India’s test of the nuclear capable cruise missile Nirbhay last week was immensely significant in two ways. First, it marked the culmination of DRDO’s efforts of not only the past decade but also the ambitions of its heads. It was in 1987 that the then DRDO Chief Arunachalam is reported to have said that he was launching a study towards making a cruise missile like the then famous Tomahawk. The then Soviet Union had agreed with the US in 1987 to the historic INF Treaty; eliminating, inter alia, a whole class of medium range missiles including the nuclear capable ground launched cruise missiles of range 500-5000 km. The INF treaty then was the high point of interest for disarmament and armament aficionados going all the way up to then PM Rajiv Gandhi and therefore it was smart to want to study how the Tomahawk came into being. Even so, 37 years is a rather long time. However, given the enormous constraints and challenges under which the DRDO works in India the successful test is certainly “better late than never.” This is especially so since China savvy Pakistanis have already tested the Babur missile several times and like to brandish it to silence any tough talk by India about their transgressions across the border or trans-border terror outfits functioning from Pakistani soil.
Second, a cruise missile like Nirbhay has two main components, namely, the rocket launching it into space and the propulsion system that kicks in after the missile separates, brings out its wings and flies like an aircraft. The second component has been advanced in several stages from the original cruise missile that the Germans toyed with almost seven decades ago during World War II. Its latest version uses supersonic propulsion, not subsonic, and the scramjet engine for that purpose is also in its second if not third decade, ever since the Russians tested a cruise missile with supersonic speeds around 1994. The Indian technology elite must come up to the table to be counted. That India still tests an indigenous cruise missile with turbofan engine and can claim all parameters working to copybook precision is more on the side of contentment than resolve to really make it to the big league. If the Maruti 800 of 1980s vintage is surpassed today by much better Indian cars, why should India remain satisfied with claiming success about a strategic system that belongs well in the last century?
As regards encouragement to Indian scientists and engineers, a comparison with the subcontinental rival may be instructive: the maker of the Pakistani bomb had to suffer only the optics of incarceration by a military regime despite serious allegations and pressure from donors and allies, whereas a top DRDO scientist in democratic India has to suffer post-retirement for due diligence demanded by compulsions of jurisprudence in regard to dismissal of a lower-echelon employee, unconnected with acquisition of cutting edge technologies or state of the art missiles.
The problem that the defence institutions face in India today must not be suppressed by patriotic pride about the accomplishment, which is justified at all times, but must be addressed head on. Why is India not able to make the engine fly the state- of-the-art aircraft? The Light Combat Aircraft is a project going apace with DRDO but with an imported engine with attendant restrictions. The Brahmos missile is supersonic but its range is MTCR compliant under 300 km and its engine is Russian. Former President Abdul Kalam is on record talking about the hypersonic missiles in his time as DRDO head as he propounded a 2020 vision. That was at a time when India had just emerged post 1998, shattering global misperceptions about its inherent strength and external powers’ erroneous complacence about India’s timidity (that it would not dare to cross the Rubicon). However, the DRDO has had to languish in the past decade plus with sub-critical progress on the technology front even when the only superpower recognised Indian prowess and appeared well disposed to see India’s rise, particularly in the technology arena.
The pace of the global march of advanced technology is far too quick for our establishment’s glacial responses and capricious working environment. Just let us look at the present controversy between the US and Russia about the latter’s alleged violation of the INF Treaty by testing advanced cruise missiles supposedly proscribed by the Treaty, and the Russian counter-allegation about the US testing and deployment of systems covered by the Treaty’s remit. Regardless of how Moscow and Washington settle this issue or fail to do so, the current reports have a Cold War ring about them, are becoming voluminous, and show the sheer sweep of new technologies that are in the works. The world is on the cusp of a veritable new age of weapon systems for long and short range strikes, with or without nuclear weapons. These technologies are as usual dual purpose and subject to controls - but such controls were also in vogue twenty years ago when, for instance, the Chinese weapon systems were still of much older vintage and were struggling to come of age. Nonetheless, the hype about China, then as now, would remain hard to fathom - then about its impending irresistible rise and now about its having arrived with real strength and considerable clout over today’s technology. So, the lesson is to plan for at least two decades hence, provide the scientists clear policy guidance, required support and protection from systemic infirmities, and an atmosphere for perseverance and striving.
Just in case this emphasis is mistaken for trite arms race enthusiasm, it must be stated that the arms race is in any case already thrust upon India, either from behind or from the front by its colluding neighbours. An action like the testing of an older missile system like Nirbhay too might bring the moral high priests against it and it would not be a surprise if old hat clamour surfaces about destabilisation in South Asia. But in the end it is the prowess that is recognised and cutting edge ability that is respected. DRDO has miles to go before it can have a justified - and overdue - boast in that regard.