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By Syed Nazakat

As ballistic missile Dhanush lifted off INS Subhadra on the afternoon of March 6 and swooped towards the Orissa coast 150 km away, only Dr V.K. Saraswat knew where it was going to strike. But he kept quiet. In 50 seconds radars at Konark and Paradip picked up the incoming missile, which was racing out of the earth’s atmosphere, and ‘informed’ the mission control centre. The centre’s computers declared the missile ‘hostile’ and, from its flight path, assessed its target.

Within 160 seconds of the radars picking up the target, Saraswat’s newest missile lifted off and raced at a speed of 3,500 metres per second out of the earth’s atmosphere. The mission: kill the hostile missile before it reentered the atmosphere. As it climbed sharply, ground radars fed its embedded computers with the enemy’s position, trajectory and velocity—all this in 100 milliseconds. Soon the interceptor’s radio frequency homing seeker spotted the enemy and went for the kill. As chances of missing a direct hit are high, the interceptor’s new gimballed directional warhead burst within nine metres of the ‘hostile’ missile and blew it into smithereens—a safe 80km away from the intended target.

It was a hat-trick for Saraswat and the Defence Research and Development Organisation of which he is the chief controller of missile systems. In November 2006, he had killed an incoming missile 48km away from the earth and outside the atmosphere. And in December 2007, he had killed another one inside the atmosphere, just 15km from the target. And towards the end of this year, Saraswat wants to kill two birds with one stone: an endo- and an exo-atmospheric test in one go.

The third successful test has put India in an exclusive club—with the US, Russia and Israel—of countries which are developing their own ballistic missile defence systems. Saraswat hopes to have the system in place by 2011. It will also track Pakistani and Chinese atom-tipped missiles with a network of ground-based early warning radars.

The system can take care of threats from all Pakistani missiles which have ranges less than 2,000 km. For taking care of ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) “you need interceptors which can fly 6,000 to 7,000 metres per second,” said a DRDO scientist. Saraswat wants to develop it as the next phase, while simultaneously planning for two more tests with the present capability. “You need at least five tests in this phase,” said he.

Can the enemy jam the system and mislead the interceptor? Indeed, the enemy would try to jam the frequency of the data-link between the radars and the interceptor. “So we have catered for frequency diversity,” said Saraswat. “And the interceptor batteries would be geographically distributed. Even if they jam one or two, the remaining would be working.”

DRDO officials concede that an enemy would be launching a volley of missiles. “My radar can handle 200 [incoming] targets simultaneously,” said Saraswat. He is confident that with sufficient batteries of interceptor missiles, even volley attacks can be neutralised. DRDO has been working on ballistic missile defence technologies since the mid-1990s. “Some 400 industries are involved in various associated programmes,” said Saraswat.

But Saraswat’s big dream is to develop hypersonic missiles—which fly at five times the speed of sound—for the ballistic missile defence system. It is learnt that DRDO labs are working on two of them, and a hypersonic wind tunnel has been set up in Hyderabad to test them.

Meanwhile, with the impending acquisition of air-based surveillance platforms, scientists hope to extend the surveillance range beyond the present 600 km to more than 2,000 km into enemy territory. That, incidentally, is more than the distance between the two farthest points in Pakistan. “We have to look at our neighbourhood, our geography and the threat we have,” said Brigadier (retd) Gurmeet Kanwal, director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies. “That should determine what defence system we need to defend our country. It is crucial that we are on our way to having a missile defence system.”

With R. Prasannan

INTERVIEW OF DR. SARASWAT

The ballistic missile interceptor is Saraswat’s latest baby. As DRDO’s programme director, he had spearheaded the concept of theatre defence systems and the integration of national air defence elements. He was responsible for the induction of India’s first surface-to-surface missile, Prithvi, and its variants in the armed forces. This year, he hopes to hold a combined test of blasting incoming enemy missiles inside and outside the atmosphere. Excerpts from an interview:

How important was the ballistic missile interceptor test?

With this test, India has acquired the capability of air defence against incoming ballistic missiles. It is a significant milestone. Once you have a ballistic missile defence system, a country with a small arsenal will think twice before launching a nuclear attack.

What are the specific advantages of the interceptors?

This interceptor can destroy missiles with a 2,000km range. In phase-II, we are developing above 2,000km class. For tracking missiles with 6,000km range, the interceptors will be helped by radars on satellites. Currently, the radars can cover an area of a radius of 600km. You need much more energy for missiles of higher range. In terms of seeker, the time is very less as the speed of the missile also increases.

How fast can the interceptor detect and react to a hostile missile?

Target classification takes just 30 seconds. Then the batteries [of the interceptor missile], which are in hot stand-by conditions, can be launched within 100-120 seconds. So in simple terms, an interceptor takes two to three minutes to react and destroy a hostile missile.

How good is the interceptor missile compared to the American Patriot missile?

The US system is developed for their defence. The threat profile of our country is different and the system has to be customised to our needs. So we cannot compare the two.

When are you expecting to complete the project?

By 2011, we expect to complete the development of missile systems. We will be conducting five tests each for endo- and exo-atmospheric (below and above 30km altitude) and integrated missile defence systems. Once that is over, the missile will be ready for deployment.

What is the technological capability of the programmes?

The system is fully automated and does not require human activation in case of an attack. Under the present system, the interceptors are on ‘hot stand-by mode’ and can take-off within 120 seconds of the detection of the incoming missile.

Any upcoming programmes or tech upgradations?

Till the 1990s the challenge was the meet the range and warhead carrying capacity for the missile. But from 2002 onwards the focus has been on accuracy of hit or hit to kill. This requires special technologies such as infrared and radio frequency seekers embedded in the missiles with high precision homing devices. Besides the ballistic missile defence, we have plans for a space-based surveillance radar system which could track any missile.

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