Shortly after 10 am on Friday, while the prime minister was exhorting an annual meeting of top military commanders from the Army, Navy and Air Force to be ready for any call to arms, India’s newest missile blasted off from a canister at the Chandipur test range on the coast of Odisha.
This was the Nirbhay long-range cruise missile, which can hit a target more than 1,000 km away. Flying at treetop level and navigating its way through heavily defended enemy airspace where a manned fighter would be quickly shot down by anti-aircraft missiles and guns, the Nirbhay is better equipped to survive the flight to its target. Its relatively slow flight speed, just 1,000 km per hour, allows it to navigate its way precisely to the target.
In Friday’s test, the Nirbhay demonstrated its entire bag of tricks. Launched from a canister, it blasted off vertically like a conventional rocket, then quickly levelled off into horizontal flight, or “cruise mode”. The solid rocket motor was quickly jettisoned and its second-stage, turbofan engine started, propelling the missile forward.
Over the next 70 minutes, the missile navigated its way to 15 pre-designated “way points”, using a sophisticated inertial navigation system, which can take assistance from the GPS satellite network. Halfway through the test, the Nirbhay did a pre-programmed U-turn and headed back to Chandipur. After travelling 1,050 km, the test was terminated and the missile splashed into the Bay of Bengal.
The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) says the missile was monitored throughout its flight, including by an air force aircraft that flew above it.
“The missile maintained an accuracy better than 10m throughout its path and covered a distance of more than 1,000 km. The successful indigenous development will fill a vital gap in the war-fighting capabilities of our armed forces,” said DRDO chief Avinash Chander.
This was the second test of the Nirbhay. Its maiden flight test, conducted on March 12, 2013, had to be terminated mid-way when the missile started deviating from its intended course.
The Nirbhay cruise missile is an Indian version of the American Tomahawk, which became an icon of high-tech warfare in the 1991 Gulf War through televised CNN footage of Tomahawks flying through the streets of Baghdad and precisely entering target buildings through open windows.
The Nirbhay has equally sophisticated facilities. It can “loiter” around a target, i.e., fly in circles until it is time to strike. Further, it can precisely distinguish its specified target within a bunch of similar targets.
Defence analysts have long speculated over whether the Nirbhay can carry a nuclear warhead. The missile tested today carried a warhead of 350 kg; that is the weight of a sophisticated nuclear weapon with a modern design.
The Nirbhay tested on Friday was 7.5 m long, which allows it to be configured for launch from land, sea, underwater and air. Submarines present the greatest challenge, since a submarine launched cruise missile (SLCM) must be accommodated inside the cramped hull.
Indian submarines fitted with nuclear-tipped Nirbhay missiles would increase the versatility of the underwater leg of the nuclear triad.
A key hurdle to developing a long-range cruise missile like the Nirbhay is the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which forbids signatory countries from assisting or providing technology to any other country developing a cruise missile with a range of 300 km or more. India and Russia legally collaborated in developing the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile because its range was pegged at 295 km, just below the MTCR limit. In building the Nirbhay, India has had to go it alone.
The key design challenge, which was to develop an air-breathing turbine engine that can propel the Nirbhay, was met by the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), Bangalore.
Pakistan, which has earlier tested and deployed the Babur (Hatf VII) cruise missile, is believed to have been supplied the engine by China, in violation of the MTCR.