India needs ballistic missile more than anti-ballistic missile system
The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) have had a makeover; it has a swanky new building that is the envy of the South Block next door, and it has re-invented itself. The shift is all too discernable. From making ballistic missiles, it is now focussed on ballistic missile defences; from ab initio development, it now seeks joint ventures; it no longer attempts technology over-reach (case in point is the indigenous anti-tank Nag missile where initially the DRDO had announced that the terminal homing will be by an active on-board Milli-Metric Wave seeker. This has now been replaced by the passive Imaging Infra Red seeker); and there is more transparency than ever before.
The users (defence services), however, remain sceptical. Their contention is that the DRDO spends more time on ‘technology demonstrators’ than working with them on their requirements. Too often the acquisition plans are subjected to two contrary forces: the individual armed services’ desire to procure latest weaponry to plug operational gaps, and the defence ministry’s propensity to be guided by the often exaggerated promises of the DRDO that it can indigenously develop and produce similar items to those sought from abroad. The operational readiness of the Indian military bears the brunt of these decisions when programmes go awry.
There is mistrust between the users and the DRDO. Take the case of the indigenous Akash weapon system. The army chief, General Deepak Kapoor says that, ‘the army would expect all its requirements to be met before trying out the system.’ According to the Chief Controller (Research and Development) of DRDO, Dr Prahlada, ‘the Akash system is late by five years, so the army wants time to think what to do.’ The good news in all this is that the defence services fully support indigenisation, and the DRDO has come to realise that instead of inventing technology, it is better to partner with nations (the preferred destination is Israel) to deliver things on time. Discussing the above issues threadbare is not the present intention. Instead, it is to dwell upon why the DRDO has moved away from making ballistic missiles to building defences against them, and should this be the priority?
Dr Prahlada said on January 8 that the Integrated Guided Missile Defence Programme (IGMDP) announced in June 1983 was successfully completed in December 2007 (except for Nag missile’s trials slated for summer this year). Two sensitive programmes under the IGMDP were the Agni and Prithvi ballistic missiles. The DRDO says that the Agni programme under the IGMDP was a ‘technology demonstrator’ only, and when it moved to being a ballistic missile, it exceeded the IGMDP’s mandate. No one can argue with this clever answer. But what about the Prithvi programme?
At a time when all ballistic missiles of its class the world over have solid propellant, it uses the avoidable liquid propellant. Being the only battlefield support ballistic missile, as compared with the variety of ballistic missiles available with Pakistan, it requires technology improvements (better accuracy and consistency) for operational ease and of course more test-firings. The reason why this will not happen is that the government would not like to displease the United States that has consistently goaded India to go slow with its ballistic missiles programme. The US under President Bush favours non-proliferation (India has a good record) and counter-proliferation (Ballistic Missile Defence, BMD). The BMD was part of the partnership between India and the US under the earlier ‘Next Steps in Strategic Partnership’ and remains so under the present higher level of bilateral relations. The US had even offered its Patriot (PAC-3) anti-missile system which India for understandable reasons had declined. India wants an indigenous BMD system with outside help. As early as 1993, the then DRDO chief, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam had told me about his plans to convert the anti-aircraft Akash missile into an anti-missile system. This of course did not materialise. The breakthrough came in late 2001 when Israel sold India two Green Pine ground-based phased-array tracking radars, and importantly agreed to collaborate on a family of endo-atmospheric and exo-atmospheric hypersonic interceptors as part of DRDO’s plan for a two-tier BMD system. Starting November 2006, the DRDO has conducted exo (Prithvi Air Defence) and endo-atmospheric (Advanced Air Defence) tests, and has called the project a ‘technology demonstrator,’ because it is a long way to go before the BMD system would have any credibility.
A big challenge for the DRDO will be to find a way out for acquiring or indigenising Green Pine radar, and how to integrate and network the whole system. Egged by the initial test successes, the DRDO is already talking of the possibilities of matching the Chinese anti-satellite test done on 11 January 2007 (This, if cleared by the government, will be done by ISRO and not the DRDO). The DRDO has simply got so overwhelmed with the need for the BMD system that it has abandoned plans to improve the Prithvi missile. This is a mistake. India’s immediate concern should be to undo the ballistic missiles tilt in favour of Pakistan. The BMD should be the second priority.