How did the DRDO's missile programme succeed, while its other programmes struggled?
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 21st Sept 13
Observers of India’s struggle to design and build defence equipment might wonder why the indigenous missile programme has been so much more successful than many other projects that the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has taken up. Even as the ballistic missile programme struck another bulls-eye on Sept 15 with the successful second test of the Agni-5 intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM), the DRDO’s other flagship projects --- the Arjun tank, the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) and an airborne early warning (AEW) system --- make much more laboured progress.
What began as the modest Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) in 1983, has delivered to the military a range of missiles, both strategic and tactical. The ballistic missiles includes the Prithvi (350 kilometres range); its naval version, Dhanush; the underwater-launched ballistic missiles, and the Agni series with ranges between 1,000-5,000 kilometres. The latest arrow in this quiver, the Agni-5, will enter operational service as a canisterised, road-mobile missile that can deliver nuclear warheads to targets across South, South East, Central and West Asia, China, most of Europe and large parts of Africa.
Simultaneously, development has begun of the Agni-5’s successor, the Agni-6. This intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a range of over 6,000 kilometres will carry a massive three-tonne payload (current Agni payloads weigh one tonne). This will consist of several multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), each one capable of being aimed at a different target. Each warhead --- termed maneuverable reentry vehicle (MARV) --- will perform evasive maneuvers as it hurtles down towards its target, making it difficult for enemy air defence systems to shoot it down.
India has pointedly steered clear of Tactical Nuclear Weapons, which are smaller bombs delivered by shorter-range missiles. Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent relies on a TNW --- called the Nasr, or the Hatf-9, with a maximum range of 60 kilometres --- to counter India’s Cold Start Doctrine. This allows India to retaliate to major Pakistani provocations, like a terrorist strike or a political assassination, with punitive strikes deep into Pakistan by armoured battle groups. Pakistan hopes to deter such strikes with the threat of small TNWs. India, like China, believes that TNWs are inherently dangerous. Since they are short range battlefield weapons, they are vulnerable to theft by terrorists, or to being launched by renegade military commanders. India’s nuclear deterrent, therefore, consists of longer-range weapons that target enemy cities (i.e. counter value targeting), not military formations (counter force targeting).
Even while eschewing TNWs, India’s ballistic missile programme has spun off a range of subsidiary missiles. These include the Shaurya, a hybrid missile that has both ballistic and cruise missile profiles, and which is a twin of the indigenous submarine-launched K-15 nuclear-tipped missile; the Prahar, which has a programmable path; and the Nirbhay cruise missile that has just entered testing. There is also an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) programme, which features two types of interceptor missiles destroying incoming enemy ballistic missiles before they can do any damage --- an exo-atmospheric interceptor, which intercepts enemy missiles at altitudes up to 150 kilometres; and an endo-atmospheric interceptor that intercepts at 30 kilometres and below.
Finally, there is the Akash surface-to-air missile (SAM), which can detect and quickly shoot down enemy aircraft at ranges of 30 kilometres; the fire-and-forget Nag missile, which destroys tanks at ranges of 4 kilometres; and the air-to-air Astra missile, which can shoot down modern fighters at ranges of 44 kilometres. This is being developed into an Astra II, which can strike enemy fighters up to 80 kilometres away.
* * * *
A long road
This success has not come easy. Top DRDO officials, such as the previous chief, Dr VK Saraswat, say that the foundation of the missile development programme’s success was laid in 1982, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took the crucial decision that India must develop and build missile systems within the country.
Well before that, in the 1960s and 1970s, DRDO laboratories like the Hyderabad-based Defence R&D Laboratory (DRDL) had explored the development of anti-tank missiles and sounding rockets. After the Pakistan Army’s US-supplied “Cobra” missiles took a heavy toll of Indian tanks in the 1965 war, the army extended support to DRDL for developing a missile. Over the next five years, anti-tank missile prototypes built by the fledgling laboratory were flight tested by the army. But, not for the last time, the army decided to abandon the indigenous option and, instead, import the French SS11B1 missile “to meet an urgent threat.”
Simultaneously, in 1969, the Indian Air Force (IAF) initiated a project to reverse engineer the Soviet Union’s SA-75 surface to air missile (SAM), because Moscow was not supplying spares in adequate quantities. This venture, called “Project Devil”, never came to production, but allowed the DRDL to build the experience and knowhow that eventually gave birth to the Akash missile.
In April 1982, a Missile Study Team (MST) was formed under the chairmanship of the DRDO’s upcoming hard-driving young star, APJ Abdul Kalam, who was appointed Director, DRDL. Under Kalam, the MST analysed the country’s missile requirements in a succession of plenary meetings the military and the ministry.
Finally, at a fateful meeting in a South Block conference room in New Delhi in autumn 1982, Kalam presented his findings to the defence minister at that time, Mr R Venkataraman (both went on to become President of India). Also present were the three service chiefs, the cabinet secretary, principal secretary to Indira Gandhi, and the DRDO chief, Dr VS Arunachalam. Kalam recommended the phased development of five missiles --- the Trishul and Akash surface-to-air missiles; the Nag anti-tank missile; the Prithvi short range ballistic missile; and an Agni technology demonstrator to validate re-entry technology.
If Kalam was a hard-driving visionary, so too was Venkataraman. Dismissing all talk of a “phased programme”, he ordered all programmes to be taken up simultaneously. With the imprimatur of the prime minister on the project, the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) was formally sanctioned in July 1983, and funds were pre-allocated for a 12-year period up to 1995. Its executive head was Kalam, with the title of Chairman, Programme Management Board (PMB).
* * * *
The men behind the machine
Those were heady days for the DRDO’s idealistic young scientists, buoyed by the 1971 victory over Pakistan and the “peaceful nuclear experiment” of 1974.
In 1972, two young IIT graduates, VK Saraswat and Avinash Chander joined the DRDO just ten days apart. They were amongst more than a hundred young scientists who joined the DRDO’s missile complex after graduating from premier institutions like the IITs, and Jadhavpur University. Within three years, Saraswat was heading propulsion development; while Chander spearheaded the development of navigation and guidance systems.
“Our success in missiles was due to three factors. Firstly, this batch of young scientists came with a work culture, thought processes and confidence that they could do almost anything. They built everything from scratch,” says Chander.
“Secondly, Dr Kalam unleashed thought processes and the freedom to function, reinforcing creativity with excellent review mechanisms. Thirdly, Kalam created an eco-system where DRDO laboratories worked together in clusters. Research and Development (Engineers), Pune developed launchers, Defence Electronics Research Laboratory (DLRL) developed radars, Armament R&D Establishment (ARDE) built the warheads --- people across the country worked for the IGMDP.
The DRDO’s internal records show that the IGMDP started in 1983 with eight laboratories, but then quickly expanded to involve 24 DRDO labs. Even today, the missile cluster consists of just four laboratories --- the venerable DRDL, the Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL), and Research Centre, Imarat (RCI) at Hyderabad; and the Interim Test Range and Chandipur, off the Orissa coast. But, in fact a host of DRDO laboratories across India support missile programmes.
And as programmes become more complex, oversight is increasing. From early September, the missile cluster, as well as the DRDO’s other six technology clusters, began functioning under a “director general”, who will have executive powers for the various missile programmes being pursued by his laboratories.
* * * *
Sanctions and self-reliance
Most senior DRDO scientists, including the last two chiefs, are emphatic that the rigid technology denials that the IGMDP faced were critical in catalysing success.
Dr VS Arunachalam, who headed the DRDO when the IGMDP was set up, wrote: “What remains in my mind after so many years… (is) enormous pride in our building the necessary critical technologies, in the midst of embargoes and denials; and these projects were not easy and these roads were less travelled and painfully hard. Global meetings between scientists were forbidden (to Indian scientists), commercial and committed orders were cancelled and professors from our academies were denied visas to attend scientific conferences and political pressures were applied to cancel the projects and programmes.”
Rahul Chaudhary, CEO of Tata Power SED and an astute observer of the Indian defence industry, points out: “Wherever we have worked without the option of import --- be it on strategic missiles, nuclear weapons, atomic energy or the space programme --- we have achieved self-reliance. In the super-secret world of electronic warfare, where import is not an option, we have built world-class systems. We should ourselves ban imports, and we will indigenise. Necessity is the mother of invention.”
Instead of banning imports, the DRDO is opening up to the world. Today, a technologically confident DRDO missile complex is co-developing tactical missile systems with overseas partners. The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) bans the sale or supply of missiles and unmanned aircraft with ranges of more than 300 kilometres, but permits this for systems with lower ranges. India has set up the Brahmos joint venture with Russia to build a supersonic cruise missile (with a range of 295 kilometres!); the DRDO is cooperating with Israel Aerospace Industries to build two surface-to-air missiles; and Washington has offered to co-develop the next-generation version of the Javelin anti-tank missile with India. Whether this equips the DRDO with more advanced capabilities across the board, or confines it to narrow domains where it has already developed expertise, remains to be seen.
Writes Dr Arunachalam: “The global environment has now changed. Countries are now coming forward offering cooperation in many areas of technology. They talk of sharing advanced technologies and joint ventures. While welcoming them we should not abandon our commitment to be independent in critical technologies.”