Monday, April 4, 2011
Games DRDO Plays
By Pravin Sawhney
Tall claims and empty boasts seem to have become the hallmark of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). The proclivity of the Director General, DRDO, Dr V.K. Saraswat and his team to exaggerate its achievements would be amusing to discerning people. Unfortunately, this amusement has grave national security implications and Dr Saraswat, a ballistic missile expert with the indigenous Prithvi ballistic missile being his crowning glory, should know this better than most.
As the director general, DRDO, he is leading the nation’s home-grown Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) programme. The claims made by him about the recently tested-fired Dhanush and Prithvi II ballistic missiles on March 11 and the BMD Endo-atmospheric interceptor test on March 6 are exaggerated beyond imagination. These should have been put into perspective by the Indian defence correspondents and experts, not only for domestic but international consumption as well, because the Pakistani establishment, while ignoring DRDO’s claims on Prithvi, utilises the boasts about the BMD to its strategic advantage.
Making use of Saraswat’s chest-thumping, Pakistan is going ahead full throttle to more than match India’s humble BMD technological achievements; if at all, the programme is decades away from fruition. According to US intelligence, while ahead of India in ballistic missiles capabilities since 2001, General Headquarters, Rawalpindi continues to increase its inventory of nuclear weapons’ land vector by citing India’s BMD claims as a destabilising factor. This writer had first-hand experience of this a few months ago. During the alumni meet at the Cooperative Monitoring Centre (Sandia National Laboratory) at Albuquerque, US in October 2010, a former director of Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, Brigadier Feroz Khan argued that India’s growing BMD capability had forced Pakistan to build more ballistic missiles.
Given its unbridled inventory, it is a matter of time before the Pakistan Army will alter its war-fighting doctrine to align it with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army thinking. While supplementing air power, the difference between combat aircraft and ballistic missiles will narrow down to tighter control of the latter. This will upset the Indian Air Force combat numbers superiority over the Pakistan Air Force and force the Indian Army to review its operational level pro-active strategy, referred to as the Cold Start doctrine in the media, against the Pakistan Army. Given such implications, the defence minister needs to restrain Saraswat and the DRDO from making irresponsible statements. Apparently after the recent claims on the BMD project, defence minister A.K. Antony has expressed his displeasure to Saraswat.
Prithvi and Dhanush
A brief history and technological limitations of the indigenous Prithvi ballistic missile are in order. The development of surface-to-surface Prithvi ballistic missile was sanctioned by the government in 1983 under the Integrated Guided Missiles Development Programme. As Prithvi was an offshoot of ISRO’s civilian Space Launch Vehicle (SLV), its development commenced without the General Staff Qualitative Requirements (GSQR) — technical requirements given by the user, that is, defence services, to the research organisation — implying that the defence services were neither consulted nor were they interested (ballistic missiles were still unknown to them) in the programme. As happens with most indigenous programmes, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi personally goaded the army in 1988 to accept Prithvi in order to encourage the indigenous product. Considering the Prime Minister had intervened regarding a weapon system, it was easy for the DRDO to arm-twist the other two services, the navy and the air force to seek the missile with a few minor and not design changes to suit its medium of operations.
Thus, three versions of the same missile were created. The army’s Prithvi has a range of 150km with a 1,000kg payload. Working on the trade-off between weight of the warhead and the missile range, the IAF was offered the Prithvi (Prithvi II) with 250km range and 500kg payload. The IAF argued that it had little use for this missile, after all what was the point of a ballistic missile (with dubious accuracy) knocking off a few of enemy building (in a 500kg payload, 30 per cent space by volume would be occupied by the arming and fusing mechanisms, and onboard digital autopilot) and causing collateral damage.
The DRDO then took two steps. It announced to the media that Prithvi would be nuclear capable as well — this statement took care of the accuracy issue as with nuclear warheads accuracy becomes less important — and it decided to increase the warhead by making the payload weight 750kg instead of 500kg. This was sought to be achieved by using boosted liquid propellant to generate greater thrust-to-weight ratio. Technically, if there is a 20 per cent change in the warhead weight or range, a ballistic missile requires a series of fresh testing. Then Prithvi project director, Saraswat, the present DG, DRDO, ruled out extensive testing saying that the air force variant will not be a new design. What is more, he claimed a Circular Error Probability, a measure of accuracy and consistency, of 25metres at full range (‘Boosting the Arsenal’ India Today, 29 February 1996), which is untrue even today. This labelled Prithvi a dual-use missile, which could be used with both conventional and nuclear warheads.
Enormous pressure was put on successive air force chiefs to accept the Prithvi II, so much so that the air force chief in 2006, when asked in a press conference (by me), was prompted to say that the IAF would get a squadron of Prithvi II missiles. Contrary to popular understanding, the reality is that the IAF does not have Prithvi II missiles, and to fast-forward the story, will never get them as Prithvi’s production has stopped. The few Prithvi II made by the DRDO are held by DRDO on behalf of the Strategic Forces Command (SFC), which was created on 4 January, 2003. The much publicised Prithvi II test-firing by the SFC on 11 March, 2011 was from these holdings.
To digress a bit, there is ambiguity about the SFC as well. Being a strategic command, the SFC should have under its command only those ballistic missiles (Agni series) which will be used with nuclear warheads. For example, the status of Army’s Prithvi missiles is unclear: two Prithvi missile units are held by the two artillery divisions suggesting they will be used with conventional warheads. However, their annual firing practice is under the aegis of SFC, which should mean they will have nuclear warheads. A dangerous situation has thus been created where the adversary (Pakistan) is uncertain whether Prithvi is indeed a dual-use missile. Moreover, as India does not have an understanding or agreement with Pakistan on the usage of various ballistic missiles (it was bilaterally sought under the Memorandum of Understanding signed as part of the 1999 Lahore Declaration), a misreading or a miscalculation about the warhead would have grave consequences.
Meanwhile, learning from the IAF’s doggedness, the DRDO agreed to do a number of test-firings for the naval version, Dhanush, with a purported range of 300km carrying a 1,000kg payload. It is worth noting that the first test of Dhanush done atop a surface ship on 11 April 2000 was a failure. This validated the IAF’s point that a new design requires extensive test-firings. Given the operational limitations of the missile (discussed later), the navy, like the IAF, has never been enthusiastic about Dhanush. The 11 March 2011 Dhanush test done from INS Suvarna is part of the validation process. Commenting on the recent tests of Prithvi II and Dhanush, Saraswat reportedly claimed that the missile had a CEP of less than 10 metres, implying that if the missile is fired at its full range, 82 per cent of the hits will be within a radius of 10 metres drawn around the bulls-eye. Not to be left behind, DRDO chief controller for life sciences (who has little to do with ballistic missiles), W. Selvamurthy claimed that the SFC, according to its strategy, can now attack a target from land and sea simultaneously. Considering that the land-based Prithvi version, given Pakistan’s elongated geography, can hit almost all valuable targets, what is the need for the navy to fire Dhanush? If indeed Dhanush was a successful nuclear weapon vector, what was the need for India to spend billion of rupees on developing the sea-based deterrence INS Arihant and its follow-on vessels?
Coming back to the army’s Prithvi, it has, at least, four major technical and operational limitations. One, when all countries with ballistic missiles use solid propellants, Prithvi uses liquid propellant, which is difficult to handle in the field and during tactical movements. While pre-filled Prithvi has shelf-life limitation (once filled, the liquid propellant cannot be emptied out and the missile will need to be destroyed), topping the missile in the field requires large preparatory time and utmost care (as the liquid propellant is highly corrosive to human skin), a luxury unavailable in the din of war. Two, the terminal velocity of the Prithvi is low, and hence high explosive monolith conventional warhead will not be able to penetrate the hardened fortifications on the international border between India and Pakistan. The reason for Prithvi’s low terminal velocity is that unlike the Chinese M-11 (which Pakistan has), the body of the Prithvi does not separate from the warhead. The pre-fragmented warhead will be effective against ‘soft targets’, but compared with the multi-barrel rocket launchers like Smerch and Pinaka, which the artillery has, the Prithvi fire will not be cost-effective and flexible. For this reason, the DRDO never developed the other advertised conventional warheads like pre-fragmented monolith, bomblet sub-munitions, and blast cum earth-shock munitions for Prithvi. Three, as Prithvi lacks a proven terminal guidance system, its accuracy and consistency for use with conventional warheads is unacceptable. As a general guideline, Prithvi’s CEP is 100m for 150km. All Prithvi tests have been done from pre-surveyed sites and hence are stage-managed. It can be argued that even in war, Prithvi could be fired from pre-surveyed sites, but this will be at the cost of battlefield flexibility. Considering that the BrahMos Land Attack Cruise Missile (LACM) gives a less than 10m CEP at full advertised range of 290km (its range is much more, but has been kept suppressed to adhere to Missile Technology Control Regime limits) with supersonic speed, the army has found it a far better option that Prithvi for depth and strategic targeting. And lastly, the Prithvi missile signature is huge as it rises upon firing; the enemy will find its general location with ease for counter bombardment.
Once the army acquired the BrahMos LACM, Smerch and Pinaka MBRLs, the future of Prithvi in its present design, with all its shortcomings, was sealed and its production stopped. As an aside, the IAF, which did not accept the Prithvi II, has acquired a regiment of BrahMos LACM. The government has decreed that the existing two regiments of Prithvi with the Indian artillery will eventually be replaced by Agni missiles (Agni-V whenever it enters service) and will be given to the SFC. Prithvi in all its manifestations is a dead dog that continues to be flogged by the DRDO for meaningless glory.
Ballistic Missile Defence
To place the 6 March 2011 Endo-atmospheric interception test at 15km altitude into perspective, a brief backgrounder on BMD is necessary. Any BMD has six essential elements. The first is the early warning system that is capable of signalling the launch of enemy’s ballistic missile as early as possible. Earliest detections are best done by satellite and by aircraft (AWACS and AEW&C), capabilities which India presently does not have. It is hoped that AEW&C networked capability should be available by 2015, which then will provide dual-advantage of providing early warning and early cue to the Long Range Tracking Radar (LRTR). The second element is the LRTR, with a range of mere 600km; called Swordfish, this is the DRDO’s name for acquired Israeli Green Pine radars. The third element is the Multi Functional Fire Control Radar (MFFCR), a short range, short wavelength radar which takes over from the LRTR, detects the small cross section of the hostile missile and passes the relevant information to the control centre, where necessary computations are done and hostile missile coordinates are relayed to the interceptor missiles. The DRDO has the Thales MFFCR will a range of 350km capable of detecting radar cross-section of 0.3sqm. The control centre called the battle management and command, control, communication and intelligence (BM/C3I) is the fourth element of the BMD system. The fifth and sixth elements are the two interceptors, one each in the Endo and Exo-atmosphere to simultaneously hit and kill the ballistic missile before its nuclear warhead gets activated.
As a general rule, the nuclear chain reaction, which then cannot be controlled, gets activated about 10km (airburst is achieved with proximity fuse for maximum casualties) above the earth. If the hostile payload that has the nuclear warhead gets a direct 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 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 be nuclear warhead for nuclear warhead to destroy enemy’s long range missiles.
Moreover, 30km height is the dividing line between the atmosphere and space; below 30km is atmosphere and above 30km is space, two medium with different characteristics. It is evident that both the interceptors 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 200km plus with hypersonic speeds to hit long range hostile missiles with ranges up to 5,000km coming at high speeds. If this hit is not achieved, the Endo-interceptor should then kill the missile the moment it is at 30km height and enters the atmosphere.
Given these facts, let’s examine what has been achieved by the DRDO. The indigenous BMD programme started in 1995, the trigger were reports that Pakistan had acquired M-11 ballistic missiles from China. The M-11 has 400km range, but the advertised range was kept at 280km to meet MTCR limits. In quick time, Pakistan also acquired the Chinese M-9 ballistic missiles with 600km range. Keeping sights low and not bothering for subsequent Pakistani missiles acquisitions with ranges of 2,000km plus (no one thought about Chinese ballistic missiles), the DRDO started its work on the BMD. The Israeli LRTR with 600km and the Thales 350km range radars met the immediate need. The Exo-interceptor is PAD, a derivative of the indigenous Prithvi ballistic missile, and the Endo-interceptor is AAD, inspired by the indigenous medium range surface-to-air Akash missile with a 25km maximum slant range. The PAD, later called PAD-I, is a two stage interceptor missile, a solid propellant second stage rocket is mounted on top of the liquid propellant Prithvi. To achieve high terminal speed, a liquid ‘divert-thruster’ is placed on top of the second stage solid propellant. The ‘divert-thruster’ and the payload are fired simultaneously towards the target once they are within the seeker range (Radio Frequency) of 30 to 40km.
Three technical infirmities in PAD-I are: it can achieve a maximum height of 80km only and hence it cannot intercept missiles with more than 1,000km ranges; it has RF seeker which is unlikely to ‘acquire for hit’ fast speed long range missiles; and it uses a conventional warhead armed with proximity fuse, which while exploding within 20metres of the hostile missile may not hit it. 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. The PAD-I has done two successful interceptions at 48km and 80km heights in space. Understanding the severe shortcoming of PAD-I, Saraswat told me a year ago (FORCE, March 2010) that PAD-I would be modified to PAD-II or PDV with two changes: the first stage of PAD-I (Prithvi) which is a liquid motor will be replaced by a solid motor stage with high energy levels. The second stage will also be modified for higher interception accuracy and the RF seeker will be replaced by an Imaging Infra Red (IIR) seeker. He had said that PDV would be test-fired by end of 2010; this crucial test has still not happened.
After the 6 March 2011 Endo-atmospheric test, Saraswat announced that, “one more interception will be done to intercept a 2,000km range incoming missile at an altitude of 150km. With this test, which will be done in 2011, the BMD Phase one will be over.” Saraswat added that, “India’s plans for putting in place the first phase of the two-layered ballistic missile defence shield by 2012 and the second phase by 2016 are on course.” Saraswat was referring to the long overdue PDV test.
The two-phased BMD programme that he talks about is: in Phase I, with one more test of PDV, the two interceptors (Exo and Endo) will be ready for production by 2012. Between 2012 and 2013, the DRDO will put together the required number of interceptors as well as other elements like radars and control centres. Thus, by 2013, Indian BMD will be ready to successfully intercept hostile ballistic missiles armed (with nuclear warheads) with 2,000km ranges. In Phase II, which Saraswat says will be ready by 2016, whose interceptors are to be validated by 2015, the BMD would take on ballistic missiles with 5,000km ranges. Dr Saraswat is kite-flying. His targets are unreal and his BMD achievements are gross exaggerations.
Talking about Phase I meant to hit 2,000km range ballistic missiles, there are five major unresolved issues. First, the choice of Prithvi missile as the target (in all the interceptions done so far) is wrong as the missile (discussed above) has slow speed. It ought to be remembered that Pakistan does not have Prithvi missiles; all its missiles with 2,000km ranges (like the Chinese CSS-5, renamed Ghauri, as even M-11 and M-9) have faster speeds. Saraswat would do well to designate indigenous Agni-I with 700km and Agni-II with 2,000km range as the hostile missiles and then demonstrate successful interceptions. Second, the PAD-I, validated thus far, can attain a maximum height of 80km, which is insufficient to intercept 2,000km range missiles in Exo-atmosphere. Moreover, there is a need to demonstrate high speed interceptor than the present PAD-I intercepting Prithvi missile. The answer is the PDV interceptor demonstration which has been delayed, obviously because it is not ready yet. Therefore, would it not be better for DRDO to hold the claims till PDV is successfully test-fired against Agni-II missile? Let the tests do the talking.
Third, given the fact that the interceptors are armed with conventional warheads, there is the need to demonstrate simultaneous Exo and Endo-atmospheric tests; if one misses the target, the other should be able to kill it. This has not been done. Fourth, the DRDO has not said whether the latest March 6 test and the earlier tests were indeed direct hits. Considering that the interceptors have RF seekers and the IIR seekers have still not been demonstrated, and the proximity fuse on the warhead will explode within 20m of the target, even with a slow target like Prithvi, the interceptions may not have achieved a ‘kill’. And fifth, all interceptor tests have been conducted from known designed sites, and have thus been stage managed. All Prithvi missiles depicting hostile missiles have been fired from the Integrated Test Range (ITR) at Chandipur, Orissa, and the interceptors from the Wheeler’s Island 70km apart. In actual war, such ideal situations will be unavailable. There is thus a need to do further tests in the above suggested configurations for successful interceptions of missiles with 2,000km ranges.
The BMD phase II will obviously be more challenging and it is unreal to now announce its accomplishment date of 2016. To thwart 5,000km range missiles (meant against China), the DRDO will need the following: the present Swordfish LRTR will need to be replaced with minimum 1,500km range radar. This will require foreign collaboration; it is doubtful if Israel will be able to help in this. Ideally, India will need satellite capability for early warning, which it does not have. The interceptors, Exo and Endo, will require higher speed, better seekers, and importantly should be able to attain up to 200km heights, which at present is a tall order. Probably, the biggest challenge will be to consider a nuclear warhead on the Exo-atmospheric interceptor to kill a 5,000km range nuclear missile. Considering the 1998 series of nuclear tests done by India, the question is, can India produce compact nuclear warheads with high yields and assurance for the low-diameter interceptors? It needs to be remembered that even with the best BMD programmes, the assurance level of ‘killing’ all hostile ballistic missiles is never more than 80 per cent.
What has been accomplished so far is nothing more than small baby steps in BMD development. But, Saraswat does not think so. After the March 6 test, he told the media that “Only the US, Russia, France, Israel and India have the capability to put in place a ballistic missile defence shield. China is still developing it.” Alluding to the successful Chinese anti-satellite test done in 2007, he said that, “India now has all the technologies and building blocks which can be used for anti-satellite missions in the low earth and polar orbits.”
He earlier gave me (FORCE, March 2010) a lengthy explanation on the subject. According to him, “Demonstrating satellite interception is not something that is necessary to acquiring this capability. Satellite, as you know, has a predictable path, whether it is in the polar, low earth or any other orbit. To check my interception capability, I can always simulate the satellite path electronically. I will generate an electronic scenario at the launch pad as if I am getting the data from another satellite or ground-based radar and take that as the inputs to my mission-control centre and then launch an interceptor. Since the path is known, I can know if I have accurately hit the target or not, unlike the ballistic missiles, where the path can be unpredictable because of aero-dynamic and many other reasons. So technically, we have concluded that we do not need to check our building blocks to ascertain whether we have satellite interception capability.”
When I asked him, why the Chinese had thought it necessary to demonstrate anti-satellite capability, he replied, “I do not know. Only they can answer this question.” Probably the answer lies in the cold statistics. Satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) are at heights of 300km above the earth, as they will not be stable otherwise. The Polar orbit is at height of 843km. The demonstrated capability of DRDO’s Exo-interceptor is only 80km above the earth. How does this claim square up? Even if the DRDO were able to make an interceptor which could reach the height of 300km, it needs to be remembered that satellites in LEO move at speeds of 28,000km per hour. Thus, to demonstrate assurance, there is a need to do a successful anti-satellite test, which the Chinese did, and got the US anxious about their increasing space capabilities. The US, which has demonstrated capability to kill a satellite in LEO and Polar orbits with laser on aircraft, is already thinking about the inevitability of space militarisation. Both the early warning and interception of satellites and long range missiles (5,000km onwards) by laser beams is best done through space capabilities. China is planning the catch-up with the US. Where does this leave India where the DRDO has happily declared that intercepting satellites and ballistic missiles are the same thing? Worse, no one has questioned the wisdom of the Indian BMD, its implications and future.