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Fire from the skies...India's
missile prowess

BrahMos, the supersonic cruise missile, lifted
off from the Indian Naval ship "Rajput" speeding in the Bay of Bengal and destroyed a target on an uninhabited island in the Nicobar group
of islands situated in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago in March last year in its definitive test.

It was the 15th launch of BrahMos but the March 2008 was the first time that the
missile was fired from a ship towards a target on land.
The previous 14 flights of BrahMos were from ship to ship, land to ship,
and from land to land.

The Brahmos, an Indo-Russian collaboration, is the fastest cruise missile in the world.







By Bala Menon

Indian mythology is replete with references to missiles. The epic Mahabaratha gives graphic details of an 18-day war fought between two clans in which fire rained from the sky scorching large areas of the earth. The missiles had names like the Agneyastra (The Fire Arrow) - very similar to the modern-day Agni, which has become a symbol of India's pride in its technology. There were also the Brahmastra, the Nagastra, the Trishul (the last two are already part of the Indian Army arsenal). There were also Stealth missiles which roared in suddenly from nowhere or from 'behind the sun' destroying massed troops (a battlefield missile?) Others darkened or lit up the skies in fiery hues or burst on the horizons bringing terrible cloudbursts and massive floods.

Surface to Air Missiles at a forward Indian military base

The older Ramayana epic also talks of an aircraft that floats silently away and arrows that split into thousands in flight (multiple warheads?) incapacitating but not killing the enemy. Both epics tell of other missiles - the Vajra, Pavaka, Indra, Pushkara, Garuda, Gandharva, Tamas and many score more.

It is in this context that the Indian fascination with missiles must be understood. After nearly 1,000 years in the wilderness - during which invaders settled and melted into the populations on the plains of northern India, followed by the British, the Indian military psyche is now dreaming about the power extolled in the epics. Independence in 1947 and a more recent resurgence of nationalism have brought to fore powerful traditional - and sometimes atavistic - symbols and every Indian scientific achievement is being described today in terms linked with mythology.


Dr. Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen
Abdul Kalam, father of India's
Integrated Guided Missile Development Program. It was the brilliant
Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam who breathed
life into ballistic missiles like the
Agni and Prithvi, which put
China and Pakistan, the
entire Middle East and South East Asia
well under India's missile range.

In line with its stand on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, New Delhi has also rejected the standards of the Missile Technology Control Regime, established under the aegis of the United States in 1987. The MTCR is currently the only instrument available to deal with missile proliferation concerns, although several other nations with the knowhow to build missiles have refused to accede to it. These include China and North Korea, both active suppliers of missiles in the arms market.

The fabled Agni missile - projecting power beyond India's shores

India argues that the regime's standards are geared to the security interests of big powers who want to create an exclusive 'missile club'; that it does not tackle the subject of vertical proliferation and only focuses on restricting transfer of technology so crucial to the developing countries. Despite international pressure and embargoes, the MTCR has had no effect on India because its ballistic missile technology was developed 'in-house' - an offshoot of its space research programme dating to the 1960s, amply demonstrating how a military missile inventory can be built up from a civilian space launch capability.

India started on February 21, 1963, with a small atmospheric rocket fired from a relatively low-tech launching station in Thumba near Trivandrum. The Rohini sounding rocket then travelled a distance of 200m. Today, the giant firing ranges like the one at Chandipur-on-Sea in Orissa can launch Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles like the two-stage Agni which has a range of 2,500km - its arc taking in major Chinese cities, many countries in the Middle East, and most of South-east Asia.

The Akash - short range ground to air missile

Although reports keep appearing that the Agni programme has been put on hold, Indian officials claim the missile could be made operational within three months if necessary. New Delhi often says the Agni is just a technology demonstrator, although it is impossible to believe that so much money and effort would be expended to exhibit re-entry technology to the world at large. It is an offensive weapon meant to project power much beyond India's shores. The reach of the Agni and its relative inaccuracy because of its ballistic trajectory means it has to be armed with nuclear warheads or other explosives of massive destructive power.

The Prithvi has been described as a Pakistan-specific weapon, able to target practically every Pakistani city, military installation and industrial area. The Prithvi is so accurate - because its guidance system is reported to be integrated with the U.S. Global Positioning System - that its manoeuvring warhead allows it to strike targets with an error of just 10 metres.

The Brahmos - the latest weapon in the Indian arsenal

The first Prithvi was tested in February 1988 and it reached 'perfection' in mid-1994,with the development of three versions. Made by Bharat Dynamics of Hyderabad, several are thought to have been inducted into the Indian Army, with the Indian Air Force also seeking a longer-range variant. India's ambitious hunt for missiles began in the 1970s when her scientists began an effort to 'reverse-engineer' a Russian SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missile. They failed. This prompted then-prime minister Indira Gandhi to launch a $1billion Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme in 1983, closely linked to the work of the Indian Space Research Organisation - under the leadership of DRDO chief Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.

The programme initially comprised five core systems, with many variants to follow. The Agni and Prithvi are ballistic missiles while the Trishul and Akash are surface-to-air guided missiles and the Nag is an anti-tank and anti-armoured personnel carrier missile. India has an extensive cruise missile arsenal and also the ability to produce them indigenously.

The cruise inventory, according to Western estimates includes anti-ship missiles like the French-made Exocet AM 39, the SS-N-2c, SS-N-2d-Styx and the SS-N-7 Starbright from Russia and the Sea Eagle from the UK. Also inducted into service recently is the indigenous Lakhsya, a turbo-jet powered land attack missile. This ground-launched landscape-skimming projectile has a range of 500km with a payload of 200kg. Lakhshya has, however, been described by New Delhi as only a pilotless reconnaissance aircraft. The Indian Pinaka is a short-range surface-to-surface missile system with a range of 40km and capable of firing a barrage of 12 rockets a minute. User trials of the system have been completed and it will enter service this summer.

India is now developing the the Koral - with Russian assistance - a solid fuel anti-ship missile which can be launched from a battleship or submarine with a range of 110 km and packing 500kg of explosive power. There is also the indigenous 300-km range Sagarika (Oceanic) ship/submarine launched cruise missile under development but no information has been so far published about it.

DRDO scientists are confident the Prithvi and the Agni are just the forerunners of more powerful missiles. The new series of space launch vehicles being developed can easily be converted into Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). India's second generation rocket, the five-stage Augmented Space Launch Vehicle, which put a satellite into a 450-km orbit in 1992 can be converted into a 4,000-km range missile.

Jim Hackett, anoccasional columnist for the Washington Times and arms control expert says India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) is a four-stage rocket propelled by one of the most powerful solid fuel motors in the world. The PSLV which put a one-tone craft into orbit in 1994, and a 1,770-lb satellite into 900-km orbit in 1996 can be used as an ICBM with a range of at least 8,000km.

The expert also ominously points out to the development of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), due to make its first flight this year or early 1998. "The GSLV is planned to be an Ariane-class booster capable of putting a 5,500lb satellite into geo-stationary orbit ... if it were used as a ballistic missile, it would be a major ICBM capable of delivering a nuclear warhead up to 14,000km". There is a great deal of speculation in India and abroad about the Surya (The Sun) ICBM. Shrouded in secrecy, the missile is said to be based on one of the SLV designs. The missile, however, needs cryogenic engine technology, (long-range engines which use low-temperature fuels) which India failed to get from Russia in 1993 after Moscow bowed to pressure from Washington.

Although, the MTCR guidelines permit its members to support the space programmes of other countries, the U.S. insisted that the cryogenic engines are dual-use technology and "could contribute to delivery systems for weapons of mass destruction." Miffed at Russia's volte face after the deal had been finalised, New Delhi set aside some $110million in 1994 for the Cryogenic Upper Stage Project and tests are expected to begin on the engines in 1998. Judging by India's tenacity and its pool of technical personnel, the cryogenic engines are certain to be built. The MTCR can only delay, not stop Indian advances.

However, many questions remain. At whom are these missiles to be aimed against? What forces are they going to unleash in an unstable region and beyond it? What sort of glory will they bestow upon India? Where are the resources to build and maintain them coming from? There are no answers yet even among political or defence strategists in New Delhi. It is a policy of purposeful drift, the only truth being that India is inexorably moving towards becoming one of the biggest missile powers in the world.

(This article appeared in the Op-Ed pages of Gulf News, one of the premier newspapers in the Middle East, published from Dubai.)



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