IN missile technology, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has arrived. In the past few months, it has had a phenomenal run of success with its various missiles, and it proved on February 26 that it had acquired the capability to launch ballistic missiles from under the sea. On that day, a ballistic missile named Sagarika, or K-15, blasted off flawlessly from a pontoon submerged to a depth of 50 metres in the Bay of Bengal off the coast of Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. It knifed upwards as the water around it sizzled, rose into the sky, traced a parabola, and reached its full range, a point more than 700 kilometres away. The pontoon simulated the conditions of a submarine.
India thus joins the select club of countries, which includes Russia, the United States, France, China and the United Kingdom, with submarine launch capabilities. What affirmed India’s entry into this league was that this was the fifth launch of the Sagarika missile from a submerged pontoon and, according to DRDO missile technologists, all the five were “consistently successful”. While the previous four launches were kept a secret, the DRDO did not fight shy of revealing the launch date of the fifth mission. Sagarika is a submarine-to-surface ballistic missile that can carry nuclear warheads.
The top brass of the DRDO and the Navy monitoring the missile’s flight from a naval vessel included M. Natarajan, DRDO chief and Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister; A.K. Chakrabarti, Project Director, who belongs to the Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL), Hyderabad; and Prahlada, Chief Controller, R&D, DRDO. A top DRDO official called it an “excellent mission and a copybook flight”. Another missile technologist called it “a thumping success”.
The successful launch takes India closer to its plan of completing the triad, that is, the launching of missiles with nuclear warheads from sea, land and air, as part of establishing a credible, minimum nuclear deterrence. India has already acquired the capability of launching nuclear-tipped missiles from the ground (that is, surface-to-surface missiles) with its Agni-II, Agni-I and Agni-III types of missiles and its Prithvi-I and Prithvi-II missile variants. The Indian Air Force’s Mirage and Sukhoi-M30 fighter aircraft are capable of delivering nuclear weapons. “It is a great day for the country’s missile technology and national defence capability,” said a missile technologist. “We are getting into the possibility of completing the triad. This successful launch will give us the sea capability.”
If things go as planned, in about two years India will launch the Sagarika missile from a submarine reconfigured for the purpose and later from the nuclear-powered submarine that is being built at Visakhapatnam and at Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu. The indigenous nuclear-powered submarine project is called Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV), and the partners in that programme are the DRDO, the Navy and the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE).
Admiral Sureesh Mehta, the Chief of the Naval Staff, said in December 2007 that the ATV would be ready for sea trials in two years. It was the first time that a top-ranking official had gone on record about the highly classified ATV project. The Agence France-Presse (AFP) quoted Mehta as saying: “Our scientists have confirmed that they would have the Advanced Technology Vessel project ready for trials by 2009…. Placing of nuclear weapons under the sea is the third [leg of the] triad, which at present we don’t have and we hope at one point we will.”
Sagarika is a product of the DRDO’s missile complex at Hyderabad. The missile complex consists of the DRDL, the Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL) which is headed by Avinash Chander, and the Research Center Imarat (RCI). Sagarika is a versatile missile that can be launched from different platforms: from submarines, from the ground and from mobile launchers. It is about 6.5 m long and weighs about 7 tonnes. It can carry nuclear warheads weighing up to 600 kg. According to another version, it is 10 m long. It is a single-stage missile powered by solid propellants. DRDO officials describe it as “light and short”. It was miniaturised and canisterised. It has advanced avionics, propulsion, control and guidance, and inertial navigation systems. While its underwater booster propels it out of the water, its powerful air booster fires and can take it over a distance of more than 700 km.
On the launch day, there was no one aboard the pontoon when the missile was fired. A naval ship was positioned several kilometres away, and the missile’s fire-control systems were in place on this ship, which was linked to the pontoon by an underwater cable and through wireless communication. So the test-firing was a remote operation. Several naval vessels were in position to track Sagarika’s trajectory. The Integrated Test Range had moved some of its equipment from Balasore to Visakhapatnam to track the missile.
The DRDL designed and developed Sagarika and the ASL contributed to its propulsion systems, including its powerful motors. The RCI contributed to its avionics, including control and guidance and inertial navigation systems. Sagarika is similar to Agni-I, which is also a single-stage missile powered by solid propellants and with a range of 700 km.
The mood is upbeat in the missile complex because Sagarika’s success closely follows India’s demonstration of its capability to defend itself against ballistic missile attacks. India fired a hypersonic interceptor missile that intercepted and destroyed an incoming target missile in a direct hit over the Bay of Bengal on December 6, 2007. The interception took place at an altitude of 15 km, in what is called the “endo-atmosphere”. What was outstanding about that mission was that it was a “hit to kill”. The success gave India an entry into the club comprising Russia, the U.S. and Israel, all of whom have missiles that can block incoming ballistic missiles.
In November 2006, India demonstrated its air defence capabilities against incoming ballistic missiles when it shot down an “enemy” missile in the exo-atmosphere, that is, 50 km above the earth. That too was a hit-to-kill mission. In April 2007, the DRDO successfully fired its Agni-III missile, which has a range of more than 3,500 km and can carry nuclear warheads weighing 1 tonne. Akash, the surface-to-air missile, underwent a series of “drills” in December 2007, and the IAF was pleased with its performance.
On February 22, four days before the Sagarika launch, former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, one of the architects of India’s missile programme and the founder of the RCI, pointed out that India had conducted two tests of interceptor missiles in the exo-atmosphere and endo-atmosphere.
“From the results of their performance, I can say we really have the capability” to intercept any foreign object at an altitude of 200 km, he said. “Of course, they [the DRDO] have to do more tests. They have definitely arrived. Their technology is reliable,” Kalam added. He was speaking to reporters at the RCI on the sidelines of an international conference on “Avionics systems”. He made this observation in response to a question on the U.S. launching a missile from a naval vessel on February 21 to destroy a non-functioning satellite about 247 km above the Pacific Ocean. Dr. V.K. Saraswat, Chief Controller (Missiles and Strategic Systems), DRDO, chipped in to say that India had the capability to destroy both an adversarial missile and a wayward satellite. “We have the technological strength to obstruct and destroy them,” he said.
As far as India’s missile programme was concerned, Saraswat said, the Agni-II and Agni-I ballistic missiles were already in the inventory of the armed forces. There have been two flights of Agni-III. India will soon go in for “the next level of Agni-III flight”. Akash was ready for induction into the IAF. The process of its production was under way.•
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