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Longest wait for result of fastest missile

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By SUJAN DUTTA in Delhi
  • Published 7.03.09
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New Delhi, March 7: Three days after India’s military scientists tested a missile that they said took 150 seconds to reach its target, India’s army is still evaluating if it hit the bull’s eye in Rajasthan’s Pokhran desert firing range.

By any standard, 72 hours must be one of the longest periods a supersonic missile — which is touted as the world’s fastest — has taken for an evaluation. The Brahmos Mark II is said to be capable of flying at 2.8 mach or nearly 2.8 times the speed of sound.

The US Tomahawk cruise missile, meanwhile, is knocking on India’s door. Its maker, Raytheon Corporation, has contracted orders for the latest Block IV version of the missile to the UK’s Royal Navy.

Raytheon has also made friendly enquiries in India and has offered to make presentations to the Indian armed forces.

Raytheon has earlier sold through government-to-government contracts six Firefinder artillery gun locating radars to India and is currently supplying equipment to India’s navy and air force apart from the army.

The Indian Army began raising a regiment of the Brahmos Mark I in 2007. The latest Mark II version is claimed to be four times faster and twice as heavy as the Tomahawk.

The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is also developing a Tomahawk clone, a secret project called the Nirbhay that is being prepared by the Advanced Systems Laboratory in Hyderabad. The Nirbhay is due for testing by end-2009.

The defence research establishment suspects that if Wednesday’s test is shown as a failure, competitors stand to gain.

For Sivathanu Pillai, the director of the Brahmos Mark II project, the Indian Army’s tests on the world’s fastest supersonic cruise missile are a nailbiter.

Brahmos is an acronym from the words Brahmaputra — India’s largest river — and Moskva — one of Russia’s best-known rivers — and is a joint venture between the DRDO and the NPO Mashinostroynia, the Russian Federal Unitary Enterprise.

A test of the Brahmos Mark II on January 20 went awry in mid-flight after a successful launch, missing the target. That test was witnessed by the Indian army chief, General Deepak Kapoor, among others.

The army was smug and, honestly, not unhappy with the failure.

The scientists concluded that a homing device on the Mark II version had failed and the missile missed the target by inches. Pillai had promised it would be set right within weeks and called for a re-test within a fortnight.

After the test on Wednesday (March 4), when Pillai briefly told a local radio correspondent that the test was a success and since then has gone mum, the standard army line has been “we are evaluating if it has met the general staff quality requirements”. The response from the Brahmos project team has been “you will have to ask the army”.

The army team at Wednesday’s test was led by the deputy chief of army staff (planning and systems), Lt Gen Madan. The parameters of the tests have not been made known but two of these are obvious.

First, whether it has hit the target, the bull’s eye, or not.

Second, because it is a cruise missile, whether it has performed an “S” manoeuvre to be able to evade an interceptor.

“We need to study every aspect,” said a senior army officer. “A series of tests have to be performed before we place an order worth Rs 10,000 crore,” he said.

In the 72 hours and more since the test, India’s defence research establishment is still sure about the speed of its missile but is less than sure about the pace of deployment.