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Friday, Feb 06, 2004

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`India's missile programme is spurring industries' — Dr V. K. Saraswat, Director, Research Centre Imarat

M. Somasekhar

Dr V. K. Saraswat

After two decades, India's missile programme is on course. While Agni, the intermediate-range ballistic missile and Prithvi, the surface-to-surface missile, have been inducted into the defence forces, Akash, Nag and Trishul are ready for user trials and production.

The ambitious multi-million dollar programme called the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP), launched in 1982-83, has travelled a long way and is set to enter an exciting new phase which will see the development of ASTRA — the beyond visual range missiles, technology upgradation to have precision missiles with seek and "hit to kill" capabilities and carry multi-munitions to home in on several targets, says Dr V. K. Saraswat, Outstanding Scientist and Director of the Research Centre Imarat (RCI), one of the key national defence laboratories guiding the country's missile programme from Hyderabad. In an interview to Business Line, Dr Saraswat asserted that the Indian missiles programme was in "good shape" despite technology control regimes and tough demands of the user community.

Excerpts from the interview:

What is the status of the missile development programme?

By far Prithvi, the battle-horse of the IGMDP, has been accepted by all the users — the Army, the Navy and the Air Force — and has been inducted. It is being produced by the Hyderabad-based, Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL), a defence public sector undertaking. Agni has also been inducted and is being produced. For the other three missiles — Akash, Nag and Trishul — the production phase is ready.

The technical difficulties have largely been sorted out with the users. While Akash (medium-range surface-to-air) will go for user trials this year and production in 2005, Nag (anti-tank) is ready for user trial and is likely to enter production late 2005. The versatile multi-role Trishul is set to be the first to get into production as the entire infrastructure is ready at the BDL. The IAF recently came up with suggestions for certain modifications and once they say okay, it can be manufactured in quick time.

What has been the role of the Indian industry in the development of the missiles?

When the IGMDP was launched in 1982-83, the industrial infrastructure in the country was not so good. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) had to struggle to get industry support even for small components.

A policy decision was taken to support the development of industry infrastructure and also production facilities, consequently lots of money was pumped in. Industries such as Walchandnagar, Godrej, HAL, L&T were the early companies which lent solid support.

In the first successful flight of Prithvi in 1988, at least 35 industries were involved, a large number from the private sector based in Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad. Similar was the case with the next big success of Agni in 1989.

I can say with confidence that the missile programme has nurtured the industry in a big way. At least Rs 60-80 crore of investment in the programme was made totally for building infrastructure in the industry.

Companies such as Kerala Hitech, Thiruvananthapuram, MTAR and SEC Industries in Hyderabad are examples that come to mind immediately.

While BDL has become the focal point for the production of the missiles. Nearly 40 industries make different components on outsourced terms, including critical systems like the missile launcher.

What difference has the participation of the Indian industry made to the defence programmes, especially the missiles?

First, a sound infrastructure base has been created to ensure that fulfilment of challenging jobs is done quickly with a high degree of quality.

Secondly, the production costs have come down. For example if the cost of production of a Prithvi missile was Rs 4-5 crore in the early phase, after six-seven years it is only Rs 7 crore now. First, a surface-to-surface missile like it is not available. If at all you get it, it could cost $8 million. If the development and production costs of Prithvi over the last 15 years is around Rs 300 crore for all three versions, a US Army Tactical Missile System (ATMS), initial costs is estimated at $800 million annually.

There is parallel production happening today with critical components being made at multiple locations and industry. We have also introduced a system by which one industry is given up to a maximum 75 per cent of the contract for the fabrication of X component and the DRDO establishment will have the option of giving the rest to a second vendor.

The overall time lags have considerably come down in this sector, where technology curbs and India's stated positions make it tough to get anything imported easily.

How have the sanctions and technology control regimes impacted the missile programme?

Sanctions, especially after the first successful launch of Agni in 1989, posed hurdles. But it has come as a boon for indigenisation, which in a way has slightly delayed the development programmes, since we had to fabricate from the simplest to the most complicated system.

We took the development of all critical systems in the DRDO to the public sector first and then spread them to the private sector gradually as capabilities started rising. Dependence on foreign countries has come down dramatically. On the other hand, the capabilities in avionics, aerospace, systems engineering and building of large systems that have been created has been a big plus for the country. Large system engineering projects such as the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), Main Battle Tank and the Electronic Warfare projects have derived benefits from such expertise.

Concurrent development and production is the new mantra in the DRDO. This has helped in reducing the time between development to production.

For example, the user trials of Prithvi were done in December 1994 and in 1995 December the first lot of 10 missiles were handed over to the user.

What is the kind of technological capability that has been built through the programmes and what are the new technologies that are in the making to push the programmes forward?

Till the 1990s the big challenge was the meet the range and warhead carrying capacity for the missile.

Hence, Prithvi today has been produced to reach 330 km, and Agni's newer versions will take it farther. But from 2002-2010 the focus is on accuracy of hit or hit to kill, this requires special technologies such as infrared and RF seekers embedded into the missiles with high precision homing devices.

The RCI has developed these versions and is ready for tests. For example in Nag, the Focal Plain Array device and an all weather day and night IR seeker have been developed by RCI and the Solid State Physics Laboratory (SSPL), New Delhi.

The second big challenge is to upgrade the missile hit capability. The present versions are sub-munitions, which will be converted to include guidance system and multi-munitions, so that multiple targets can by hit. This requires high levels of miniaturisation, for which the defence labs are gearing up.

What are the major initiatives on the anvil in technology upgradation?

Today, sending a warhead on a missile any distance, anywhere is behind us. We are working on ASTRA, the beyond the visual range (BVR) missile, which on detecting a signal can be launched to seek and home in on a target. One flight is expected to be undertaken at the end of 2004. A formal project sanction is expected now and will take at least three-four years to complete development work. ASTRA will have a RF seeker. Interestingly, an LCA interface has also been worked out.

Once, successfully developed, India will join the exclusive company of the US, Russia and France, which manufacture such missiles.Another initiative is the Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD). We are at the technology development stage and a target missile has been launched with success. It requires a network of command, computer, control, communication and intelligence network. It is a bit way off, but we are firmly on route and hope to convert it into a deployable system in four-five years.

With the confidence of the Army, the Navy and the IAF high now, we have taken up the inertial navigation system, the control and navigation for the Indo-Russian joint venture Brahmos which will bring down costs considerably. In a few years from now export of tactical missile systems is also a possibility. We will be very competitive in the global market as our man-hour rates are very low compared to the US or European powers.

Has manpower been a problem area?

Yes, especially during the IT boom, when we lost people and were unable to get professionals. But in the last 3-4 years there has been a good change. The DRDO has been able to attract nearly 600 Engineers. We are conducting an entrance examination and have been able to provide challenging projects to the young professionals.

The DRDO is looking ahead with futuristic and technologically demanding projects such as the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), new materials development, MEMS and BMDs and so on which will need high quality scientific and engineering personnel.

Do you see an increasing role for the Indian industry in the defence development and production?

Definitely yes. In fact, we have taken a proactive step to have the industry play a bigger role. A meeting with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) last year saw nearly 150 industries taking active part. Now the industry is asking us what systems they can fabricate, it is a long journey forward from mere component manufacture to undertaking contract jobs. It is a measure of confidence that some industries such as MTAR, SEC, L&T and the Kerala Hitech have now created exclusive divisions for hitech and aerospace fabrication.

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