| Spaced out
To casual observers, two successive rocket launch failures within the span of two days do not augur well for India's space and strategic programmes. This, however, is a simplistic view, and while the two are, in most ways, poles apart, they make for an interesting case study.
The department of space and the space commission were set up in 1972 as successors to earlier arrangements to manage the space programme. Under the DOS, the Indian Space Research Organization is responsible for the execution of programmes through various establishments, its aim being to develop space technology and its applications. The DOS comes directly under the prime minister with the ISRO chairman also being designated the secretary of the DOS and chairman of the space commission. Such an organizational model, followed broadly also by the department of atomic energy, is not replicated elsewhere within the Indian governance system. Planners of the time recognized the technological challenges that lay ahead, and had clear and ambitious strategic plans for space and atomic energy. They anticipated that success demanded management models which were professionally driven, transparent, accountable and not overly bureaucratic.
Over the years, ISRO has established two major space systems, INSAT for communication-related activities and IRS for resources monitoring and management. Two satellite-launch vehicles, the PSLV and GSLV, have been developed to place the INSAT and IRS satellites respectively in the required orbits. Since ISRO provides commercial launch platforms for satellites, it must compete for a share in a highly developed and select international market. It does this through a commercial arm, which provides hardware and services to the commercial sector. Indeed, there is a view that ISRO has already generated returns in excess of the investments made by the Indian government in ISRO.
Eleven successful launches of the PSLV and GSLV series preceded this failure, which, though unfortunate, is by no means cause for despair. Those involved in the business of missiles and space are more than aware that risk is an integral part of the business. It was refreshing to see the chairman of ISRO face the press and transparently provide what information was available soon after the failed mission. The ISRO leadership style was apparent when he confidently announced that the problem will be identified and solved, and another GSLV launched within a year. Clearly, the organization, its leadership and indeed its motivated workforce are mentally prepared to face adversities of this nature and to overcome them. In the field of space and missiles, it is this spirit that differentiates the men from the boys. ISRO is clearly in the former league. Importantly, its potential customers across the globe will see this attitude as a sign of strength.
In contrast, the Agni III story runs somewhat differently, making one wonder if both the programmes are part of the same country, let alone the same government. It does not bode well for a strategically vital programme of this nature when we have the scientific adviser to the defence minister announcing to the public that Agni III (a new design) was ready for tests but awaiting political clearance, and the defence minister indicating that such a delay was owing to international commitments on non-proliferation. Then within a few days all this changes. With much fanfare, with the minister, top brass and media in attendance, the test launch takes place. When things go wrong, there is no formal announcement, only silence. We now have it from the defence minister that the test was a partial success, whatever this means. This is not how serious nuclear powers go about testing their frontline delivery systems. One wonders whether we are in the business of pandering to the gallery or of nuclear warfare. It cannot be both.
The story goes back over two decades when in a bold move India embarked on an ambitious integrated guided missile development programme that included missiles for various military applications including an intermediate range ballistic missile. The programme was to be managed by the Defence Research and Development Organization under the ministry of defence. Faced, as the MOD was, with such technologically challenging programmes all of which had specific and time-bound military applications and with the missile technology control regime in the offing, it seems a great pity that the MOD planners of the time failed to draw from space and atomic energy management models already operational at the time.
To a large extent, this single lapse has resulted in the two opposing scenarios that we see today. On the one hand, the significant strides made by our space and atomic energy programmes, and on the other, the stagnation in virtually all-indigenous military programmes whether it be the guided missile programme, the main battle tank or indeed the light combat aircraft. It is believed that during this crucial period of decision- making, the DRDO had taken on a larger-than-life image within the defence establishment, and saner voices were drowned and the service headquarters often bypassed. The well-established design and development department of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited that by right and experience should have been designated the design agency for the light combat aircraft was ignored in preference to a new Aeronautical Development Agency also working under the DRDO. Not surprisingly, even as the LCA programme gets inordinately delayed, HAL has successfully produced the Dhruv helicopter that is operational with the three services and has great export potential.
Of the four missiles that were to be inducted into the services ' Trishul, Akash, Nag and Prithvi ' so far, only the Prithvi has been inducted and the other three continue their development programmes far beyond their promised induction dates. In spite of induction, user trials of Prithvi still continue and there has been talk of foreclosing the Trishul programme. This is not an inspiring story from the viewpoint of a military starved of modern weapon systems.
The Agni programme was upgraded from a technology demonstrator to a service requirement even as the missile technology control regime came into existence in 1987 bringing with it export restrictions, which introduced greater technological challenges. These were in addition to the international non-proliferation pressures and denials. So we had a programme that faced challenges on three fronts ' namely, technology, geo-politics and an archaic management model. That the scientists and engineers at DRDO and many other facilities across the country joined to make the Agni series at all possible is certainly a story that needs telling. But at the end of the day, a nuclear-weapon power must possess a credible delivery system. Credible in the eyes of the international community and not through media hype alone. And for this not only must our testing regimes be thoroughly professional, but the weapon systems must also find user acceptance through field trials. These are international norms for all military systems, and missiles are no exception. In the lexicon of weapon system testing, there is no room for politico-military compromises. Whether the limited tests conducted with Agni I and II meet these stipulations is for the security planners to ponder. The international security community will make its own judgment.
The two failures give us the opportunity to reflect on how we are approaching the entire nuclear deterrent, and indeed our war-fighting, capabilities in the information age, where air and space are destined to play a vital role. The ISRO example tells us that, given the national will and an appropriate management model, we have the necessary skills to take on international competition in a hightechnology area. Odd failures along the way only make us wiser and our resolve stronger.
The Agni III failure highlights all that is wrong. It shows that the DRDO model for major weapon development programmes is inherently flawed and needs a complete overhaul. Shielded by a lack of transparency and with little accountability, its programmes continue to drift. Unkept promises, half-baked weapon systems and endless suspense are not conducive to meaningful defence capability in a challenging security environment. For a start, defence research needs to be delinked from weapon system design and development. The former is DRDO's domain, the latter that of industry.
It is still not too late for the government to completely overhaul the present management models for major defence projects, if the vast investments already made are to translate into meaningful weapon systems. If the two launch failures force this change in our thinking, they will have contributed immeasurably to national security.