Defence: India enters the cruise missile race;
hyperplane Avatar reaches planning stage
By R. Prasannan
Cruise missiles," observed Prahalada, director of the Defence Research and Development Laboratory two years ago, "are the present currency of power." Though in smaller denomination now, India is acquiring that currency.
India is thinking of Space-based laser weapons Durga and Kali. Hyperplane Avatar will be a reusable missile launcher
The Brahmos cruise missile programme was perhaps the most hush-hush of India's missile projects. The long-range missile programme Surya is heard of at least through official denials. The reusable missile launcher-cum-hyperplane Avatar, the most ambitious of all projects, is openly talked about. Questions are asked at least in aerospace circles about the 'forgotten' Durga and Kali, though replies are rarely given. Agni-III is a matter of logical conjecture and extension of Agni-II. (The defence minister had claimed last November that "India has the capability to design and develop an ICBM having a range of more than 5,000 km. However, in consonance with the threat perception, no ICBM development project has been undertaken.")
But Brahmos is altogether a new name, though there has been talk about a cruise missile programme for some time. The success of Lakshya and Nishant is said to have given the Aeronautical Development Establishment the expertise to work on the cruise missile. However, till recently ADE authorities were claiming that they were engaged only in 'concept studies', and far from developing or even planning a cruise missile.
The 280 km-range missile, presently configured as an anti-ship weapon, is one of the few supersonic cruise missiles in the world. Ballistic missiles fly in a ballistic trajectory, much like a bullet. Their longer-range versions have to go up into the heavens and face problems when they re-enter the atmosphere. The enemy can also trace their launchers by calculating the ballistic trajectory and destroy them.
A cruise missile, on the other hand, is like an unmanned plane, flying at low altitude. Before launch it is fed information about the terrain over which it has to fly and the missile flies either by comparing the fed-in data with the camera pictures it takes or by constantly identifying its location with the help of global positioning systems.
Over sea, a cruise missile has a definite advantage over a ballistic one. The enemy ship out at sea can hide behind the earth's curvature against a ballistic missile which flies straight. On the contrary, a cruise missile can fly long ranges parallel to the surface and, if needed, a few metres above it. Brahmos's supersonic speed gives the enemy very little reaction time. The Indo-Russian Brahmos is learnt to be the starting point of an ambitious cruise missile programme. Studies have been going on for the last three years at the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) on the cost-effectiveness of a hypersonic missile (which fly at five or more times the speed of sound). Parallel studies in the US and Europe have concluded that the future belongs to hypersonic missiles. The US is already developing the F-16 into a hypersonic fighter.
Studies in India, not only at NAL but DRDL (the DRDO's missile lab), IIT Mumbai and ADE, are learnt to be running parallel to and not behind the Euro-American ventures. The hyperplane Avatar, the most ambitious of all, is already reaching the end of the conceptual stage and entering the planning stage. The kerosene-fuelled scramjet-powered vehicle is claimed to be much cheaper than the design concepts worked in the US, Germany, the UK and Japan.
The idea is to develop a vehicle that can take off from conventional airfields, collect air in the atmosphere on the way up, liquefy it, separate oxygen and store it on board for subsequent flight beyond the atmosphere. In fact, Air Commodore R. Gopalaswami, former chairman and managing director of Bharat Dynamics, India's missile factory, had once claimed that it can be developed even into a commercial transporter. Incidentally, it was Gopalaswami who suggested the name Avatar.
Avatar is primarily intended as a reusable missile launcher, one which can launch missiles, land back and be loaded again for more missions. The vehicle will be designed to permit at least a hundred re-entries into the atmosphere. The vehicle could also act as a satellite launcher at a hundredth of the present cost of launching satellites. A miniature Avatar, which is also being conceived, would be hardly bigger than a MiG-25 or an F-16.
Meanwhile, there is also talk of developing Nishant into a cruise missile. The present vehicle, an unmanned battlefield surveillance vehicle which can carry a payload of 45 kilos, completing test phase at ADE, is powered by a German Alvisar-801 engine. Nishant's cruise missile potential had been pointed out three years ago by Air Marshal Bharat Kumar in a United Ser