Top DRDO scientists offer prayers before the AAD test last month
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 1st Dec 12
At the missile test range in Chandipur, where the Bay of Bengal laps the Orissa coast, the massive, 5-tonne, 9-metre-long Prithvi ballistic missile readied for a mission for which it had never been designed. Fitted with a special rocket motor, the Prithvi --- which normally climbs 40 kilometres to the edge of space on its journey to a ground target some 350 kilometres away --- would today rocket up 110 kilometres, mimicking the flight path of a larger enemy ballistic missile with a range of 600 kilometres. Hurtling back into the atmosphere and poised above its target, the Prithvi would itself be targeted by the Defence R&D Organisation’s (DRDO’s) new Advanced Air Defence (AAD) interceptor. The hunter would become the hunted.
70 kilometers away, on picturesque Wheeler’s Island across the bay from Chandipur, the AAD missile battery was on full operational alert. Its Long Range Tracking Radar (LRTR), tactically deployed near the temple town of Konark, systematically swept the horizon, reporting every flying object within 500 kilometres to a Launch Control Centre on Wheeler’s Island. There was no missing the Prithvi as it climbed above the horizon after lifting off from Chandipur. The radar reported the contact to the Mission Control Centre, which assigned the target to a particular AAD launcher which was grouped with a Multi-Function Control Radar (MFCR) deployed at Paradip. The Prithvi intruder was now on everyone’s scanner, computers analyzing its flight path in real time to identify it as an incoming ballistic missile, presumably armed with a nuclear warhead; in 300 seconds it would strike Wheeler’s Island.
A high-tech aerial duel had begun as the AAD interceptor began preparing for launch. In minutes, the AAD would be launched at the Prithvi, by then screaming down through the upper atmosphere; a bullet fired at a bullet.
Watching the drama unfold was a knot of DRDO officials, gathered around the Test Control Centre’s radar screens and computer terminals on Wheeler’s Island. For the DRDO chief, Dr VK Saraswat; Dr Avinash Chander, the DRDO’s missile chief; and other scientists there who had nurtured India’s anti-ballistic missile (ABM) programme, it was an important day at the office. Talking to this correspondent in Jan 2008, Saraswat had described the ABM programme’s start in 1995-96, when a worried New Delhi had called on the DRDO chief at that time, APJ Abdul Kalam, to develop a counter to Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear-capable M-9 and M-11 missiles from China.
India’s own Prithvi short range ballistic missile was then coming into its own, and Saraswat, who Kalam charged with this responsibility, decided to use a modified Prithvi as an interceptor missile to shoot down incoming missiles. Working through stiff technology denial regimes imposed after India’s nuclear tests in 1998, the DRDO developed the LRTR in partnership with Israeli company, ELTA, which had already developed the Green Pine Radar for Israel’s Arrow anti-missile system. The MFCR was developed along with French company, Thales. Quickly, the DRDO absorbed the technology and established production units, in case the technology pipe was shut off.
The interceptor missiles that formed the ABM system --- the Prithvi based PAD (Prithvi Air Defence) and the AAD --- were built entirely in India by Saraswat and his scientists, a task he continued as he rose from project director, to missile chief, to his current job as DRDO chief and Scientific Advisor to the Defence Minister. This involved work at the frontiers of missile technology --- developing a solid rocket motor, jet vane controls, initial inertial system for mid course guidance and a seeker for homing onto a target.
These systems, developed during those 15 years as part of the Rs 6500 crore programme, were coming into play at the Orissa coast as the Prithvi intruder, now entering the earth’s atmosphere some 30 kilometers above the Bay of Bengal, began slowing due to friction. The LRTR and MFCR radars --- which were monitoring the intruder’s descent --- continuously predicted its trajectory. The AAD interceptor completed its launch sequence, 24 seconds of checks and operations, and roared off its launcher, as both radars guided it with real-time updates of the Prithvi’s position.
Reaching within 10 kilometres of the intruder, the AAD interceptor switched on its radio seeker, which quickly picked up the Prithvi. The seeker now started guiding the interceptor, its accuracy improving as the two missiles came towards each other at a combined speed of 2 kilometres per second. When intruder was just 100 metres away, the interceptor’s Radio Proximity Fuze took charge, detonating an explosive warhead when the Prithvi came within 10 metres.
This was the moment of truth for Saraswat and his scientists, watching tensely in the Control Centre. On the radar and electro-optical monitoring screens before them, the two tracks --- of the target and the interceptor --- dissolved in a flash into multiple tracks, the debris from the shattered missiles now clearly visible on the screens. It had been less than six minutes since the Prithvi intruder had taken off from Chandipur, and barely 23 seconds since the AAD interceptor blasted off from Wheeler’s Island.
Even as the live test was underway a second test was conducted in which an electronically simulated intruder missile fired from 1500 kilometres was shot down by an electronically simulated AAD interceptor, this, says the DRDO, validated its ability to take on two intruder missiles simultaneously.
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India’s anti-ballistic missile (ABM) programme is a waste of time, says strategist Bharat Karnad of the New Delhi based Centre for Policy Research. He argues that the laws of physics heavily favour the attacker and that, even if an ABM shield shoots down a couple of intruding missiles, the defensive system can be easily swamped by firing a salvo of missiles simultaneously.
“How can an ABM system intercept a ballistic missile that is travelling at several kilometres per second? Look at the US history of ABM systems development; they have all consistently failed tests in operational conditions. They only hit targets in coordinated and orchestrated tests, when one knows where the target is coming from. But in realistic conditions, even contemporary US systems have failed,” avers Karnad.
Karnad also argues that an ABM shield compels adversaries to build more and more missiles in order to swamp the defence. Pakistan, which is widely estimated to be spending $2.5 billion each year to expand its 100-warhead nuclear arsenal (already marginally larger than India’s) has often proclaimed, through trusted pro-establishment writers, that India’s growing ABM capabilities are responsible for Pakistan’s expanding missile arsenal.
Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s former envoy to Washington and London, complaining about India’s ABM shield in Pakistani daily, The News, on Feb 7, 2012, said: “its consequence will be to oblige Pakistan to multiply its missile capabilities to penetrate the missile shield in order to maintain deterrent credibility. Pakistan has long advocated the non-induction of anti-ballistic missile systems into the region and reiterated this in talks on nuclear CBMs with India in December. But this has elicited no support either from Delhi or any western country.”
Strategists across the world allege that India’s ABM programme gives Pakistan a legitimate excuse to expand its arsenal. Karnad says that, instead of chasing the chimera of an ABM shield, India should just build a larger stockpile of nuclear weapons, including massive thermo-nuclear bombs, to deter Pakistan.
India’s security czars clearly do not agree. The DRDO is going ahead with building a comprehensive ABM shield, that intercepts incoming ballistic missiles at altitudes of up 110-120 kilometers (through exo-atmospheric, or “outside-the-atmosphere”, interceptors) and has a second layer of endo-atmospheric (“inside-the-atmosphere”) interceptors like the AAD that destroy incoming missiles when they are still 15 kilometres above the earth.
The exo-atmospheric part of the system is provided by a Prithvi-missile based interceptor, which has been successfully tested twice and is going in for a third test early next year.
“We should go in for deployment of the first phase of the ABM system in the National Capital Region by late 2013, or early 2014. In parallel, we will work on Phase 2 of our programme, in which we are developing longer-range radars and interceptors for ballistic missiles that are fired from up to 5000 km away. Phase 2 is in an advanced stage; we are integrating the radar and the interceptors and will demonstrate that by 2016,” says Saraswat, the DRDO chief.
After covering Delhi, the first phase of the ABM system will then be rolled out to other large cities. Saraswat confidently claims this will provide real protection: “If you deploy an adequate number of radars and interceptor batteries --- obviously, I can’t give you the numbers because they are classified --- but if we deploy in adequate numbers, we can give the National Capital Region an assurance level of 98.8% or better,” he says.
To critics of ABM systems, Saraswat cites the growing success of the US System. After President Reagan galvanized the “Star Wars” initiative, the Missile Defence Agency (MDA) has declared an official policy “to deploy as soon as it is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defence system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack (whether accidental, unauthorized, or deliberate)…”
The MDA last month announced success in the largest ABM test ever carried out, in which five incoming ballistic and cruise missiles were simultaneously engaged and shot down by the three elements of America’s integrated ABM system: the ship-borne Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD), the Theatre High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD), and the land-based Patriot PAC-3.
Washington claims that ballistic missile defence systems have completed 56 successful hit-to-kill intercepts in 71 flight test attempts since 2001. As a missile defence system the Israeli Iron Dome has also proved itself, although it only guards against much shorter range missiles fired from 70-100 kilometres.
Saraswat does not deny that the DRDO’s current system is well short of what the US has achieved, but he dismisses sceptics like Karnad who say that an Indian ABM shield would lack credibility and should, therefore, not be deployed.
“The world over, the philosophy of developing ABM systems has been: develop-deploy, develop-deploy. The US develops a system up to a particular level, deploys it operationally, and then improves it based on feedback and on how the threat profile changes. We too should keep on developing and deploying, operationally exploiting our system on a real-time basis to get used to it. Only by practical deployment can you develop a system that is operationally ready 24 x 7,” says the DRDO chief.
DRDO scientists tell Business Standard that India’s programme benefits greatly from being a late starter. “These naysayers forget that we benefit from the experience of others, avoiding the pitfalls that slowed them down,” says one top scientist closely involved with the project.
When asked why India should not continue to work towards a viable ABM capability, since the technology would only emerge from continuous research, Karnad concedes that the DRDO should continue developing an ABM system as a technology programme, but definitely not operationalise it.
“The frontier-edge technologies that go into such a system may one day prove successful. But that day has not yet come. Nuclear deterrence is a mind-game, but it must be backed by credible weapons systems. You can’t play mind-games with a system that has no credibility,” he says.
Along with the arguments, development continues on India’s ABM system. For New Delhi, the stakes remain high. Along with two live frontiers, Iran’s emerging capability presents a new challenge. And the prospect of radicalized jehadis in Pakistan getting their hands on one or more nuclear weapons is a growing possibility that no government in New Delhi can possibly ignore.