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Monday, November 23, 2020

Explained: Why has the DRDO recently conducted a flurry of missile tests?

A look at what goes into conducting missile tests, what its means in terms of strategic posturing in the context of the stand-off with China along the LAC, and how COVID-19 restrictions have played a role in it.

Written by Sushant Kulkarni , Edited by Explained Desk | Pune | October 21, 2020 1:09:17 pm
DRDO conducts flight-tests of the indigenously-designed Abhyas High-speed Expendable Aerial Target (HEAT) in Balasore. (Source: drdo.gov.in)

Over the last one and half months, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has conducted at least 12 tests of missiles or systems for missiles belonging to a vast spectrum of ranges and purposes. Some more tests are said to be in the pipeline. These tests have taken place at the time when there is an ongoing stand-off between the Indian and Chinese forces along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Ladakh region.

A look at arguably one of the most action packed times for the DRDO, what goes into conducting these tests, what its means in terms of strategic posturing in the context of the stand-off along the LAC, and how COVID-19 restrictions played a role in it.

What are the various tests that the DRDO conducted recently?

On September 7, the DRDO successfully flight tested the Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV), which is an unmanned scramjet vehicle with a capability to travel at six times the speed of sound. The flight test of the vehicle is looked at as a boost to the development of the systems built with hypersonic vehicles including both offensive and defensive hypersonic cruise missiles and also in the space sector. The test was conducted at the Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Launch Complex at Wheeler Island, off the coast of Odisha.

On September 22, a flight test of Abhyas, a High-speed Expendable Aerial Target (HEAT), was conducted from the Integrated Test Range (ITR) Balasore in Odisha when two demonstrator vehicles were test flown. Abhyas has been developed to be used as a target for evaluation of various missile systems.

In another test on September 22, the Laser-Guided Anti Tank Guided Missile (ATGM) was test fired from Main Battle Tank (MBT) Arjun at a field range in Maharashtra where it hit a target at a 3-km range. The test was repeated for a slightly longer range on October 1. Laser Guided ATGM is a boost to the Armoured Warfare capabilities.

On September 24, a successful night flight test of nuclear capable Prithvi-II missile with a range of around 400 kilometres was tested at the ITR. The test was executed by the Strategic Forces Command of India and monitored by the DRDO and other defence forces.

On September 30, BrahMos surface-to-surface supersonic Land-Attack Cruise Missile (LACM) featuring an indigenous booster and airframe section along with many other ‘Made in India’ sub-systems was flight tested from ITR. On October 17, the Naval version of the BrahMos was successfully test fired from Indian Navy’s indigenously-built stealth destroyer INS Chennai, hitting a target in the Arabian Sea.

On October 3, DRDO tested another nuclear capable missile Shaurya, which is a land-based version of the Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile Sagarika or K-15 with a range of around 800 km.

On October 5, DRDO tested the Supersonic Missile Assisted Release of Torpedo (SMART) system. It’s an indigenously developed mechanism by which the torpedo is launched from an existing supersonic missile system — by making complex modifications — which takes the torpedo to a much longer range than its own.

On October 9, India’s first indigenous anti-radiation missile named Rudram, developed for the Air Force (IAF), was successfully flight tested from a Sukhoi-30 MKI fighter jet off the east coast.

After the series of successful trials, a flight test of intermediate range cruise missile on October 12, reported a snag and had to be aborted.

On October 19, the DRDO conducted a test of Stand-Off Anti Tank Missile (SANT) off the coast of Odisha.

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What goes behind these tests?

Senior DRDO scientists whom The Indian Express spoke with have said this is arguably one of the highest numbers of tests in such a short span. A large spectrum of missiles of different purposes, types, ranges are currently being developed primarily for the three armed forces. Some of the systems are at their various stages of development where they undergo development trials, validation trials, user trials etc. Some others have been already inducted and undergoing upgrades or are tested for different parameters.

A senior DRDO scientist, who has been part of such development projects, said the development of missiles, of any range, is a very complex and elaborate process. Even before the firing tests, the numerous sub systems have to be tested separately, he said, adding there are failures and snags on the way. “The warheads, flight systems, guidance systems, softwares, electronics, communication systems, high energy fuels, various motors, stage separators in multi-stage missiles, all have to be tested. There are Standard Operating Procedures in place. In almost all the cases, missiles are developed in collaboration with various DRDO facilities. There are course corrections, user feedback that have to be incorporated.”

Another scientist said the tests are part of a well-charted development process and most planned well in advance. “For these tests, particularly ones with long range systems, multiple clearances are required including those from the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of External Affairs and PMO. A Notice to Airmen — NOTAM is issued by the Airport Authority of India for the flight path of projectiles. In many cases, one more armed forces or the Strategic Forces Command are part of the tests. In the case of tests that are conducted off the coast, the Navy and Coast Guard are involved in the process,” he explained.

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DRDO missile launches, India missiles, India missile launches, India China border news, India tests missiles, India missile capabilities, Indian Express The Supersonic Missile Assisted Release of Torpedo (SMART) system. (Twitter/@DefenceMinIndia)

Reasons behind series of tests and the strategic posturing

Senior DRDO office-bearers say the timing of this tests series is significant considering the present stand-off with China. However, one key reason behind so many tests being done back to back is the fact many of these tests, scheduled for earlier this year, had to be put on hold due to COVID restrictions, while preparations for them were all in place.

“Because of the COVID lockdown, the movement of scientists from various DRDO facilities for the purposes of tests were put on hold even though these facilities were functioning as per the norms laid down from time to time. In the initial COVID period, we all were a little apprehensive of what was going to happen. But as the time passed, we all got used to the new normal. As the easing of travel restrictions started, the tests got the required push. In many cases, we were 80 to 90 per cent ready, just a go-ahead was needed.” said a senior DRDO scientist.

The missiles tested during this period are crucial for land attack capability and some for Air and maritime security and testing them is a strong signal. At a time when there is a stand off with China which also has rising interests in the strategically crucial Indian Ocean Region, strategic signalling of this volume ‘can not happen without a deliberate push from the government even if the COVID factor is considered’ said a senior scientist. Officials said some more tests of the strategically important weapons systems are in the pipeline for at least a month ahead.

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