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Army on board, navy at sea

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By SUJAN DUTTA Arms and the man in Delhi
  • Published 4.04.09

New Delhi, April 4: Missile Man Sivathanu Pillai’s successful rapid-fire demonstrations of the BrahMos have scuttled a move in the army to import the Tomahawk or its clones and it is now set to order 260 of the home-grown weapons system.

A missile race is currently intensifying in South Asia — though both India and Pakistan deny it — and the militaries of both countries are trying to outdo each other in the acquisition of ordnance delivery systems.

India’s army chief, General Deepak Kapoor, is now in France. French firm MBDA is a supplier of different categories of missiles to India’s army, navy and air force.

Although the Indian Army has finally been awed by Pillai’s Mark II version of the BrahMos, the Indian Navy has been overtaken by the pace of the technology that Pillai’s outfit has set. It cannot spare a single one from its ageing fleet of submarines for BrahMos to test the underwater version of the missile.

The army has raised one regiment (numbered 861) of the BrahMos Mark I that has an inferior quality of seeker or homing device. Now two separate missile regiments of the BrahMos Mark II, which has a seeker that can discriminate and zero in on a small target in an urban clutter, will be raised and are likely to be numbered 862 and 863.

The BrahMos cruise missile regiments follow the raisings of the 333, 444 and 555 Prithvi and Agni II ballistic missile regiments. Each of the two new BrahMos cruise missile regiments would have between four and six batteries of three to four Mobile Autonomous Launchers that can be connected to a general mobile command post.

Pillai is now negotiating the order for the BrahMos Mark II with the army that could total between Rs 8,000 and Rs 10,000 crore. The deliveries of the missiles may be staggered for about 10 years after user trials.

The user trials would involve actual test-firings of the missile by the army to practise using the missile in tougher-than warlike scenarios because the Pokhran desert range (maximum length 52km) does not allow the BrahMos to be tested to its full range of 290km.

“Sometimes, technology sets a pace that the armed forces cannot absorb,” Pillai told The Telegraph. “If we get the support of the users (the armed forces), it becomes much easier. Right now we are facing problems with the navy.”

A submarine-launched missile has the supreme advantage of concealment. But the navy cannot spare even one of the 13 submarines in its fleet for Pillai to test the underwater version of the BrahMos. Pillai says testing the missile from a pontoon to simulate a submarine under water will not suffice.

The missile and its launcher would have to be integrated vertically — the picture that he draws is like a long snorkel — on the submarine.

Pillai says the navy’s Kilo-class (Russian-origin) submarines are not built to last long enough for the capability.

Even the French-origin Scorpene submarines that were ordered in 2006 and are now being built in France and co-developed in Mumbai’s Mazagon Docks are not configured for the BrahMos — a crucial failure when the contract for the submarines was drawn up.

So Pillai will have to wait till a subsequent contract for six additional submarines is drawn up before he can move his submarine-version BrahMos from the drawing board to the test-bed.

But most of the navy’s ships are being configured for the BrahMos either in India or in Russia. The INS Kolkata, a 7,000-tonne stealth destroyer being built in Mumbai, would have the BrahMos has its main weapons system.

The Indian Air Force has allotted two Sukhoi 30 Mki aircraft in which the air-to-air and air-to-ground versions of the BrahMos are being configured. Pillai expects the air force version of the missile to be ready by 2011.