Wednesday, December 19, 2007

India adds oomph to its space race

NEW DELHI - An event that will substantially enhance India's space and missile capabilities has gone almost unnoticed. After struggling for decades, India has for the first time successfully tested an indigenously developed cryogenic engine that enables efficient and effective delivery of heavy communication satellites as well as nuclear payloads via long-distance ballistic missiles.

The cryogenic engine uses liquid oxygen and super-cooled hydrogen that improves a rocket's thrust and power. To date, the cryogenic technology has been restricted to an elite "cryo club" of China, Russia, Europe, Japan and United States.

The engines are required to launch the geo-synchronous satellites that are used in communications, and it's a lucrative business that India will now be in a position to exploit.

On the military front, the cryogenic-propelled motors will be tested on India's long-range Agni atmospheric intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) . The other option is liquid-fuel engines, but such technology is not considered adequate for quick-launch military action and long-distance delivery of big payloads.

On the space front, the cryogenic engine will replace the Russian-supplied upper stage of India's three-stage geo-synchronous satellite launch vehicles (GSLVs), capable of launching heavy payloads for civilian purposes.

The cryogenic test was conducted last month for the full flight duration of 720 seconds at the state-run Liquid Propulsion Systems Center in the southern coastal state of Tamil Nadu.

According to the state-controlled Indian Space Research Organization's (ISRO) chairman, G Madhavan Nair, the cryogenic engine for the next mission of GSLV (GSLV-D3) in 2008 is being prepared and going well.

The cryogenic upper-stage project was initiated by the ISRO in the 1990s after Russia dropped plans to transfer the technology to India due to pressure from the US.

However, with the US as a new strategic ally in the Asian region, India's efforts will become easier. It goes without saying that India now has Washington's tacit approval, in keeping with its efforts to balance China in the region.

Cryogenic technology will also allow the ISRO to compete in the lucrative international market for the commercial launch of satellites, in competition with China, Europe and Russia. The ISRO is looking at at least two commercial GSLV and three to four Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) payloads every year.

Cryogenic-propelled motors are also critical for an entirely new class of launch vehicles called the GSLV Mk-III, which will take communication technologies, such as distance education, weather forecasts and mapping, to the next level of speed and resolution. The government has approved Rs25 billion (US$532 million) for the launch of a 4,400 kilogram satellite.

Unlike the state-run Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) that has been criticized for its inefficiency and slow implementation, ISRO is one government agency that has delivered remarkably well despite international sanctions, a factor which has enabled India's missile program to progress.

Missile capability
Thus, it is no coincidence that almost simultaneously with the test of the cryogenic engine, New Delhi has also announced that it is ready to test a 6,000 kilometer nuclear-capable ICBM, the Agni-IV, next year. The missile will have the capability of destroying targets deep within China and it can be stationed in southern India, placing it out of range of all of Pakistan's known missiles.

There is speculation that India is developing an ICBM named "Surya" with a 10,000 kilometer range, thus bringing Europe in range, though the plans are unlikely to be revealed before the India-US nuclear deal on civilian nuclear cooperation is finally sealed.

India has already developed short, medium and long-range ballistic attack missiles, Akash, Prithvi and Agni, capable of delivering nuclear payloads. According to some defense experts, India now has the capacity to test a range of nuclear military technology in an efficient manner, almost on a par with the best in the world and it is far ahead of neighboring Pakistan.

Indeed, there has been a flurry of activity on the missile development front in India over the past few weeks. India has accelerated its ballistic missile defense (BMD) program and recently successfully tested an advanced air defense (AAD) "interceptor" missile over the Bay of Bengal, on the eastern coast. India thus joined an exclusive three-country club of the US, Russia and Israel that possess such capability.

The new "endo-atmospheric interceptor" put down a simulated electronic missile and a week later struck down a live modified Prithvi ballistic missile. According to experts, India's interceptor missile could surpass the American Patriot Advanced Capability-3 system.

India's focus on the BMD is largely due to perceived threats from Pakistan, given the volatile domestic situation and threat from Islamic militants.

Close on the heels of India's AAD test, Pakistan test-fired its indigenously developed low-flying, terrain-hugging cruise missile Hatf VII (Babur). The 700 kilometer range missile with near stealth capabilities can hit targets deep inside India. The missile has been previously tested.

In reaction from India, Lieutenant General Noble Thamburaj, general officer commanding-in-chief of Southern Command, said though the US was constantly monitoring Islamabad to check any missile threat fitted with nuclear warheads, India is not taking any chances about the arsenal falling in the hands of rogue elements.

Two days after Pakistan's test-fire, India reviewed its surface-to-air nuclear-capable multi-target, 25-kilometer range Akash missile at Balasore in Orissa province. The missile can carry a 50 kilogram nuclear warhead was tested to hasten its use in the India Air Force.

India is also likely to be ready with the 40-80-kilometer range air-to-air missile, Astra, by 2011, making it the sixth country possessing the lethal deterrent.

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