Y. Mallikarjun & T.S. Subramanian

It will establish India’s capability to intercept Pakistan’s Hatf and Ghauri missiles

CHENNAI: A missile which will waylay and destroy an incoming ballistic “enemy” at an altitude of about 80 km will be launched off the coast of Orissa later this week.

This “crucial test” will seek to prove the efficacy of a host of new technologies, said officials in the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), which is conducting it. They described it as “a major test to establish a ballistic missile defence [BMD] shield as part of the network-centric warfare.” This is the third time an interceptor missile test is being conducted under the BMD shield that India seeks to establish.

The launch will feature two missiles. The “enemy” missile will be a modified version of Dhanush, a surface-to-surface missile. It will take off from a naval ship in the Bay of Bengal and simulate the terminal phase of the flight of a ballistic missile with a range of 1,500 km, similar to Pakistan’s Ghauri. As it zeroes in on the Wheeler Island, off Damra village on the Orissa coast, a Prithvi Air Defence (PAD) missile will lift off from the Wheeler Island, intercept the incoming “enemy” missile at an altitude of 70-80 km in the last one second and a half of its flight and pulverise it.

The interceptor PAD missile will use, for the first time, the gimballed directional warhead. It has so far been used only in the U.S. and Russia. When the directional warhead fragments in 360 degrees all round, the target missile coming in from only one direction is sure to be blown up. “Ground tests have been done on the directional warhead. In flight, it will be done for the first time. This is a new thing,” the DRDO officials said.

A directional warhead weighs less than 30 kg but its lethality is equivalent to a 150-kg warhead. The PAD would also feature “trajectory optimisation” to enable interception at not only a higher altitude of 80 or 85 km but also at 45 km. It could engage missiles with a range of 300 to 1,500 km.

“The distinct advantage” of intercepting a missile at a higher altitude of 80 km is that the debris will take longer to fall through the atmosphere before it hits the ground and hence will become cinders because of the re-entry of heat, the DRDO officials said. In a typical war scenario, this would reduce the effect of any fallout of nuclear debris and the risk associated with radiation.

The first interceptor missile test, which took place on November 27, 2006, waylaid an incoming ballistic missile in the exo-atmosphere at 48-km altitude. The second test took place on December 6, 2007 against a target missile at 15-km altitude in endo-atmosphere. The third test would be part of India’s plan to deploy a two-layered BMD system in the coming years.

In terms of strategic importance, the test would establish India’s capability to intercept Pakistan’s Hatf and Ghauri missiles.