Are our missiles riding into space on launch vehicles developed for satellites? Western think tanks have long suspected that the Indian space and guided missile programmes are intertwined. But such an assumption – often fuelled by security concerns about proliferation of ballistic missiles – seems far off the trajectory when one considers the relative success of our space programme and the not-so-good record of the country’s missile development programmes.
The talk of convergence between the two programmes is based on the logic that both satellite launch vehicles and missiles deploy similar launch technology. “The basic technology may be same. However, a satellite is sent into space while a missile reaches outer space and then re-enters the earth’s atmosphere, after which it has to engage the target correctly,” pointed out Dr Ajey Lele, strategic expert at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA).
Dr Dinshaw Mistry of the University of Cincinnati, who has examined the extent of links between ballistic missile and space rocket programmes in regional powers, said that missiles were derived from existing space launchers in just a small fraction of cases.
“In the 1980s and early 1990s there was some convergence between the two programmes because a 9-tonne, solid-fuel rocket was used for both India’s lightweight space rocket, SLV-3, and for its Agni-I and Agni-II missiles,” Mistry said.
Since then, he said, there has been considerable divergence. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has built Agni-III systems that use 30 to 40-tonne solid-fuel systems, while the state agency has built the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) with 130 to 140-tonne engines.
PSLV, which last month had its 22nd successive successful flight from Sriharikota, has emerged as the workhorse launcher of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). PSLV also launched India’s first spacecraft mission to moon, Chandrayaan-I, in 2008, and is slated to launch the country’s first interplanetary mission to the Mars later this year.
Mistry said “the space programme has been successful because it focused on one main system – PSLV – and has conducted over 20 launches of this system. The missile programme has spread its attention over more than five different missiles and, therefore, repeatedly switches time and resources among systems”.
“Traditionally, India has had space and missile development as two independent and separate programmes. We have enough technical and scientific manpower who work independently on these programmes. The talk of convergence is Western propaganda to push technology denial,” pointed out Lele.
In fact, space scientists said, ISRO’s launch programme has developed constantly under technology-denial regimes after the first nuclear explosion at Pokhran. Though there are no formal links between the DRDO and ISRO, the movement of scientists between the two organisations and informal exchange of notes is not ruled out.
ISRO attributes its success to its multi-disciplinary technology development teams, setting up of appropriate research and development labs, establishing critical manufacturing capability in industry, development of elaborate quality assurance protocols, test and evaluation procedures and well-equipped launchpads.
Key technologies developed by the agency include solid-propellant motors, earth-storable liquid propellant engines, avionics and navigation systems. For the GSLV, it has developed a cryogenic propulsion system, which was initially imported from Russia. It is also working on air-breathing propulsion and technologies related to reusable launch vehicles.