Originally Published 2010-08-04 00:00:00 Published on Aug 04, 2010
The DRDO has done a commendable job as evident from the initial tests of the Missile Defence system, but its net worth as a truly viable option can only be assessed when the claims made about the system are realized and it is serial produced for active deployment.
BMD system: Can the DRDO deliver finally?
Earlier this week on 26th July 2010, the state-run Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) carried out a successful test of its Advanced Air Defence system (AAD) from the Integrated Test Range (ITR) at Wheeler Island off Orissa coast. The incoming target missile, a modified surface-to-surface Prithvi, was launched from complex-3 of ITR at Chandipur-on-sea and was shot down successfully by this 7.5- metre tall interceptor missile developed by the DRDO in an endo-atmospheric test. The interceptor destroyed the incoming missile within the earth’s atmosphere at an altitude of 10 miles.

This was the third successful test firing launch of the missile defence interceptor, which were carried out earlier in 2006 for the first time and followed by in 2007. A similar test in March 2009 went wrong and a test scheduled for March of this year (2010) was cancelled at the last minute due to a technical hitch.

The Government having realized that it is imperative that India possessed a credible Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system since the neighboring Pakistan, with its India-centric missile inventory, and China, with its vast missile inventory (some of which target India), have been known to be some of worst proliferators of missiles and associated technology in the world. Hence it was vital to take measures that would neutralize such threats . Unfortunately, a robust BMD required cutting edge technological expertise which was difficult to acquire and even offers of the watered down versions of ballistic missile defence systems came with strings attached and at considerable financial cost.

Hence, while efforts and evaluatory discussions to acquire BMD systems from Israel (Arrow) US (PAC) and Russia (S 300 series) continued over a period of time, simultaneously, the Government felt that indigenous efforts should be encouraged. Finally in September 1998, it tasked the DRDO with a Rs 2000 crore ( Rs 20 billion) project to create a limited shield around New Delhi. This project was envisaged to integrate the Russian S300V/S300 PMU along with Israeli sensors and BMC (Battle Management Control) systems. It was projected that this shield would be capable of intercepting missiles whose Vbo (velocity burn out) would be about 4km per second which would translate to short-to intermediate-range of missiles. The project’s exact progress or its details were never made public and it logically made way for the latest DRDO efforts in creating an integrated two-tier missile defence system that comprises of the AAD (Advanced Air Defence) or the endo atmospheric system and the PAD (Prithvi Air Defence) or the exo-atmospheric system.

In late 2005, reports appeared to suggest that India was trying to indigenize and develop a missile defence system involving the Prithvi – with an increased range of 350km – along with Israeli sensors like the Green Pine radar or probably indigenous sensors. The system was expected to have a coverage of 200km radius and it was only much later on November 27, 2006 that the first complete flight test of the PAD took place.
The PAD interceptor was a 10-metre tall, a two-stage missile that was designed by adding an additional stage to Prithvi’s propulsion system to enable it to carry out an interception at a maximum height of 80 Kms.

In comparison, the AAD interceptor that was to be used for endo atmospheric tests subsequently was a solid propellant single stage missile, 7.5 mts long and equipped with siliconised carbon jet vanes. The AAD has been designed for a range of over 150 kms (similar to Prithvi) and could achieve a maximum velocity of 1400m/sec.The advantage of this AAD interceptor was its high precision Inertial Navigation System, terminal homing on board computer with advanced technologies like RF seeker, agility and the capability to launch the missile in any direction in an autonomous mode. The system interceptor had an ability to engage targets at a maximum height of 30 Kms from the earth.

According to Dr Saraswat, Head of DRDO, most of the sub systems were indigenous by nature except for the LRTRs (Long Range Tracking Radars) as part of the automated command and control that had been developed with Israeli help. It is interesting to note that the LRTRs used in the first two tests were based on two Green Pine early warning and fire control radars imported from Israel during 2001-02. These radars had been modified and upgraded for 30-40% better target discrimination, classification and threat prioritization. These radars were capable of tracking a phenomenal 200 targets simultaneously.

While at the strategic level, indigenous systems will undoubtedly ensure that India stays out of the "strangle hold" and the "strings attached " approach of missile defence system suppliers like US, Israel or even Russia, at the technical level the indigenous systems will have to be capable of matching and “out performing” the systems that had (at some time or the other) been on offer to India. These systems include the Patriot Advanced Capability - 3 or PAC3 (some sources indicate that only PAC2 was on offer), Aegis system, Arrow 2 or the S300 series. DRDO scientists have confidently claimed that their advanced anti-missile defence system will definitely prove itself to be slightly better than the US made PAC-3 in terms of range and altitude of interception.

It is obvious that the recent missile defence tests by the indigenous systems of AAD (and PAD) are nothing short of remarkable both strategically and technically. However, the DRDO’s track record as far as producing world class military equipment within allocated time and in consonance with its proclaimed/ desired characteristics has been unenviable and mixed at best. The organisation has come under considerable criticism for project delays and an inability to translate proclamations into concrete system architectures.

Firstly the DRDO has claimed that the indigenous integrated BMD system will be ready for deployment within three years time which is a very short period of time for equipment acquisition and it is debatable if the systems will be ready in such a short time.

Secondly the indigenous BMD system is likely to be effective against IRBMs and ballistic missiles of lesser ranges - countering them during their terminal or mid course phases. The BMD system and is also likely to be modified to counter the terrain hugging cruise missiles like the Pakistani Babur. However such capability against cruise missiles demand different capability and can only be effective with the use of additional sensors like integrated tracking satellites and/or AWACs. While the LRTRs with a detection range of 600 kms can track missiles of Vbo around 5Kms/sec, (roughly translate to IRBMs) the interceptor capability is likely to restricted to missile threats of lesser than 4 kms/ sec Vbo.

Thirdly, the DRDO has claimed that within 7-8 years, the system will be able to counter Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (Vbo 6.5- 7kms/sec). It is debatable if such a capability can be achieved in such a short time given that the US is still trying to master the art of countering such missiles within the mid-course section with their GMDS. (Ground based Mid course Intercept Defence systems – the erst while NMD)

Fourthly, given the wide geographical dispersion of the Indian landmass along with numerous widely dispersed population, military and strategic centres, one of the biggest problems that scientists and strategists are likely to face is the number of MD (Missile Defence) batteries to be deployed and prioritization of areas to be defended.

Fifthly, the other challenge involves the economic aspects of missile defence projects themselves. Research and development of missile defence systems is a costly proposition.

Finally, it needs to be mentioned that while the DRDO has done a commendable job as evident from the initial tests of the MD system, but its net worth as a truly viable option can only be assessed when the claims made about the system are realized and it is serial produced for active deployment. This is an aspect that is doubtful and most debatable.

Dr P K Ghosh is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation . He can be contacted on [email protected]

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