India exposed by missile failure
By Praful Bidwai
NEW DELHI - The failure in rapid succession this week of a satellite launcher and a new ballistic missile have shown up the technological and budgetary difficulties faced by India's space establishment - civilian and military.
Hours after the US$50 million geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle (GSLV) with a communications satellite on board was ordered to self-destruct - as it veered off course soon after liftoff on Monday - authorities at the civilian Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) said one of its four strap-on rocket motors had failed.
Like the GSLV, a new intermediate-range ballistic missile "Agni III" that was launched by the secretive Defense Research Development Organization (DRDO) failed soon after liftoff on
Sunday and crashed into the Bay of Bengal, less than 1,000 kilometers away from the launch site.
The failure of the Agni III was in some ways more serious because it exposed the political limitations of India's attempts, despite its ambitions, to pursue a military capability which is truly independent of the US's strategic calculations.
The surface-to-surface ballistic missile, designed to have a range of 3,500 kilometers, took off in a "fairly smooth" manner at the designated hour. But "a series of mishaps" occurred in its later flight path.
The Agni-III was originally meant to be tested in 2003-04. However, the test was postponed owing to technological snags. After their rectification, said reports, the missile's test flights were put off twice largely for "political reasons", so as not to annoy the US.
Earlier this year, India decided to postpone the missile test out of fear that a test could hamper US Congressional ratification of the India-US nuclear cooperation deal. Publicly, the Indian defense minister cited "self-imposed restraint" to justify the postponement.
However, last month, General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US military, visited India and declared that "I do not see it [a test] as destabilizing" or upsetting the regional "military balance" since "other countries in this region" (read, Pakistan) have also tested missiles.
Following this "facilitation" or clearance, and after indications of favorable votes in US Congressional committees on the nuclear deal, India's stand changed. A week later, the DRDO announced it was ready to launch Agni-III.
This is the ninth missile in the Agni series (named after the Sanskrit word for "fire") to have been tested. The first was tested in May 1989. The last test (Agni-II) took place in August 2004.
Unlike major powers like the US, Russia or China, which test the same missile 10 to 20 times before announcing that it is fully developed, India considers only three or four test flights to be enough for both producing and inducting new missiles.
This is not the first time that the test of an Agni series missile has failed. In the past, some tests of the shorter range Agni-II (range 2,000 kilometers-plus) also proved unsuccessful.
But what makes the Agni-III's failure significant is that unlike its shorter-range predecessors, it was a wholly new design, developed with the specific purpose of delivering a nuclear warhead.
The Agni-I (range 700 to 800 kilometers) and Agni-II were both products of India's space program and connected to its Integrated Guided Missile Development Program (IGMDP), itself launched in 1983. Originally, their design used a satellite space-launching rocket (SLV-3) as the first stage, on top of which was mounted the very short-range (150 to 250 kilometers) liquid fuel-propelled Prithvi missile.
The Agni-III's brand new design, in which both stages use solid propellants, was to enable it to carry a payload weighing up to 1.5 tons and deliver it to targets as far away as Beijing and Shanghai. At present, India lacks an effective nuclear deterrent vis-a-vis China, based on a delivery vehicle carrying a nuclear warhead. Agni-III was meant to fill the void.
The causes of the failure of the test flight are not clear. Scientists at the DRDO, which designed and built the missile, have been quoted as saying that many new technologies were tried in the Agni-III, including rocket motors, "fault-tolerant" avionics and launch control and guidance systems. Some of these could have failed. Other reports attribute the mishap to problems with the propellant.
"The DRDO isn't the world's most reliable weapons R&D agency," Admiral L Ramdas, a former chief of staff of the Indian Navy, told Inter Press Service. "The Indian armed services' experience with DRDO-made armaments has not been a happy one. Their reliability is often extremely poor. We often used to joke that one had to pray they would somehow work in the battlefield."
The agency has a budget of Rs30 billion (US$670 million), which is of the same order as the annual expenditure of the Department of Atomic Energy which is responsible for India's civilian and military nuclear programs.
"This figure is extremely high for a poor country like India, with a low rank of 127 among 175 countries of the world in the United Nations Human Development Index," said Anil Chowdhary of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace. "Yet the DRDO has delivered very little."
None of the three major projects assigned to the DRDO has been completed on time or without huge cost-overruns. These include the development of a Main Battle Tank (MBT), a nuclear power plant for a submarine, and an advanced Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), all involving expenditures of hundreds of millions of dollars.
The MBT project was launched in 1974. But the tank has failed to meet service requirement tests. It is reportedly too heavy and undependable to be used in combat operations. The Indian Army prefers imported Russian tanks over the indigenous MBTs and says it will use the MBTs for training, not operations.
The nuclear submarine project, launched 31 years ago, is not yet finished despite the almost $1 billion spent on it. The LCA project, launched in 1983, is still in the doldrums: the DRDO has failed to develop the right engine for it. Even with an imported engine, the plane is unlikely to enter service anytime soon.
"The primary reason for these shocking instances of underperformance and inability is lack of public accountability and oversight of the DRDO," says M V Ramana, an independent technical expert attached to the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Environment and Development, Bangalore.
"The DRDO, like all of India's defense and nuclear service establishments, is not subject to normal processes of audit. It has used 'security' as a smokescreen or shield and refused to be held to account," he adds.
The DRDO says it will try to rectify the faults in Agni-III. Whether or not and whenever that happens, India's missile development program, with future plans to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile with a range of 5,000 kilometers or more, has suffered a major setback.
(Inter Press Service)