Dangers of a regional missile race
The crash of India's intermediate-range Agni-III missile last Sunday, followed by the failure of a satellite launch on the Indian Space Research Organisation's Geostationary Space Launch Vehicle the next day, serves to highlight many issues. For one, it belies the claim, made both in Pakistan and India, that missile development would not carry the risk of triggering an arms race in and beyond the South Asian region and therefore not destabilise regional security.
For another, it shows that once-Non-Aligned India, with a mind of its own and a broad-horizon foreign policy, is willing to be roped in by the United States to contain China. The Agni-III, with a range of 3,500 kilometres, is specifically meant to bring mainland China, including Beijing and Shanghai, into the range of India's nuclear deterrent. The Agni-II, with a range of 2,000-2,500 km, can at best reach western China.
Equally important, the Agni-III test-flight was, so to speak, "cleared" last month by none other than chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff Peter Pace. General Pace publicly encouraged India to test-fly Agni-III by declaring that it wouldn't destabilise the regional military balance -- "other countries in this region… have also tested missiles."
Contrary to this claim, a successful test would have affected Sino-Indian relations and the regional security balance. It's bad enough that India and Pakistan are engaged in a nuclear and missile arms race. Extending such rivalry to China would be bad for India's long-term security too.
And for a third, the Agni-III crash shows how far India (and probably, Pakistan) has to go in raising the competence of its weapons designers and manufacturers and making them more accountable. The unreliability of weapons, especially powerful armaments like nuclear-capable missiles, can only heighten the nuclear danger in South Asia.
It's clearly premature -- and unconvincing -- for Samar Mubarikmund, chairman of Pakistan's National Engineering and Science Commission, to claim that the Agni-III's failure reflects the "incompetence" of Indian missile designers and planners, and the "superiority" of Pakistan's missile programme. And it's simply ludicrous to contend that Pakistan's missile development programme is "indigenous". There is overwhelming evidence that it has borrowed technology and components from North Korea and China.
Besides, there are significant differences between the two Indian agencies which handle rocketry – the ISRO, and the Defence Research and Development Organisation, which developed Agni-III. The ISRO crash sets back the civilian programme of launching INSAT communications satellites, which has been a moderate success.
But the ISRO's failure is, relatively speaking, "honourable" and redeemable. Such mishaps are not uncommon in the global satellite launch industry. Satellite launches and operations take place under extreme stress, so even minute faults translate into large abnormalities.
However, the DRDO's failure may not be redeemable. It comes on top of an indifferent, even embarrassing, performance of its Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme.
This is a good occasion to take a critical look at India's missile programme, and more generally, at the DRDO. It has an annual budget of Rs30 billion -- of the same order as the Department of Atomic Energy, which runs India's civilian and military nuclear programmes. The sum exceeds central spending on university and higher education (excluding technical education). This is reason enough to hold the DRDO strictly accountable.
It has rarely succeeded in developing new missile designs -- as distinct from some (partial) reverse-engineering. In the 1970s, it launched two missile programmes but had to abandon them. "Project Valiant", an ambitious attempt to develop a 1,500 km-range missile, was a total failure.
"Project Devil" partially succeeded in "reverse-engineering" the Soviet SA-2 surface-to-air missile to produce the Prithvi. The Prithvi (range, 150-250 km), then, isn't truly indigenous. Nor is it very dependable. Its liquid fuel is highly corrosive and messy to handle. Its launch demands half-a-day-long preparation. No wonder the armed forces resist buying it.
DRDO didn't develop the Agni series entirely on its own. The missile's first stage is the SLV-3 space-launching rocket borrowed from the ISRO. The DRDO simply fitted a Prithvi on top! The Agni was first test-flown in 1989. But after three test-flights, it was declared "a technology demonstrator", not a missile on production track.
Between 1994 and 1999, India suspended all Agni tests. When it was re-launched as Agni-II (range, 2,000-2,500 km), it had an all-new avatar, with both stages solid-fuelled. Agni-II was test-flown just three times before it was declared ready for production and induction.
This is strange. By international standards, a missile isn't considered developed unless it undergoes 12 to 20 test-flights under different weather and operational conditions to validate its range, accuracy and reliability. Because missiles can carry nuclear warheads, it's vital that they have a near-zero failure rate -- to minimise the risk of accidents and crashes over civilian populations. But the DRDO has always taken shortcuts, compressing several stages of development and system testing into a few launches.
In 2002, when Agni-II was still under development, the DRDO announced a new shorter-range (800-900 km) missile, the Agni-I. This too was declared ready for production in 2003 after just three tests. It started work on Agni-III in 1999 and announced it would be ready for a test-flight by late 2003. The test was postponed twice. Although "political" reasons -- averting Washington's displeasure -- were cited, it's not clear that the DRDO was really ready to test until last week.
The DRDO's poor performance isn't confined to ballistic missiles alone. "It isn't the world's most reliable weapons R&D agency", says Admiral L Ramdas, a former chief of staff of the Indian Navy. "The Indian armed services' experience with DRDO-made armaments has not been happy. Their reliability is extremely poor".
No major DRDO project has ever been completed on time or without huge cost overruns. Consider the three biggest: developing a Main Battle Tank (MBT), a nuclear-powered submarine, and an advanced Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). The MBT project was launched in 1974. But the tank has failed to meet service requirement tests. It's reportedly too heavy and undependable for combat. The Indian army says it will use MBTs for training, not operations.
The submarine project, launched 31 years ago, is unfinished despite an estimated Rs30 billion spent on it. The reactor hasn't yet been tested with the vessel's hull. The LCA project, launched in 1983, is still in the doldrums. The DRDO has failed to develop the right engine.
The primary reason for these shocking instances of underperformance and ineptitude is lack of public accountability and oversight. The DRDO's malaise must be understood both in the context of India's (and Pakistan's) relatively low standards in manufacturing technology and its hyper-bureaucratic, authoritarian culture.
It's not that Indians are not technologically gifted. Their success in Information Technology and fields like metallurgy, petrochemicals and pharmaceuticals belies the claim. Where Indians show real weakness is in meticulous adherence to good manufacturing practices, an eye for detail, and high levels of workmanship. These weaknesses get magnified in institutions like the DRDO.
South Asian military-science establishments suffer from excessive hierarchy under overpowering bosses, who are lionised by the media and pampered by politicians. This must change. We are entering into dangerous terrain by developing nuclear-tipped land-attack cruise missiles in both countries. These will greatly enhance the risk of accidents and disasters. It's time to halt the missile race altogether.