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Trashing Nirbhay?

By Bharat Karnad

The fourth test-firing of the vertically launched Nirbhay subsonic 1,000km range cruise missile ended in failure with the wings failing properly to deploy in horizontal flight to target. In four test launches so far, the missile has failed for different reasons to perform in three of them. The first test of the Nirbhay in March 2013 was terminated because it veered off course. The second flight in October 2014 was successful to its extreme range. In the third testfiring in October 2015, the Nirbhay became uncontrolled in flight early in the second stage. Is this reason enough to abort the entire DRDO Nirbhay project? A powerful but motivated section within the Defence Ministry seems inclined to cut the losses by pursuing this drastic option. These people are the same people who will doubtlessly push for importing such a missile type. The brouhaha in the Press with insiders describing the Nirbhay’s latest as “utter failure” is no doubt meant to discourage and despirit the missile designers and developers and to pressure the Modi government into heeding their advice. But trashing the Nirbhay will only confirm the MOD and GOI’s absolute ignorance about the normal problems faced by any R&D programme developing any sophisticated technology.

Instead of putting this momentarily derailed missile project back on track, doing a post mortem of the failures, and redoubling the efforts to iron out the technological kinks that have apparently crept into the missile system since the second successful test, the talk in official quarters, including in certain parts of the DRDO, of trashing Nirbhay may be designed to pressure the government into trashing it. Hopefully, Messrs Modi and Parrikar will not just resist such pressures but actively dissuade the naysayers and trash-talkers from mouthing defeatist sentiments. There’s a learning curve in the development of every technology  there are no shortcuts and a project should be prepared to face repeated failures. But each failure often teaches the developers more about challenging regimes and how to work around problems that may arise.

This is how practical engineering knowledge is acquired and absorbed, and solutions to correct design and performance flaws in a piece of hardware, or in the software that drives it, obtained. Such learning by doing is the building block of all successful advanced technology programmes. Those wishing the Nirbhay project ill are calculating that the Modi government that has time and again been conned into importing weapons systems under the cover of ‘Make in India’ policy, to wit, the recent buy of Rafale from France rather than the prospective categories of Tejas LCA, and of the M-777 light weight howitzer and possibly the F-16 and F-18 from the 1970s from the United States, will again be bamboozled into buying, say, a derated Tomahawk which, incidentally, was the weapon-type the Nirbhay is supposed to emulate. The really worrying thing is this: Pakistan is set to soon induct the sea-borne Babur and the land-based Hatf-VII cruise missiles. Babur/ Hatf-VII are cruise missile derivatives of the Chinese reverse-engineered Tomahawk. The Tomahawk fired from an American warship in the northern Arabian Sea crash landed in Balochistan in 2007, well short of the Afghan Taliban target that it was supposed to take out.

It was a technology trove the Pakistanis promptly shipped off to China to pick apart and reverse engineer. In return, China offered Pakistan the Tomahawk cruise  missile-type it had replicated for it to finesse into its Babur and Hatf-VII variants. India has no China to help out. With New Delhi in the past two years having systematically alienated Russia, India will more and more be on its own. If Prime Minister Modi and defence minister Manohar Parrikar believe that the incoming Trump Administration will follow up on Ashton Carter’s agenda which, in any case, mainly stressed selling India military goods, they may be right. Obama until now and in the future Trump will happily sell de-natured high-value military goods to keep the US defence industry prospering while making India hostage to US whims and interests. What counter-leverage does Modi now have, with the Modi regime deliberately distancing itself from Moscow on the plea of diversifying its military supply sources?

But, replacing a helpful Russia with a commercially-minded USA is akin to changing horse’s mid-stream. There are great perils of doing so.  Is anybody in the “nationalist” BJP government giving thought on the wisdom of this policy and its long term ramifications and how much deep water India may soon find itself in?

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