India is thinking of Space-based laser weapons Durga and Kali.

The Brahmos cruise missile programme was perhaps the most hush-hush of India's missile projects. The long-range missile programme Surya is heard of at least through official denials. The reusable missile launcher-cum-hyperplane Avatar, the most ambitious of all projects, is openly talked about. Questions are asked at least in aerospace circles about the 'forgotten' Durga and Kali, though replies are rarely given. Agni-III is a matter of logical conjecture and extension of Agni-II.

(The defence minister had claimed last November "India has the capability to design and develop an ICBM having a range of more than 5,000 km. However, in consonance with the threat perception, no ICBM development project has been undertaken.")

But Brahmos is altogether a new name, though there has been talk about a cruise missile programme for some time. The success of Lakshya and Nishant is said to have given the Aeronautical Development Establishment the expertise to work on the cruise missile. However, till recently ADE authorities were claiming that they were engaged only in 'concept studies', and far from developing or even planning a cruise missile.

The 280 km-range missile, presently configured as an anti-ship weapon, is one of the few supersonic cruise missiles in the world. Ballistic missiles fly in a ballistic trajectory, much like a bullet. Their longer-range versions have to go up into the heavens and face problems when they re-enter the atmosphere. The enemy can also trace their launchers by calculating the ballistic trajectory and destroy them.

A cruise missile, on the other hand, is like an unmanned plane, flying at low altitude. Before launch it is fed information about the terrain over which it has to fly and the missile flies either by comparing the fed-in data with the camera pictures it takes or by constantly identifying its location with the help of global positioning systems.

Over sea, a cruise missile has a definite advantage over a ballistic one. The enemy ship out at sea can hide behind the earth's curvature against a ballistic missile, which flies straight. On the contrary, a cruise missile can fly long ranges parallel to the surface and, if needed, a few meters above it. Brahmos's supersonic speed gives the enemy very little reaction time. The Indo-Russian Brahmos is learnt to be the starting point of an ambitious cruise missile programme. Studies have been going on for the last three years at the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) on the cost-effectiveness of a hypersonic missile (which fly at five or more times the speed of sound). Parallel studies in the US and Europe have concluded that the future belongs to hypersonic missiles. The US is already developing the F-16 into a hypersonic fighter.

Studies in India, not only at NAL but DRDL (the DRDO's missile lab), IIT Mumbai and ADE, are learnt to be running parallel to and not behind the Euro-American ventures. The hyperplane Avatar, the most ambitious of all, is already reaching the end of the conceptual stage and entering the planning stage. The kerosene-fuelled scramjet-powered vehicle is claimed to be much cheaper than the design concepts worked in the US, Germany, the UK and Japan.

The idea is to develop a vehicle that can take off from conventional airfields, collect air in the atmosphere on the way up, liquefy it, separate oxygen and store it on board for subsequent flight beyond the atmosphere. In fact, Air Commodore R. Gopalaswami, former chairman and managing director of Bharat Dynamics, India's missile factory, had once claimed that it could be developed even into a commercial transporter. Incidentally, it was Gopalaswami who suggested the name Avatar.

Avatar is primarily intended as a reusable missile launcher, one that can launch missiles, land back and is loaded again for more missions. The vehicle will be designed to permit at least a hundred re-entries into the atmosphere. The vehicle could also act as a satellite launcher at a hundredth of the present cost of launching satellites. A miniature Avatar, which is also being conceived, would be hardly bigger than a MiG-25 or an F-16.

Meanwhile, there is also talk of developing Nishant into a cruise missile. The present vehicle, an unmanned battlefield surveillance vehicle that can carry a payload of 45 kilos, completing test phase at ADE, is powered by a German Alvisar-801 engine. Nishant's cruise missile potential had been pointed out three years ago by Air Marshal Bharat Kumar in a United Services Institution (USI) research paper: "Nishant holds a lot of promise and provides us a take-off vehicle for potential UCAVs (uninhabited combat aerial vehicles) applications as well as (a) cruise missile programme."

With the limited production of the 200-km Agni-II having already begun, the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme is almost at the end of its fiery run. Indeed, a few of the short-range tactical missiles like Nag, Trishul, Akash, the naval Prithvi (otherwise called Dhanush) and Astra are yet to be fully developed or tested, but it is only a matter of time before they are. Space-based laser weapons are another frontier technology that the military brass is thinking of. Recently the chiefs of staff committee ordered a feasibility study on them.(Incidentally, the Air Force is already demanding that India set up an aerospace command.) The DRDO, however, had anticipated this and already begun research.

One system that has been talked of in a USI paper by Dr V. Siddhartha, officer on special duty in the secretariat of the scientific adviser to the defence minister, is Durga or directionally unrestricted ray-gun array. Though no details on this are available, it is said to be an Indian version of the US's Star Wars project in which in-coming missiles can be shot down, or burnt down, by laser guns based in space. Still less known is Kali or kinetic attack loitering interceptor, a more advanced version of Durga.

However, all video-game gadgetry presupposes matching advances in space technology, both in launch vehicles and military reconnaissance satellites. Without capable launch vehicles, none of these can be lifted into space. With the recent success of the geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle, the ISRO has acquired heavy-lift capability. Work has already begun on a hypersonic launch vehicle, which would be the forerunner to Avatar.

The more recent of the IRS series satellites are said to have limited military reconnaissance capability. The recent military exercises in the Rajasthan desert did make extensive use of IRS pictures, but military demands higher resolution pictures. According to Dr Siddhartha's paper, Satish Dhawan [former ISRO chairman] had talked in 1996 of a national early warning and response system (NEWARS), a space-sensor and communications-based integrated space-ground system meant exclusively for peaceful purposes. Siddhartha superposed on Dhawan's techno-scenario diagram a series of operational military reconnaissance satellites named Sanjaya.

Cruise missiles may be the currency of power today. But the currency of future would be Avatar, Durga and Kali.

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