‘Quality our concern'
Interview with Avinash Chander, Chief Controller, Missiles and Strategic Systems, DRDO
AVINASH CHANDER has a rare distinction. He is the architect of five of India's strategic missiles – Agni-I, Agni-II, Agni-III, Agni-IV and now the long-range Agni-V. The missiles of the Agni family were developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) of which Chander is now the Chief Controller (Missiles and Strategic Systems).
As Programme Director, Agni-V, he played a key role in the launch of the long-range ballistic missile on April 19 from Wheeler Island, off the Odisha coast. The launch propelled India into a select club of countries (such as the United States, Russia, France and China) that have the capability to build missiles that can travel more than 5,500 kilometres.
Chander joined the DRDO in 1972 after graduating in Electrical Engineering from Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. He obtained his M.S. in Spatial Information Technology from Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University, Hyderabad. He has made specific contributions to the Agni programme – its management, mission design, guidance, navigation, simulation and terminal guidance.
Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline in Hyderabad on April 21:
India's successful test-firing of Agni-V has generated much interest internationally.
Many countries are talking about it. The fact that they are talking about it and are concerned about it shows the impact it has made and how it is fitting into their policies. That is why I called it a game-changer.
China has reacted in a big way. It says that Agni-V actually has a range of 8,000 km and that India has underplayed it.
Is it true?
What made your team confident that Agni-V will succeed in its maiden launch?
Over the years, our missile designs have been robust except in the case of Agni-III, where the first flight was a failure because there was a lacuna in the design itself. In no other flight did we have a real design failure. Yes, there was again some design lacuna in Agni-IV. But the failure of its first flight was for quality-related reasons.
A component failed.
Agni-IV's failure was for quality reasons, but it was not the primary cause. We are now pretty confident of our design strength. We had already tested in Agni-IV the major technologies – such as the composite motors, their conical shape, etc. – that went into Agni-V. But Agni-V had much bigger motors. We had a lot of confidence that our process was well-understood and the missiles' behaviour was well-defined.
We were testing the new navigation system – the ring-laser gyro system – for the first time and we were constantly upgrading and improving it. By the time we went to Agni-V, we had made 20 systems and tested them on ground in various conditions. A lot of data were generated on their performance. Wherever there was a weakness, it was addressed. We had built-in redundancies to take care of unforeseen emergencies. So we were pretty confident that we would have a total mission success.
Our on-board computers went through hundreds of runs in various modes. We tested them in various types of conditions – way beyond the actual missile capability – to ensure that neither the system nor the software would fail.
We now have a system of configuration control and configuration management and an elaborate review mechanism at various stages so that design problems do not slip through. Even with all that, there were occasions when gaps occurred, but in the end we had a rigorous flight review mechanism. This is a practice we borrowed from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). When Mr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam came [to the DRDO from ISRO], he made the Agni programme very rigorous. Multiple teams had to go through every item, re-verification was done, and if there was any problem it was rectified on the spot. That was how we were confident that we had captured all the problems for Agni-V.
Our primary concern was quality. Unfortunately, quality continues to be our concern. If you take a missile of this type, there are hundreds of thousands of connections – components being soldered on the integrated circuit systems. Most of them are made manually in our country. The processes are still not automatic. If any one of these joints fails, the mission fails.
There are hundreds of people across the country who have done these components. Although we have instituted a strong quality mechanism in various industries working for us, and we have our own quality control supervisors working there, there is nothing like 100 per cent inspection assurance. That was our primary concern. Ultimately, the product is as good as the weakest element in that chain.
I shall cite a simple case. We purchase components from our vendors. When we were mounting one such component in a package, our inspectors found that it was different from what we had envisaged. It was a fake component.
Totally fake. It was not from the source we wanted. It was not of the same quality. It did not match the shape of the component we had ordered. But it had the same batch number. So that is the level to which you should make sure that you do not have any problem. We are steadily trying to improve. Today, we have a better quality control system.
We have created a Strategic Services Quality Assurance Group, dedicated to the Agni class of systems. But at the industrial level, it has to be much, much better. That was the only concern we had [when we launched Agni-V].
You can simulate vibration, shock and acceleration one at a time. You cannot simulate all of them together. But when a missile is in flight, all of them happen together. That is the most critical environment.
Besides, there are so many components that are operating for the first time. About 75 per cent of the failures happen owing to a collection of failures. About 15 per cent of failures occur owing to single-shot systems – some weakness somewhere in a system, such as the rocket motors' separation system, which is not testable. The Americans have also failed in some of the anti-ballistic missile trials because the missile's separation system did not work. They are single-shot systems. [The failure in the U.S. happened] not in the missile which was used as an interceptor but in the missile that was used as a target. Hardly 5 per cent of the failures occur because of design lacuna. We put in a lot of hard work for two years.
How did you achieve this quantum jump in range – from Agni-III's 3,000 km to Agni-V's 5,000 km?
We went through various steps. One was that we had to make the upper stages lighter. That was the first and most critical factor. We decided to make both the second and third upper stages of composites. That gave us a major benefit in terms of weight. In Agni-III, both the first and second stages were metallic.
Having made the composite stages, we found that they were coming out better than the metallic stages, strength-wise and property-wise. So we could operate at a higher pressure. So you do not have losses due to gravity, and the losses are reduced. We then went through a total philosophy change. Up to Agni-III, we ignite the upper stage first, then separate the lower stage so that there is no problem of separation.
We decided to leave behind that culture of space vehicles. We now put big retro motors, which create a thrust of four tonnes each – totally 16 tonnes of thrust – just to separate the stages so that no dead weight is passed on to the upper stage.
Correspondingly, we decided to make the mission stronger so that there are no interfaces and the separation is clean. We studied and created extensive models to simulate them on the ground in all types of disturbed conditions in wind tunnels. With all that, we could remove the inter-stages altogether. The weight we had reduced by making the upper stages of composites was fed back into the third upper stage. The weight did not increase overall, but the total energy increased considerably. To reach the 3,000-km range, you need a velocity of five kilometres per second. To reach the 5,000-km range, the velocity has to be more than six kilometres a second.
That was our approach to the repackaging of our vehicle. We made major modifications in the upper stage. V.G. Sekaran, Director, Advanced Systems Laboratory [ASL], DRDO, played a primary role in showing us how to repackage the payload structures so that the weight comes down by 1,000 kg.
How did the payload structures lose weight?
The payload structures had become much lighter; the weight was almost 60 per cent less than what it was earlier. It was a very elaborate exercise. We went to all the stages to see how to lose weight, how to repackage, how to reduce length, what technologies are needed for these, what was the modelling needed, and so on. That was how we could pack practically the same weight – from Agni-III, 48 tonnes in weight and 17 metres in length, to Agni-V, 50 tonnes in weight and 17.5 metres in length, but from a range of 3,000 km to more than 5,000 km. We wanted to make sure that all these capabilities were first proven in Agni-IV. We removed the open inter-stage. We had a closed inter-stage. We had composite motors. We had a compact payload. Of course, there is a vast difference between Agni-IV and Agni-V payloads. But the basic system was the same. But Agni-V had much more visibility and we wanted to make sure that all the elements of Agni-V were good. Agni-IV as a system did its job.
What are your future plans for Agni-V?
There are three stages of missile development. The first is design. As far as Agni-V is concerned, we have crossed that phase.
The next stage is proving the canister-launch capability. We have done the canister-launch for smaller missiles.
We have done for BrahMos also. The ASL is the laboratory which developed the canisters for both BrahMos and Agni-V. The gas generators that propel the missiles out of the canisters are made in the ASL. These technologies are available. They are being upscaled.
For instance, if I need five or ten tonnes of thrust there [for BrahMos or Shourya], I need 300 tonnes of thrust here because the mass is so much higher. That is upscaling. We know how to do it. So we will be doing missile ejection tests [from a canister]. We have set up a facility for that at Shamirpet, Hyderabad. We will take our canister to that facility, put a dummy missile inside with a small full-scale booster, and eject it. That small motor will push the missile out and you can recover it. It may be damaged. We have to do three or four tests in that condition to establish all the parameters of launch. What is the kind of vibration and shock that are caused? What is the time that the missile takes to come out of the canister? How much heat is transferred to the canister? And how much energy is lost? All these have been modelled. We have to validate these models by experiments. No other way is possible. That is the first priority.
These experiments will start in May/June. The launchers are already getting ready in the industry – the road-mobile, canister-launch system.
Private industry is making the road-mobile launcher with the launch platform.
They are making the launcher to our design. All our products are Indian. The road-mobile launcher will be delivered in May. The canister is ready. The integrated test will start in June. We are aiming for the missile launch by the end of this year. Or maybe by the beginning of next year, because we have to do a number of tests and evaluate them. If everything goes well, yes, by the end of this year.
A road-mobile, canisterised launch in final, user configuration will take place next year.
The full, final version in all aspects will be tested in the early part of next year. We want to complete all trials by the end of next year.
How many trials will you do?
We need two or three trials from the canister. If two perform very well, we may take a decision to go ahead. Then the production will start. From the production chain, the user will pick some missiles and launch them to validate the production process and then the induction will start. Totally, we will have six more tests before Agni-V is inducted [into the Army].
Tests by the user?
Tests by the user will be along with our team. That serves a dual purpose – to train the user in operating the system and to validate the production process.
So there will be six tests, including the user trials.
Yes. It is not user trial. It is called pre-induction trial. The user is part of all our trials. Right from the first test, the user is involved – what we are getting, what the performance of the missile is, etc. Every test is a user trial in that sense. Canister trials will happen from June onwards. By December, the canisterised flight will take place.
V.K. Saraswat, Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister, said recently that the DRDO would not cap the Agni programme. So, will we go in for a missile beyond 5,000 km even though we don't need one?
Dr Saraswat very clearly said there was nothing like a static threat perception. Threat is a dynamic scenario. If tomorrow India's trade requirements go beyond distant regions and it feels threatened by somebody, its requirements will change. The DRDO does not wait for the threat to become a reality before it starts the development. That is why it is a perception. We have to develop capabilities to meet futuristic threats. That is why there is nothing like capping a programme.
A programme, by definition, is for a limited duration. After we deliver Agni-V, that programme is over. We will work parallely…. MIRV [Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicle] is definitely a technology we want to develop and we are going to develop it. We will be creating that capability. Similarly, we will be creating manoeuvring warheads, another capability that is a must. It will give you the ability to target places with high precision, with nuclear or conventional warheads.
So the role of a missile changes, the threat perceptions change, the dynamic geopolitical situation changes. So there is nothing like capping or not capping a programme. You never cap technology. New programmes evolve as the need arises, but technology development will be a continuous process.
In fact, the future will require intelligent warheads because the capabilities increase for intercepting ballistic or cruise missiles…. Everybody is developing defences against these weapons. It may take time. But it will happen. So we have to upgrade our weapons. We have to go three steps further – two steps to catch up and one to overtake. In warfare, unless you are better than the best, you cannot win the war.
Our next step will be to build intelligent warheads which will have the capability to assess the risks and take active or passive action or counter-measures. They will be the warheads of tomorrow, and work has to start now. It may take five or ten years. There is tremendous work that needs to be done to develop state-of-the-art weapons with multiple capabilities.
China has said that India has a long way to go to match its capability. I cannot comment [on it] because I do not know the Chinese capability. But we know that technology-wise, we have the capability and the knowledge for converting technological capability to build further on it.
Agni-V has been developed in three years. MIRV may come in two and a half years from now. We want to make that process faster and faster. We have instituted fantastic measures to make it happen – how to make industries respond faster, how to make design-culture faster, how to make in-house quality products, and so on. So we are attacking the problem at various levels. Agni-V is one example of that process happening. We were able to do it in less than three years after the project was sanctioned. No other weapon has been developed in three years.
There is a perception that Agni-V need not be road-mobile because it is a strategic weapon, which will never be used. It is more a deterrent.
India is a peace-loving nation. It has never taken an offensive action except when it was threatened. In such a situation, you have to make sure that whatever be your deterrence measures, you are well protected. In today's world, with the way the precision and yield of weapons are going up, it is very difficult to store missiles in static sites. Fifty years ago, we kept the missiles in hardened silos. At that time, the missiles used to land with a CEP [circular error probability] of a few kilometres. Today, they have a CEP of 100 metres. With 100 metres, the kind of defences that you will want is so massive that it will be impractical to have them.
So what is the way out? It is that you should be mobile. When a target is static, it is most vulnerable. A moving target has better chances of survival.
A road-mobile missile has many avenues to go. In a city like New Delhi, where hundreds of thousands of vehicles are moving, it is not easy to keep track.
When does the Army want a canisterised Agni-V from now?
A canister gives you the best advantages. You can stop on the roadside on the highway, launch from there and go away. You can stop the traffic for five minutes on either side, launch and go away. Your ability to move, your options to launch and your operational flexibility increase manifold. You have a reduced reaction time. Everything is already prepared. Just make the missile vertical in three minutes, and the launching takes another few minutes. So you stop, launch and go off. That does not give the enemy a chance even if he detects you. He does not know from where you are going to launch. Only when you have made the missile vertical for launch will he realise that you are going to launch it. The boost-phase destruction that people are talking of, that is, the missile getting destroyed before it takes off, will not be possible if you have a short reaction time as in a canisterised launch unless you have a space-based radar weapons system. Today, it is non-existent and is not likely to be developed in the next couple of decades at least.
You say that Agni-V can reach the farthest corners where you want to exert your influence…
I need not stress the strategic significance of Agni-V. You can see from the responses of others what the strategic significance of this mission is.
As far as we are concerned, its primary significance is that you have strategic depth. With Agni-V, you can target all potential threat areas. You can go close to the border areas or thousands of kilometres away from enemy countermeasures and launch this missile. That is the most important strategic significance.
The fact that it can reach large parts of the globe has its own impact – of your acceptance, and more importantly, your arrival as a missile power. We were at the receiving end of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Irrespective of these technology denial regimes, we can do what we need to do. If we can do 5,000 km with all these regimes, we can do anything. We have to set ourselves a goal and we can achieve it. That is for strategic missiles. We are looking at tactical missiles also. We are looking at certain game-changing processes, at longer-range capability, much better kill capabilities than we had thought of earlier. We want to anticipate the future.
We want to be prepared. In those preparations too, we want to make the user a partner because these will be systems which will neither be made nor be available anywhere else. That is the class we are graduating to. This confidence has come from Agni-V and other systems.