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Star Wars setback as DRDO interceptor missile malfunctions

The Defence R&D Organisation’s (DRDO’s) internationally watched programme to develop an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) shield suffered a setback on Monday, when an interceptor missile missed its target. The ABM shield aims to protect Indian cities against nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles from Pakistan or China.

DRDO sources involved in the test say the Ashvin Air Defence (AAD) interceptor missile being tested blasted off at 11.45 a.m. from the Chandipur test range on the Odisha coast.

The missile was launched for the first time from a canister, which went off exactly as planned; and the AAD’s newly developed composite rocket motor functioned “perfectly”. However, seconds into the test, the missile deviated from its planned path and it quickly became clear that it would not hit the target as planned, at an altitude of 20 kilometres above the earth.

This test was conducted with a “virtual target”, instead of the Prithvi missile that the ABM programme has previously used to simulate an incoming enemy ballistic missile. The Prithvi can simulate only shorter-range missiles, while this test involved shooting down a longer-range enemy missile that is harder to engage. Such a test required a computer-simulated target image.

“We will analyse why the AAD fell short of its mission objectives, and which sub-system malfunctioned. We will know within a couple of days”, a DRDO missile scientist told Business Standard.There is no official word from the DRDO on the test.

The DRDO believes it can correct the problem and conduct another test within 30-45 days.

This was the seventh time the Ashvin interceptor was being tested, and the first time DRDO scientists have acknowledged system failure. One earlier test was not successful when the Prithvi target missile malfunctioned.

The ABM shield comprises three functional components: First, a ground based radar network that detects incoming enemy ballistic missiles, picking up the missile soon after launch, when the missile rises into the atmosphere. Satellite-based radar will increase the reaction time by detecting the missile on the ground itself, as soon as it is fired. Second, a command system tracks the enemy missile’s flight path, and assigns interceptor missiles to destroy the incoming missile, within the few minutes available. Finally, there are two kinds of interceptor missiles for destroying the enemy missile before its nuclear warhead fires. Each is guided towards the target by a “guidance radar”, while an on-board seeker takes over the job during the last few milliseconds, when the target and interceptor are moving towards each other at several thousand kilometres per hour.

The long-range interceptor, the Pradyumna, strikes the enemy missile while it is still more than 50 kilometres above the earth. This is backed-up by a shorter-range missile — the Ashvin, that was tested on Monday — which strikes the incoming missile in the upper atmosphere, i.e. at altitudes of 20-40 kilometres. 

While the government has not yet sanctioned the deployment of an operational ABM system, the DRDO has said that New Delhi would soon have an ABM shield.

Nuclear strategists and non-proliferation activists have criticized India’s ABM programme as “destabilising”, alleging that it would encouraging Pakistan to expand its arsenal. Experts also argue that ABM systems simply do not work. Were India to protect cities like Delhi and Mumbai with ABM shields, they say Pakistan would simply plan to fire a larger number at defended cities, to saturate and overwhelm their ABM defences.