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Missile Man pierces army apathy How a tenacious technocrat put the supersonic BrahMos back on track

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By SUJAN DUTTA AND G.S. MUDUR (What powers BrahMos Mark II - to be published in The Telegraph 7Days on Sunday) in Delhi
  • Published 3.04.09

New Delhi, April 3: India can stake claim to be among the first in the world to be ready with a supersonic land-attack cruise missile because of the tenacity of an unheralded Missile Man whose pet project was almost written off for aiming too high.

Sivathanu Pillai, a technocrat whose bald pate is not covered by berets, whose chest is bereft of medals and shoulders of epaulettes, dared the Indian Army by claiming he would arm its artillery divisions with a missile the world had not seen.

The army is led by an artillery officer, General Deepak Kapoor, who wanted to see this wonder weapon himself.

So he led a team to the Pokharan desert range on January 20. The general witnessed the dismal failure of the BrahMos Mark II personally.

Yet, in the space of just over two months, Pillai produced a missile — a supersonic cruise missile for the army — through three rapid-fire tests that left the generals gasping for its uniqueness, for its speed and for Pillai’s sheer grit.

Pillai has made the BrahMos Land Attack Cruise Missile Mark II real despite opposition from the Indian Army that kept upping its demands and reducing the size of the targets in the tests.

The first target was the size of a factory, the second, also a factory the size of a large building and the third, a small building in a simulated urban cluster. The missile was tasked to hit the factory in the first two tests. In the third test, it was to discriminate, select and choose its target before destroying it.

Pillai’s BrahMos missed the first. The mission was aborted after the missile went off-target mid-course despite a successful launch on January 20 when the army chief was witness.

After the second test, on March 4, seen by deputy army chief Lt Gen M.S. Dadwal, Pillai said it was a success but the army said it was “evaluating and analysing” the results even three days after the test.

“The missile was in the target area all right,” Gen Kapoor said of the test. “But there has been one failure (on January 20) so we need confirmation and there are some technical issues.”

Then on March 29 — just last week — Pillai requested the army to send a team to witness another test. The director general of military operations, Lt Gen A.S. Sekhon, led a team.

This time, the army put up just a sheet as a target with reflectors on two sides to deflect the missile from its trajectory.

Pillai’s BrahMos hit bull’s eye. Without waiting for official word from the army this time, Pillai went public, proclaiming its success.

“In 15 minutes flat,” he put it simply in his chamber inside the headquarters of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in an interview to The Telegraph, “your enemy country can be destroyed and you do not even have to go nuclear.”

Pillai is the chief executive officer and the head of the Indo-Russian BrahMos, an acronym from the Brahmaputra and Moskva rivers. He is also the chief controller for armaments, land and naval systems in the DRDO.

“In the Iraq war, the US launched 1,000 Tomahawks in half a day,” he recalled. “You have to think on that scale. And the BrahMos is supersonic. It cannot be intercepted. Even we cannot do anything to it, once we launch it. Fire and forget. You think of the missile in hundreds, thousands, like you think of many, many arrows being fired from a quiver,” he said.

Two other known supersonic land-attack cruise missiles under development are the Fasthawk, made by Boeing in the US, and the French ANS. China also has a supersonic missile programme.

The BrahMos is ready.

Then why did the Indian Army open itself to suggestions that it was not keen on the project? Clear-cut answers won’t be available to such questions. But the army has been seeing demonstrations of missiles by Raytheon Corporation. A section of the army’s artillery officers has been impressed by it.

A piece of history that DRDO’s scientists are familiar with was in danger of being repeated: was another indigenous, rather, a semi-indigenous military programme going to be sacrificed in the interest of imports? And to the benefit of middlemen who would earn fat commissions? All in the name of national security? And national interest?

But this week — soon after Pillai’s third test — the vice-chief of army staff, Lt Gen Noble Thamburaj, announced at a seminar: “The BrahMos Mark II is ready for induction. The missile’s accuracy, lethality and range have made it a deadly combination.”

The army is now ready to raise two regiments of the BrahMos Mark II.