DRDO: Intercontinental ballistic missiles well within reach - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Friday 7 September 2012

DRDO: Intercontinental ballistic missiles well within reach

An Agni missile being assembled at the Advanced Systems Laboratory, Hyderabad (Photo copyright: Ajai Shukla)

by Ajai Shukla
Missile Complex, Hyderabad

Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL) is the deceptively bland name that obscures from public view the Defence R&D Organisation’s (DRDO’s) most glamorous laboratory. At the DRDO missile complex here in Hyderabad, ASL develops the ballistic missiles that, in the ultimate nuclear nightmare, will carry Indian nuclear weapons to targets thousands of kilometres away. Foreign collaboration is seeping into many areas of R&D, but ASL’s technological domain --- the realm of strategic ballistic missiles --- is something that no country parts with, for love or for money. No foreigner would ever set foot in ASL.

But Business Standard has been allowed an exclusive visit. The erudite, soft-spoken director of ASL, Dr VG Sekharan, describes the technologies that were developed for the DRDO’s new, 5,000-kilometre range Agni-5 missile, which was tested flawlessly in April. He reveals that nothing except restraint stood between India and an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could strike a target anywhere on the globe.

ICBMs have ranges above 5,500 kilometres, a threshold that the Agni-5 already sits on. For India, a more strategically relevant range would be about 7,500 kilometres, which would cover the world except for the Americas.

“Going up from 5,000 kilometres to, let us say, 7,500 kilometres requires only incremental changes, which we have already assessed. We would need a more powerful booster, which we could make ourselves at ASL; and we would need to strengthen some of the systems, such as heat shielding, that are already flying on the Agni-5,” says Sekharan.

For now, however, ASL is not developing an ICBM. Instead, its focus is on “operationalising” the Agni-5, which involves putting it into a canister and conducting 3-4 test-launches from the canister. When the Agni-5 enters service with the Strategic Forces Command (SFC), which operates India’s nuclear deterrent, it will be delivered in hermetically sealed canisters that safeguard the road-mobile missiles for over a decade, while they are transported and handled.

Launching a ballistic missile from a canister is a technological feat that ASL has perfected with smaller missiles, and will now modify for the bigger Agni-5. Since the missile’s giant rocket motors cannot be fired while it is inside the canister, a gas-generation unit at the bottom of the canister, below the missile, generates a massive boost of gas that ejects the missile from the canister.

“The gas pushes the Agni-5 out, like a bullet from the barrel of a gun. In less than half a second, the 50-tonne missile clears the canister by 15 metres, and that is when the rocket motor can safely ignite. In 30 seconds, the Agni-5 breaks the sound barrier and, in 90 seconds, it has left the atmosphere,” explains Sekharan.

The DRDO has promised the armed forces that the Agni-5 will be test-fired from a canister in early 2013. ASL is on track to achieve that target, says Sekharan. Within a couple of months, a “pop-up test” will be conducted with a canister, in which the gas generator ejects a dummy missile. Meanwhile, the actual missile is being integrated with the canister.

The Agni-5 project funding has already been cleared by the Political Council of the union cabinet, a fast-track procedure for strategic projects that eliminates cumbersome MoD sanctions. This allows ASL to place orders for the materials and sub-systems that will go into the first few Agni-5 missiles, taking care of production lead times. ASL scientists recount that “maraging steel” for the canister takes two years to be delivered by specialist defence PSU, Midhani. The rocket motor casings take another one year.

On the question that exercises strategic analysts the world over --- is ASL developing “multi independently-targetable re-entry vehicles”, or MIRVs --- Sekharan remains ambiguous: “I can say that we are working on MIRV technologies. The key challenge --- the “post-boost vehicle”, which carries the multiple warheads --- is not a technology challenge, merely an engineering one. DRDO will acquire and demonstrate the capability for MIRVs by 2014-15. But the decision to deploy MIRVs would be a political one.”

MIRVs are multiple warheads, up to ten, which would be fitted atop a single Agni-5. These would be a mix of nuclear bombs and dummy warheads to confuse enemy air defences. Each warhead can be programmed to hit a different target; or multiple warheads can be directed at a single target, but with different trajectories.

Interestingly, Sekharan reveals that the DRDO does not need sanction to begin work on such technologies. “The decision-making works like this: we demonstrate the technology and the capability. Then the government decides, keeping in mind the big picture.”

“In the Agni-5, the government didn’t say, ‘we have a threat perception… I need a long-range missile.’ It was the DRDO that said that we now have the capability to enhance the Agni-3 to 5,000 kilometres, and so the government sanctioned the project.”


  1. Hi Ajay,

    By keeping quite like MoD on the explosive SC Judgement on Pay anomaly of officers , you have proved to be a "Narrow Sword".... focused on AC like many others of the ilk....

  2. A minimum of 100 Agni 5 MIRV with a range of 7500kms is what we need for the next 15 years.

  3. Idk why india needs an ICBM... are you drooling for economic sanctions from top countries.. stop fucking waisting money on icbm and spend money on the poor ppl dying every day bexause of hunger and selling their own children cause they don't have money.

  4. @ Anonymous

    Thanks for your comments.

    Firstly, I have not written on Supreme Court judgment on the pay anomaly of officers because I am myself a beneficiary of that judgment and it would be a conflict of interest for me to write.

    Secondly, you reveal something of your priorities by bringing up the issue of rank pay (FOR OFFICERS ONLY) in a comment on an article on ICBMs. It is quite clear where your priorities lie.

    My advice to you would be to out there and focus on the problems of the jawans instead of gloating about officers' privileges.

  5. @ Anonymous 06:30

    Don't talk like some nitwitted, left wing ideologue. Of course we need to spend money on the underprivileged and the downtrodden. We equally need to deal with national security.

    It takes an especially narrow viewpoint to believe that abandoning a national missile programme would ensure food for the hungry.

    We can very well do both. And we must.

    1. You know old man.. you are a good orator from reading your comments. But you know very well that there is no existential threat beyond 5000km.. what the jihadis living in deserts or huts? Or the europeans delivering you weapons like the rafeal or sceopene..etc.. you are waisting this time honored resources... how long can india sustain the growth that you are enjoying... integrated missle progran has achived its priority so having few hundred million starving and dying so you could vuild your icbm is stupidity and NON-PATRIOTIC. So its ego now not protection. Your treat is chaina and pakistan... unfortunately its in your neighborhood. Stop brainwashing these ppl on indian millitary prowess

  6. Nice article sir.
    Now that India can pretty-much shoot anything, anywhere, what should be the focus of our research?

  7. We should have Technology demonstrator ICBM with ranges over 10000 KM.

  8. Whenever a success story like this comes up, we see some guy like Anonymous 06:30 gets concerned about India's underprivileged.Why?

    1. Cause I would rather see you begging and selling your kids.. than the innocent ppl treated like shit cause they were born dalit or just poor..

  9. From the engineering perspective it is sometime not very difficult to scale up a small working elephant to an even bigger working elephant by simply increasing the size.
    A more relevant question which needs to be asked is why a ballistic missile of similar and even longer range and similar warhead size delivery capability from other countries (example Minuteman II, Topol M, Trident II)have overall much smaller size and weight and why is ours so much bigger? What technologies stand in the way for us to achieve reduction in size yet increase in the overall range and what is being done about it? Is that even a priority in terms of planning in ballistic missile development?

  10. Anon @9 September 2012 06:11...
    Well people from Middle East/Central Asia/Europe/Bosphorous... come calling at your door step... you might be more than willing to take on... thier DNA into your blood line... well Indians do mind... that is their... Patriotism... Gaurding Indianess... in their blood...

  11. anonymous@10 September 2012 08:58::
    Would it be possible to write a full sentence in reasonably clear english?
    Its hard to understand what point of view you support. But in anycase, a 5000Km range missile would cover your "Middle East/Central Asia/Europe/Bosphorous" region. Would that satisfy you?

  12. Broadsword: Is it correct the production capability right now for A5 is about 2 missiles per year? Any clue as to how many the SFC wants? I guess that would not be for public consumption right?

  13. Anon @10 September 2012 21:27...
    No it won't... till the sleeping... agents of Middle East/Central Asia/Europe/Bosphorous... amongst us... to be precise... in India is put down... and all Indian Families... are protected from these people...


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