The proposed Ballistic Missile Defence system is supposed to blow enemy n-missiles out of the sky as they fly towards Delhi. But last month’s test failed, and many questions remain unanswered.
DRDO’s promises and seven tests notwithstanding, the plan to put a nuclear missile defence shield over Delhi remains a work in progress.
The unsuccessful test of an interceptor missile last month swung the spotlight back on the proposed Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system. Think of Rajinikanth firing a bullet to destroy the bullet fired by the villain in mid-air. That’s what a BMD system does: it provides a city with a protective shield where an incoming enemy ballistic missile is shot down by interceptor missiles.
Besides the interceptors, a BMD consists of radars — satellite-, ground-, and sea-based — to detect and track a missile and its warhead, data communication links to pass on the information, and a command and control system.
DRDO first spoke of a BMD system in December 2007. All building blocks for Phase 1 of a two-layered, fully integrated system were to be in place by 2010. In March 2010, Dr V K Saraswat of DRDO promised initial systems deployment by 2013.
On May 7, 2012, DRDO declared it had developed a Missile Defence Shield that could be put in place at short notice at two selected locations in the country, presumably Delhi and Mumbai. The system would be able to tackle incoming ballistic missiles of range up to 2,000 km. DRDO also said that long-range tracking radars, real-time data-link and mission control systems needed for the perationalisation of the BMD had been “realised”.
The fact is the BMD system is at the moment not even close to being put into operation. Last month’s unsuccessful test at the Chandipur range was the seventh time the BMD interceptor missile has been tested. It was its second failed test, although the first failure was not of an interceptor, but due to a faulty target missile.
Washington-based emerging and space technologies expert Dr Bharath Gopalaswamy said, “Interceptor technologies are test-intensive and never foolproof. We have to wait until DRDO releases the data for these tests — which I suspect they never will — but for the moment, I would contextualise this as part of a routine test phase.”
A senior DRDO official told The Indian Express that they hoped to conduct another test within a couple of months. “It is part of the development process. This was the first time we launched the interceptor missile from a canister. The target was also a more difficult one than the simulated Prithvi missiles used earlier,” the DRDO official said.
According to Gopalaswamy, this is something to be expected with hit-to-kill technologies. “Dr Saraswat (former DRDO chief) declared missile defence capabilities as operational but the failure in such tests exposes the vulnerabilities in the system,” he said.
MILES TO GO
According to Air Marshal (retd) M Matheswaran, “a development trial by DRDO will not result in an operational system so soon. We can only expect to get a technology demonstrator at the end of the ongoing tests. Even the US took three decades to produce a BMD system. A fully mature BMD system is at least a decade away. The political leadership must be made aware of this reality”.
The BMD system was proposed to India’s political leadership by Dr APJ Abdul Kalam in the mid-1990s, a former cabinet secretary told The Indian Express. It was triggered by Pakistan’s acquisition of M-11 missiles from China. The proposal was to provide cover for Delhi, Mumbai and two other strategically important sites. DRDO is believed to have started work on the programme in 1999.
The armed forces were brought into the loop only a decade later, a senior Indian Air Force officer told The Indian Express. A BMD system cannot be operated in isolation; it has to be networked with existing IAF sensors for better situational awareness to avoid friendly fire, or shooting down of own aircraft or missiles. IAF already has a fully integrated air defence system, and the complexities of deployment will have to be resolved as and when the BMD is put into operation.
“There is no direct involvement of the armed forces in its development even now. The IAF, which is the end user, must be closely involved,” Matheswaran said.
DO WE NEED IT?
Many experts argue that the BMD can take on only a limited number of incoming missiles, and will invite saturation salvos from the enemy. Western non-proliferation activists have said India’s BMD will encourage Pakistan to expand its nuclear arsenal to fire multiple missiles. Bharat Karnad of the Centre for Policy Research said BMD was a “hit-and-miss” system whose reliability has been questioned by various US studies.
Last year, the US General Accountability Office questioned the reliability and efficacy of the Pentagon’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) programme, a system similar to India’s BMD. The Pentagon accepted that the GMD system provides “a limited capability against a simple threat”. Senator Tom Coburn’s report last year estimated the GMD system’s success rate at 30 per cent. DRDO has, on the other hand, promised 99.8 per cent reliability for its BMD system.
Unlike the GMD, BMD does not have early warning radars or satellite tracking of an enemy missile. The delayed detection capability reduces the time available for interception of, say, a Pakistani missile to around five minutes. Also, the BMD system can only intercept missiles launched from 900-1,000 km away; the Chinese Dong Feng-21 ballistic missile with a range of 1,700-2,000 km cannot be intercepted.
The BMD is expensive. Ballpark estimates for defending one Indian city vary from Rs 1 lakh crore to Rs 2.5 lakh crore. At the higher range, it is more than India’s annual defence budget. The US continental system is estimated to have cost more than $ 100 billion so far, the GMD system $ 41 billion.
“A system that doesn’t work, costs a lot, and can’t handle multiple attacks will breed a false sense of security and compound our problems. All this talk of deployability of a BMD is premature. What we need at best is a technology demonstrator,” Karnad said.
“We have no expert committee like the US JASON to validate projects like the BMD. India has scarce resources. To use them judiciously, a high-level technical committee should validate all strategic projects proposed by DRDO or the armed forces,” he said.
Whatever the case, India’s ‘Rajinikanth’ gun can’t fire yet. As the Americans like to say, “The real problem with ballistic missile defence is that it is rocket science.”
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