Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Agni missile to get multiple warheads

If the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre is the heart of India’s nuclear deterrent, the Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL) in Hyderabad is its limbs and sinews.

The ASL Director, Avinash Chander, takes us through a spotless assembly room, where technicians are bolting sensitive instruments into the nose of a giant Agni-3 missile. It is eerie; before long, this very missile will roar off a launch pad on Wheeler’s Island in Orissa.

It will travel 350 km above the earth, re-enter the atmosphere at a speed of 5 kilometers per second, experiencing temperatures of 3000 degrees centigrade.

But the scientists here are cheerfully confident of repeating last April’s success, and proving the missile’s ability to deliver a one-and-a-half-ton nuclear bomb to within 100 metres of a target 3000 kilometers away.

And that is routine stuff, compared to what India’s Chief Controller of Missiles and Strategic Systems (CC-MSS), Dr VK Saraswat, has divulged to Business Standard.

He says that ASL is now working on new warhead technologies, which will equip the Agni-3 and all future missiles. The new warheads (usually nuclear bombs) will be capable of sneaking through enemy anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defences, fooling enemy radars and dodging enemy missiles.
The Agni’s new warheads, says the DRDO, will include five cutting-edge technologies:

  • They will be multiple warheads (Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles, or MIRVs), with each missile delivering several warheads at the same, or even different, targets.
  • Decoy warheads, which will be fired alongside the genuine warheads, so that enemy’s missiles are wasted in attacking decoys, rather than the real warheads.
  • Manoeuvring warheads, which will weave through the atmosphere, dodging enemy missiles that are fired at it.
  • Stealth technologies to make the warheads invisible to enemy radars.
  • Changing warheads’ thermal signatures, to confuse the enemy’s infrared seekers.

The decision to go in for enhanced warhead capabilities stems from growing ABM capabilities with many countries, including India, which has already conducted two successful ABM tests in Nov 2006 and Dec 2007, and plans a comprehensive two-stage ABM test this June.

Dr Saraswat says, “As we are developing missile defences, other countries are also doing that. I’m sure our immediate adversaries will also try, or they will acquire, so our future missiles should counter the threat of interception by anti-missile defences.”

The DRDO is already working on the technologies for these new systems, even though government sanction has not been formally taken.

Dr Saraswat says that, “The government sanction for that is just coming, but practically you can say it is received, because we have been asked to go ahead and the work is already on.”

By 2015-2020, according to current planning, India’s missile force will consist mainly of Agni-3 and Agni-4 missiles, all of them equipped with new-generation warheads.

The 5000-km range Agni-4 is also referred to as the Agni-3+, because it is almost identical in technology to the Agni-3. Its extra range comes merely from reducing its weight by making its rockets from composite materials, rather than the maraging steel, which is presently used. The Agni-4 is slated for its first flight trials in 2009.

The failure of the first Agni-3 flight test in July 2006 is now a distant memory. Avinash Chander is confident that, after two successful tests this year, an army unit will be equipped by 2009 with operational Agni-3 missiles.

The officers and jawans will soon move to Hyderabad, and learn to prepare and launch the missile. The army already has two Agni units: one equipped with 700-km Agni-1 missiles, the other with the 2000-km Agni-2.

The new Agni-3 missiles will all be assembled here in ASL. Unlike every other weapon system, there is no series production line for Agni missiles. Instead, selected Indian partners manufacture individual parts of the missile, which are then integrated in ASL and handed over to the army. Avinash Chander points out that the missile is 100% indigenous, with most of it produced by private industry.

The ASL Director says, “Agni has funded industry to create that infrastructure, so that we get the best of products. We are funding seed capital where necessary, and the money is recovered from the supplies that are made. With infrastructure costs so high, and the production numbers being limited, we invest... and ask the industry to manage the product.”

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