Friday, September 7, 2012

DRDO: Intercontinental ballistic missiles well within reach

Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL) is the deceptively bland name that obscures from public view the Defence Research & Development  Organisation’s (DRDO’s) most glamorous laboratory. At the DRDO missile complex here in Hyderabad, ASL develops the ballistic missiles that, in the ultimate nuclear nightmare, will carry Indian nuclear weapons to targets — thousands of kilometres away. Foreign collaboration is seeping into many areas of R&D, but ASL’s technological domain — the realm of strategic ballistic missiles — is something that no country parts with, for love or for money. No foreigner would ever set foot in ASL.

But Business Standard has been allowed an exclusive visit. The erudite, soft-spoken director of ASL, Dr V G Sekharan, describes the technologies that were developed for the DRDO’s new, 5,000-kilometre range Agni-5 missile, which was tested flawlessly in April. He reveals nothing except restraint stood between India and an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could strike a target anywhere on the globe.

ICBMs have ranges above 5,500 kilometres, a threshold that the Agni-5 already sits on. For India, a more strategically relevant range would be about 7,500 kilometres, which would cover the world except for the Americas.

“Going up from 5,000 kilometres to, let us say, 7,500 kilometres requires only incremental changes, which we have already assessed. We would need a more powerful booster, which we could make ourselves at ASL; and we would need to strengthen some of the systems, such as heat shielding, that are already flying on the Agni-V,” says Sekharan.

For now, however, ASL is not developing an ICBM. Instead, its focus is on “operationalising” the Agni-V, which involves putting it into a canister and conducting three to four test-launches from the canister. When the Agni-V enters service with the Strategic Forces Command (SFC), which operates India’s nuclear deterrent, it will be delivered in hermetically sealed canisters that safeguard the road-mobile missiles for over a decade, while they are transported and handled.

Launching a ballistic missile from a canister is a technological feat that ASL has perfected with smaller missiles, and will now modify for the bigger Agni-V. Since the missile’s giant rocket motors cannot be fired while it is inside the canister, a gas-generation unit at the bottom of the canister, below the missile, generates a massive boost of gas that ejects the missile from the canister.

“The gas pushes the Agni-V out, like a bullet from the barrel of a gun. In less than half a second, the 50-tonne missile clears the canister by 15 metres, and that is when the rocket motor can safely ignite. In 30 seconds, the Agni-V breaks the sound barrier and, in 90 seconds, it has left the atmosphere,” explains Sekharan.

The DRDO has promised the armed forces that the Agni-V will be test-fired from a canister in early 2013. ASL is on track to achieve that target, says Sekharan. Within a couple of months, a “pop-up test” will be conducted with a canister, in which the gas generator ejects a dummy missile. Meanwhile, the actual missile is being integrated with the canister.

The Agni-V project funding has already been cleared by the political council of the Union cabinet, a fast-track procedure for strategic projects that eliminates cumbersome MoD sanctions. This allows ASL to place orders for the materials and sub-systems that will go into the first few Agni-V missiles, taking care of production lead times. ASL scientists recount that “maraging steel” for the canister takes two years to be delivered by specialist defence PSU, Midhani. The rocket motor casings take another one year.

On the question that exercises strategic analysts the world over  —  is ASL developing “multi independently-targetable re-entry vehicles”, or MIRVs — Sekharan remains ambiguous: “I can say we are working on MIRV technologies. The key challenge — the “post-boost vehicle”, which carries the multiple warheads — is not a technology challenge, merely an engineering one. DRDO will acquire and demonstrate the capability for MIRVs by 2014-15. But the decision to deploy MIRVs would be a political one.”

MIRVs are multiple warheads, up to ten, which would be fitted atop a single Agni-V. These would be a mix of nuclear bombs and dummy warheads to confuse enemy air defences. Each warhead can be programmed to hit a different target; or multiple warheads can be directed at a single target, but with different trajectories.

Interestingly, Sekharan reveals that the DRDO does not need sanction to begin work on such technologies. “The decision-making works like this: we demonstrate the technology and the capability. Then the government decides, keeping in mind the big picture.”

“In the Agni-V, the government didn’t say, ‘we have a threat perception… I need a long-range missile.’ It was the DRDO that said that we now have the capability to enhance the Agni-III to 5,000 kilometres, and so the government sanctioned the project.”

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