India's missile story - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Friday 20 September 2013

India's missile story

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.”


  1. Rocket science is over rated, any nation with basic Industrial infrastructure can easily develop the technology if it concentrates resources. Eg: North Korea, Iran.
    Even private players in USA with much lower budgets than DRDO are developing commercially competitive
    rocket engines on their own . Eg: California based SpaceX,Virginia-based Orbital Sciences

    While designing air craft engines is much more complex and requires a higher quality manufacturing capabilities, something India, N.K, Iran all failed to do.

  2. what is the status of akaash mk2

  3. Superb! Thanks :-)

    - Tanuj, Noida

  4. good article Ajay..need a strong Vision and political determination

  5. good Article Ajay..
    Need strong political determination and the testing of the developed products should be done by independent agency ..other wise IAF and Army will look for short cuts of going to foreign vendor..
    Need strong political and Leadership and funding in Advance..
    I dont think Air Craft engine is big deal for india ..@Chomoskyist ...Do not worry dear ..we will do it .any way Kaveri is pretty close..i hope u know what is it ?
    I know how so call nation got the technology ..:)
    BYW many indians are running the show in the major tech companies in the world ..

  6. You forget that the propaganda machine is also better. As opposed to hundreds of tests, we do "simulated" tests, one or two user test at most before calling a missile operational. While the US publishes figures, videos etc. to support their claims, we hardly do. DRDO needs to up its press coverage backed by facts to attract fresh new talent with frsh new ideas. It is a shame that small countries like Israel, Sweden, France, Germany have such a rapid pace of development while we cannot even get a trainer off the ground.

  7. amazing @Anonymous.. propaganda machine is better???
    there is contradiction in u r statements.. like publishing figures and videos etc..and propaganda machine better..
    Now u r questioning DRDO..and dear you think all this development done by DRDO and ISRO is fake..its not wise to comment on a person like..u r not worth it.

  8. @ Chomskyist : Sir, You are correct. Rocket science may not be that tough as we think but making a Rocket re-entering into earth atmosphere (like Agni V) and then pinpointing the point of impact is not at all child's play. Very few countries in the world can boost that capability. India is one of them. I don't know about the missile launching capability of North Korea or Iran, so I am not commenting on the same.
    You are also correct that making an-aircraft engine is tougher. That is why even China can not make a jet engine for their fighters. Even initially Russia also reverse engineered a "Rolls Royce" jet engine for their MIG 15 fighters. The main problem is the finding a suitable material for the turbine blades. Those who know it, they will not share.

  9. The Govt. should have the determination to develop defense equipments ingeniously.That determination is not there at all.Sweden developed the best gun in the world at that range with in 20years ( Bofors gun) when they found that USA and French - make guns were unsuitable for their use in 1960. See the national feeling of the other countries. People do not know all these facts and are blindly supporting the most corrupt Italian Sonia

  10. After reading this I just doubt if the joint development carrot being dangled out is really for joint development or to stop the indigenous development and the development capabilities that India has developed.

  11. Good article Ajai Sir. Co-development with Russia, France, is enough. USA as a partner-A big no. Also with missile technology we have already got self-reliance. USA is not that good at missile technology. Ask them to co-develop their radar and stealth technology with us, USA will not do it, because they know that they can learn many things from Indian missile development. So please don't accept it. Its completely unnecessary for India. We are not going to gain anything from it.

    Radar, Stealth, Nuclear aircraft carrier, Unmanned Drones, in all these fields India can co-develop with USA. Main Battle Tanks, Howitzers, Missiles, submarines

  12. We have the capability to stonk other people's cities. very good and much needed. Congratulations.
    Why re we falling flat when it comes to moving targets? Trishul,Nag,etc?Why is the same leadership failing when it comes to other projects?
    It would be worth knowing how many of the 100 who joined DRDO in the 'seventies left and why.I can tell about my own experience in HAL. About 100 true blue IITians\top University types joined HAL during the same period.Most left. Of the about 10 who stayed on three wasted out at level V, some three reached AGM /GM level and one became Chairman.The rest left fairly early because I remember -inmy case- tough I had worked on teh MiG 21 and Ajeet accessories and systems including original innovations at the end of five years I-along with all the other GETs and PGETs was still waiting for my first promotion. Mind you there were 174 vacancies but those were being filled up by superannuated Wing Cos.DRDO could not have been different. It would be worth detailing or studying for the sake of adding value to information-how many of thwe 100 left.Mind you they had infinitely better service conditions- 37 hr weeks, Saturday half days and Central govt perks!

  13. It is a fact the services support imported products Evan if it is suboptimal like pilutus and tetra and Italian torpedoes and the list is never ending. Take example of mirage upgrade which has the same old body and same old obsolete engine but the upgrade cost is more than new Tejas MK 2 the fact has to be understood that there is special interest in buying foreign products. There is no vision in IAF and they need to tell 10 years in advance as to what is needed. I ndian navy is the only service that promotes indigenous products.and it is high time that a specific plan be developed. Missiles are not available for sale due to ban on various technologies and that is why due to denial there was no option but to develop it at home and that has been achieved after a delay but now the technology developed is here to stay and would get better. What is needed that these missiles be completed quickly certified and produced in huge numbers so that any country trying to attack would pay a very heavy price. Helena can be dropped from height from planes as 6 to 8 missiles per plane and would give a knockout punch to the aggressors. The logic is simple ban all imports except for spares and you would see all the technology would eventually develop. Those who are denied are the ones who have hunger and they are the ones who achieve.


  14. You are writing TNW do the pakis have a thermo nuclear war head without testing it

    1. He meant tactical nuclear weapon doofus.


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