Wednesday, July 17, 2002



  The Rediff Special/ George Iype

Mission Unaccomplished

A P J Abdul Kalam is likely to be sworn in as India's 11th President on July 25. There are those who will consider this a proud moment; after all, he is credited with drawing the blueprint for India's entry into the league of developed nations by indigenously developing numerous defence products.

But even as the boat owner's son from Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu steps into Rashtrapati Bhavan, he may have one regret -- his unaccomplished defence indigenisation plans and missile mission. These particular programmes, in fact, are not the huge success stories everyone believes them to be. Some of his former scientific colleagues, in fact, lament the fact that Kalam goes to occupy the Presidential chair leaving this job half-done.

India's missile mission began with Kalam exactly 20 years ago.

Backed by a kitty of Rs 3 billion, sanctioned by the Indian government, Kalam -- who then headed the Defence Research Development Organisation -- set his sights on developing the Prithvi, Agni, Akash, Trishul and Nag missiles. Over the years, DRDO went on to become the nodal agency that would oversee all defence production.

A senior defence scientist and former Kalam colleague still working with DRDO says it is "preposterous" to suggest Kalam's missile mission has taken India to the rarefied heights of missile power over the years. "Yes, we have been able to conduct a number of flight tests, but DRDO has been unable to induct most of these missiles into the forces," he points out.

K P Somashekhar, a retired defence scientist based in Hyderabad who worked on some of the initial missile project studies, says Kalam's biggest failure has been that, under him, DRDO never met crucial project deadlines. For instance, Somashekhar says, DRDO has been building the anti-aircraft missiles -- Trishul and Akash -- for nearly two decades now. According to Kalam's plans, these surface-to-air missiles were to have replaced the Russian-supplied OSA-AK and Kvadrat systems by early 1990s. To date, though, Trishul and Akash are not successful realities.

The Trishul project began in 1983 and the deadline was 1992. Over the years, DRDO has spent more than Rs 2.6 billion on the missile, but it is still undergoing trials. DRDO officials say the major problem is that the Trishul's command guidance system does not work.

The main problem with India's missile programme, Somashekhar adds, has been that the short-range ballistic missiles, Prithvi I and II, and the medium range ballistic missile, Agni, are not a capable deterrent against, for example, China.

But Kalam's admirers disagree; they point out that his biggest achievement has been India's most capable missiles, Agni II and Prithvi's three variants. According to DRDO, Agni II can carry a 1,000 kg warhead up to 2,500 km. However, say insiders, DRDO has not so far manufactured "enough Agni II in quantity."

DRDO has so far developed three variants of the Prithvi, each capable of carrying nuclear weapons, for the army, navy and air force respectively. The army variant is already operational; however, they are still dissatisfied with the missile's performance, saying it has poor accuracy and there are operational liabilities in handling the liquid fuel.

Officials at DRDO's Hyderabad facilities say Prithvi I missiles are stored there without any military support. "It means the army does not want to use the missiles unless some emergency situation arises," a senior official explained. "In fact, all the Prithvi missile variants have been suffering from guidance problems. We really do not know when they will be really and fully operational."

Kalam's critics say he has abandoned many projects halfway and professed the defence indigenisation mantra without realistic plans. For instance, instead of developing the Agni II in quantity, DRDO has begun developing Agni III with a designed range of around 3,500 km. Kalam had set 2001 as the year for Agni III to be test-fired. But it will take many years before Agni III enters mass production.

Similarly, 15 years ago, the nuclear submarine programme was billed as India's key to second strike capability after it adopted the no-first use policy. But, after spending millions of rupees, naval headquarters is now demanding a technical audit of the Advanced Technology Vehicle project, as the project is formally known.

The design and development of the nuclear submarine is a joint project between DRDO, the Department of Atomic Energy, and the Indian Navy. Totally, they have spent a whopping Rs 20 billion on procuring the ATV's design drawings from Russia, civilian construction work, establishing test beds and testing facilities on the east coast, and procurement of related equipment.

DRDO sources say the land-based prototype testing facility of the submarine reactor has been completed successfully and a training facility to familiarise personnel with the nuclear submarine's power plant, which will use enriched uranium as reactor fuel, has also been set up. Years after the ATV project was mooted, however, the submarine's keel is yet to be laid because DRDO has been unable to decide on its construction design.

Similarly, the development of the Light Combat Aircraft, the most ambitious of all DRDO projects under Kalam, has yet to succeed. Nearly 20 years after DRDO began developing the LCA, the multi-role fighter meant to replace the MiG-21 is still a dream.

The most scathing criticism of the LCA project came from the Comptroller and Auditor General of India who, in his 1999 report, said: 'Even at the end of 1998, the LCA had not crossed the development stage. Its production and induction into the air force remains a distant possibility.'

The first phase of the LCA project consumed Rs 25 billion, overshooting the estimated Rs 5.6 billion. Worse, due to the delay, the air force was compelled to upgrade its MiG B aircraft at a cost of Rs 21.35 billion.

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Earlier this year, Defence Minister George Fernandes told Parliament that Kalam headed a Self-Reliance Implementation Council years ago with grandiose plans to make all of India's weapons indigenously. He set a target of 70 per cent indigenisation by the year 2005. But, with less than three years left for the deadline, only 30 per cent of Indian's weapons are of domestic origin.

Many claim that Kalam's indigenisation plan has been a hoax, with the army, the air force and navy waiting in vain all these years for DRDO-developed defence equipment and electronic warfare systems.

The President is the supreme commander of the Indian armed forces. Should Kalam become President on July 25, many believe he will get first-hand knowledge of how the various DRDO projects he headed have been stumbling blocks for India's defence modernisation all these years.

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The 11th President of India: Complete Coverage

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