There is something extraordinarily odd about the indigenous Indian Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) programme. Given that the nuclear tipped missile threats have grown – and the indigenous BMD programme has little to show – the Government has now cleared the purchase of Russian S-400 Air Defence Missile System to protect New Delhi and other cities at the cost of Rs50,000 crore.
Notwithstanding this, the BMD programme has neither been questioned nor its progress audited or verified. It remains the preserve of a select senior Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) scientists. It was started in 1995 under the project director, VK Saraswat.
In its 22-year existence, where nearly Rs10,000 crore (Rs8,000 crore for missile readiness and the remaining for its production) have been spent, not a single BMD deadline has been met. Moreover, unlike the other strategic missiles – the Agni series – whose status or capability is known to the National Security Advisor and the commander-in-chief, Strategic Forces Command (SFC), whose troops have test-fired the missiles, the status of the BMD is shrouded in secrecy.
For example, in February 2010, in a longish conversation with me, the then DRDO chief, VK Saraswat, had said that by 2013, phase I of the BMD shield would be ready to protect New Delhi from hostile missiles with 2,000 km range. And by 2016, according to him, the phase II of the shield would be operationalised to kill hostile missiles with 5,000 km range. Ironically, the inter-Governmental agreement for purchase of Russian S-400 was signed in 2016.
This, of course, has not dampened the zeal of DRDO scientists, who every six or nine months do an interception test all by themselves and declare it successful. Two recent test-firings were on February 11 of an exo (outside) atmospheric interception at 50 km altitude, and on March 1 of an endo (inside) atmospheric test.
A few technical issues about interception would help to place them in perspective. To begin with, all hostile missiles with 2,000 km to 5,000 km range would certainly have nuclear, and not conventional warheads. As a general rule, the nuclear chain reaction, which then cannot be controlled, gets activated about 10 km (airburst is achieved with proximity fuse for maximum casualties) above the earth. If the hostile payload, that has the nuclear warhead, gets a direct conventional warhead hit before the payload drops to this low height, the nuclear core will not get activated and it will not burst. It is evident that interceptor missiles with conventional warhead should be used only if it has 100 per cent accuracy to hit the bull’s eye. Otherwise, the preferred option for interceptor missile warhead is a smaller-sized nuclear warhead, which while engaging the hostile missile ideally in exo-atmosphere, detonates its warhead by its blast (it need not be a direct hit), with the nuclear debris then suspended in space. In short, it should ideally be nuclear warhead for nuclear warhead to destroy enemy’s long range missiles.
Moreover, 30 km height is the dividing line between the atmosphere and space – two medium with different characteristics. Above 30 km is space. It is evident that both the interceptions (for outside and inside the atmosphere) should be designed to hit the hostile missile as high as possible so that the destroyed missile’s debris falls as much away as possible from friendly territory. Thus, the exo interceptor should be able to engage at heights of 200 km plus with hypersonic speeds to hit long range hostile missiles with ranges up to 5,000 km coming at high speeds. If this hit is not achieved, the endo-interceptor should then kill the missile the moment it is at 30 km height and enters the
Given this, there are four main problems with DRDO interceptions. All interceptions have been claimed to be with conventional warheads and direct hits. Since a conventional warhead is always armed with proximity fuse, which will explode within 20 metres of the hostile missile, how can it do a direct hit? If the hostile missile with nuclear warhead does not get a direct hit, it will continue on its trajectory path and its nuclear warhead will detonate at designated height. Thus, the claim of direct hit seems to be doubtful and should be audited or verified
Hypothetically speaking, since the trajectory and coordinates of both the interceptor and hostile missile are known beforehand, it is not difficult for the interceptor to bang at pre-determined location pretending a direct hit at an electronic or imaginary point (fixed or moving) which would appear as a real hit on the
The second issue concerns the hostile missiles. In all test-firings by the DRDO, these have been Prithvi or enhanced Prithvi missiles, which have slow speed, very high radio contrast and small ranges. The maximum Prithvi range is 350 km, which is far less than the claimed 2,000 km or 5,000km range of hostile missiles. Moreover, there is no independent verification of whether the warhead of the hostile Prithvi missile was deliberately exploded or blown off by a direct interceptor hit or it burst by self-ignition. The need is clearly to use Agni series missile as hostile missiles and to allow the SFC to do the
test-firing with DRDO as observers.
The third issue concerns the high-energy propellants which are needed to increase the interception altitude to more than 120 km; the higher it is, the better. While certain modifications have been claimed in the exo-interceptor, these are not enough. For example, the first stage of exo-interceptor, which was a liquid motor has been replaced by a solid motor stage with higher energy levels. The second stage has also been modified for higher interception accuracy by replacing the Radio Frequency seeker with Imaging Infra-Red seeker.
The fourth issue concerns the other components besides the interceptors of the BMD. These are the early warning system; the long-range tracking radar; the multi-functional fire control system; and the battle management system. All these components are nowhere near the desired capabilities to neutralise hostile 2,000km to 5,000km range missile.
This explains the likely purchase of S-400 systems. Indian Air Force or SFC should be convinced to not lose interest in DRDO efforts. While it is not suggested that the indigenous BMD should be shut down, what is needed is its technical audit by independent agencies or we need to seek joint development with foreign partners to resolve technology glitches. Since India has good relations with the US, Russia, Israel, and France (countries with advanced BMD technologies), the Government should review the programme. Spending money without clarity will not help India’s defence posture.
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