Opinion | For India's Drone Challenges, Lessons From The Agni-V Feat

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India's Agni-5 stands as one of the most advanced nuclear-capable missiles, measuring 17.5 metres in length, weighing 50 tonnes, carrying a one-ton payload, and boasting a range exceeding 5,000 kilometres.

The term Agni means fire, and the test mission was dubbed 'Divyastra', meaning divine weapon. The test aims to bolster India's nuclear deterrence capability by exemplifying the MIRV (multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle) technology, which entails launching multiple warheads from a single missile to target multiple destinations.

This missile can be configured with a combination of warheads and decoys, potentially confusing adversaries and diminishing the effectiveness of Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) missions. Such capability is designed to overwhelm the adversary's ABM systems.

Read | Meet 'Divya Putri', Scientist Behind Agni-5 Missile With Multiple Warheads

India has no expansionist aspirations and has never initiated aggression against any country. Nonetheless, it has faced numerous aggressions since gaining independence. The MIRV capability would bolster the assurance level of India's deterrence posture in alignment with its no-first-use policy. It marks a significant milestone in India's indigenous missile development programme, crucial for addressing security concerns arising from hostile Chinese activities along the border, Pakistan's backing of terrorism in India, growing military collaboration between China and Pakistan, and the militarisation of the Tibet Autonomous Region.

Trajectory and Challenges

The Agni-V MIRV missile system, comprising several complex technologies, was developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) over a period of time. The journey was not without its challenges.

Countries possessing the most advanced missiles have often kept critical missile technologies within an exclusive club. While some have shared older-generation missile technologies with close allies, they have refrained from sharing niche missile technologies with advanced capabilities, even with closest allies. India, like many others, faced denials from this exclusive group of countries that possessed these advanced technologies.

Spiral Development

While leapfrogging and lean development philosophies hold relevance, development, testing, certification, and operationalisation of critical and complex technologies can be time-consuming and challenging. Additionally, it may not be feasible to develop robust systems in the first attempt, thus necessitating a 'spiral development' philosophy. The development of the advanced, versatile, accurate, and lethal Agni-5 missile is the result of a systematic development approach involving diverse technologies and different variants of the Agni missile. It has been a long, arduous, and challenging journey marked by hard work, failures, and successes.

The conceptualisation of missile development dates back to the early 1980s, with the launch of the Integrated Guided Missile Development Program (IGMDP) in 1982-83, which set into motion a series of missile development programmes. The Agni-5 MIRV test flight is the outcome of four decades of spiral development.

A series of Agni series missiles were developed thus, including the first test of the two-stage Agni technology demonstrator in 1989, the 700-1,250 km range rail/road mobile solid fuel Agni-1 in 2002, the 2,000-2,500 km Agni-II, the 3,000-3,500 km range three-stage Agni-III, and the 3,000-4,000 km range solid fuel propellant Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile Agni-IV.

Ballistic Missile Development: Agni-IV and Agni-V

The development of the Agni-IV Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) and the canister-launched three-stage Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) Agni-V involved the indigenous development of several critical technologies in India. These advancements included the implementation of ring laser gyroscopes, composite rocket motors, launchers, and more. Over time, the Circular Error of Probability (CEP) of these missiles was progressively reduced to enhance their accuracy and effectiveness.

Handholding During Failures 

The Agni missile development programmes encountered numerous setbacks at different stages, stemming from technological, manufacturing, and other flaws. Instances include the failed Agni-I missile test on May 29, 1992, the unsuccessful testing of the Agni-III missile with a new rocket configuration on July 9, 2006, and the first-night user trial failure of the nuclear-capable Agni-II IRBM missile on November 24, 2009, among others. Such setbacks are not unique to India, as similar challenges have been faced by the US, China, Russia, and other nations. Despite these obstacles, India persisted with the indigenous development of Agni missiles, demonstrating remarkable resilience during adversity.

The success of the indigenous Agni MIRV programme can be attributed to the synergy among developers, users, and manufacturers. The development and testing of the Agni-V MIRV represent the initial steps toward operationalising this technology.

However, past user flight trial failures underscore the complexities involved in transitioning from prototype to operational missile systems. Given China's advancement in MIRV technology, expediting the operationalisation and induction of the Agni-V MIRV is prudent. Additionally, India should continue its Agni-VI program to develop ICBMs with ranges exceeding 8,000 km.

Lessons for India's UAV Programme

India's missile and UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) development programmes share a common thread as both have been overseen by DRDO. Yet, their outcomes differ significantly. While the Agni programme successfully developed complex and denied technologies, yielding a series of indigenous Agni missiles, navigation systems, payloads, and critical subsystems, the progress of India's UAVs has been less successful thus far. In the tactical and Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV segment, projects such as Nishant, Panchi, Rustom-I, and Tapas have been undertaken.

However, challenges such as vulnerability to satellite detection led to the abandoning of projects like Nishant, while others like Panchi faced discontinuation due to a lack of further orders. Despite having been built from a successful manned aircraft, the future of Short-Range Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (SRUAV) remains uncertain.

The Tapas Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV development project was sanctioned in 2011, with its maiden flight occurring in November 2016. DRDO laboratories played a pivotal role in developing numerous critical systems and sub-systems for Tapas, including the autopilot, communication systems, Automatic Takeoff and Landing (ATOL), Ground Control System (GCS), Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), Medium Range Electro Optic (MREO), and Indigenous Geo Augmented Navigation (GAGAN), among others.

Many of these systems underwent testing on the Rustom-1 platform before being integrated into Tapas, a significant achievement considering India's historical dependence on imports for critical systems.

DRDO has encountered challenges in developing tactical or MALE UAVs over the past three-and-a-half decades. Despite developing several crucial enabling technologies, India awaits the operationalisation and induction of indigenous UAVs. While the success of the Agni missile programme showcases the potential and capabilities of DRDO scientists, the not-so-remarkable journey in UAV development programmes necessitates introspection. The reasons behind failures in these UAV programmes must be thoroughly examined, and solutions identified.

An examination is needed to determine whether the approach to handling failures in the Agni missile programme differs from that in indigenous UAV projects. Was the spiral development approach, successful in the missile program, adopted in UAV development? Was the synergy among stakeholders in the missile programme different from UAV programmes? Were the approaches of DRDO teams or decision-makers different in missile programmes?

While the gaps and challenges of UAV programmes may differ from those of the Agni missile programme, they are surmountable and must be addressed. India's UAV programme stands at a crucial juncture, equipped with enabling technologies that can lead to success. It is passing through the Marut moment; the famous indigenous fighter development program of the early 1960s that could not be retrieved due to lack of perseverance and other challenges. Thorough analysis and suitable course corrections are necessary to realign the program.

The DRDO's capabilities, demonstrated in the missile programme, must be replicated in the UAV projects. UAVs, like missiles, are pivotal to the future of aerial warfare and must be prioritised to meet India's security needs. The missile programme offers several lessons in that direction.

[Group Captain (Dr.) R.K. Narang, Vayu Sena Medal (Retd.) is a senior fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis and a former IAF helicopter pilot. He associated with the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), was Director, Strategic Initiatives at the Drone Federation of India, member of the Drone Working Sub Group, Department of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT), Ministry of Commerce and Industry and of High Power Steering Committee (HPSC) of Innovation for Defence Excellence (iDEX)]

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.