A journey from the Nizam’s bathroom
By Syed Nazakat
When Avinash Chander joined the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in 1972, India had just started working on long-range missile technology. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had then advised scientists at the Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL), India’s premier missile facility, to develop a long-range ballistic missile. When the DRDL was shifted from Delhi to an old rented building of the Nizam in Hyderabad, the team that worked on the long-range missile technology was allotted the only room left in the office—the bathroom. “That is why I often joke that the journey of India’s long-range missile started from the Nizam’s bathroom,” says Avinash Chander, India’s top missile scientist and chief controller (Missiles & Strategic Systems), DRDO.
Excerpts from an exclusive interview:
In the recent years India’s missile programme has achieved major success. What are you working on currently?
We are working on interception of missiles and also developing systems for longer range missiles. That will give us an ability to protect our assets against any adversary. Our aim is to enhance our defence capability.
What is the status of the long-range intercontinental ballistic missile Agni-V?
There will be a repeat test shortly to demonstrate that the missile is working with full accuracy. It has a range of more than 5,000km. The repeat test will be followed by some more tests and we will induct it by next year.
The recent launch of the underwater ballistic missile K-15 has marked the end to a series of developmental trials. How significant was the test?
It was a major milestone. It completes the country’s nuclear triad, which essentially gives India the critical ability to launch its nuclear weapons from air, land and sea at will. India is only the fifth country to have such a missile—the other four are the United States, Russia, France and China. The missile will be eventually integrated with the INS Arihant.
Why did it take almost two decades to develop this missile?
When you talk about a missile of this nature I don’t think 20 years is long time. Not many countries have such technology. In that context it was a huge technological challenge to develop an underwater missile. We also developed an underground platform to launch it.
When will the subsonic cruise missile you have been working on be test-fired?
It’ll happen anytime now. Nirbhay [the missile] will supplement the anti-ship BrahMos cruise missile by carrying warheads beyond the 300km range, as it is capable of flying at different altitudes ranging from 500m to 4km. It will fill a crucial gap in our missile system.
How do you deal with the fear of failure?
Failure is a part of your growth. But from each experiment and failure, we learn new things. The Agni-I test failed twice in 1989. It was a first-of-its-kind launch in the country and Rajiv Gandhi [then prime minister] called and asked what was happening. That was the level of involvement with the missile programme. The third launch was successful. Then A.P.J. Abdul Kalam came to us and showed us a letter. It was the resignation letter which he had planned to submit if we failed the third time.
Do you consider him as one of your mentors?
Yes, he was an incredible leader. He encouraged ideas and creativity. The missile technology is mind-consuming stuff and you need a top-class scientific mind to lead scientists.
(THE WEEK, March, 2013)