‘We have not understated the range of Agni V. We as a nation don’t have to hide anything with respect to our capabilities’

Walk the Talk
In this Walk the Talk on NDTV 24x7 with The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta, DRDO chief V K Saraswat talks about Agni V, India's missile defence system and Tatra trucks

I am in New Delhi's DRDO Bhawan, in fact in its museum, and my guest today is Dr V K Saraswat, India's Missile Man. From the first Prithvi to now, we have also been incredibly consistent in working on the same series. Now you could either say we have taken too long with this or we can say we have stayed consistent to the idea and built on it. What's the difference between that first Prithvi and the Prithvi now for example, and what's the difference between the idea of Agni, which was then floating in your head, and Agni V?

For that, I think we should go back to what was our reason when we started the IGMDP (Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme) in 1983. At that point in time, we had planned three systems to be delivered—Prithvi, Trishul and Akash. Nag, a third-generation anti-tank missile, was a technology building up. And if you recall, we had done Agni as one of the technologies demonstrated at that time. For that itself was the beginning of what we have done with Agni V. It was the beginning of a series of missiles to be built based upon that reentry demonstration experiment.

What's the real range of Agni V?

Agni V is 5,000 plus class of system. Whenever we design a system, it has a minimum range and a maximum range. But we test it close to the maximum range. So 5,000 plus means it could be 5,500 km or 5,800 km.

We are not pressured to understate the range?

No, we are not pressured by anybody to understate any range because there is no point in understating it.

But some Chinese commentators are saying we are understating it so as not to disturb the western world.

I think, as a missile designer and as a person who is also involved today in doing a lot of policy planning in these matters, (I can say) we as a nation don't have to hide anything with respect to our capabilities, because, our weapons are basically for the defence of the country.

And everybody knows there are nuclear weapons and we, in our nuclear doctrine, have chosen to have no-first-use.

Absolutely. We have no-first-use. Then we have a ballistic missile defence system to counter anything coming against us. So what's the point in me hiding the range of our missile?

There is a ballistic missile system right here. Tell us more about it.

This is an advanced air defence (AAD) missile. We have not given any specific name to it yet but this is an endo-atmospheric missile interceptor for engaging targets of 2,000-km class.

Please explain this endo-atmospheric missile interceptor system.

When we talk of ballistic missile shield, this shield is in two layers. The first layer is beyond the atmosphere, which means 30 km and above. The second layer is into the atmosphere, that is below 30 km. So to ensure a very high level of probability of kill, we always do ballistic missile defence in two layers or sometimes even in three layers. So what we do is, all the leakers, which cannot be against the high altitudes, will be against the missile, called the advanced air defence system. And this has again so far four missiles coming at altitudes of 15 to 20 km in our trials. This is our endo-atmospheric missile for interception in lower atmosphere.

And it succeeded all four times?

Yes, it succeeded all four times.

What kind of missiles do you use as targets or enemy missiles?

We use simulated targets. I have modified the Prithvi missile. Prithvi missile in a normal course travels only up to an altitude of 40 km and covers a range of 350 km. Whereas I made it go up to a height of 100 km and come down like a ballistic missile, simulating the terminal velocities of a target of, say, 2,000-km class and then engaging that target with this AAD missile.

So when you sometimes talked about building a missiles shield, say for Delhi or maybe for some other city, is this what you have in mind? Because many people are sceptical; they say if the Americans and the Russians are not sure, how can we be sure.

We have identified advanced air defence missile and the PAD which is for exo-atmospheric interception. The AAD is for endo-atmospheric interception. In two layers, we intend to put it as part of the Delhi defence.

So what the world saw in the first Gulf war, how does it (AAD) compare with that?

Israelis have used Patriot 2, and this (AAD) is equivalent to Patriot 3. There is a difference between Patriot 2 and 3. Patriot 2 was a semi-active guidance whereas Patriot 3 is active guidance.

So in Patriot 3 or this one, the sensor would look for the target once you launch it in the right parameters?

The philosophy in this case is first you launch the missile based upon the data collected by a ground radar about the target. Once the missile goes close to the target, the homing seeker homes onto the target and starts tracking autonomously.

So how far are you from operationalising something like this?

This system is now ready for induction.

And when do we see Trishul in operation?

We have abandoned Trishul as a project. It is no more planned to be inducted.

Coming back to Agni, why do you call it a game changer?

Agni has two aspects. It is a 21st century missile because in terms of technology, it has brought India to the level where most contemporary missiles and Agni are today comparable. So as far as we are concerned, it is going to take us to a level from where we can do better in terms of range and performance. And I would only say that it is one of the objectives of DRDO to come to this level of technology, which we have achieved.

Second, you should look at the capability of Agni. In terms of its value as deterrence, with the induction of Agni V, it will certainly be of a very high level, and that level will be the real game changer.

And what's the gap now between this test and operationalisation?

We have two more tests to go, followed by induction. So I suppose in one-and-a-half to two years, it should be there.

But when people, or even I, look at something like Arjun, which I first saw in 1985, there is a gap between promise and delivery.

Prithvi took five years for the first flight in 1988, but induction took place in 1996. So it took almost eight years for it to get into the armed forces. Now you see Agni V, from the drawing board to the first launch, it's only three years, and induction will be in another two years.

Are we testing too little?

No. Because what is Agni V? It has a lot of things which are common to Agni IV. What is Agni IV? There are a lot of things which are common in Agni III. So a large number of testing is not required. Secondly, we have a continuous programme for testing these missiles even after induction.

But isn't there an impression that we test too less? Say the Russians, the Americans, the Chinese test a lot more?

As far as long-range missiles are concerned, I think we are not testing less. But yes, as far as tactical missiles are concerned, you may be right. But it all depends on how many missiles should be tested is a major function of how much of instrumentation are you providing as a test, how much data are you collecting, and is the data collection adequate to refine your design. So we make a total combination of a very grand and good measurement plan and the number of trials to be done.

DRDO seems to love the Tatra truck. You have had no problem with it?

We have been using Tatra trucks from 1986 when the Army advised us to use only Tatra for all our launches, mission control centres, launch control centres. It was the only vehicle at that point in time having cross-country mobility, mobility in snow-bound areas, having capability to operate at even 1,500 metres altitude. So the choice was absolutely right at that time.

I believe our entire strategic deterrence rides the Tatra now.

We have both the rail systems and the wheeled systems. Wherever we have the wheeled system, it is Tatra.

Dr Saraswat, we talk about big things—missiles, aircraft. We can spend hours talking about your other projects and I have many complaints about LCAs, about Arjun and about things which should have happened long time back. I sometimes keep thinking that by the time it becomes operational, fighter planes may become obsolete.

I think we should put the things straight on this. I will put it this way: DRDO has taken, say, 25 years to develop LCA. So after 25 years today, we are in the IOC (initial operational clearance) stage. So initial operational clearance having been given by the Air Force, it has now taken 25 years; I agree with you. But you see the condition in which LCA has been developed. I am not giving any excuses, I want to put the record straight.

But post the removal of sanctions?

Sanctions have never been removed. Sanctions were re-imposed in 1998. Sanctions were introduced in 1988-89 when Agni was launched.

But now?

See, our LCA programme was a kind of programme in which we had a tremendous participation of the US. Till about 2005, we had no window. But today, all that what we lost, we have gained by indigenous development. And even if you take that, what is the time required for joint fighter aircraft? Joint strike fighter of the US has taken 22 years of a country which had already built F16, F18, F22, F33. You take many other countries which have built Eurofighters—17 years. Russia, MIG 35—16 years.

So when it comes into being, it will be a real fighter plane?

I am telling you that LCA today is a fourth-plus generation fighter plane. In fact, people are telling us, 'why don't you export it'.

Do you share the Army Chief's recent alarm on the state of preparedness? You know it's jarring at this time to think that India, the fourth largest military power in the world, is short of tank ammunition or air defence.

There is a shortage but it doesn't mean that we are at zero level or anything. We have adequate ammunition, (but) yes there are gaps in certain classes. For example, maybe FSAPDS (Fin Stabilised Armour Piercing Discarding Sabot) ammunition is not there.

Why can't we make such a simple thing? We used to make it. Why did the Army go outside buying and why are we short?

When we were doing 425 or 400 and production was on, the Army decided that we should go for a higher penetration capability, 600 mm, and they wanted to do it urgently because this was a post-Kargil requirement. So they went for import. And that import has unfortunately not fructified due to various reasons. Now because we realise that there is going to be a gap, we have already upgraded this (FSAPDS) to 500.

The import did not fructify because some agency got banned. Now how do you deal with these bans?

Our programmes, like guns, have certainly been affected by embargoes on most of these companies because our programmes of procurement of guns included procurement from the international market. And today, of the major manufacturers of guns, I think, a majority of them are not in a position to supply because of one reason or another. We have started an indigenous programme for development of guns now in our ARD laboratory, 155/52 (caliber).

Just to explain, the Bofors gun that we use, is of much lower caliber. And you are upgrading the Bofors gun also to higher caliber?

Yes, to 52. So this is a good picture which will give us that if we build this 155/52 and we also build the ammunition that is required. For that, we will bridge this gap as early as possible.

And I believe you have produced a new Bofors gun?

No, we (DRDO) haven't. But the ordnance factory has produced it.

How do you deal with bans?

The only way to deal with bans is to be indigenously strong. But you can't be indigenously strong as long as the gap between you, the labs, and the factory is so much. Then you have to bring other factories in.

What's been your experience dealing with the private sector?

The private sector has been very good in the country. I must say that DRDO particularly has a very good experience with the private sector. Today, more than 800 industries in the country are supporting DRDO's programmes.

But look at the big-ticket programmes, look at like MBT Arjun. I know we make tanks. We are a great automobile manufacturing nation in the world now. Couldn't you have called bids from everybody, so that even Tatas, Mahindras, Ashok Leylands, they could have all competed to build Arjun for us?

Yes, that is possible. But you see today, system integration capability, even in the private sector does not exist. There is no doubt about that. But it will evolve. So through the DRDO's programmes, 800 industries are participating. Many of them were only component manufacturers about 10 years back. But today they are building sub-systems. For example, my rocket motor for Agni V is built by Walchandnagar Industries. My seeker for AAD is built by Bharat Electronics. And there are many systems that are coming from Godrej, L&T.

The first sub-system which was converted into a total system capability was a Dhanush complete platform. So this complete stabilisation platform, integration with the ship was given as a system project to L&T. They did a great job as a system integrator at that time. But for L&T to come to that stage from development of sub-systems to system integration took about 10 years. Similarly, many industries are today yet to come to that level of system integrator.

But you are willing to work with them?

Absolutely. In fact, I have been telling our people that for Akash (long range surface-to-air missile), for example, we should create three to four parallel lines in the private sector. Akash is required for Armed Forces and Air Force, and we need to build them in numbers.

You see how the private industries are helping BrahMos. Sixty per cent of the sub-systems of BrahMos are coming from Godrej, L&T, Walchandnagar Industries, Mahindra. So we have today an industry capable of doing large sub-systems. But for system integration, few are available.

But you would like to see more of them coming up?

Yes and the day it happens, you will get UAVs coming from private sector, you will have missiles coming from private sector, you will also have guns coming from there.

It's a philosophical question. When you see a missile, you applaud as everything came out right. You know the capabilities of these missiles, they don't do nice things. Do you ever imagine a situation where we may have to use one of these instead of just testing them?

I would shudder to think of their usage because while I build missiles, I would never like them to be used. Because I can understand the catastrophe they create, I can understand the damage they can cause to humanity. I always want these missiles to be used as deterrence rather than their ultimate use for any battlefield.

Transcribed by Vikram Vishal

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