year later, on 6th Dec 07, the MoD declared a second test successful, when an incoming ballistic missile was shot down inside the atmosphere, some 15 kilometres above the earth. This was high-technology success; no more than six or seven countries have anti-ballistic missile (ABM) capability.
Unlike the shrill promises that accompanied the Trishul and Akash anti-aircraft missiles, the ABM programme was kept secret, even from close watchers of the DRDO. Now, Business Standard has been granted exclusive access to the ABM missile production facilities in Hyderabad, and told the story of how the programme evolved.
It began in 1995, when alarm bells were set off in the MoD, after India first learned that Pakistan had obtained the M-9 and M-11 ballistic missiles from China. India already had its own nuclear deterrent in place; the Prithvi missile was ready, and the Agni was being tested. But Pakistan was considered unpredictable and, in 1996, the MoD asked its Scientific Advisor, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, whether India could quickly develop protection against an incoming Pakistani ballistic missile.
Dr Abdul Kalam was already overseeing the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP); he began feasibility studies on an ABM programme as well. The DRDO’s first challenge was to develop a radar, which could pick up enemy ballistic missiles being launched from up to 300 kilometres away. The longest range Indian radar was the Rajendra, with a range of 60 kilometres, and there simply wasn’t the time to develop a long-range radar from scratch. The only option was foreign collaboration. Dr Abdul Kalam put one of his top scientists, Dr VK Saraswat, in charge.
Dr Saraswat recounts how Russia was first approached, but the conditions in Russia --- with defence R&D at an all time low --- made the DRDO reject that option. It was then that the Israeli ABM programme ---- the Arrow-1, based upon the long-range Green Pine radar --- caught the DRDO’s eye. A delegation was sent to Israel, but it was turned down because the Green Pine radar incorporated US technology. But Israel did agree to collaborate with India in building a Long Range Tracking Radar (LRTR), which could form the basis for India’s ABM system.
Dr Saraswat rejects reports that the LRTR in India’s ABM system is actually the Israeli Green Pine radar. He stated, “The LRTR is actually a radar built by (a DRDO laboratory) the Electronics and Radar Development Establishment (LRDE) in Bangalore, in collaboration with Israeli company, ELTA. It is not the Green Pine. The technology of the Green Pine may be built into this, but not even a single module of Green Pine is in (the LRTR). If we had done that, the Americans would have stopped the flow of technology to Israel.”
Also needed for the system was a guidance radar, to track the incoming enemy missile. LRDE, explains Dr Saraswat, has developed that radar in collaboration with French company, Thales.
With the radar problems solved, government sanction was obtained in 1998 to develop an ABM system. But the project remained secret, because an ABM system is controversial; the ability to defend against an enemy nuclear strike is believed to undermine deterrence. Besides that, says Dr Saraswat, India’s nuclear tests that year had tightened international sanctions. “We were having collaboration with these two countries, but the times were not good. We faced severe sanctions in 1998 and, if we talked too much about it, the cooperation could have dried up. That was the main concern.”
But while the radars were a collaborative effort, the interceptor missiles were developed entirely by the DRDO, say the scientists at the assembly line. So were the mission control centre and the launch control centre, which are the nerve centre of the system.
The DRDO says the programme has now reached maturity, and that international sanctions cannot hurt it. There is also a degree of self-confidence in the DRDO, which allows it to acknowledge the role played by other countries. International collaboration is no longer a bad word.