All fired-up on the missile front.
In May 1989, the Agni technology demonstrator was successfully launched with around 1,000 km range. In two decades, the technology demonstrator has transformed into a large programme, which has seen the successful development and launch of four versions of the missile — Agni I to the latest Agni-IV.
This ambitious journey — begun by India's missile man, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam and led now by ‘missile woman', Tessy Thomas (Agni-IV) now — is marked by indigenous technology effort. In the face of stiff technology denials, the country's missile scientists have made some significant contributions in technology, establishing new materials and spurring the domestic industry to play a greater role.
There have been a fair share of failures and delays in this multi-million dollar Agni programme, which is targeted to give India the capability to launch Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) and provide a strong deterrence. After 23 years, Agni-I (700 km), Agni-II (1500 km) have been inducted into the armed forces, while Agni-III (2500 km) is in an advanced stage and Agni-IV (3500 km), has been successfully test fired on November 15.
The Agni-IV is not just India's longest range missile, but is lighter, manoeuvrable, robust and capable of high acceleration. It has established a wide range of indigenous technologies, and given the perfect platform for launching Agni-V, in early 2012. The success of the ICBM would put India in the exclusive club of nations which can launch them — US, Russia, China and France.
Perhaps, the most important and visible indigenous contribution to the Agni missile are the composite materials that are used in its fabrication. Composites are lightweight, non-corrosive, tough materials. Composites are used in most of the Agni-IV missile — beginning with the critical nose tip of the missile (which is crucial as the missile re-enters the earth's atmosphere at around 3000 degrees C) to nearly 60 per cent of the 20 metre tall, 17 tonne heavy structure.
This makes the missile lighter, manoeuvrable, easy to operate and launch. Moreover, the higher the composites the lesser the cost of manufacturing the missile. All this means a cost-effective missile with a longer reach and destructive ability.
Composites are of use in making lightweight boots for the polio-affected, and in tennis racquets and in medical devices. The DRDO also established its own in-house composite production centre.
The composite rocket motor casing, which has been successfully tested in Agni-IV, was developed by the Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL) a few years ago. It is made of carbon filament-wound composite. Interestingly, a private industry based in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, has fabricated it for the DRDO.
In the civil and defence sectors, maraging steels are commonly used to make motor casings. The Hyderabad-based, state-owned Midhani Steels produces the special steels to meet the needs of the strategic sector. It is tough but heavier. Since a lighter missile can be transported quickly and can carry higher payloads over longer distances, big players have been looking for composite materials. The ASL is working towards the goal of making a missile completely out of composites.
A major advantage of a composite casing it that it cuts down costs by nearly half compared with the maraging steel version. Since they are not prone to corrosion, the life of a stored missile is longer. EADS, the leading European consortia, the US and Russia are capable of making it now. For the coming generation of long-range missiles, composites would be the key material, says Mr. Avinash Chander, Chief Controller (Strategic Missile Systems).
The synergy between the DRDO labs, Indian industry and the user (armed forces) has resulted in the successful march of the missile programme in the last decade. The missile system is homegrown.
The fabrication, airframes, propulsion systems, the fuel, flex nozzle system, the on-board communication and control systems, the software, the mobile launchers and the tracking systems, the integrated safety and security systems have been developed and tested.
The defence scientists also came up with a technology that helps increase the range of missiles as well as satellite launch vehicles by approximately 40 per cent. Giants like L&T to Tatas and Godrej, PSUs like BDL, HAL, BEL, Keltech, ECIL to a number of private industry like Data Patterns, Sameer, Vem Tech, SEC Industries, Astra Microwave, Resins Allied Products, Walchandnagar etc. have played a big role.
In the entire cycle of missile development to production, a couple of areas where domestic expertise is required are in select electronics, sensors and radar systems. There are collaborations with Israel and France in the area of radars. Similarly, some of the private industry players have forged joint ventures and tie-ups to make sophisticated electronic components.
But, with technology denials still not eased on India, it is vital to acquire the technology in these areas for the acceleration and reliability of the missile armoury. It can also help in cutting down the time of design to delivery, which is around 10 years, to a more desirable five or seven years.
The stage is now set for Agni-5. The platform is ready and efforts are geared up to be test-fired in February, 2012. All that is required is to scale up Agni-IV, say confident missile scientists.
With an expected distance of over 5,000 km to be traversed by the three-stage missile, on trial will be the quality and robustness of components and systems fabricated by the industry and critical technologies indigenously developed by the scientists.