Defence against the dark arts

India has a home-remedy against ballistic missiles

A Prithvi II missile, modified to simulate an incoming ballistic missile, was fired from one location of India’s east coast. Within a couple of minutes, it was brought down by another missile. Just like on Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan, except that these missiles were not flying several times the speed of sound. The expression on some faces was not unlike the one on Arvind Trivedi’s face when his best arrow was neatly knocked down by Arun Govil’s.

The thing is—the interceptor that brought down the dressed-up Prithvi-II yesterday is a big deal. Not just because the test itself was successful, but because India has demonstrated that it has a few cards of its own in the anti-ballistic missile game. The interceptor was not part of the DRDO’s Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) that developed Agni and the Prithvi series. Neither it is a joint venture effort of the kind that produced BrahMos. DRDO has stated that the interceptor is indigenous. The inverted commas who sneer at such claims should ask themselves what it means for a country to share anti-ballistic missile technology with another, when the latter has nuclear weapons, missile systems and a good technological base. In the global deterrence game, it is in the nature of a self-created handicap. Such sharing is sticky between the closest of allies. No country that has anti-ballistic missile technology is likely to share it with India. It is useful to recall that the United States had offered Patriot missiles to India. Not Patriot missile technology. There’s a big difference.

Again, one successful test does not give India an operational air-defence or an anti-ballistic missile shield overnight. There’s certainly some way to go before that happens. Moreover the best of today’s anti-ballistic missile systems are expected to work satisfactorily under limited deployment environments. But the use of missiles and rockets has become sufficiently common in contemporary security environments that not investing in anti-missile defence technology borders on criminal negligence. It appears that the Indian government began to take anti-missile defence seriously since the late-1990s. The DRDO programme that led to the launch of the mysterious interceptor—called the AXO (sic) Atmospheric Intercept System—began over six years ago. It should also explain why the Vajpayee government enthusiastically supported the Bush administration’s missile defence initiative.

DRDO’s breakthrough comes at a time when it is under concerted attack in the media over allegations of poor performance. It is tempting for some journalists to suggest that it conducted this test to shake off its criticism. To them it should be said that if DRDO can pull off such a challenging technical feat at such short notice merely in response to media criticism, then surely, the criticism leveled against it is unwarranted. Imagine what they can do if faced with something more hostile than newspaper reports—an enemy attack, for example. It takes much longer to design, produce and test an missile interceptor than to write and publish a series of newspaper articles.

The Acorn has previously called for a reform of DRDO to separate out its numerous roles and eliminate conflicts of interest. Such reform is essential to ensure that the defence budget is well spent on the armed forces modernization project. The central government’s inability to sort out DRDO’s place in the world should not come in the way of crediting the organisation where it is due. For on the anti-missile front, it deserves a round of applause.

18 thoughts on “Defence against the dark arts”

  1. After those disheartening IE series on DRDO this is certainly great news. Now where will Pakistan look for an answer to our interceptor?

  2. Krish,

    My main argument for DRDO reform is based on the premise that the best builder is not necessarily the best developer, the best engineer is not necessarily the best scientist, etc. Also, that competition will ensure that indigenously developed technology results in good products. Finally, DRDO cannot be both a producer of gear and a decision-maker with regard to their purchase by the armed forces. As Maverick put it on his blog earlier this week, even if DRDO’s projects don’t deliver on the original promise, they ensure that they erode the premium foreign suppliers can command!

    As for the link about Pakistan’s counter-strategy: what they are effectively saying is that they will counter anti-missile defence by throwing lots of missiles and decoys that the missile shield will let some through. They may even be able to mass produce missiles and lob them across, but they can’t mass produce nuclear warheads for there is only so much fissile material to go around. The point is, they won’t do that: because they don’t have anti-missile capability.

    The bottomline as far as deterrence equation is concerned is that no matter how many missiles Pakistan can throw at India, it will remain vulnerable to a retaliatory strike as long as it lacks a missile shield itself. That should worry them. China may help them with missiles, but is unlikely to help them with missile defence technology. They’ll have to develop their own, or borrow some from their all-weather friends.

  3. Pakistan wouldnt need to mass produce nuclear warheads, it could hide nuclear tipped missiles in a bunch of identical decoys?

    Agree that lack of ABM tech would act as a deterrent for them.


  4. Jai,

    Yes, with respect to that “statistical” strategy, not every Pakistani missile will carry a nuclear warhead. And not every Pakistani missile will be successfully intercepted (at the right geographical location). To cut a whole story short, for that reason, there will be ambiguity on both sides whether a Pakistani nuclear missile will make it through the shield. On the other hand, there will be no such ambiguity with respect to Indian nuclear missiles hitting their intended targets.

  5. I wonder if the IE-Aroor attack was a prelude to this. The manner in which India has flashed its BMD cards is upsetting the apple cart for the planned American sales of BMD systems. One can almost see that the IE-Aroor-Ranjan attack was preplanned to offset any gains DRDO might have made from this.

    If you recall DRDO was attacked in the IE series for not entering into international collaborations where it made sense (per Aroor i.e. per whoever was paying him to write this garbage). By showing they can do ABM alone. The DRDO has upped the ante for potential BMD tech. suppliers.

    Since the first reports of the ABM test there has been a non stop barrage of reports from Rahul Bedi, Rajat Pandit etc… all suggesting that the DRDO test is a fake or at the very least completely indequate for India’s needs.

    Curious indeed, DRDO never said it had done everything, it simply said it has made a start. The newspaper people rushed to attack DRDO’s credibility with something it had never said. The pain in the tone from Rajat Pandit and company says the DRDO’s latest test just kicked them in the nuts.

    With DRDO effectively competing with its own ABM system, the foreign suppliers of the ABM stuff have to deal with local competition, which means more bribes for our people and less profit for them.

  6. Maverick,

    The IE editorial today tries to wipe the egg off its face with an article that questions what exactly was tested, whether it was indigenous and then goes on to argue for “international collaboration” with the US. 😉

  7. Nitin,

    Patriot missile is a failed missile system. It never worked properly in Gulf war – I and wasn’t tested at all in recent fight in Iraq. India is always sold some old junk, wether its US/Russia.


  8. Hi Nitin,

    These fellows at IE are really asking to get it. One of these days Sajjan Kumar or H K L Bhagat is going to lead his boys in there and beat all the editors black and blue.

    They want us to buy that patriot garbage that everyone knows does not work properly.

    The use of Green Pine is alluded to, but this is nonsense. The fact is that two Green Pine units were only transfered to us as evaluation pieces. One was sent for trial to the national capital area and another was placed closer to the border elsewhere to permit surveillance on Pakistani tests.

    There is no Green Pine anywhere in this test. The only radar used was the standard stuff used to track the missiles after launch.

    I think someone on BR has the right idea about construction, they are saying this is a solid fueled prithvi variant as the first stage and a EKV (exoatmospheric kill vehicle) with a ramjet of the Akash variety as a second stage. The ramjet is the only thing that will work at those altitudes and the first stage will get the second stage up to the point where the ramjet can be made to work. The only question this leaves is how did they do the final guidance to ensure the hit. No one seems to be talking about that. I suspect that part of the test was rigged in the usual fashion but that doesn’t change anything for us.

    This is a major major advance on the scale of what Pokharan 2 did for us in 1998.

  9. “Just like on Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan, except that these missiles were not flying several times the speed of sound. The expression on some faces was not unlike the one on Arvind Trivedi’s face when his best arrow was neatly knocked down by Arun Govil’s.”

    This is exactly what I was thinking when the Reuters report on test.

  10. Maverick,

    “The only question this leaves is how did they do the final guidance to ensure the hit. No one seems to be talking about that. I suspect that part of the test was rigged in the usual fashion but that doesn’t change anything for us.”

    If the guidance is rigged, isn’t the entire test rigged? Granted it is the first step – one reason I don’t want to get too excited that we have ABM capability. All the test proves is the missiles can travel in predicted paths. Other than the spectacular fireworks, I am not sure what this test tells us.

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  12. Maverick,

    Media reports suggest that VK Saraswat stated that a Green Pine system was used.

    But you may still be right about the two Green Pines already deployed. Looks like there was a third system acquired ‘for advanced research’ as revealed by Defence Secretary Yogendra Narain in August 2005.

  13. Hi Chandra and Nitin,

    It isn’t so much that the test is rigged. All tests are essentially rigged when they are set up as public displays.

    I am not sure what to make of the statement attributed to VKS.

    It could be that there is at least one more Green Pine unit in the country or possibly the two that were transferred for evaluation were moved away from their stations.

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