By Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar
This article was first published in Geopolitics Magazine, August 2015
The rectangular conference hall was dominated by a heavy polished teak table that could easily seat twenty on its straight backed maroon leather chairs. The teak panelled walls were bare except for an imposing fire place topped by two photo portraits, one of President KR Narayanan and the other of Prime Minister Inder Gujral. The mantelpiece was flanked by two 5 BD national flags draped on ornate staffs. The mid-morning light lumbered in through two colonial windows. High on the ceiling, two baroque hooks looked desolate having long lost the punkah and it’s pulling cords. It was Tuesday the 12th of August 1997.
At the northern end of the table sat five figures seemingly in a huddle. At the head sat the Raksha Mantri (RM), to his right was the Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), while to his left was the bird-like Scientific Advisor (SA) to the RM. To the CNS’ right was the Director of Staff Requirements (DSR). Further to the SA’s left was the Project Director Trishul. The Project Director (PD) began proceedings by tracing the history of the Trishul, a short range surface-to-air missile (SAM) system under development as a part of the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme conceived in 1983. Designed to be used against sea skimming targets at short range, the system was to provide the sorely needed rapid reaction missile defence for ships. Control was achieved by three different radar beams, with guidance of the SAM handed over progressively from surveillance to gathering and onto the line of sight. The range of the missile was 14 km, its warhead weighed 15 kg and its total weight was 130 kg. It was based on an airframe wholly “engineered” by the DRDO. He rounded off by stating that eight flight trials of the missile had thus far been conducted and each had met its mission objectives. The missile system was expected to be handed over to the Navy by August 1997, for user trials.
An observer would have noted that the DSR winced with each of the PD’s statements. His disquiet was put to rest when he was invited to make his presentation. He began with a question: Would the naval Trishul be operationalized to meet shipbuilder’s programme and fulfil its primary role for the anti-aircraft and anti missile defence? As for the DRDO engineered air frame, it was well known that they had attempted to reverse engineer the 1972 vintage 9M 33 OSA M missile (in service with the Indian Navy since 1976) without too much success. He then placed certain irrefutable facts before the group, linked to the progress of project. Between July 1994 and August 1997, eight dates had been committed for integrated user trials at four monthly intervals, none of these trials passed preliminary muster.
Fatally, the missile could neither be gathered early (within 4 seconds of launch) nor could timely steering onto line of sight be achieved, leaving the narrow beam locked on to the incoming target without a missile to ride on it! The missile in all flight tests thus far, had not attained its designed velocity of 1020 metres/second nor had it exhibited the stability required for the 14 second controlled flight.
Empirical data about SAM development worldwide underscored two facts: firstly, from conception to commencement of user operational trials the gestation period was between 6 to 8 years; while from user trials to operationalising took as much as 7 to 8 years. This logic suggested Trishul would not be available for combat usage till 2004. Against this was the shipbuilding programme. The first ship of Project 16A, Brahmaputra, was expected to commission in 1998 while the remaining two of the series were expected to follow at 2 year intervals. Large spaces had been left vacant onboard to accommodate Trishul. An audit of volume and weight had made the system untenable in its current configuration. The DSR concluded his presentation by offering two options: accept delays, performance uncertainties, structural nonconformity and endure the absence of primary combat system onboard ships of Project 16A or, search for an existing SAM system that would fill the breach till the Trishul proved itself. Naval Headquarters urged the latter option. Also, since the Barak1 system had been evaluated and approved for retro fitment on INS Viraat by the Cabinet Committee on Security ( CCS) in February 1997 (the case was originally for 7 systems to fit ships of Project 16A and retrofit on Project 16 also), it was rational that this be the preferred choice. The SA to RM accepted NHQ’s point of view that 6 systems be ordered with two peculiar proviso that “approval” was subject to the Navy ensuring performance of the system and secondly the Navy place immediate orders for the Trishul which would be “operationalized” by 2002. The Navy gave no undertaking on that day nor did it accept any pre-condition since performance was patently the supplier’s liability and as far as the Trishul was concerned, the system did not operationally exist. In the event, the CCS approved, in October1997, procurement of 6 additional systems.
Induction and Evaluation of Barak1
One of the fallouts of the Kargil operations of 1999 was the RM’s push to actualize and expedite procurement of systems critically required by the defence forces. The seven Barak1 systems squarely fell into this category. However, despite past showing and infirmities of the Trishul, DRDO in cavalier fashion, once again declared that “there was no reason to believe that the Trishul could be got ready before Barak1 could be inducted.” On this occasion not only did the RM overrule the DRDO assertion but also suggested that as and when the Trishul system proved itself it could be accommodated in the ship build programme without having to link a specific warship to the system. Notwithstanding DRDO’s delaying antics, in October 1999, the procurement process began in earnest.
The first ship to be fitted out with the Barak1 system was INS Ganga. Installation began in the last quarter of 2002, harbour and sea trials of the system was completed by end March. What remained was engagement of an incoming cruise missile. Between NHQ and the Western Fleet a trials directive was put together to test the Barak1 in the extreme. Part I was straight forward enough, it was to engage a deactivated P 20 sea-skimming missile at minimum altitude of 30 feet travelling at a velocity of Mach 0.9 (306 metres/sec) set to crossing parameter of 1 km. Launch was at a range of 90kms in order to ensure that the missile was left with minimal fuel.
Part II of the evaluation was of particular significance since it involved a battle scenario never attempted before, and as the author understands it, nor after. Two P20s were to be launched displaced in azimuth by 90 degrees and in time of 15 seconds. All other launch parameters remained unchanged. This meant very little margin for error either by the target launch ships (1km at 90kms is 2/3 of a degree) or the Barak firing ship. A partial destruction or a near burst of the target could well veer over 2 tons of debris on to the Barak platform. So destruction of the incoming missile had to be complete.
Many professional careers rode the event. Now it may be told, that there were also others, Cassandras that saw success in failure. On 11 April 2003 INS Ganga brought down all three missiles with direct hits in what analysis revealed as near perfect engagements. While system technical performance is a material function, much credit must go to INS Ganga, and it’s Commanding Officer, Captain AV Shigaon VSM, for his resolute leadership and professional competence in seeing through a daunting task. The Barak had sealed its place in the inventory of the Indian Navy as its preferred point defence missile system. Not that there were no teething problems with later installations (INS Delhi, for instance) but these are common to retrofits and were efficiently overcome. As for the Trishul, it remained a “no show”.
The Long Range SAM
In the meantime a lively debate had erupted within the Navy over the requirement for a long range SAM system to arm combat ships that were coming off the drawing board. The deliberations culminated in the Indian Naval Tactical Committee’s (IN TACOM) meeting of January 2004. The Naval Staff and operational commanders had brought the arguments to a head over two issues: firstly, was there a consensus on what constituted “long range”? Secondly, was the issue of economics, how much of the ship’s payload in terms of cost could be dedicated to what was essentially a defensive capability? A general thumb rule for percentage cost of a warship would serve to elaborate:
- Pay load including weapons, sensors and command and control 40%
- Propulsion package 20%
- Hotel services 15%
- Material and Cabling 15%
- Labour and other services 10%
A destroyer of the Kolkata class costs about $ 1 billion, of which about $400 million would be appropriated towards the payload which includes all offensive and defensive armament, sensors for surveillance in all three dimensions, active and passive electronic warfare equipment and command and control facilities. The pressures on the purse to maximise offensive punch without compromising ability to operate in “harms way” remains the key. To give some idea as to what a long range SAM system costs, America’s RIM 161 Standard missile system or Russia’s S 400 system are billed at approximately $150 million which does not include the cost of the missile (about $15 million a piece). With such budgetary estimates one cannot fail to note the stresses that it imposes on planning payload.
If we are now to consider the first issue as to what constituted long range, clearly the matter is subjective, operational commanders were in unanimity when they suggested that range had to be greater than the distance at which an approaching threat could launch its sea-skimming missile. And if that was not so then the purpose of the SAM became the destruction of the incoming missile. At which time economics clutched in, posing the question would a short or a medium range SAM not suffice? It was this logic that in 2006 led to the decision to acquire medium range SAM systems for the Navy.
It was an awkward irony that DRDO proposed now to co-develop the Barak 2 MR SAM. Accordingly an agreement was endorsed with Israel Aircraft Industries for joint production of the system. The missile represents capability enhancement of the Barak1. It has a range of 70 kms and incorporates advanced technologies. Trials ashore have been completed in 2014. Sea trials onboard INS Kolkata is expected to be completed by December 2015. When proven the Barak 2 MR SAM will be the standard fit onboard all major Indian Naval warships for the next two decades.
The induction of any combat system on board a warship is a union based on optimum compromise between need, operational effectiveness, technology and cost. The introduction of the Barak 2 MR SAM is one such rational up gradation of the existing air defence capabilities of the Fleet. Its successful commissioning has the potential to change the manner in which maritime military capability of the nation is viewed by both friends and adversaries alike.