Dr. Prahlada, Chief Controller R&D (SI) and DS Interview
(The Week Feb. 17, 2008)

Though Akash has been delayed by eight years, it promises to be state-of-the-art

akash.jpgMaking ballistic missiles is no longer rocket science. "You decide that you will launch a missile on a Sunday after breakfast, and you do it," said Dr Prahlada, chief controller of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). You launch from earth, and you hit a stationary target on earth.

Tactical missiles, which strike several war jets flying faster than sound, are more complex. Only three or four countries such as the US, Russia and France have developed operational multitarget-handling surface-to-air missile systems. With last month's user trials of Akash, India has entered the club. China and Taiwan may soon follow suit.

But there is something more to Akash. It uses solid fuel. No country, except Russia, has mastered solid fuel technology in tactical missiles. Not even the US. That way, DRDO scientists consider Akash superior to the US Patriot. Unlike Patriot, Akash does not coast while it approaches the target, and thus has a higher kill probability. Liquid-fuelled missiles like Patriot would have burnt up all the fuel before they reach the target. In solid-fuel systems, the fuel is rationed so that the velocity is maintained throughout the flight. "Because this missile has an integrated ram-rocket, manoeuvrability is highest. The engine is 'on' throughout the flight. The thrust is on till the missile intercepts the target," explained Prahlada.

With Akash, Indian scientists mastered two unique technologies-multi-function phased array system integration, and integration of ram-rocket propulsion, aerodynamics, structure, and control. "But the beauty of Akash is in something else-that we had 100 per cent success. We conducted nine trials, and not even one failed," said Prahlada.

With Akash's success, and the expected success of anti-tank missile Nag, DRDO expects to close its prestigious Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP). However, Prahlada's statement was generally interpreted as scrapping of the programme. In an exclusive interview, he clarified the misconceptions, and explained the problems that plagued the DRDO.

The Akash system is not just about a few missiles, but also about the three-dimensional radar, its command-control system and many other systems.

How different is it from the systems that we have in service now?

Normal surveillance radars are two-dimensional. They tell you the range and the azimuth [of the target], not the height at which the targets are flying. A missile battery commander also would like to know at what height the enemy aircraft are coming. Our radar, developed by LRDE, tells you this. That is why it is called 3D Central Acquisition Radar [CAR]. We have offered it to the Navy for shore and ship-based surveillance, and to the Air Force for airport and air-based applications.

Then there is another radar in this system, which is a multi-function phased-array radar. This one can electronically scan, do surveillance, track a number of targets, acquire the targets, and guide the missiles towards the targets. All these functions it can do simultaneously, because it is electronically scanned beam. The whole Akash system is highly IT-integrated.

How does it operate in a battlefield condition?

Suppose there are four aircraft attacking a city simultaneously from one direction. A conventional surface-to-air missile system has a radar tracking a target. One radar handles one target. When the second target comes, it will have to leave the first. So you need more radars. What we have now developed is a multi-function radar. This radar is at the heart of the Akash system. It will guide the missile, track the target, and will do surveillance. It can handle multiple targets.

How many countries have this technology?

In the whole world, Russia, the US, France have operational multitarget-handling missile systems for surface-to-air application. China claims they also have it. China and Taiwan may be making it. So this has not proliferated like ballistic missiles.

Is it also being developed as a weapon-locating radar? India imported a few WLRs from the US.

It also has an application called weapon locating. We now offer this [to the Army], and trials are completed. This has superior features. This is of later generation [than the US-imported radars] and can handle more targets, has less weight, and is much cheaper. The Army has cleared 28 radars. You can say this is a fallout or spin-off from Akash.

What were the user's concerns about Akash? The services have always had problems with DRDO-developed systems.

First, they [IAF] wanted accuracy. It is accurate. We have demonstrated it nine times. It was perfectly accurate all the nine times. Then they wanted consistency. Nine flights, and not a single misbehavior. The third concern was whether the complete weapon system, not just the missile, was ready. We have all that-the missile, the radar, the control centre, everything. In last month's test, we deployed all of them on the beach, where there was no existing infrastructure. We demonstrated the complete air defence function.

How does it work if deployed, say around Delhi?

You put the CAR. It looks for threats all around Delhi, finds out targets coming, alerts the battery. The batteries get ready, and the targets are assigned. Once the target is within the kill zone, the control centre will assign the target. All this is done automatically. The assignment has to be accepted by the battery, and priority is given. They will check whether the target is enemy or friend. Then the launcher is readied and checked. The moment the target gets assigned, the missile gets powered. The battery will know when the target will reach the optimum kill zone, when you have the highest probability of killing.

What is the kill probability?

On a single launch it is 88 per cent. Assured 88 per cent. So when the target enters the optimum kill zone, the commander gets a beep. Unless he has any other information, he will clear the launch. Then the missile is checked automatically, and it fires. When the missile flies, the radar tracks it. If the first missile does not take off due to any mistake, automatically a second missile gets launched.

Suppose the target is high priority, the commander would take no chances. He can then launch two missiles at the same target. One will go, and after 5 seconds the other will go. Then the kill probability is 99 per cent.

And it is most reliable. We were telling the Air Force that even if four out of five launches [done last month] succeed, you should take it. Some quality control problem, some loose wires, something not put correctly, can cause a problem in one or two. Even in imported, mature systems, produced in hundreds, a few could fail. But five out of five succeeded. Not even a single one misbehaved.

What about production? Can the industries take bulk orders now?

We took the people from the industry, and told them to talk to the user. All the hardware are made by the industry, private and public sector. They are ready for production. You place the order, and they will deliver. Now BDL and BEL are ready for serial production. We are now only facilitators.

DRDO projects have always been plagued by delays. This also has been.

We are late by five to eight years. I agree. We promised to give it in 2000. But technologically, it is not obsolete. This is still state-of-the-art. You can't get such a system elsewhere. We own up the delay, but the delay has not caused the system to be obsolete. It is also cost-effective. You cannot get such a missile system for the price. For an Air Force squadron the cost is approximately Rs 500 crore, one missile about Rs 2 crore. For this class, this accuracy and this range, you won't get another system. Plus it is indigenous. You can upgrade it as you want, change its software, you can produce it the way you want. You want one per month or ten per month you can get it. The whole investment is within the country. No rupee is going out.

We took 20-21 years to perfect the missiles in the IGMDP. You take Barak [of Israel] or Patriot [of the US]. They also took more than 20 years for the first systems to be developed. So we didn't take more. We have done as good as the best in the world. They won't take 20 years to develop the second missile. Nor will India.

Our mistake is that, initially, we said we will take 12 years, and we took 20 years. People were too optimistic, or thought that by giving an early date they could urge everyone to work better. We lost technologists in the 1990s in the IT boom. Then there were the sanctions after the nuclear test, when several components were denied.

There were reports that the IGMDP has been scrapped. Can you clarify?

The IGMDP had five parts-Agni was a technology demonstrator. Then there was Prithvi. The Army accepted it. The three tactical missiles took longer. It was expected that tacticals would take longer. The next was Trishul, over which we got into a technological problem. The Navy was in a hurry to fit their ships; they could not wait. So Trishul was almost taken out so that we could resolve the technical problems. It was successfully tested in 2006-07. The development was completed in January 2006. Then we did mobility test, air defence test, ECM trials. From January 2006 to December 2007, we did all the user-related activities. Akash is completed. We have some money left, but we close the project and give that money back to the government.

So it is not scrapping, but closing the programme?

The objectives as defined in the original project, when we got the government sanction, have been achieved. So we have completed it. The only one left is [anti-tank missile] Nag. By summer 2008, we will complete all the Nag-related work. By then all the IGMDP-related work would be over. These were five specific projects, and we are completing them.

What about Agni-3 and other programmes?

There are other programmes, like Agni-2, Agni-3. Then we have got Astra programme sanctioned. They are continuing. But they are not part of the original IGMDP. There is no question of any project [being] closed when the objectives are not met. [While completing the objectives] you take new projects. You go to the government for fresh approval of those programmes.

So Agni-3 and Agni-4 don't come under this?

Agni-3 is under development. [It is] not a part of the IGMDP. Not even Agni-1 was part of the IGMDP. The moment we finished technology demonstration of Agni with three flights, we took it out of IGMDP. And we took separate sanction for Agni-1, Agni-2, Agni-3. Not only for developing, but flight tests, infrastructure. They all got implemented.