On a bright morning in May, soldiers in India's Andaman-based tri-service command fired a BrahMos cruise missile from Car Nicobar Island. It flew about 280 kilometres and smashed a dummy target on an uninhabited island near the straits through which Chinese submarines have been sneaking, in the guise of hunting for pirates.
On May 15, a few minutes past 11 in the morning, a Prithvi-2 missile flew off from the Chandipur coast in Odisha. It knocked down a missile which had been shot from a battleship in the Bay of Bengal and was zooming towards the coast.
Forty days later, a supersonic Sukhoi-30 MKI roared off from the Hindustan Aeronautics airport in Bengaluru, carrying a modified 2.5-tonne BrahMos.
A few days later, India joined the Missile Technology Control Regime, the world order of missile powers who had been denying India the technologies that powered these missiles.
India's missile scientists and commanders of missile regiments rested little in the past few months. While the scientists and technicians have been working on these test-firings to validate the technology parameters they developed over the years, the missile commanders and their bosses have been revising their tactical texts. These technological validations and doctrinal revisions are now leading to a refashioning of the Indian missile armoury. A casualty will be Prithvi, the first missile that A.P.J. Abdul Kalam built.
The move is by no means a gesture of disrespect to the memory of the missile man, nor is it an attempt to scale down the armoury under pressure from the powers that are sitting around the MTCR high table. On the contrary, it is aimed at building a more credible tactical and strategic arsenal, and also at backing up India's no-first-use doctrine with an armoury and a strike philosophy that would match the doctrine.
Prithvi had its role in the initial stages of India's missile development. The first version, Prithvi-1, which has a range of 150km, was given to the Army as an extended battlefield weapon with a conventional warhead. The first Prithvi regiment, the 111 regiment, was raised in the mid-1990s and stationed in Punjab.
An extended-range Prithvi-2 (250 km), also capped with a conventional warhead, was developed and given to the Air Force for using in combination with its fighter squadrons. Thus both missiles were meant to be tactical battlefield weapons. A third version, Prithvi-3, with a range of about 350km, was also developed and given to the Strategic Forces Command, which oversees India's nuclear weapons. Though its warhead was never officially revealed, the fact that the weapon was given to the Strategic Forces Command gave it out.
For the actual strategic nuclear armoury, the Defence Research and Development Organisation developed the Agni series—Agni-1 (700 to 1,500km), Agni-2 (2,500km), Agni-3 (3,500km), Agni-4 (4,500km) and Agni-5 (5,000km upwards). Most of these versions were developed after the 1999 nuclear tests and were capped with nuclear warheads.
Based on the Agni series missiles, a sea-based second-strike capability is also being readied with the development of the submarine-launched BO-5 and the K-4 missiles, which would be able to strike targets as far as 3,000km. “We are fast reaching an advanced stage in the missile technology area and we hope to achieve more successes in this field in future as well,” said eminent scientist G. Satheesh Reddy, who is scientific adviser to defence minister.
The draft nuclear doctrine of 1999 foreclosed the option of a nuclear first strike by India. The doctrine clearly spelt out that India would strike with nuclear weapons only after it has been hit with nuclear weapons.
Dovetailed to the doctrine was a realisation that, since India would not strike first, it would not need tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons of a short range. It was this debate that led to the early doubts about the role of Prithvi. “Prithvi has more than served its intended use. The plan to phase it out has been there for a while,” said Dr Ravi Gupta, a former DRDO scientist.
Also, being developed when Indian missile scientists were yet to master the solid fuel technology, Prithvi was fed by liquid fuel which is deemed to be unstable. Scientists say a liquid-fuel missile would take 24 to 30 hours to launch an attack.
Prithvi, thus, was confined to a conventional role—of striking enemy's logistics hubs and concentrated tank formations with conventional warheads. This role is now being increasingly given to the cruise missile BrahMos. With a range close to 300km, and with declared conventional warheads, BrahMos has been highly reliable, and highly manoeuvrable unlike a ballistic missile. “In the field of tactical missiles, BrahMos is the most effective and powerful missile as it can strike any target 30 to 290km away,” said Sudhir Mishra, senior scientist and chief executive officer of BrahMos Corporation.
BrahMos's adaptability has also made it the most versatile missile in the Indian tactical armoury. Apart from the Army version, a Navy version, which can be launched from both ships and submarines, has been developed and inducted. The biggest challenge, perhaps, is the air-launched version. The missile has been slimmed down to 2.5 tonnes so as to be carried by a Sukhoi-30MKI. “The first test-launch will take place later this year,” said Mishra.
Since the late 2000s, Pakistan has been testing various versions of the Hatf missiles and is now reported to have settled for the Nasr version which can fly 60km carrying nuclear warheads. This had led to a demand in India for responding with India's own battlefield nuclear weapons. However, two meetings of the Nuclear Command Authority, one under prime minister Manmohan Singh and the other under Narendra Modi, decided against it.
The Army is not willing to forgo the extended strike range of 150 kilometres that it got from Prithvi. “It is not just the extended reach, but also the realisation that we need a conventional weapon system to destroy the enemy's tactical nuclear weapons,” said a senior officer. In short, the Army needs a missile that would have the range of Prithvi but solid-fuelled. “Prahar fits the bill,” said an Army officer. Prahar was first tested in 2012 but cold-storaged for a while. DRDO's initial claim that Prahar could carry “different types of warheads” was interpreted in Pakistan as evidence that it might have a nuclear role. However, according a paper prepared for Carnegie Institute by nuclear experts Toby Dalton and George Perkovich, “at 42 centimetres in diameter and with a payload of just 200 kilograms, the missile is exceedingly slim and light and may not be able to carry any of India’s existing nuclear warheads.”
The revised strike philosophy, in which tactical missiles will be increasingly used for strike at targets within 150km range, may also lead to India giving up on the idea of having the long-demanded 126 medium multirole combat aircraft. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar is learnt to have asked the Air Force whether a mix of tactical missiles and a few squadrons of the soon-to-be-inducted Tejas light fighters can be used instead of the expensive Dassault Rafale or any other western combat aircraft.