Vol. 5 Num 760 Mon. July 17, 2006  

After the Agni-III crash

WHAT a dramatic coincidence! Two Indian rockets, meant to escape the earth's atmosphere under the trust of their powerful engines, crash into the sea one after another. Both are built by prestigious institutions. Each failure inflicts a Rs 200 crores-plus loss on a country which cannot feed all its people!

The coincidence ends there. The failures of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO)'s Agni-III missile and the Indian Space Research Organisation's Geostationary Space Launch Vehicle are totally disparate.

ISRO's failure is "honourable" and redeemable. Such mishaps are not uncommon globally. Satellite launches occur under extreme stress, so even minute faults translate into large abnormalities. But DRDO's failure may not be redeemable. It caps its poorly performing Integrated Guided Missile Development Program.

ISRO isn't flawless. Post-1979, six of its 21 launches (29 percent) have failed -- compared to five percent for the European Ariane. But ISRO has shown an upward learning-curve. It's likely to bounce back.

DRDO remains plagued by incompetence, inefficiency and a hyper-bureaucratic, secretive culture. It shows little will or ability to learn.

The ISRO crash sets back India's moderately successful civilian satellite programme. The Agni-III was designed to be a military means to bring Beijing and Shanghai into the range of India's nuclear deterrent. Its success would have triggered a missile-centred arms race -- just when Sino-Indian relations are looking up.

The decision to launch INSAT-4C was wholly Indian. The Agni-III decision was driven partly by the United States' plans to contain China through India. Last month, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff Peter Pace publicly encouraged India to test-fly Agni-III.

Contrary to his claim that that this wouldn't destabilise the regional military balance, it would have adversely affected Sino-Indian relations. The India-Pakistan nuclear and missile race is bad enough. Extending it to China would degrade India's security.

The Agni-III failure holds many lessons. DRDO has an annual budget of Rs 3,000 crores -- of the same order as the Department of Atomic Energy, which runs India's civilian-and-military-nuclear programs. This is reason enough to hold DRDO accountable.

We still don't know the causes of the crash of the new-design Agni-III. According to sympathetic reports, these lie in basic defects such as using the wrong propellant, not malfunctioning of specific mechanisms. DRDO has rarely succeeded in developing new designs -- as distinct from limited reverse-engineering.

In the 1970s, it launched two missile programmes but had to abandon them. "Project Valiant", an ambitious attempt to develop a 1,500 km-range missile, totally failed. "Project Devil" partially succeeded in "reverse-engineering" the Soviet SA-2 to produce Prithvi (range 150-250 km).

Prithvi, then, isn't truly indigenous. Nor is it very dependable. Its liquid fuel is highly corrosive. Its launch demands half-a-day-long preparation. No wonder the armed forces resist buying it.

DRDO didn't develop the Agni series on its own either. The missile's first stage is ISRO's SLV-3 space-launching rocket. DRDO simply fitted a Prithvi on top! The Agni was first test-flown in 1989. But after three flights, it was declared a "technology demonstrator."

India suspended Agni tests in 1994-1999. It was re-launched as Agni-II (range, 2,000-2,500 km), with both stages solid-fuelled. Agni-II was test-flown just three times before it was declared ready for serial production.

By international standards, a missile isn't considered developed unless it undergoes 12 to 20 test-flights under different weather and operational conditions for range and accuracy. It's vital that missiles carrying nuclear warheads have a near-zero failure rate -- to minimise accidents. But DRDO has always compressed several stages of development into a few launches.

In January 2002, DRDO announced the test of a new shorter-range (800-900 km) Agni-I. This too was declared ready for production after just three tests.

DRDO started work on the Agni-III in 1999 and announced it would be ready for a test-flight by 2003. The test was postponed twice for "political" reasons -- averting Washington's displeasure. But it's not clear that DRDO was really ready to test. The final clearance came only after Gen Pace's visit.

DRDO's poor performance isn't confined to missiles alone. "DRDO isn't the world's most reliable weapons agency," says Admiral L. Ramdas, former chief of Naval staff. "The armed services' experience with DRDO-made armaments has not been happy."

No major DRDO project has ever been completed on time or without cost overruns. Consider the three biggest: a Main Battle Tank (MBT), a nuclear-powered submarine, and an advanced Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). The MBT project was launched in 1974. But the tank has failed to meet service requirement tests. It's reportedly too heavy and undependable to be used in combat. The army prefers Russian tanks and says it will use MBTs for training, not operations.

The submarine project launched 31 years ago is unfinished despite having sucked up Rs 3,000 crores. The reactor hasn't yet been tested with the hull. The LCA project, launched in 1983, is still in the doldrums. The DRDO has failed to develop its engine.

The primary reason for this shocking underperformance is DRDO's lack of public accountability.

DRDO's malaise comes from India's low standards in manufacturing, and from its own hyper-bureaucratic, authoritarian culture. It's not that Indians are not technologically gifted. Their success in Information Technology, metallurgy and pharmaceuticals belies the claim.

However, Indians are weak when it comes to meticulous adherence to good manufacturing practices, an eye for detail, and workmanship which aims at perfection.

India's manufacturing culture is marked by an almost Brahminical reluctance to soil one's hands. DRDO laboratories inherit and amplify these weaknesses.

DRDO suffers from excessive hierarchy under its overpowering bosses, who are lionised by the media. Thus, APJ Abdul Kalam, responsible for the les-than-successful Agni program, was given the Bharat Ratna two years before Amartya Sen. After the 1998 blasts, DRDO staff started receiving special "security"-related pay irrespective of performance.

Brain drain to more lucrative jobs in IT has also further denuded DRDO of talent and initiative. DRDO won't perform unless it's held publicly accountable. That's Agni-III's biggest lesson.

Praful Bidwai is an eminent Indian columnist.