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Nirbhay strays & sows fear

- Test nipped after cruise missile veers off course

New Delhi, March 12: India’s first test flight of a home-grown cruise missile failed today but Nirbhay gave an unintended sneak preview of the dread it can spread.

Defence research scientists were compelled to terminate Nirbhay’s flight midway because it was observed deviating from its intended path and heading towards the Indian coast. Cruise missiles are supposed to stay on course and hit targets with accuracy.

Worse, large chunks of the missile fell on land, not the target in the sea off Odisha.

Ghanshyam Giri, a cashew orchard owner who saw parts of the missile fall in a seaside village called Gadaharishpur, said he was about 100 metres from the plantation when he heard a deafening sound.

“It sounded like a massive blast. We thought a helicopter had crashed; people ran for their lives,” Giri said. “After about five minutes, we went to the place where the object was lying.”

Haripada Das, another resident, said he found pieces of the missile in his betel palm grove.

When a missile test is in trouble, a Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) official said, the two standard available options are to trigger a self-destruct mechanism or terminate the flight and allow it to fall into the sea. “But after termination, the missile can keep cruising for some time,” an official said.

But the official declined to say whether the missile was ordered to self-destruct or was allowed to free-fall into the sea, or which part of the Indian coastline it was approaching when its flight was terminated.

“Bits and pieces of the cruise missile fell at two places in Gadaharishpur but nobody was injured,” Jagatsinghpur superintendent of police Satyabrata Bhoi told The Telegraph. “Human habitations were about 100 metres from the site where the debris fell.”

Personnel from the DRDO, alerted by local law-enforcement authorities, arrived, inspected the parts and took them away.

The cruise missile was launched from Chandipur on the Odisha coast at 11.50am. It appeared to function well until course deviations set in midway.

The two-stage missile, developed by the DRDO, has a range of about 1,000km and moves at subsonic speeds.

Despite the mission’s failure, DRDO said, key components of the take-off and cruise sequence of the missile were successfully tested during its flight, which lasted around 30 minutes.

The first-stage rocket engine ignited, the missile climbed to the required altitude, the rocket engine separated, the main turbofan engine started, wings opened up for the cruise mode and the flight appeared normal until midway into the flight, a senior DRDO official said.

“All these elements of the sequence worked — it cruised until about midway, when deviations from its intended path were observed,” the official said. “The deviations are now under investigation.”

The DRDO has not said whether this flight was rigged with a self-destruct mechanism but, the official said, there is a risk that the explosion associated with a self-destruct mechanism might scatter debris over a much larger area than if a missile is allowed to fall into the sea.

The DRDO has been working on the development of guided missiles for nearly three decades, and has already inducted two homegrown ballistic missiles — the short-range Prithvi and the long-range Agni.

India has also inducted a supersonic cruise missile named Brahmos, primarily based on technology from Russia, with a short range of about 300km. Nirbhay is intended to be India’s first indigenous cruise missile with a range three times longer than that of Brahmos.

A primer on cruise missiles from the Federation of American Scientists says at least 12 countries — China, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, Norway, Russia, Sweden, Taiwan, the UK and the US — have developed cruise missiles.

Unlike ballistic missiles which have phases of free-fall under gravity as they move down towards their targets, cruise missiles are propelled and guided throughout their flight.

The FAS says: “The technology to build them is simple and available to any country that builds even rudimentary aircraft.”