Monday, August 10, 2015

Rise of the BrahMos - The brainchild of APJ Abdul Kalam; Part-I

BrahMos Cruise Missile - The Finest cruise missile system

BrahMos being reading for validation fire; Source - DRDO

   Currently the world’s fastest cruise missile and capable of decimating targets with pin-point accuracy, this missile system is uninterceptable when fired in a salvo. The missile is the most feared among the western countries, for the NATO is yet to find a way to counter it. Which is the missile so potent to break NATO’s interceptor systems? It’s none other than the BrahMos jointly developed by the true magicians of missile technology, India and Russia. BrahMos is just not a missile system, but a tech demonstrator, an exhibit for joint venture’s between nations.

    But how was an ambitious and ahead of time project like BrahMos constituted? The roots of BrahMos lie within the success of it’s closest competitor the legendary ‘Tomahawk missiles’ but how? How was such a futuristic project influenced by its rival design and success? It was soon after the success of American forces in the gulf war, India realized the importance of a cruise missile. The top brains of DRDO, was very mesmerized with the success of ‘Tomahawk’ in annihilating, Saddam’s Iraq forces. India had a close call, when the 7th fleet ‘Task force’ of the US navy had lurked in its backyard during the 1971 war. The day was saved only after India's long-time ally, Russia fielded its nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines across Indian coasts. Had the '7th fleet'/'Task force' launched the 'Tomahawk', India would have been a sitting duck waiting to be squashed. Hence a program was constituted by India’s celebrated missile scientist ‘APJ Abdul Kalam’, to arm the nation with cruise missiles.

    Kalam, DG, DRDO considered developing an advanced delivery system that would be extremely accurate and at the same time extremely cost effective, so the program design headed towards a cruise missile delivery system. Things gather pace as, Kalam roped in his colleague and the former pilot of India’s futuristic IGMDP project, Sivanthanu Pillai to head the design and development of the program. The very main aim of the program was to develop a cruise missile delivery system, which was far more superior to the Tomahawk missile systems. Various options were considered to make the system superior but the answer was simple ‘fasten the missile system’. Faster the missile travels, the more ground can be covered in shorter span of time and thus crippling the response time of the enemies.

INS Kolkata D-63 firing BrahMos missile off Karwar; Source - Net

     Increasing the speed was one part, but India had to first master the technology of developing a basic delivery system for the program to evolve. The process of developing the system would mandate, Indian scientists to cross through various technological hurdles. Kalam the then Scientific advisor for the PM was worried about the time-frame that would be required to develop a delivery system and also the influence on the project by India’s political crisis. Kalam using his unmatchable managerial skills, considered the option of setting up a private company which would work far away from the influence of the political circles thus speeding up the time-frame. The next to address was the technological barriers, there was the strict MTCR clauses meaning India could not look at foreign support but to develop the system indigenously.

    The then Program Director (PD) Sivanthanu Pillai for a non-existent program of India, would travel to Moscow for meeting NPO Mashinostroyenia (NPOM) officials in regard to the Akash SAM systems which were being developed with NPOM. Pillai writes it was during one such meet that BrahMos matured, the topic in discussion was the success of Tomahawk cruise missiles in the gulf war. Pillai then put forward, India’s interest in acquiring a supersonic cruise missile system, responding spontaneously to Pillai’s quest, NPOM officials threw light towards the existence of a liquid propellant Ramjet engine. Developed in the collapsing years of the Soviet Union the Ramjet engines could propel the delivery systems to supersonic speeds. With the Soviet Union collapsing and economical crunches, the development was halted and the engine technology written off.

BrahMos Block - III being test fired; Source - ForceIndia

   Pillai arriving to India, informed his boss, Abdul Kalam about the existence of a propulsion system,incidentally this was the missing part in India’s quest to master the cruise missile technology. Kalam then informed the higher ranks of the government and soon a hotline for negotiations with the Russians was opened. Pillai again visited Moscow, and met H. Yefremov, the then director general of NPOM when presented with the idea of co-developing a missile, it is learnt Yefremov was enchanted and agreed for a ToT of the propulsion systems. From here on, Yefremov took every possible way to get a JV sanctioned for co-development of the missile system. Finally the governments cleared the decks for the development of a missile system and Indian’s were shown the Ramjet engines which was promising to change India’s missile arsenal. A Joint Venture (JV) was being worked upon when the program received a major blow, Russia rejected to provide any financial assistance for the program. The program was valued at around US $1500 million, a 50-50 JV was India’s goal but Russia rejected the idea, quoting its technological assistance for the program. Pillai and his team continued negotiations with the Russians and finally pulled in a US $250 million initial investment from the Russians.

   The project still lacked money and given India’s financial condition, any more demand would signal the closure of the program itself. The program hit a deadlock and work seized, but Kalam and Pillai continued their negotiations relentlessly, an ‘out of the box’ idea provided by then Indian ambassador to Russia, Satinder K. Lambah saved the project. India at that time was returning debts worth billions of ruble to Russians, Mr. Satinder proposed a retrospective idea of India investing the remaining US $500 million of Russia’s investment. The same would then deduced in India's share of debt amount owed to Russia. Even though the idea was cheered by NPOM and DRDO, fierce uproar by Russian Finance ministry saw the near scrapping of the program. But the savior angel, stepped in the form of the then Russian deputy defense minister N V Mikhailov. Mr. Mikhailov fought at the highest possible level to get the project cleared and made sure the project saw the light.

   On February 12th 1998, APJ Abdul Kalam and the then Russian deputy defense minister N V Mikhailov, signed an inter-governmental agreement paving for BrahMos aerospace. BrahMos is simply the portmanteau of the rivers Brahmaputra and Moskva.  BrahMos aerospace came into solid existence with, DRDO acquiring 50.5 % share and NPOM holding 49.5% share. The work final started in March 1999 with, Russian government and Indian government releasing US $123 and US $127 million respectively for the project. Working under the JV, NPOM was to deliver the missile system and DRDO was responsible for the developing the crucial guidance and control systems, software packages and electronics systems for the missile.

Article by - Karthik Kakoor

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