The abode of India’s missile activity, ‘Abdul Kalam Island’, located in the middle of the vast Bay of Bengal was bustling. Engrossed in works, eminent DRDO personnel tested and confirmed hundreds of events and updated the progress of their respective modules. The block office was manned by some of the most technically skilled scientist who carefully monitored the launch countdown of the missile system. After confirmation of the seamless performance of all the modules and with the go-ahead of the Mission Director, the Range Director brought the Automated Launch Sequence (ALS) to life. The pressure, anxiety, aspirations and above all the hopes of the scientists soured high as the countdown madly raced down towards T-0. As programmed at exactly T-0, the engines of a missile system ignited and its propellants made sure the missile soured high to the skies.
The lift-off was a text book launch. The missile raised and vanished to the blue skies; the DRDO fraternity in attendance to this historic launch, fixated their views towards the colossal screens present in the block office. Housing the command and control centre, the block office is a reinforced concrete structure that can withstand any eventuality that may arise during the missile launch. Various tracker radars and sensors planted along the Indian coast beamed back information on a real time basis; the plot ended with an abrupt bleep and a huge strain in the tracking graphs. Shortly after, the Mission Director came online and announced the successful test of the program. The ecstasy and celebrations inside the block office multiplied exponentially. Years of meticulously planned work involving various DRDO labs had paid off and the nation was staring at a secured future.
V K Saraswath, then Director General (DG) of DRDO, addressing a press conference announced the successful test of India’s indigenously developed Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system named the Prithvi Air Defense (PAD) system. India had taken the world by surprise; DRDO had yet again successfully developed a strategic deterrent, working in the dark with extremely minimal outside help. It was at a time when the world powers were pressing sanctions on India in the shadows. BMD was a system mastered by only a select few nations. India had successfully answered the nuclear peril raised by Pakistan and China. PAD was a system that took DRDO years to master, various trailblazer projects were constituted to master a range of tech-barriers faced along the path. After years of dedicated work, DRDO had yet again mastered a technology that was denied to it by global powers.
What forced India to constitute a BMD program? How DRDO mastered the tech-barriers ?
It all began in the late nineties, when arms race in South Asia was at its pinnacle. Regional powers were in the contention to excel each other and emerge as a leader in the Asia-Pacific region. India’s ever unstable neighbours, China and Pakistan were actively pursuing nuclear programs. Rapid development of delivery systems was underway in both the nations. By the late 90’s, Pakistan acquired M-9 and M-11 ballistic missile system from China. On the other hand, China introduced the Julang/JL-1 SLBM ; it’s first submarine launched nuclear ballistic missile on Xia class submarine. This move meant Pakistan could reach India’s national capital, New Delhi and China could target Mumbai and other major cities. India on its part had developed the celebrated ‘Agni series’ ballistic missiles. The deterrent factor was very well on India’s side. India was a signatory to the ‘No first use’ policy and it was critical for India to develop a way not only deter but also defend against the threat of these ballistic missiles.
The development of a ballistic missile shield in-house was an uphill task for India’s premier developmental agency, DRDO. India was making waves with its Integrated Guided Missile Development Program; a modified Prithvi missile would theoretically intercept any incoming threats. Before the missile could be intercepted the thread had to be first detected. India also lacked crucial modules required for the system; namely the tracker radar systems, guidance, control and seeker technology. The calamitous need for the shield led India to look at the prospects of importing or co-developing these crucial systems from an International partner and finally assembling the system to acquire its goal. The first on the list was India’s strategic partner Russia; Kremlin was undergoing one of the worst economical crises and failed to commit itself to the program.
France was also developing its own BMD shield and in the process had developed several path blazing technology. India was an active user of French technology with the use of several advanced French developed aircraft and radar systems. However, the system being developed by France was yet to be ascertained and would take years to mature. Investing in such a delicate program was an enormous risk for DRDO at the time.
The world powers which had recognized itself with India, had again failed to respond for India’s need. There was one other nation, India reached out to and it was a pioneer in radar technology. Israel, a shadow friend of India, was approached with the prospect of co-developing, long range tracker radars and seeker technology. Israel was sympathetic to India’s need for a long time and had helped its ally time and again. India requested for the ToT of ‘Green Pine’ radar system. This was the nerve centre for the Israeli fielded Arrow system. America a known sympathizer of Pakistan, soon voiced its concerns over strategic systems failing into India’s hands and vetoed the deal. Even though America had blocked the deal, Israel stuck to its promise and agreed to co-develop a new radar system with India. It was back to square one for India; the nation was left vulnerable and the threat was growing rapidly.
DRDO was now responsible to develop all the vital systems with very minimal assistance. The development of a shield, required India to develop a reliable interceptor missile system. Under the guidance of APJ Abdul Kalam, reputed DRDO scientists started the work of retrofitting Prithvi with sophisticated motors and guidance system. Developing a reliable missile system was the least of worries for DRDO; Prithvi had delivered payloads with single-digit precision. The real anxiety however was developing the support systems; biggest hurdle in realizing this was developing reliable tracker and seeker technology.
Pakistan was deploying tactical weapon systems; India’s population close to the borders was thriving. Major cities were cropping up well within Pakistan’s reach. Hence it was crucial for the BMD, to intercept the missile even before it could achieve its apogee and enter the atmosphere over India. The missile had to be detected well within enemy territory to intercept it at high altitudes. This mandated India to deploy long range tracker radar systems; the latest and longest tracker radar in India’s inventory at that time was the Rajendra radar system.
Rajendra was a multi-function radar system, developed by DRDO’s elite Electronics and Radar Development Establishment (LRDE) laboratory. Rajendra was developed as surveillance, tracking and an engagement radar system for the indigenously developed ‘Akash SAM’ system. Rajendra is a passive electronically scanned array radar; the system could track up to 64 targets and engage 4 targets simultaneously. The system could also guide up to 12 missiles at designated targets. Having a debated range of around 64 kilometres; Rajendra was undoubtedly one of the best radar systems for a SAM system. However for a successful BMD system, the radar had to track targets at least a few hundred kilometres away.
V.K. Saraswat, who was in-charge of the program felt the system required a radar with at least 350 kilometres of tracking range. DRDO’s top notch hardware laboratory, Electronics and Radar Development Establishment (LRDE), teamed up with Israel’s foremost military hardware maker, ELTA, for developing a long range tracker radar system. Working hand in hand, the shadow friends developed, the ‘Swordfish’ Long Range Tracking Radar (LRTR). Based on ‘Green Pine’ radar system, Swordfish is a highly capable LRTR, which was developed specially to meet the need for India’s BMD program.
Displaying a high degree of indigenisation, the radar is considered the heart of India’s Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system. The radar system is equipped with Indian made transmitting receiver modules, signal processing systems, computers and power supply units. V.K.Saraswat, proudly says even though the radar system was developed around the ‘Green Pine’ radar system, the Swordfish has not incorporated even a single module from its predecessor. He further claims, ‘Swordfish’ is an all together new product that is far more capable than ‘Green Pine’. The radar can track a target as minute as a tennis ball as far as 800 kilometres away. The system also employs, a highly accurate Multi-function Fire and Control Radar (MFCR), which was designed by a joint collaboration between India and France. The radar is capable of firing multiple missiles at multiple targets in multiple directions simultaneously.
The mainstay weapon of the system is retrofitted Prithvi ballistic missiles. These weapon systems are responsible for intercepting and obliterating any unwarranted threats lingering in the sky. Prithvi ballistic missiles were developed by DRDO as part of its Integrated Guidance Missile Development Program (IGMDP). For the role of interception, the missile had to activate a homing system, acquire a specific threat, guide itself towards it and then further detonate close to the threat to incinerate the target. Prithvi missile was basically designed as a ballistic missile to strike ground targets, hence major tweaks were required to obtain an intercepting system.
Prithvi is a two stage short range ballistic missile. The powerhouse of the missile system, is a rocket engine based on the Soviet KB Isayev propulsion system. The propellant for the system is rumoured to be TG-02/AK-20F/AK-27I. The first stage of the missile is a liquid fuelled rocket motor and the second stage is powered by a solid propellant. Being a twin stage system, the missile can attain an apogee of about 80 Kilometres.
The first stage in developing an interceptor system was to equip the missile system with an active homing and tracking sensor. DRDO’s ‘aviation hub’, Research Centre, Imarat (RCI), designed a very capable navigation system. State-of-the-art actuation and radar seeker systems were designed for acquiring and guiding the missile towards stipulated targets. Prithvi missile systems were further provided with manoeuvre thrusters which helped in gaining lateral acceleration of more than 5G’s. A highly advanced Inertial Navigation System (INS) was employed to provide the missile system with mid-course updates. These retrofitted missile systems were designated as PAD systems.
The PAD system is capable of engaging ballistic missiles in the 300 to 2000 kilometre class. The missile can attain speeds up to 5 Mach and is capable of engaging targets with an apogee of 80 kilometres. Being a liquid-solid propellant powered system, PAD has a very low response time. PAD can intercept targets in exo-atmospheric altitudes. These indigenously developed systems finally helped in realizing the dreams of developing an interception missile system.
The second stage in the indigenously developed system is Advanced Air Defense (AAD). AAD consists of a solid fuelled, single stage endo-atmospheric anti-ballistic missile. The missile extensively employs composite materials and weighs around 1.2 tons. The missile system is equipped with a ring laser gyro based Inertial Navigation System (INS). The missile system can intercept targets with an apogee of around 30 kilometres. AAD is equipped with a Projectile-charge warhead. This warhead is best employed in direct hit roles as it penetrates even the thickest of the armours.
The interceptor system also comes packed with a reliable C4ISR centre. The control structure of the missile system is handled by Mission Control Centre (MCC) and Launch Control Centre (LCC). These centres are the backbone for collating all mission oriented information. Information acquired from ground units involving multiple radars, satellites, tracking systems and sensors is all fed into a powerful processing system. Minute yet powerful computer systems inside the MCC immediately acquire the target information, classify the target and then assign multiple missiles at the intended target. The process is then shifted to LCC present with the actual launch vehicles. LCC immediately computes the collated data and computes the time to launch. Based on the information, LCC assigns the appropriate speed, altitude and course for the fired interceptor missile.
THE WORKING OF PAD/AAD
- Any enemy activity is detected through the systems, primary tracking and acquisition radar or the Long Range Tracking Radar (LRTR) known as ‘Swordfish’. Targets as far as 800+ kilometres can be immediately detected.
- If a threat is detected, control centres are immediately warned of the impending threat. The system is devoid of any human intervention, the launch sequence for PAD/AAD is initiated and the system stands-by for launch authorization. Simultaneously, LRTR tracks the detected threat continuously.
- The acquired data is continuously beamed to Mission Control Centre (MCC). Powerful computational systems present in the centre immediately classify the threat.
- The acquired raw data is processed in MCC. The LRTR further classifies the threat based on its range. The system also computes the trajectory, altitude and speed of the incoming threat.
- This information is further rechecked by multiple systems and a collated image is formed. The collated data sheet is now capable of pin-pointing the trajectory of the acquired threat. All these information are immediately assigned to an on-filed PAD/AAD system.
- The information is picked up at the Launch Control Centre (LCC). The missile system now has minimal information about the impending threat. In an effort to drastically reduce the reaction time, LCC fires a volley of interceptor missiles.
- The raw data is continuously processed and then valuable information is updated. The missile is continuously updated about the incoming threat. The missile system receives multiple mid-course updates through the flight with the help of the tracking radar. The missile is gradually guided towards the inbound threat.
- As the missile closes in, the gas thrusters are fired along with the actuators. These systems guarantee that the missile can obtain a flawless intercepting trajectory.
- As the intercepting missile nears its terminal phases, specially designed terminal seekers are remotely fired. These systems manoeuvre the missiles further towards the intended target.
- Homing radars are activated at the final stages. A Radio Proximity Fuse (RPF) is used to detonate the charged warhead at a designated point. The projectiles then further penetrate through the intended target and results in the total annihilation of the incoming threat.
As discussed the success of a BMD mainly relies on the tracking range of the tracker radar. China and Pakistan today have been throttling ahead in the development of long range ballistic missiles. Hence it is the need of the hour for the Indian fielded BMD system to have an extended range tracking radar. The currently employed ‘Swordfish LRTR’ has a detection range of around 800 kilometres. DRDO is currently in the process of developing a system that can posses a tracking range of 1500+ kilometres. Once developed this radar can track targets being launched far within enemy territory and will also be instrumental in reducing the response time.
The currently deployed PAD/AAD system is capable of intercepting targets with an apogee of well over 80 kilometres. The system can annihilate targets in the 300-2000 kilometres class. DRDO’s elite laboratories are now developing two new anti-ballistic missiles called AD-1 and AD-2. These missiles once deployed can destroy ICBM threats. The developed missile system has been dubbed as ‘Ashvin’. The missile system will have the capabilities to attain hypersonic speeds and fly at variable speeds between 6-7 Mach. The missile can achieve an apogee of 150+ kilometres.
Implications of India acquiring BMD
Any given day the addition of a ballistic missile shield is a huge boost to the strategic capabilities of India. The country will be safer than ever; having deployed a shield the nation can look at mastering regional stability. Having two unreliable partners namely Pakistan and China; India was forced to master this technology. Pakistan has been vocal about this development and has time and again criticized India’s move to deploy the system. Pakistan claims the addition of BMD greatly questions the ‘No first use policy’ mastered by India. The international fraternity has backed India in developing a BMD system. The main boost however is to India’s committed stand on ‘No first use policy’. If at all a nuclear ballistic missile is fired on India the loss would have been extremely high. The addition of the BMD helps India intercept the incoming threat. India can then further mount retaliatory strikes through the established nuclear triad. India now has a sword in the battle, any country daring to wield knifes will be cut short. The skies over India will now be guarded; a safer and calmer sky is in the following.