Trashing Nirbhay?

The fourth test-firing of the vertically launched Nirbhay subsonic 1,000km range cruise missile ended in failure with the wings failing properly to deploy in horizontal flight to target. In four test launches so far, the missile has failed for different reasons to perform in three of them. The first test of the Nirbhay in March  2013 was terminated because it veered off course. The second flight in October 2014 was successful to its extreme range. In the third testfiring in October 2015, the Nirbhay became uncontrolled in flight early in the second stage.

Is this reason enough to abort the entire DRDO Nirbhay project? A powerful but motivated section within the Defence Ministry seems inclined to cut the losses by pursuing this drastic option. These people are the same people who will  doubtlessly push for importing such a missile type. The brouhaha in the Press with insiders describing the Nirbhay’s latest as “utter failure” is no doubt meant to discourage and despirit the missile designers and developers and to pressure the Modi government into heeding their advice. But trashing the Nirbhay will only confirm the MOD and GOI’s absolute ignorance about the normal problems faced by any R&D programme developing any sophisticated technology. Instead of putting this momentarily derailed missile project back on track, doing a post mortem of the failures,  and redoubling the efforts to iron out the technological kinks that have apparently crept into the missile system since the second successful test, the talk in official quarters, including in certain parts of the DRDO, of trashing Nirbhay may be designed to pressure the government into trashing it. Hopefully, Messrs Modi and Parrikar will not just resist such pressures but actively dissuade the naysayers and trash-talkers from mouthing defeatist sentiments.

There’s a learning curve in the development of every technology — there are no shortcuts and a project should be prepared to face repeated  failures. But each failure often teaches the developers more about challenging regimes and how to work around problems that may arise. This is how practical engineering knowledge is acquired and absorbed, and solutions to correct design and performance flaws in a piece of hardware, or in the software that drives it, obtained. Such learning by doing is the building block of all successful advanced technology programmes.

Those wishing the Nirbhay project ill are calculating that the Modi government that has time and again been conned into importing weapons systems under the cover of ‘Make in India’ policy, to wit, the recent buy of Rafale from France rather than the prospective categories of Tejas LCA, and of the M-777 light weight howitzer and possibly the F-16 and F-18 from the 1970s from the United States, will again be bamboozled into buying, say, a derated Tomahawk which, incidentally, was the weapon-type the Nirbhay is supposed to emulate.

The really worrying thing is this: Pakistan is set to soon induct the sea-borne Babur and the land-based Hatf-VII cruise missiles. Babur/ Hatf-VII are cruise missile derivatives of the Chinese reverse-engineered Tomahawk. The Tomahawk fired from an American warship in the northern Arabian Sea crash landed in Balochistan in 2007, well short of the Afghan Taliban target that it was supposed to take out. It was a technology trove the Pakistanis promptly shipped off to China to pick apart and reverse engineer. In return, China offered Pakistan the Tomahawk cruise  missile-type it had replicated for it to finesse into its Babur and Hatf-VII variants.

India has no China to help out. With New Delhi in the past two years having systematically alienated Russia, India will more and more be on its own. If prime minister Modi and defence minister Manohar Parrikar believe that the incoming Trump Administration will follow up on Ashton Carter’s agenda which, in any case, mainly stressed selling India military goods, they may be right. Obama until now and in the future Trump will happily sell de-natured high-value military goods to keep the US defence industry prospering while making India hostage to US whims and interests. What counter-leverage does Modi now have, with the Modi regime deliberately distancing itself from Moscow on the plea of diversifying its military supply sources ?

But, replacing a helpful Russia with a commercially-minded USA is akin to changing horses mid-stream. There are great perils of doing so.  Is anybody in the “nationalist” BJP government giving thought on the wisdom of this policy and its long term ramifications and how much deep water India may soon find itself in?

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Afghanistan, arms exports, Asian geopolitics, China, China military, civil-military relations, Defence Industry, DRDO, Europe, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian ecobomic situation, Indian Navy, Indian Ocean, Military Acquisitions, Missiles, Pakistan, Pakistan military, Relations with Russia, Russia, russian assistance, society, South Asia, Strategic Relations with the US & West, Technology transfer, United States, US., Weapons, Western militaries. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Trashing Nirbhay?

  1. Don’t get the big deal being made of a test failure. Product is tested to make it fail to improve it. If this was the attitude ISRO would not be making rockets anymore. Except nobody there to sell you those things.

  2. Chanakya says:

    Why is it ok to publish headlines like ” utter failure”? Why not say technical snag ?

    Failing is an integral part of Success.

    Not having proper Research oriented universities produces a class of non scientific professionals who dont know what leads to success in technical areas.

    Good luck to Nirbhay team, may you fail over and over and learn and succeed.

  3. Mongolia mends ties with Beijing
    By An Baijie | China Daily | Updated: 2016-12-22 08:01
    Mongolia expressed regret over the negative impact caused by the Dalai Lama’s visit, and China hopes the country has learned a lesson in respecting China’s sovereignty, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Wednesday.

    Mongolia should keep its promise, respect China’s core interests and make efforts to improve the China-Mongolia relationship, Hua said.

    “China’s stance on Tibet is firm and clear,” she told a regular news conference.

    The Dalai Lama, a political exile with ambitions to split the Tibet autonomous region from China under the cloak of religion, visited Mongolia from Nov 18 to 23. China voiced strong dissatisfaction over the visit.

    On Tuesday, Mongolian Foreign Minister Tsend Munkh-Orgil said the Dalai Lama will not be allowed to visit in the future, even in the name of religion. Even though the Dalai Lama visited Mongolia via religious channels, the consequences of the visit went beyond religion and became a problem for Mongolia’s relations with China, Munkh-Orgil said.

    Mongolia firmly supports the one-China policy, and deems Tibet an inalienable part of China, he said, adding that Tibet is a domestic matter for China.

    In late November, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China urged Mongolia to recognize the separatist nature of the Dalai Lama clique and take effective measures to remove the negative impacts of the visit to avoid disturbing China-Mongolia relations.

    In the first three quarters of this year, Mongolia exported $2.74 billion in goods to China, accounting for 82.26 percent of the country’s total export volume, according to China’s embassy in Mongolia. The country’s trade surplus with China was $1.92 billion in the same period, it said.

    Last month, Beijing imposed new tariffs on commodity shipments between China and Mongolia, according to Al-Jazeera. China closed a key border crossing nearly a week after the visit of the Dalai Lama, the report said.

    “All parties will pay more attention to China’s warnings and take the warnings into consideration,” said Jin Canrong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China.

  4. Karnad Sir, Please write about CIA, ISIS, Israeli, Saudi, Pak,Chinese collusion. I think CIA, China, Saudi, Pakistan and OIC front against India to box us in is here to stay for at least two decades. I will elaborate later. Jai Hind.

  5. sunil Razdan says:

    I totally endorsed the views expressed by Karnad sir. We may involve some ex ISRO scientists for external review of the reasons for the repeated failure. Lets not push forretrials unless glitches are fully removed. It can not be Christmas or New year gift. The day all parameters are fully met, that day is the new year for the team of scientist. Keep your tails up Chrisopher boys.

  6. andy says:

    Most cruise missiles have to traverse a long and tortuous flight testing program before induction,a case in point is the USAs JASSM which is being purchased in 100s now had to go through a difficult test program that involved no less than 42 tests to IOC. this is from 2004. it was in the doghouse for years with the congress bashing up the program. … es-185380/

    A further dispute centres on the stated reliability of the JASSM. The appropriators’ report claims the programme has a 53% success rate, while the air force insists it is 73.5%. Neither figure meets the standard of programmes such as Boeing’s Joint Direct Attack Munition and Raytheon’s Joint Standoff Weapon, cited in the Congressional report, but air force officials counter that JASSM’s complexity as a stealthy cruise missile does not offer a fair comparison.

    Scrapping the Nirbhay would be a big mistake for the reasons noted by @Bharat,its Rs.100 crore development cost thus far is peanuts,compared with other cruise missile programs world wide.After just 3 test firings and 2 failures it just doesnt make any sense to terminate such a promising project,the RM would do well to back this missile and see the project to its logical end rather than listening to the nay sayers.

  7. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    Lets import Tomahawk or Whatever Storm from our Most Allied NATO Allies.

    What good is the heavy national investment in MTCR if we cannot save the country’s meager resources by importing Tomahawk.


    Modi govt. and Indian establishment is too predictable.

  8. andy says:

    About the Russia,China and India relations,though Moscow advocates a durable and long-term framework of shared interests with India and China, unlike Indo-Russian relationship, the Sino-Russian link is controversial among influential Russian policymaking elites. Russia shares a long border with China and a long history of often bitter and complex relations. Besieged with a growing problem of demographic decline, many Russian analysts fear that Siberia and its far east would soon be over-run by migrant Chinese labour. This fear is genuine as anybody familiar with Chinese history will admit that Chinese territorial claims all over Asia often followed its emigrants. Likewise, the Russians are not comfortable with the growing Chinese activities in Central Asia, which Moscow always considers to be falling under its sphere of vital interests. Besides, it is also felt in Russian strategic circles that China, with ex-Soviet Union scientists and engineers working in its defence facilities, is producing weapons by reverse-engineering the Russian products and exporting them in the international market, particularly in Pakistan and North Korea.

    India must use this distrustful wariness of the Russians about China to wean Moscow out of the Chinese orbit into which they have been inexorably drawn since the turn of the century.But with India moving closer to the USA the Russians are certainly not happy and this has not been assuaged even with the multi billion dollar defense deals signed recently.This is not an ideal situation, since more than 70% of Indias defence arsenal is of Russian origin and an alienated Moscow could turn off the spares and ammo tap if things got rough along the LAC.

    Viewed thus,India seems to be moving closer to the US at the cost of the time tested relationship with Russia,in the process strengthening the Russia- China relationship.The challenge for India is to keep Moscow close even as it works with other countries because when one comes to bilateral relations between India and Russia, the potentials are immense, to speak the least.

  9. satyaki says:

    Bharat Sir,

    Ultimately, the India of today (thanks to possesion of nuclear weapons and IRBMs and a large economy) is far closer to being a great power than India upto the 1990s. Would this not make any existing great power (be it the U.S or Russia) uncomfortable ? No great power, neither the U.S nor Russia would help India cross that final threshold. In fact, they may all gang up to stop the crossing of this rubicon.

    Even the “closeness” of Modi’s govt. with the west is superficial. After all, NGO’s and other such socio polotical assets of the west in India are being squeezed like never before.

    Ultimately, India will have to snatch what us her’s herself.

  10. Gp Capt TP Srivastava says:

    Military Hardware Development and Failures
    Recent and past failures of Nirbhay cruise missile are, rather must be treated as constructive ‘baby’ steps towards future development. Unfortunately our ‘take’ as a nation to accept failures is dismal to put it mildly. Ultimate jewel in the crown of ‘nay-sayers’ to failure/sub-optimal performance of machines was to discontinue with HF 24 project. Military establishment has been the biggest contributor towards this sorry state of affairs.
    As a tribute to those, who developed that wonderful flying machine in 1961, I would like to remember 24th June, 1961 when HF 24 flew for the first time. I was fortunate enough as a 10 year old to witness that with my uncle, a personal friend of Late Krishna Menon. Incidentally Late Krishna Menon is the most ‘abused’ politician/defence minister of the nation by the pseudo intellectuals of this nation, both in civvies and uniform. Blinded by their unwarranted jaundiced vision, they fail to recognize that Krishna Menon is the ONLY DEFENCE MINISTER of India during whose tenure the only ‘big ticket’ weapon platform was manufactured, which served the nation and the IAF in an exemplary manner. Few of my myopic colleagues in ‘BLUE’ have already rejected TEJAS even before it has entered service.
    The mindset in military and ill informed bureaucracy has not changed. We simply are averse to failures. It would be an irony if Nirbhay development is discontinued for this reason.
    Cruise missiles as weapon platforms have not been as successful as we make it out blinded by the super-active propaganda of the weapon manufacturers. Let me take you back to Op Desert Storm I, which commenced on 17th Jan,91. By 28th Feb the coalition of 28 most advanced nations had virtually exhausted entire stock of Tomahawks without bringing Iraq to her knees as promised by Schwarzkopf. Reason was simple; We were shown video clips of targets destroyed by TOMAHAWKES- WORLD WAS NEVER TOLD AS TO HOW MANY TOMAHAWKES DID NOT FIND/MISS THE TARGET. Reason for such miss is elementary.
    Cruise missiles acquire target based on co-ordinates fed in the guidance system. A small error in co-ordinates will make the missile miss the target. To elaborate; if the target was mere 60 km away and co-ordinates had an error of one degree, missile will miss target by ONE KM. It is called ONE IN SIXTY RULE. If the target co-ordinates are out by ONE MINUTE (one sixtieth of a degree), missile will miss target by 17 meter. Since we talk of missile ranges of few hundred kms errors are enormous. To put it simply; CRUISE MISSILES ARE EXTREMELY inefficient weapon system,not because of technology but because of inaccurate cartography prevailing the world over. Can we forget Chinese embassy strike during peak of Bosnia-Herzgovina war? We must not mix up with weaponised UAV capability and technology with cruise missiles..
    Protagonists of cruise missiles go on trumpeting that cruise missiles are all weather system. Indeed true but when viewed in the context of TARGET WEAPON matching, cruise missiles do not possess the destructive capability due to two reasons; Firstly low amount of explosive and Secondly flat angle of strike.
    Way back in 1995 I had written a paper on use of cruise missile technology for photo-reccee. Original paper never saw the light of the day. I still believe cruise missile technology can be used extremely efficiently for photo reccee. Obviously it would have to be a return flight and not one way as is the case with war head carrying cruise missiles.
    Stopping development of Nirbhaya because first four flights failed to meet the expected results would be yet another case of ‘murdering’ the technology.
    Continuing to blame DRDO will get us nowhere. Although I have little time for this ‘less research oriented’ but more ‘bureaucratic procedure oriented’ establishment after it convinced the powers that be that a NOC from DRDO was mandatory prior to any import sometimes in mid 90s. I for on believe that for R&D to succeed, it must be an independent establishment with no budgetary restrictions. As a first step, the R&D budget must not be part of defence budget.
    Your concern for likely discontinuance of Nirbhay is well placed but your advocacy albeit obliquely, of CRUISE MISSILES as a potent weapon is misplaced, obviously due to lack of understanding of issues such as weapon-target matching, limitations of accurate navigation, destructive capability etc. To propagate such philosophy one has to resort to DIGITAL rather than ANALOGUS appreciation as is the case.
    Having sat in a MiG-21 and MiG 29 cockpit for nearly three decades, I know what I am talking about as a strike pilot.
    Gp Capt TP Srivastava

  11. AD says:

    @ Mr. Karnad, Sir,

    What about Surya missile? Lots of old posts are available on web about range and specifications of Surya I and Surya II.

    Is range of A5 over 8000 KM or it is just a chinese media created misinformation to press panic button in the west having a cascading effect on Indian missile program to limit the range?

    Is Nirbbhay sub-sonic cruise missile development programme same is LRCM programme?

    • AD@ — In a 2008 book (‘India’s Nuclear Policy’), had speculated that the Indian space and missile scientists were deliberately creating nomenklatural confusion to hide range and other performance attributes and opacity about strategic-use delivery systems for sound geomilitary reasons. Whence, Surya, Sagarika, K-4, K-5/6, A-5/6.

  12. devraj says:

    India should maintain good relation with time tested friend russia and same time work effectively on indegenious weapon programe as china is independent in weapon production and in war it can mass produce weapon while india wait for import.Ultimately containing china needs powerfull thermonuclear deterence of india.Not ‘chamchagiri’ of america.As china understand language of power

  13. Venkat says:

    All R&D is tough. Our DRDO had been doing a good job if you consider the knd of constraints they operate w.r.t budget, hiring of people etc.
    we need not critize buying M-777, it is different class, unique. Check how quickly the OFB howitzer came up & was deployed. Now we have ATAGS tests starting. In north cases the Army leadership realised the repeated RFQ/RFI were heading jo where. They co-opted TATA & Kalyanis. The output is great. I hope the same is repeated in FICV, once it succeeds replicate it for BPJ, assault rifles etc
    Single engine jets too are another category. LCA will be made @16 / year. Means about a 100 to replace MiG21.
    The need is to replace 300 MiG27/MiG23/MiG21. By reducing Rafale to 36, it names sense to have 200 Grippen/F16 to replace MiG27/23. The single engine jets should cheaper to buy & operate compared to Rafale.
    There are so many things not done since Kargil, everything is piling up. Light helicopters , medium helicopters fur navy, submarines, successor to INSAS, even BPJs have been hanging in air.

  14. shivram says:

    Why can’t we reverse engineer like the Chinese ?

  15. GhalibKabir says:

    For the Navy LACM bearing AIP SSKs, SSNs, SOSUS in the Arabian Sea, BoB and IoR are key
    For the Army the MIRVing of Agni plus the beefing up of Agni for ASAT role (knock out Beidou..)

    I hope Parrikar does a ‘Tejas’ to the Nirbhay program. He should break walls to ensure the shaurya missile team and the larger Agni group get involved and also reverse engineer/espionage as necessary to ensure we have 2000 km range 2000-3000 kilo high speed sub-sonic LACM which can be land/sea launched (ships and subs).

    Nothing conveys the message to China like clearly showcasing of ‘I will burn you down too’ ability.

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