A technologist and a team player

Published : Jun 22, 2002 00:00 IST

The Abdul Kalam advantage: an ability to put heads together and work jointly with others.

IN a recent editorial, the editor of the journal Current Science, who is himself a scientist of repute, observed: "Disturbingly, in government circles... the administrators of science appear to be vested with an 'academic eminence', which has little to do with continuing scholarly achievement... [E]ven in the best of our scientific institutions, the occupants of administrative positions are often associated with an aura of generally exaggerated scientific eminence." This could well apply to A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.

The government and the media have generously used the label 'scientist' to describe him, and in the post-Pokhran period adjectives such as 'top', 'eminent' and 'outstanding' have been freely used. Kalam is a technologist and not a scientist in the conventional and accepted sense of the term. His achievements and contributions to Indian science and technology are very significant and need to be understood in the correct perspective. They belong to the very important, but highly neglected sphere of Science and Technology (S&T) activity - technology management - in which the scientific community is found especially wanting and the country's S&T apparatus does not facilitate its strengthening either. The paradigm shift in technology development that Kalam helped bring about in the execution of the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) as a multi-institutional effort - by proactively identifying skill and expertise from all over the country - resulted in overcoming the inter-institutional barriers and the academia-industry chasm that are characteristic of the Indian S&T system.

It is the experience of managing the SLV-3 project that Kalam brought to bear on the management of the IGMDP but on a much larger scale. In the execution of the SLV-3 project Vikram Sarabhai and Satish Dhawan laid great emphasis on the maximum utilisation of the capabilities and facilities in universities and other research and development (R&D) institutions as well as industry. Besides, the IGMDP programme, being user-driven, introduced the concept of concurrent engineering in which the user agencies and the production agencies of the system being developed are part of the development process from Day One. Kalam has said that the concepts that have emerged from the IGMDP should provide a management structure for any group of people in the country working on technology development.

Said V.S. Arunachalam, Kalam's predecessor as the scientific adviser to the Defence Minister and Chief of the Defence Research and Development Organistion (DRDO), who was instrumental in bringing Kalam to the DRDO from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and making him the Director of the Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL) in Hyderabad: "To me Kalam was competent, but I had others like him. His strength was his total commitment, enthusiasm and positive thinking. He was the integrating influence in DRDL. But he is not a von Braun (the legendary German rocket scientist). He was just another director of a laboratory. There was nothing spectacular about him."

It was Kalam's keen interest in missile systems and weaponry, and his success with the project management of the SLV-3 that made him an attractive choice to revive the failed efforts at the DRDL as well as initiate a broad-based missile development programme. All through his association with ISRO Kalam had been interested in missile systems, studying the essential differences between launch vehicles and missiles. Soon after the success of SLV-3 in July 1980, he began to analyse the applications of SLV-3 and its variants for missile applications. He concluded that the SLV-3 solid rocket system would meet the requirements of payload delivery vehicles for short and intermediate ranges, which forms the basis of the Agni group of missiles today. He further proposed that a 1.8 m-diameter solid booster would render an Inter-continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capability as well. This paved the way for the re-entry experiment (REX), which later became Agni.

Indeed, there was nothing spectacularly innovative in the five missile types that Kalam drew up in 1982 soon after taking over as Director of the DRDL, where he was confronted with a dormant liquid-fuelled Devil missile programme based on Russian SA2 missiles. Considering that Kalam was bringing with him ISRO's legacy of SLV-3's solid motor, it is surprising that he did not consider the obvious possibility of simply converting the first stage of SLV-3 into a medium-range missile. This particular version had to wait until January 2002 (after Kalam retired from the DRDO) when a single stage solid-fuelled Agni, with 700-800 km range, was included in the missile portfolio of the IGMDP. This plugged the "missile gap" between Prithvi's 250-km range and the 1,500-km range solid-liquid two-stage Agni. It is strange that even though the services were part of the missile definitions right from Day One, this gap was never realised earlier.

Equally surprising is the fact that it took until 1999 to develop a fully solid-solid two-stage Agni, and the fact that a fully solid Agni did not form part of the missile types envisaged under the IGMDP. Armed with solid motor technology from ISRO, this should have been a logical step in missile development. The revival of the liquid-fuelled Devil programme at the DRDL, which Kalam had responsibility for, seems to have been the overriding factor. The reverse-engineered Devil subsequently became the Prithvi missile, and Prithvi became the second stage of the intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) Agni.

Technology development as a team effort began early in Kalam's career. At the Madras Institute of Technology (MIT), Kalam's Professor of Aeronautical Design and Structure, K.A.V. Pandalai, had asked him and four others to design a low-level attack aircraft. "That was a fantastic experience at a young age," Kalam recalled in an interview, "and that was a foundation." The ability to put heads together and develop things jointly is what Kalam has carried with him since then - whether it was the design of a hovercraft at the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE), or the development of the technology of fibre-reinforced plastic (FRP) at the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) or building the satellite launch vehicle (SLV) at ISRO or Agni under the IGMDP. His ability to bring people together and integrate efforts towards a mission made him an excellent team leader and an able project manager, just what a strategic programme like the IGMDP required, with five different systems and associated technologies to be developed.

As regards the Pokhran explosions, which were entirely designed and carried out by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), he would have no such role to play apart from merely directing the relevant DRDO labs to collaborate and coordinate. The techno-scientific role that the media and politicians frequently attribute to Kalam in the Pokhran tests is completely misplaced.

The high point of Kalam's career, even in Kalam's view, was the success of the indigenous launch vehicle SLV-3, which put a Rohini satellite into orbit. SLV-3 was modelled on the United States' Scout rocket, whose solid motor casings, heat shield and ablative linings at the exit of solid motors were all made of fibre glass. The use of composites was necessary to avoid the greater dead weight in the use of metal casings and achieve better performance. India did not have the necessary fibre glass (E-type and S-type) technology to make these. The credit for initiating work on composites in ISRO goes to Kalam. It was a very significant contribution, one which laid the basis for the development of high strength fibres such as Kevlar (used for the first time in the fourth stage of SLV-3 in its last flight in 1983) and other composites needed in the space programme.

Kalam had been responsible for developing payloads for the sounding rocket experiments at TERLS. The first filament winding machine that Kalam built in association with C.R. Sathya was a hand-cranked one and used coir ropes to drive wheels and pulleys. Nevertheless, this crude machine proved the concept, which was later motorised. Kalam demonstrated that winding fibre reinforced plastics (FRP) for SLV-3 was feasible. "I had just returned from England where I had seen such winding machines. But it was really heartening to see some one build it with one's own hands in the country," said Vasant Gowariker, the solid motor specialist who headed the Space Science and Technology Centre (SSTC) at Thiruvananthapuram, which was later named the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC). This early effort resulted in the establishment of the Reinforced Plastics Centre (REPLACE) in 1976 to cater exclusively to the needs of the SLV-3 project.

While being involved in the SLV-3 project, in which Sarabhai had entrusted Kalam with the design of the fourth stage, he was instrumental in the realisation of another project called Rocket Assisted Take-Off (RATO) suggested by Sarabhai. This was to enable military aircraft to take off from short runways in hilly and other difficult terrains or bombed-out runways. The appropriate motors were procured from Russia and Kalam and his associate were to integrate the motors with the aircraft. Kalam turned to FRP again and for use as casings in these motors to reduce their weight, and RATO was successfully tested in 1972. However, the aircraft they had integrated it with was itself abandoned and the technology was aborted.

Kalam's love for composites has continued since then. He was closely associated with the setting up of the composites centre under the DRDO in Hyderabad, which makes the heat shields for Agni. Later, as chairman of the Technology Information Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC), he was instrumental in initiating an Advanced Composites Mission under the Council to collaborate with industries for the development and commercialisation of composite products.

An area that Kalam has been spearheading is the use of advanced composites (spin-off from missile development) in biomedical technologies. One of the technologies that Kalam is proud of is the Floor Reaction Orthosis (FRO) device for polio patients. Instead of a caliper weighing 4 kg, the FRO worn by a polio patient, made with the lightweight material of the Agni heat shield, weighs only 400 gm. The other is the cardiac stent made from ferrite-free steel and inserted permanently in arteries. Today Kalam's initiative in TIFAC has turned out such products as the FRP gear case for railway locomotives, composite artifical limbs for the physically handicapped, composite CNG cylinders for automobiles, FRP-armoured optical fibre cables and FRP modular toilets as well as doors in railway coaches.

Though Kalam initiated the work with FRP, Dhawan was responsible for putting him in charge of the SLV-3 project. Dhawan felt that Kalam was being wasted at REPLACE. Fibre-reinforced technology was based on a difficult science and Kalam was not contributing to that, Dhawan had felt. Since Kalam was good at making things and he could get along with people, he was made project director for SLV-3, besides being responsible for the fourth stage. The SLV-3 fourth stage has an interesting side story that is indicative of Kalam's ability to design and develop once a system is defined. While the fourth stage was being designed, Hubert Curien, the head of the French Space Agency CNES, had occasion to visit and see SLV-3's progress. Impressed with Kalam's achievement with the fourth stage he requested Sarabhai whether Indians could help the French in the design of the fourth stage for their Diamant Launcher that was under development. After two years of effort Kalam succeeded in modifying the SLV fourth stage (from 250 kg-400 mm diameter stage to a 650 kg-600 mm diameter stage) to suit the Diamant airframe. But when the stage was offered to the French it was turned down apparently on the ground that the Diamant project itself had been abandoned.

From a technology developer, Kalam evolved into a project manager (SLV-3), then a programme manager (IGMDP) and finally the head of an entire R&D organisation. According to observers, Kalam proved to be an excellent project manager and a good programme manager, but was disastrous as the head of the DRDO. During his tenure, for whatever reasons, the IGMDP did not make much progress. Akash is still to be successfully fully tested and proven, Trishul may even be scrapped because it has already become obsolete, Nag is yet to be developed and the original solid-liquid fuel version of Agni is yet to be productionised and inducted. The improved solid versions of Agni are post-Kalam developments. Other major projects such as the light combat aircraft (LCA) and the main battle tank (MBT) also have suffered setbacks in their development, the former in respect of the Kaveri engine especially. The status of the DRDO's much-touted and ambitious indigenisation programme over a 10-year period (1995-2005), launched by Kalam, is nowhere near its projected targets.

Insiders feel that the progress of the projects slowed down because of Kalam's tendency to micromanage each of the projects even from Delhi. While his monitoring every bit of the development of a technology was all right at the project level, and even at the level of a programme in the area of his expertise, to do so across a vast organisation with different projects that he was not fully equipped to do is neither workable nor feasible, they said.

In his autobiography Wings of Fire, Kalam expresses his sense of frustration and dejection when successful technologies developed by him do not find their logical end-use like the hovercraft Nandi at the ADE, RATO and the fourth stage for the French Diamant. As an avid technology developer, in each of this he was passionately involved in the development of the technologies. One wonders whether Kalam feels the same way about the messy status of the IGMDP and the other major DRDO projects today.

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