Revelations indicate that India is quietly building an SLCM to complete its nuclear triadIndias strategists have for long regarded nuclear-tipped Submarine-Launched Cruise Missiles (SLCMs) essentially, it requires arming a submarine prowling undetected under the oceans, the survivable platform most suited to the nations second-strike doctrine. Recent revelations about a secret cruise missile programme, aptly titled Sagarika (Oceanic), give the first indications of the elusive third sea-based leg becoming a reality.
Hours after the Agni 3 splashed into the Indian Ocean on April 12, an elated M. Natarajan had obliquely hinted at the possibility. We have had three successful tests in the last few daysthe Dhanush (a ship-launched version of the Prithvi ballistic missile test fired on March 30), the Agni 3 and, in between, a strategic system I cannot talk about, the DRDO chief had said. That, say insiders, was the confirmation of a test of the Sagarika from a submersible pontoon launcher. Indigenously-built, with a range of nearly 1,000 km and a 500-kg warhead, the cruise missile has two variants capable of being launched from aircraft and submarines. Still under development, the vertically-launched missile is at least five years away from induction. One of the key challenges in fielding a nuclear-tipped variant of the Sagarika would be to miniaturise a nuclear warhead to fit the around 6-metre-long missile.
Cruise missiles are low-flying, intelligent, pilotless aircraft. Powered by turbo-jet engines, and guided by onboard computer and pre-fed terrain maps, like the US Tomahawk, they can hit targets with pinpoint accuracy. Such missiles can be fitted with a tactical nuclear warhead or a conventional payload. Fitted on nuclear submarines capable of traversing the globe, they become lethal force multipliers. While Sagarika is the primary armament for the long-delayed indigenous nuclear submarine, the Advanced Technology Vessel, the IAF is believed to be considering equipping a medium transport aircraft with the stand-off missile in the interim.
Cruise missiles are more difficult to detect and, hence, less vulnerable to anti-missile defences which can track and destroy ballistic missiles. Pakistans Babur cruise missile, that can carry a 500-kg warhead across 500 km, is seen as a response to Indias proposed missile shield. Strategic cruise missiles with their high survivability will add to the flexibility of Indias minimum credible deterrent, says K. Santhanam, coordinator for the Pokhran-II tests.
Yet, what is it about the Sagarika that inspires the cloak of secrecy? Senior DRDO scientists wax eloquent about the Agni 3 but maintain a studied silence about the Sagarika.
Two years ago, then defence minister Pranab Mukherjee had confirmed the programme: This is a DRDO project but we would not like to make a premature advertisement. Later, in Parliament, he denied the project even existed. One reason for the secrecy is the possible adverse impact on the Indo-US nuclear deal. The secrecy is understandable. It would be unwise to talk of fielding a new strategic capability when we are developing partnerships with the US, says Air Marshal (retired) Kapil Kak of the Centre for Strategic Studies.
Started in the early 1990s as a 350-km, short-ranged submarine-launched ballistic missile, Sagarika was initially designed as a solid-fuelled version of the Prithvi. But the idea was shelved after the navy indicated its preference for a cruise missile. Sagarika will not be the only strategic cruise missile. The Indo-Russian BrahMos Aerospace plans to field Brahmos 2 by 2010: a hypersonic cruise missile that can cover more than 1,000 km at Mach 8, or nearly eight times the speed of sound.
Copyright 2007 India Today