DRDO unveils India’s Star Wars system - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Friday 14 December 2007

DRDO unveils India’s Star Wars system

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 13th December 2007

At a time when US attention is focused on securing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, India has taken a giant step towards creating a missile shield that can shoot down incoming nuclear-tipped rockets while they are too far away to do serious damage. India’s Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) today announced that it would conduct a full-scale test of a two-stage anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system by June 2008. 

If that test is as successful as the last two tests on 27th Nov 06 and 7th Dec 07, vulnerable Indian cities like New Delhi will soon be protected by missile units, putting a serious question mark over Pakistan’s ability to strike the Indian capital. It was this Pakistani threat during the Kargil conflict in 1999, and again when Indian forces were deployed for war after the parliament attack in December 2001, that held back India from full-scale war. 

The DRDO announcement follows a successful test last Friday off the Orissa coast, in which a DRDO interceptor missile shot down a simulated enemy missile. The “enemy” missile was actually an Indian Prithvi missile that was fired by the army. Today, Mr VK Saraswat, the DRDO’s Chief Controller of Missiles and Strategic Systems showed journalists a video recording of the missile test. While the “enemy” missile was still 15 kilometers above the ground, and barrelling towards its target at a speed of 2 kilometers per second, the DRDO interceptor missile smacked into it, breaking it into debris. 

In the first test in November last year, the interceptor missile had brought down the “enemy” missile while it was 78 kilometers above the ground. The DRDO says that the complete ABM system, which will eventually protect important Indian targets, will combine both systems: one set of interceptors will be fired to bring down the incoming rocket at altitudes of about 80 kilometers. if it survives, another set will target it at altitudes of about 15 kilometers. The former is termed an “exo-atmospheric” interceptor, the latter an “endo-atmospheric” one. The former has been christened “Pradyumna” by the DRDO. The latter will soon get a name.

Mr VK Saraswat pointed out that India’s nuclear doctrine stipulates “no first use” of nuclear weapons. That gives any enemy the first chance to target India with nuclear strikes. India, he said, must therefore have the means to protect itself against that first wave of nuclear attacks.

The DRDO’s high profile Guided Missile Development Programme (GMDP), which set former president APJ Abdul Kalam on the path to fame, has had a patchy record. While the Prithvi and the Agni ballistic missiles can arguably be termed successes, the medium range Akash and Trishul missiles have not yet proved successful. The new ABM system was not originally a part of the GMDP. 

When asked how the ABM system had overcome the problems that continue to plague the Akash and Trishul programmes, Mr Saraswat told Business Standard that the new ABM missiles had homing heads that sensed the targets and took the interceptor missiles towards it. They did not use the Akash and Trishul missiles’ technically problematic “command guidance” method, in which radio signals are sent from a ground station to guide the missile towards the target.

ABM systems are controversial; strategists argue that they destabilise nuclear deterrence by giving one country the ability to ward off nuclear strikes, thus encouraging it to attack. Cold War adversaries, America and the Soviet Union, signed an ABM Treaty in 1972, undertaking not to develop ABM systems. Mr Saraswat, however, defended India’s coming ABM shield, saying, “our ABM system is a defensive posture, not an offensive posture.”


  1. Ajai:

    Can Pakistan buy one of these ABM systems off the shelf -- say from the Chinese? Does it then neuter the advantage that India is likely to have?

    And who is going to be in charge of the system -- the IAF or the Army? With the level of tri-service cooperation that we have, the ownership of the ABM system could itself be a contentious issue. I am not certain if we have been able to sort out the ownership and deployment issues concerning the GMDP missiles between the two (... or is it three)services.

  2. Mr. Shukla, it may be unfortunate that the media has totally ignored the laudable, historic, strategic and sheerly brilliant achievement of DRDO and in a larger sense, of India's scientific capability.

    Most media reports only reported the events "as is" in a plaid manner, riddled with double-quoted phrases. PTI often double-quotes even the word "successfully", whereas the same is not done while describing the tests of foreign-made ballistic missiles.

    "DRDO claims that....." is a standard and concientious distancing of the media with the success of the DRDO. Double quoting, and plaid reporting implies a conciously neutral position, which in turn is an implication of not taking responsibility for DRDO's claims and statements, which again in turn is an implication of unreliability and failure being conveyed. Rajat Pandit of the ToI and 'The Hindu' report exactly in this manner.

    Mr. Shukla, in your article, there is a sentence, and I quote, "If that test is as successful as the last two tests on 27th Nov 06 and 7th Dec 07, vulnerable Indian cities like New Delhi will soon be protected by missile units, putting a serious question mark over Pakistan’s ability to strike the Indian capital."

    It may be questioned that why are we so concerned about the "serious question mark" over Pakistan's ability to strike the capital ? This is one of the most 'bewildering' comments I have seen. Instead of a rejoice that Pakistan's Hatf-I through Hatf-5 missiles can soon be rendered ineffective against millions of innocent Indian civilians, we have to be concerned about Pakistan's offensive against India.

    The article is 'littered' with comments like "DRDO says...." and "....claims Saraswat". Can't we read an appreciative article in the media about an indigenous achievement even once ? Is there a self-regulatory code that journalists are following here, or is it a general traditional contempt for the DRDO ?

    Thank you.

  3. Pragmatic,

    There are no ownership issues that I am aware of regarding the GMDP products. Separate versions of the missiles are being produced for the three services and the ownership depends upon which service orders the missiles.

    As far as the ABM system goes, it will need to be decided who is responsible. But, remembering that satellite assets are the basic building block of any ABM system, it will probably be placed under the Aerospace Command, as and when that comes up.

    By the way the wind is blowing, my guess is that the Aerospace Command will be placed under the Air Force. Which would not be such a bad thing, because Air Defence of the country is a primarily Air Force responsibility.


  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. Abhiman,

    How have you reached the conclusion... in para 1 of your post... that the media ignored the test? I saw reports on the endo-atmospheric ABM test in practically EVERY newspaper in the English language, and a couple in Hindi as well.

    But I'm happy to note that in para 2 you changed tack and started criticising the reports... which means that someone must have reported the tests! Your comments about the way the tests were reported are rooted, perhaps, in unfamiliarity with journalism.

So let me spell it out for you... and do remember that this is international convention, except in totalitarian states where you print what is handed out to you... or else.

    When a correspondent reports ANYTHING that he/she has not personally witnessed or experienced, it is necessary to state in the report who has passed on that information. So when a journalist writes about a video recording of a test that he/she has witnessed, he/she can describe what is in the video after reporting who has given him/her the video.

Similarly, if he/she is reporting the capability of a missile, he/she has to state in that report where that information is coming from. This is not "distancing". It is pure journalism convention because every intelligent reader wants to know where information is coming from.

    I don't know how you have reached the conclusion that I am "concerned" about the question mark that an ABM system places over Pakistan's ability to hit the target defended by that ABM system! All I am doing is reporting that it places a question mark over that ability. Are you saying that it does not? Or are you saying that this information has national security implications and that the lay readership cannot be trusted with it.

    If you want to feel that you have a lien on patriotism because you publicly worship little idols of DRDO scientists... do go ahead and do it. If you want to believe that you are more patriotic than everyone in the press because they don't carry little paens of praise to accompany every successful test that is reported... all the best to you.

    My only request to you is to first read a little bit about the conventions and ethics of journalism so that you don't sound so uninformed.


  6. After seeing the comments and responses I am a little disappointed. Its common to identify oneself with every success and distance away from every failure - though in both cases the people expressing such feelings may not have anything to contribute at all. For us Indians everything is like cricket. If India wins all are happy - every one praises everybody in the team. when it losses - then all are experts and they know exactly why India failed. in Both cases the opinion expressed from every quarter whether know the game or not is secondary - only opinion matters. So this is true even in the case of matters concerning highly technical.
    What is unfortunate in all these is that based on these opinions, public opinion is formed (whether good or bad) from under researched reporting (not necessarily all - but definitely many)which is not good for the country's progress and that gets carried away and even results in policy changes by Babus who are far short sighted than the journos. they often find iiit very convenient as then they can cover up thier blunders. The difference from factual reporting by journalists and using them for forceful marketing is fast disappearing , which is not good. MRCA is a good example.
    In the hindsight atleast one thing is very clear. the unreliability of russian equipments which are so far kept under carpet under the cover of national security is getting exposed. In fact throwing away indian money to buy junk just to keep someones economy booming is infact jeopardizes national security. Its time to look into all such deals more thoroughly so that atleast in future one is not allowed to get away with such blunders for such decisions.
    So don't stop criticizing. its very much required but more objectively - for all the organs of Govt (including R&D) has enough "babus" in the disguise of "professionals" who occupy places without an iota of experience or contribution -just because of connection in right places and they needed to be weeded off if one wants to see the same booming of commercial sector in defence also. The govt to think seriously to privatize the DPSus and OFs fast - as thats where max inefficiency resides and cause of all problems and all decisions that impacts national security are taken by people who control that function and dont mind throwing away indian prosperity.

  7. Mr. Shukla, earlier I stated that the media has reported the event only "as is", without the deserving appreciation or any feting for India. Such is not the case while reporting the success of foreign satellite launches or even missile tests.

    The 'question mark' statement could have been rephrased as stating that Pakistan's missiles are rendered ineffective, thus saving Indian cities and civilians. You essentially said the same thing, but the focus of discussion also matters.

    The BMD test was not "just another" successsful test. It secures millions of Indians against Sino-Pak aggression besides launching India into an exclusive club, besides. These points were mostly 'lost in translation' in many 'droning' news reports.

    Thank you.

  8. ajai,

    you are not correct when you describe the guidance. the abm system does use a variation of command guidance, albeit with an active seeker for terminal guidance. the missiles are guided to the target from the ground by command signals from transmitters. when they reach a range where the seeker can lock on, it takes over. the same is in the akash, but there is no seeker, but a proximity fuse, which works in the same way, but at much lower range.

    also, the trishul was delayed ad infinitum by the guidance but not the akash. the akash had issues with its ramjet propulsion.


  9. pragmatic, abm systems cant be purchased off the shelf, since the countries making them dont provide them easily. the us only sells pac-3 to close allies, not pakistan most certainly, and the pac-3 has never been tested against a 2000 km class missile. the more complex stuff like thaad is also not available for export to pak. russia and israel are ruled out to pak.

    so that leaves china. it says a lot about chinese abm efforts that they themselves have bought battalion after battalion of s-300 pmu systems. their own hq-9 systems are not proven against long range missiles, or even short range ones.

    so pak will just purchase something for morale but it wont be true abm.


  10. Mr Shukla, a report such as "The New Shield", from Raj Chengappa in India Today cannot be expected from the critics of Indian PSU defence companies.

    It is written in a "thriller" manner, with praise and adjectives as though describing a victoriously heroic effort. Although India Today is a right-leaning publication (unlike the 'liberal' or communist-sympathizing NDTV), such a report as Mr. Chengappa's could easily have been written by you also. That you did not, is because the fulcrum of your view is neutrality (concious or unconsious) and the string of implications that I mentioned earlier.

    You may not want to be seen praising the Indian scientific establishment which you have criticized so far. Not mentioning something is also an attempt to hide and obviate obvious conclusions towards your own traditional, critical one. This, despite your valid claim that whatever you wrote was factually correct.

    Thank you.

  11. Mr. Shukla, as another example of biased and critical reporting under the "guise" of neutral reporting is the report in the Indian Express, titled, "ALH loses Chile, Malaysia contracts".

    The url for the report is given in the reference.

    I would have written the report as follows according to the very rules mentioned by you. Note that I would NOT distort the contents of the report, nor would add anything not mentioned in it (though there are many such facts).

    My version is as follows :-

    Dhruv chopper loses Chile contract, Malaysia unsure

    Posted online: Tuesday, January 08, 2008 at 0000 hrs

    New Delhi, January 7: The crown-jewel of the upcoming Indian aviation industry, the Advanced Light Helicopter (Dhruv), has in a setback, not been selected in its first international competition for export orders of 12 units from the Chilean Air Force.

    The estimated Rs 500-crore contract of the Chilean Air Foce has been bagged by an old American workhorse that was put into service over two decades ago — the Bell 412. Bad news is trickling in from Malaysia also which has conveyed that it is not interested in the ALH as a replacement programme for its ageing fleet of Alouette choppers, top officials confirmed. The South-East Asian nation was looking for six new machines and had earlier expressed interest in India’s crown-jewel helicopter.

    The chopper was expected to put India on the international aeronautical map after its acceptance by the Army, Air Force and Navy nearing a hundred, and its performances at global air shows that earned it international acclaim.

    While Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) was not very confident about the Malaysian contract from the start, it had put an all out effort to bag the Chilean order. Besides India, Nepal also operates a small flight of two ALH choppers. Israel has also leased one helicopter for VIP duties.

    As per reports from HAL, the ALH was performing to satisfaction and had carried out search and rescue drills, ship deck landings and long distance flights. However, the Chileans claim that it seems to have been lagging to match up to its American competitor. “We evaluated several helicopters and feel the 412 will give us the capability to significantly increase our mission coverage. As you know Chile’s unique shape presents us with challenges and the 412 has the range to cover great lengths of territory and also performs equally well at sea level or high in the Andes,” claimed Chilean Chief of the Air Force Gen. Julio Escobar after signing the contract. Besides the technical competition, India had been pursuing the deal through diplomatic channels also. In his visit to Chile in 2005, the then Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee had pitched for the deal. Former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos was also given a detailed demonstration of the chopper the same year.

    The Dhruv has wowed audiences across the world by its gravity-defying maneuvers performed by the one-of-its-kind Sarang team. It had also earned acclaim from the engineer ex-President of France, Jacques Chirac when he came visiting to the ALH stall in Paris Air Show.

    However, since then the helicopter has had three accidents -- two hard landings, and a crash due to pilot error -- that may have dented its reputation. The entire ALH fleet also had to be grounded briefly in 2005 due to the incidents.

    On the domestic front also, the Navy has expressed "disappointment" over the helicopter and has refused to order more machines unless "vibration defects" are rectified by HAL. Officers say that "excessive" vibration on the chopper renders it "useless" for mounting vital sensors and radars.

    However, the Cabinet Committee on Security recently gave in-principle clearing for the induction of 159 more Dhruv choppers for the Army and Air Force. The clearance is subject to further tests in cold weather and desert conditions. Under a five-year contract, HAL will make 105 choppers for the Army and remaining for the IAF.

    (With inputs from Ajai Shukla and Shiv Aroor.)

    My 'report' ens here. I request you to please express your views on it, not only from the topic at hand, but also from a journalistic point of view also.

    Thank you.

    Reference to the original report by the Indian Express :-

    ALH loses Chile, Malaysia contracts


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