Building Indigenous Missile Capability - An Imperative
Lt Gen (Dr) V K Saxena (Retd), PVSM, AVSM, VSM, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

When the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) was sanctioned way back in 1982-83, Agni Missile was not even a part of the four missile Projects in its development agenda which included the Prithvi Short Range Surface-to-Surface Missile, Trishul Short Range Surface-to-Air Missile (SRSAM), Akash Medium Range Missile (MRSAM) and Nag Anti-Tank Missile. Agni was simply conceived as a technology demonstrator.

Over the years while Prithvi and Agni charted a successful course whose contours are well known, the SAMs took a beating so to say. In that, while the Akash ended up as an SRSAM in 2015 after 17 years time over-run, Trishul was foreclosed in Feb 20081. From thereon till date and counting, there have been many attempts and fruitless chases to seek SAMs from around the world. Barring an odd success, the rest all have produced no end result.

This article argues that it is imperative and inescapable for the country to build its own SAM making capability rather than continue the endless chase world over with no results in sight. This is stated on two counts, firstly, because it is within the country’s reach (may be at a stretch), and secondly because too much is at stake if the critical operational voids due to the absence of various types of SAM are not addressed, sooner than later.

Why the Inescapability of Different types of SAMs?

There is an oft encountered query: why so many different types of SAMs? Why can’t one size fit all? The answer is because there is not just one type of aerial threat vehicle that will attack us. The air threat today is all weather, all terrain, multi-dimensional, multi-arsenal and even multi domain (implying hard kill, as well as, soft kill). The munitions are smart, intelligent and capable of being delivered from far off ranges in ‘Beyond Visual Range’ from where these can travel at supersonic speeds and with tools on board to home on to their targets with needle-sharp accuracy. In addition, the latest stealth technologies make today’s aerial threat vehicles nearly non-detectable to electronic sensors, allowing them to exploit their superior avionics and delivery techniques to cause maximum devastating effect on their targets. The advent of the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) has been nothing short of a revolution, giving nightmares to the defenders to take on these dull, dirty and dangerous war machines.

The latest re-vamping muscle in the body of the air threat has been the proliferation of cruise missiles, anti-radiation missiles as deadly and sure killers of radars, soft kill weapons which initially started out as laser weapons but are slowly stretching into the domain of microwave anti- material weapons and particle beam weapons with a potential to come down as ‘lightning bolts’ on their targets at the speed of light. Surely the air defenders are up against a huge challenge. Simply put, the challenge is to detect multiple air threat vehicles in a stealthy and a hostile electronic warfare environment as far forward as possible and to so deploy the air defence weapons that a continuous fire is brought to bear upon an intruder in a seamless manner successively shifting from weapon-to-weapon without a break till either the intruder is destroyed or he abandons his mission. And in case a determined attacker presses in all the way to its intended target, the terminal end weapons need to be so strong as to defeat /deter him before he releases the lethal load.

In achieving the above feat, the guns (with a few kilometres in range) have a role only at the terminal end of the defences; the rest of the ‘fire arm’ extending up to hundreds of kilometres in range and thousands of feet in altitude is to be provided by SAMs. Since every SAM based on its design and capability has a defined effective range and altitude envelope, different types of SAMs are needed to be deployed in overlapping layers to achieve the end-effect of producing successive and seamless fire on the air threat as described above. In addition, special SAMs are required for specialist air defence needs. For instance, for mobile and mechanised formations which move cross country in the battle fields, weapons static to a theatre grid are not suitable. SAMs in this scenario need to keep pace with the tanks and infantry combat vehicles, keep watch on the enemy air threat vehicles while on move and be in a position to deliver fire immediately on halt in the quick reaction mode. Such missiles are called the Quick Reaction Missiles or QRSAMs.
So much for ‘why one size cannot fit all’.

Keeping in mind the importance of the terminal end fire-effect, one of the most critical of the weapons required is man-portable missiles also called (MANPADS). These missiles along with guns are grouped in the category of Very Short Range Air Defence Systems (6-10 km) also called VSHORADS. Besides strengthening the end-game fire, such missiles are also invaluable in taking on opportunity targets that appear suddenly from nowhere ( like an attack helicopter doing the nap-of-the-earth flying and suddenly popping up from behind the hill or for laying air ambushes along the likely/inevitable avenues of enemy’s approach or along defiles/ passes etc. Besides the VSHORADS, and successively extending in range and altitude capability, other SAMs which are required are SRSAMs (30-40 km) MRSAMs (60-100 km) and Long Range SAMs (beyond 100 km) each effective in its own range-altitude kill zone. Besides this series, QRSAM (20-30 km) are required for armoured and mechanised forces as stated above.

The case of the author is that the country must acquire indigenous capability in producing the above missiles as the foreign route of procurement is unlikely to lead us anywhere. In fact, each of the above type of missile has its own long story of procurement. The attempt is to bring the reader up to date on each of these and make some viable suggestions for the foreseeable future.

Take the case of VSHORAD. It is surprising that the IGMDP never took this critical weapon system in its fold for indigenous development ab initio. Currently the Russian Igla 1M MANPADS serve in the category of VSHORAD in the three Services. There are critical voids in this category of SAMs basically for providing the most essential gun-missile combination at the terminal end of deployment. While attempts to procure VSHORADS on the Buy Global route started way back in 2003-04, the currently ongoing case started in 2010 seeking to buy a huge 5500-6000 missiles and 800 launching mechanisms at an approximate cost of 27000 crores. Three contenders were in the fray. M/s Saab Sweden offered their RBS 70 NG (NG meaning new generation), MBDA (France) offered Mistral and the Russians (Rosoboronexport) offered Igla-S VSHORADs. While Igla-S and Mistral are heat seeking fire and forget very short range SAMs, RBS 70 is a laser-guided missile which rides a laser signal that is beamed on to the target from its own launch station 2.

From 2012 when the trials started, till Nov 2018 is a period marked with trials, re-trials and re-re trials, quality assurance inspections, allegations and counter allegation by vendors and more. The same is not intended to be visited. What is of relevance is that in Nov 2018 the Russian Igla-S system was selected for procurement, being the lowest bidder3. It has been ten months down the line and no further movement has been reported in the open source on this issue. Following points are worth considering:-

  1. Critical operational voids in the VSHORAD domain remain unaddressed for a decade plus and counting. The most essential being the gun-missile combination at the terminal end of air defence deployments. Due to this void, the Integrated Air Defence System (IADS) will remain week-kneed at its origin where most end-games will get executed.
  2. The pace of procurement on the Buy global route will continue to move on its snail’s pace as has been the precedent. There is always a lurking danger of the other two vendors putting spokes in this procurement questioning the validity of the Russian contender on real/false pretence, both of which have the potential to put brakes on the ongoing procurement process; albeit temporarily.
  3. Over the long intervening period since the start of the procurement case in 2003-04 operational voids have increased substantially. Buy Global route of procurement is unlikely to catch up on the voids in time and space.
  4. Today is an era of Make in India driven by the vehicles of Joint Ventures (JVs), Memorandum of Understandings (MoUs), co-development, co-production and more.
  5. The DRDO has the opportunity as well as the capability to get into making the VSHORADS on the indigenous route. World players on the VHORAD scene will be more than willing to be a part of this venture under the Make-in-India banner.

As regards building indigenous capability to build VSHORADS, there already have been some positive developments in the recent past. In that, it was reported in Jul 2019 that Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL) is planning to set up a VSHORAD missile manufacturing capability in Amravati Mahrashrtra at a cost of Rs 300 cr. Also, there is an ongoing MoU between BDL and M/s Thales of France for the strategic transfer of technology for the Starstreak VSHORAD from UK4. This VSHORAD has a dual kill capability of catastrophic impact kill through sub-munition ‘darts’ as well as, an explosive kill delivered precisely at the target through a laser guidance system5.

The answer therefore lies in the twin track approach. In that, on one hand, procurement of Igla S must be expedited, while on the other, all efforts must be made to get onto the route of acquiring indigenous capability of making VSHORADS for the defence forces. We have a great leverage of forcing a full Transfer of Technology ToT in the 27000 crore deal with Russians as well.

The next SAM in the series is SRSAM. While Trishul as an SRSAM got foreclosed due to the unsolved issue of missile gathering after launch and its subsequent guidance, DRDO learnt some very valuable lessons. Interestingly, Akash which was to be fielded as an MRSAM, actually ended up as an SRSAM since driven by the air threat, the range perception for an MRSAM itself went up from 25-35 km to 60-100 km.

Akash SRSAM with nearly 100 percent indigenous content is a good fit. This all-the-way-powered missile propelling at Mach 2.5 up to an altitude of 18000 m and achieving a range of 25-30 km with a single shot kill probability in excess of 80 percent is the first indigenous weapon system developed by DRDO to get production orders more than 25,000 cr6. Incidentally, the DRDO in May 2019 has successfully test fired the upgraded version of Akash called Akash IS which features an indigenous seeker which can target the inbound missile more accurately. 7

The following points are worthy of note in regard to SRSAM and Akash:-

  1. More than being just a part of the multi-layered missile defence for the Tactical Battle Area (TBA), short range missiles like the Akash SRSAM are ideal in providing protection to such strategic assets dumps and storages which are located in the hinterland are critically required to sustain and propel the war-waging capability of the forces. In addition, Akash can also provide the missile shield over civilian strategic assets of the country (nuclear installations, oil refineries, critical storage dumps etc.)
  2. All out efforts must therefore be made to enhance Akash Missile production pace and throughput, year on year.
  3. Not only the TBA and the rear area voids of the forces are required to be addressed, but also, the missile shield needs to be extended to threat-vulnerable strategic civilian assets of the nation located close to the border, as well as in the hinterland.
  4. In addition to all the above, Akash is one weapon system for which there is a growing export market. During the ASEAN-India commemorative Summit in New Delhi on the eve of Republic Day in Jan 2018 when the 10 ASEAN nations met the PM, the export of BrahMos and Akash were on the top in the agenda. Financial Express reported in Mar 2019 that a few countries from the ASEAN region, as well as few Gulf countries have shown interest in Akash. This can only be exploited if the production is stepped up to meet internal demands and yet create a surplus to feed the export market.

The next missile in the series is the QRSAM. As the name suggests, QRSAM is a surface to air missile which can respond very quickly to the air threat from the adversary. This air threat may be prosecuted by aircrafts, attack helicopters, cruise missiles, anti-radiation missiles and a host of precision guided munitions called the PGMs. By definition QRSAMs satisfy the following three criteria:-

  1. These missiles are mounted on high mobility vehicles or tank chassis due to which these can move cross country and can keep pace with the mobile and mechanised formations in the battle field such as tanks, armoured fighting vehicles of mechanised infantry, self-propelled artillery and more.
  2. QRSAMs can carry out surveillance of aerial targets while on move and can even track (lock for firing) the chosen targets for firing.
  3. The targets locked for firing can be engaged immediately when the QRSAM launcher halts.

Armoured and mechanised forces are highly lucrative targets for enemy air as these operate in the forward battle space. These elements are particularly vulnerable to low flying stealthy aircrafts that defy radar detection and suddenly appear at close ranges for a precision kill. These are also vulnerable to the deadly attack helicopters that have the capability to fly in the nap of the earth and take on opportunity kills from behind the hills/obstacle systems. Mechanised elements require close and intimate protection. Gun and VSHORAD systems on self-propelled chassis and QRSAMs do this job in unison.

That much for the criticality of the QRSAM.

The QRSAM the global acquisition programme to replace the ageing Russian origin QRSAMs (Strela 10m and OSA AK) began in 2007. Several iterations of procurement cycles unfolded without any fruitful outcome. There were a number of QRSAM options, namely, Pantsyr (Russia), QRSAM (M/s IAI Israel), Spyder (M/s Rafael Israel) etc. Multi-Disciplinary Technical Delegation (MDTD) went to several countries to checkout their QRSAM offers but the same could not be brought to success for multiple reasons which are not covered here. While the Buy Global procurement route was in process, a Project to develop indigenous QRSAM was sanctioned to Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in Jun 2014. DRDO had gained domain experience in building QRSAMs during their JV with MBDA France in building a SAM called Maitri which remained unsuccessful though. As the years rolled, DRDO as the design agency along with Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL) and Bharat Dynamics Ltd (BDL) as Production agencies reported success on indigenous QRSAM, called QRSAM (I).

Successful testing of the SAM was thereafter reported in Jun 2017 and Jul 2017, thereafter there was a failed test launch in Apr 2018 followed by another successful launch in May 20188. In this test the Solid Fuel Ducted Ramjet (SFDR) was successfully tested. This was a niche technology and marked India's entry into a select club of nations that use next generation missile technology against manoeuvring targets. SFDR technology boosts the performance of the missile by enhancing its strike range and improving its kill effectiveness thereby compromising the effectiveness of conventional threat missiles. Lately in Feb 2019 and again in Aug 2019 QRSAM (I) was successfully test fired demonstrating its aerodynamics, propulsion, structural performance and high manoeuvring capabilities9.

The following points are worthy of note as regards the QRSAM:-

  1. Given the fact that the QRSAM (I) is nearly at the end of its design-development-testing cycle, DRDO should offer the system to the user with a demonstrable claim of having met all the GSQR parameters.
  2. This should be quickly followed up with the user trials leading to the validation and acceptance of the weapon as a fully GSQR compliant system.
  3. The above, if concluded successfully, will lead to the process of induction of QRSAM in the Army.
  4. This cycle though looks straight is actually quite long and can extend to several years. The aim should be to cut it down to as short as possible as the critical air defence voids in the mechanised forces need to be addressed, sooner than later.
  5. The need for early induction of QRSAM assumes much higher significance in the current scenario of Integrated Battle Groups (IBG), the first one of which is due to become a reality soon as the Yol based 9 Corps converts to IBGs by the end of 2019. These armoured and mechanised heavy battle formations will be particularly vulnerable to the air threat and would require their essential and inevitable component of air defence cover that can keep pace with them in battle manoeuvres and be deadly enough to keep the enemy air at bay10. Need for QRSAMs is therefore time critical.

Now a closing word on MRSAM, As is well known, the case for MRSAM for the three Services is being procured through a Joint Venture between DRDO and M/s Israeli Aerospace Industry (IAI). After many years of inordinate delays related to the terms of contract, quality of work-share for India, glitches in transfer of technology, especially in the niche areas like active seeker etc., finally the Project is moving forward. After a series of successful/failed tests over the last three years. It was reported in May 2019 that the Naval version of the missile was test-fired successfully11.

Be that as it may, following imperatives need to be kept in mind:-

  1. The MRSAM Project has been delayed by nearly seven years and one of the major reasons has been the quality and quantum of work-share which the DRDO and BDL got in the JV. This work-share was initially low-end which would have kept us hanging with a string of perpetual dependence on IAI. While this improved over the years, it still is far from desired. The JV however moves on with the other two Services hoping to commence getting their MRSAMs in 2-3 years from now in the ‘best case scenario’.
  2. As has been the central thrust in this article, the only way to break the noose of perpetual dependence is through building indigenous capability. In this case as well, there is big hope and that hope lies in the Akash Missile. There is a possibility to increase the Akash range to the MRSAM bracket. Many options are available, viz, improving propellant chemistry, adding propellant stages, reducing component throughput weight, improving aerodynamics and more.
  3. The win-win situation of having one missile serving multiple needs, that too all 100% indigenous need not be elaborated. The DRDO-IAI MRSAM and Akash MRSAM can co-exist as the voids to be covered are large, especially for the surface forces where Akash has a growing presence today in the SRSAM bracket.

Thus goes the status of air defence missiles. Time has shown repeatedly the dysfunctionality of Buy Global procurement route. The solution lies in building the indigenous muscle sooner than later.

  1. “Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme”, at Accessed on 09 Sep 2019.
  2. India’s VSHORAD modernisation Programme yet to take off”, at Accessed on 10 Sep 2019.
  3. “Russia to bag $1.5 billion deal for air defence missiles”, at Accessed on 10 Sep 2019.
  4. “Missile manufacturer BDL to have 25000 crore orders”, at Accessed on 29 Sep2019.
  5. “Starstreak anti-aircraft Guided Missile System”, at Accessed on 29 Sep 2019
  6. “Akash surface to air Missile System”, at Accessed on 10 Sep 2019.
  7. “DRDO successfully test fires Akash 1S surface to air Missile”, at Accessed on 10 Sep 2019.
  8. "Quick Reaction Surface to air Missile successfully test fired", at Accessed 14 Sep 2019
  9. “India test-fires Quick Reaction Surface to air Missile”, at www.economictimes.indiatimes .com. Accesses on 29 Sep 2019.
  10. “Army’s Integrated Battle Groups will allow more ‘unpredictable’ response”, at Accessed on 29 Sep 2019
  11. “Indian Navy successfully test-fires MRSAM missile”, at Accessed on 29 Sep 2019.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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