About 11 months ago I had posed several questions about both the future of India’s sea-based survivable nuclear deterrence posture and capabilities, as well as about the projected Agni-5 ICBM. These were:
1) How exactly will the most survivable element of India's strategic nuclear triad (starting with the ‘Arihant’ SSBN and its on-board complement of either twelve 10-tonne, 10-metre long K-15 750km-range SLBMs or four 3,500km-range K-4 SLBMs) provide credible deterrence when the SLBMs have a range of no more than 5,000km? Why is the DRDO unable to develop an SLBM with a range of 8,000km, as mandated in the so-called ‘classified’ report prepared by Admiral (Ret’d) Arun Prakash in 2006 for the then National Security Adviser M K Narayanan?
2) How will the 10-metre long, 1.3-metre wide and 20-tonne K-4 and its follow-on 12-metre long variant boasting of a 5,000km-range be made to fit into the 10-metre diameter pressure hull of the ‘Arihant’ SSBN?
3) Will both the Agni-5 ICBM and K-4 SLBM use a three-stage rocket propulsion system and if so, will its first two stages use solid propellants while the third stage uses liquid propellants for high manoeuvrability?
4) How could the Defence Research & Development Organistion’s (DRDO) Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL) have developed and flight-tested (eight times) the submarine-launched K-15 (known as PJ-08) within a four-year period starting 2004, when it has taken the ASL about six years to develop far less complex land-launched ballistic missiles like the 2,500km-range Agni-2 and 3,500km-range Agni-3, and is likely to take nine years to develop the 5,000km-range and 22-metre long Agni-5 ICBM (whose R & D processes began in 2007)?
5) Who will validate the results of the combination of the K-15/K-4 SLBMs and the ‘Arihant’ SSBN in terms of vessel stability/buoyancy and personnel safety? The DRDO or the Russian ‘consultants’ attached to the both the ATV Project Office and Sagarika Project Office?
6) What are the technical glitches being experienced with the ‘Arihant’ SSBN? Do they concern the on-board pressurised-water nuclear reactor and is that the reason why the n-reactor has not yet received its consignment of n-fuel rods? Or is it is a design problem since the n-reactor design provided by Russia was originally meant for a nuclear ice-breaker, and not for a SSBN? Is the Dept of Atomic Energy (DAE) therefore now facing some previously unforeseen but fundamental design/containment problems?
7) Will the DAE and DRDO be able to develop completely new MIRV-based n-warheads for the SLBM, since existing unitary warhead designs meant for the Agni-1/2/3 family of ballistic missiles will be totally unsuitable for the K-4 SLBM as well as the MIRV-equipped Agni-5?
8) Consequently, won't the MIRV-based n-warheads require additional testing--aka Shatki-3 series of tests?
9) Lastly, will India’s ruling political elite have the guts to authorise a standalone, ready-to-fire nuclear arsenal to proceed on operational patrols in peacetime and wartime into the deep waters of the Indian Ocean at a time when it insists on keeping the land-based ballistic missiles’ n-warheads and their plutonium-based cores under the DRDO’s and DAE’s custody, and not with the Strategic Forces Command, which is left with only an inventory of warhead-less ballistic missiles?
It now seems that the veil of secrecy surrounding on-going R & D projects involving the K-4 SLBM and the Agni-5 ICBM is slowly being lifted in a deliberate and well-calibrated manner by both Russia and India, although significant firewalls—mandated by Russia—still remain in place. First, there was the first publicised (and the eighth) test-firing of the K-15 ‘Shaurya’ cannistered SLBM from a land-based missile silo on November 12, 2008. This was followed by the launch ceremony of the ‘Arihant’ SSBN on July 26, 2009, following which India and Russia on December 22, 2010 signed an agreement to share high-precision Py-code signals obtained from Russia’s GLONASS constellation of GPS navigation satellites. The latest revelation came on October 4, 2011 in the form of a Ministry of Defence (MoD) press release that not only gave details about the to-be-held 11th Meeting of the India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on Military Technical Cooperation(IRIGC-MTC) in Moscow on the same day, but also disclosed the names of top officials representing the Indian side which, in addition to Defence Minister Arackaparambil Kurien Antony, included Defence Secretary Shashikant Sharma; Secretary Defence Production Shekhar Aggarwal; Lt Gen M S Buttar; Air Marshal R K Sharma; Vice Admiral N N Kumar; Director-General Acquisition Vivek Rae; Chairman & Managing Director of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, Ashok Nayak; and most notably, the DRDO’s Chief Controller for Missiles & Strategic Systems & ASL Director, Dr Avinash Chander—the official who is directing and supervising the R & D efforts of the K-4 SLBM and Agni-5 ICBM.
While the likes of Dr Avinash Chander and his boss, Dr Vijay Kumar Saraswat have over the past five years spoken extensively in public forums about the indigenous R & D efforts initiated by the ASL for the Agni family of ballistic missiles, both of them have never uttered a word about any kind of progress on the K-4 SLBM front—strongly indicating that the information-denial firewalls mandated by Russia applied not only to the in-country fabrication of the ‘Arihant’ SSBN and its two larger follow-on variants (each of which will be a scaled-down version of the Project 667BDR SSBN designed by St Petersburg-based Rubin Central Design Bureau for Marine Engineering, and will carry eight SLBMs), but also to the Russian ‘mentoring’ of the K-4 SLBM’s R & D efforts. That may well explain why, on one hand, Dr Avinash Chander first disclosed to the BUSINESS STANDARD newspaper in October 2009 that the ASL was indeed working on multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles, or MIRV for the Agni-5 (he had said: “We have made major progress on the MIRVs in the last two years”), while on the other, Dr Saraswat had emphatically stated in March 2010 that the DRDO was NOT developing any kind of MIRV-based warheads for any missile. And neither of them have so far said anything about the K-4 SLBM being armed with MIRV-based warheads.
But here’s what can be inferred from various bits of official revelations/disclosures since the late 1990s. Firstly, it was the creation of the BrahMos Aerospace Ltd joint venture in February 1998 between the DRDO and Russia’s NPO Mashinostroyenia that paved the way for ASL to develop—with Russia’s mentoring—a range of avionics and vectronics required for developing both land-launched ballistic missiles and SLBMs. These include the ring-laser gyro-based inertial navigation system (RLG-INS), along with its miniaturised GLONASS GPS receiver incorporating a 12-channel selective availability anti-spoofing module receiver and using digital RS-422/485 databus interfaces, the inertial measurement unit (IMU) utilising an RS-485 digital databus interface, and the on-board digital computer (which have since been built by the DRDO’s RCI). For the road-mobile transporter-erector-launchers, RCI has built a lightweight land navigation system called FINGS (for providing position and north-pointing information) that makes use of three fibre-optic gyroscopes (weighing less than 1kg), three micro-machined silicon accelerometers and a microprocessor. The system senses acceleration and rotation about three orthogonal axes and outputs temperature compensated incremental angles and incremental velocities. Russia’s JSC Concern Granit-Electron continues to supply the BrahMos Block-2 supersonic land-attack cruise missile’s synthetic aperture radar (SAR), which makes use of scene correlation and navigation (SCAN) algorithm for locating and zeroeing in on the target in top-attack mode. Source codes provided by JSC Concern Granit-Electron to BrahMos Aerospace has enabled the latter to upload SAR imagery (obtained from either overhead reconnaissance satellites like the TecSAR or from EL/M-2060P recce pod) of the target on to the missile’s fire-control system. Also provided by Russia (via NPO Mashinostroyenia) is the technology for fabricating hermitically sealed cannisters made of maraging steel, which can ‘cold-launch’ missiles weighing up to 50-tonnes (like the Agni-5).
Secondly, while the ASL has successfully developed all-composite weight-saving solid rockets for both the K-4 and Agni-5 (and the DRDO/HEMRL’s in-house Advanced Centre for Energetic Materials or ACEM was commissioned on June 30 this year at Nasik for producing composite propellants for solid rocket motors), when it comes to the hypersonic MIRV warheads and their terminal guidance sensors for both missiles, there exists no other option for ASL but to import them off-the-shelf, or—depending on Russian generosity and its willingness to be economical with its commitment to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty—fabricate them in-country but with Russian mentoring. When it comes to delivery of the MIRVs, accuracy is crucial, because doubling the accuracy decreases the needed warhead energy by a factor of four for radiation damage and by a factor of eight for blast damage. Another area that for sure requires Russian R & D inputs is in the area of 16 x 16 wheeled mobile autonomous launchers capable of housing the cannistered Agni-5. Consequently, if we are to believe that the Dr Saraswat-led DRDO will stick to its promise of conducting the maiden test-firing of the Agni-5 by this December (16 months behind schedule, if one goes by what Dr Avinash Chander had promised on February 10, 2010), then this visit by Dr Avinash Chander to Moscow as part of RM A K Antony’s official entourage could be nothing but a stock-taking exercise aimed at expediting the Agni-5’s joint R & D efforts.—Prasun K. Sengupta