“Sir, my heart is on missiles, I want to go.”
In 1982, A P J Abdul Kalam, then the project director for the satellite launch vehicle (SLV)-3 at ISRO, gave a handwritten letter including these words to Satish Dhawan, the ISRO chief who had objected to Kalam’s transfer to DRDO on the request of its chief Raja Ramanan, who wanted Kalam to work on missiles.
Six months later, Kalam and new DRDO chief V S Arunachalam would be presenting to defence minister R Venkataraman their plan to make India self-sufficient in missile systems.
Their proposal was to successively develop from scratch five missile systems: the anti-tank guided missile Nag, a surface-to-surface missile of 150 km range later named Prithvi, surface-to air missiles the tactical Trishul and Akash, and Kalam’s pet project Agni, the concept of which he drew from his favourite re-entry experiment (REX) project at ISRO.
“When we met the defence minister in the evening, I had a hunch we were going to get some funds at any rate. But when he suggested that we launch an integrated guided missile development programme (IGMDP), instead of making missiles in phases, we could not believe our ears… We were quite dumbfounded,” Kalam, then the director of DRDO’s Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL) writes in his autobiography Wings of Fire.
Kalam and Arunachalam worked to compress the schedule to develop the five systems simultaneously. He narrates how, to create a new proposal for IGMDP overnight, he forgot he had to attend his niece Zameela’s wedding in Rameswaram and how he was rewarded by the defence minister who put him aboard an Indian Air Force helicopter from Madras to Madurai, enabling him to attend. “Since I brought you here, I was expecting you to come up with something like this. I am happy with your work,” Kalam quotes Venkataraman as saying. “Was it right to forget my family commitments and obligations, I asked myself,” Kalam writes.
The cabinet committee on security approved IGMDP on July 27, 1983, at Rs 388 crore. “When Kalam first called me to take over as director of the Prithvi project, I said I would have to ask my wife. Being a bachelor, he found it very surprising,” Lt Gen V J Sundaram, then a colonel, told The Indian Express from Bangalore. Sundaram, who later accepted the offer, told Kalam it would take four-and-a-half years for the first flight. “He said that is too much, but later agreed to four years. I flew the first Prithvi in four years six months and three weeks,” Sundaraman said.
Commodore S R Mohan was chosen to lead Trishul, MIT scholar R N Agarwal for Agni, N R Iyer for Nag and Prahlada for Akash. Kalam mentions in Wings of Fire how he strove to keep his team of “five Pandavas” married to the “Draupadi of positive thinking”. His teammates recall how he would fondly address as “funny guys” his project directors and their associates who included Sundaram, V K Saraswat, A Sivathanu Pillai and Prahlada.
Trishul’s first flight on September 16, 1985, boosted the confidence of the IGMDP community of 2,000-odd that they could develop missiles indigenously, before the restrictive Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) started in 1987. But in his book The Path Unexplored, Pillai, who later rose to head the Indo-Russian joint venture BrahMos, describes MTCR as a blessing in disguise and says technological independence through IGMDP as a “mini freedom struggle”. “Resultant of MTCR, all the systems had to be home-grown,” writes Pillai.
V K Aatre, who would take over as DRDO chief after Kalam’s retirement in 1999, was chief controller of electronic systems in the 1990s when Kalam was DRDO chief. “That was the period when materials, technology, electronic systems were unavailable… The embargo was looked upon as an opportunity within the organisation,” Aatre said.
When Kalam took over as DRDO chief, the indigenous content in the missile systems was 30 per cent. Aatre says Kalam convinced the government that DRDO would reverse that to 70 per cent, although critical technologies were not available. It took 15 years to develop the technologies. “By the time Kalam retired, DRDO had achieved 50 per cent indigenisation,” Aatre said.
The scientists recollected various facets of Kalam, the man. “He loved playing badminton. We would often catch up over a game in Rocket Club, Trivandrum,” Sundaram said. “He would often tell me, never forget human relations. In fact, he would write poems in Tamil and ask my wife Nalini to translate them into English. After 2007, post his tenure as President, he once called me to Delhi and asked me to get Nalini along. On meeting us, he told me about his book Wings of Fire,” Sundaram said
In another anecdote, Sundaram described Kalam’s reaction following negotiations with the French in Lucknow for an inertial navigation system (INS) for the Jaguar. “I asked them (the French) that we wanted only the gyro, and the rest we would develop. They refused and said you either take the full system or nothing — they went back. When he learnt that I had rejected the offer to acquire the entire system, he said I was biting a big slice given that even ISRO had not developed INS till then. I convinced him that I had the people who could develop the INS in-house. At that time he said, I am with you. That was Kalam. Even though he disagreed with you, he stood behind you,” Sundaram said. “Later, during the first trials of INS, he said to me, ‘Funny guys, you did it’.”
G Satheesh Reddy, the scientific adviser to Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, recalled a recent meeting. “He came to meet me after I took over in May. For an hour we spoke about technological developments. He has given me a new mandate. Now the challenge is to complete the mandate he gave me in that one hour.”
The armed forces community, the end users of the result of his efforts, looks at IGMDP, which was wound up in 2008, as a success. “Nag and Trishul may not have achieved much but the Agni, Prithvi and Akash are successful. In fact Agni is a major deterrent… The missile programme is one where they have got a foothold. We now have the direction. And as head of IGMDP, Kalam is rightly the missile man,” said Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur, distinguished fellow at Centre for Airpower Studies.