April 28, 2007

India : Strategic projects need leaders, not crabs

By Bharat Karnad

K. Santhanam, a retired senior Defence Research and Development Organisation functionary and former director of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, is quoted by a news agency report on the test-firing of the Agni-III intermediate range ballistic missile as saying that developing a follow-on intercontinental-range ballistic missile is inadvisable because it "would unnecessarily affect ties"
with the United States and endanger the nuclear deal, that the country "should be satisfied with being a "leading regional power," and that, in any case, "even in its wildest dreams, India does not plan to be a global superpower."

That India is not about to become a "global superpower" in a hurry, is true. But is that reason enough to deny this country the building block capabilities of great power � proven and reliable advanced thermonuclear weaponry (which the nuclear deal seeks to prevent this country from acquiring by prohibiting further testing) and long range missiles? With such views animating the Indian government's outlook
and policy, it is no surprise that official strategic thinking finds itself wrong-footed on important foreign-military issues and on the wrong side of vital national interests. And this, mind you, at a time when the nuclear deal is dead and awaits only a formal burial; and the ICBM, as the normally cautious DRDO chief, G. Natarajan, has ventured, is the next natural missile threshold for India to cross.

Had Santhanam questioned the ability of the Agni programme to deliver an ICBM on time and without cost over-runs, he would be on stronger ground. But the various ills afflicting the country's strategic programmes are attributable, in the main, to the lack of quality leadership. Absent strong and visionary leaders able, on the one hand, to motivate the staff and propel the project forward and, on the other
hand, authorised to mobilise all available national resources cutting across government departments and private industry, to stay the dead hand of bureaucratic functioning, and expeditiously to resolve intra- and inter-agency tussles, these programmes have floundered. Indeed, after Dr Homi J. Bhabha, who spearheaded the dual purpose nuclear programme and achieved weapons capability by 1964, i.e., within 17 years of starting from a zero baseline, the country has had no czar to oversee the development of strategic technologies or comparable successes. As a result, the landscape is littered with technology development programmes that have produced little except tension between the DRDO and the military.

Two strategic programmes in particular dealing with the nuclear-powered submarine and the 5,000 km Agni-IV and the Surya ICBM, should be fast-tracked, put under Bhabha-type dispensations with czars being appointed and made accountable for delivery of the finished products within set time-frames � the target dates for the submarine to go to sea-trials should be 2009-2010; and the Agni-IV ought to be
test-fired by 2008-2009 and an ICBM by 2012 on the outside. It is a historic "what if" question, but what if Jawaharlal Nehru had not intuitively made the correct selection in the scientifically and administratively-gifted Bhabha? The chances are Nehru's ambitious "Janus-faced" nuclear programme would have spluttered interminably as many other projects have done since. So, the selection of the right persons as czars of the two programmes is imperative.

As a matter of fact, the Manmohan Singh government in its early days in 2004 had the right idea of spinning off the long range Agni missiles programme from the DRDO and choosing R.N. Agarwal, who had lost out in the race for the post of science adviser to defence minister and DRDO chief, to head this new organisation. Dr Agarwal,
the most accomplished missile-man after Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, had led the Advanced Systems Laboratory, Hyderabad, with great success. ASL, tasked with designing, developing and producing, on a hand-tooled basis, a variety of Agni long range missile prototypes for test launches, and with firming up the missile technology platform for Bharat Dynamic Ltd to use in serial manufacture, is one of the few
unvarnished DRDO success stories. During Agarwal's tenure, ASL developed and incorporated into the Agni-III innovative design features not found in missiles in service with many advanced nations.

Like the flexible rocket nozzle and the technology to enable the Agni, in its terminal phase, to pull endo-atmospheric manoeuvres, making it all but impossible for radar to track it, leave alone allow a ballistic missile defence system to interdict it. But the then defence minister, Pranab Mukherjee, backed out owing to in-house DRDO opposition to giving the Agni programme autonomy and Dr Agarwal
overarching co ntrol of it. It was the same old "crabs in the basket" story wherein, owing to envy, jealousy or plain cussedness, natural leaders in Indian organisations are pulled down by their peers. But it is now time to revive the concept of a completely independent long range Agni Missiles Programme (AMP) directly under the defence minister and, in its initial phase, to get Dr Agarwal to head it.

The Advanced Technology Vehicle (ATV) programme � a ridiculous moniker for the nuclear-powered submarine project � has been in the doldrums for much of its existence. Significantly, it experienced a surge during the years that Vice-Admiral R. Ganesh headed it. Admiral Ganesh, captained the INS Chakra � the Charlie-class submersible leased from the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s and, damagingly for the
genuinely st rategic aspirations of the Navy, returned to Moscow after only five years, when the whole system was available to be absorbed by India at a throwaway price. It was a most short-sighted move by the Indian government and led to the loss for nearly a generation of hands-on nuclear submarine handling skills. The point to make is that this project has suffered hugely owing to non-submariners being
pitch-forked into leading it. Predictably, they used their positions mostly for socialising and personal public relations, because lack of familiarity with the platform and relevant technology is a liability they could not surmount. Non-experts at the helm meant no technical direction and oversight from the top. The urgent need is, therefore, for a stalwart submariner to take charge. Scanning the Navy rolls,
there is no better fit for this post than Vice-Admiral A.K. Singh, presently Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Eastern Naval Command, retiring April-end.

Among the last of the serving officers to crew the Chakra, Admiral Singh has spent the bulk of his service career in submarines and ashore in various capacities in the submarine establishment in Vishakhapatnam and as Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff (Submarines) at the Naval Headquarters. Trained in the Soviet Union, familiar with
the nuances of Russian submarine technology and standard operating procedures, fluent in the Russian language and with vast experience of dealing with the Russian naval establishment, he will be a priceless asset in enhancing cooperation with Russia on this project, which is critical to its success. Reportedly, he is on the Navy's short-list. But it remains to be seen whether his candidature will be pushed hard by the Navy and whether the Indian government will show the wisdom in
installing him at the top of inarguably the most decisive underway strategic programme. The ATV project promises thermonuclear-tipped ballistic missiles fired from a nuclear-powered submarine � the most invulnerable, survivable, and lethal leg of the retaliatory triad in the national nuclear deterrent.

With the no-nonsense and performance-oriented Dr Agarwal and Admiral Singh heading the Agni Missiles Programme and the ATV project respectively, a vertically-launched 250-300 kiloton thermonuclear warheaded IRBM for the indigenous nuclear-powered submarine can be concurrently and collaboratively developed by these two units and
readied for service in double-quick time. This is eminently realisable, as are many other equally challenging technology programmes, but only if the right kind of organisations are configured and the right sort of persons put in charge of them. And, if those in policy circles who entertain small ambitions for India are kept at bay.

Bharat Karnad is Professor at the Centre for Policy Research and author of Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security, now in its second edition

No comments: