A success story

Print edition : October 07, 2005

R.N. Agarwal, former Director, Advanced System Laboratory, and former Programme Director, Agni, in the laboratory with replicas of Agni-I (left) and Agni-II. - K. GAJENDRAN

The four-year-old Advanced System Laboratory in Hyderabad has contributed immensely to the success of India's missile development programme, which has reached the intercontinental ballistic missile stage.

AT the Advanced System Laboratory (ASL), the missile centre in Hyderabad, path-breaking work is under way on frontier technologies such as Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS), carbon nano-tubes, and single and multi-walled tubes in evolutionary future material. It would revolutionise aerospace technology, healthcare, electronics, computers and communications, said R.N. Agarwal, Director, ASL, a few weeks before his retirement on July 31. "Our dream is to make more powerful, smaller and lighter systems, which will be possible with these technologies. The country should put more emphasis on nano-technology, particularly in nano-tubes," he said. The low-profile Agarwal was the architect of India's strategic missiles such as Agni, Agni-II and Agni-I. He was the Programme Director of Agni. He is proud that India today has the capacity to make large-sized composite rocket motors with totally indigenous know-how, equipment and components.

The development of Agni-III is in an advanced stage at the ASL, according to Agarwal. All major systems and sub-systems have been developed and tested. Repeated tests on certain systems and integration are under way. Agni-III's range is between 3,000 km and 3,500 km. "Many challenging technologies have been incorporated in Agni-III. It should be ready for launch by the year-end," he said.

The ASL has already achieved a breakthrough by developing a heat-shield made of carbon composite without any metal back-up. (The heat-shield protects the warhead and avionics from the high temperatures generated by the missile's re-entry into the earth's atmosphere.) "We were the first one to do the carbon composite heat-shield without any metal back-up. It has been designed, developed and flight-tested for Agni, and it is perhaps the first heat-shield of its kind in the world," Agarwal said.

The ASL has also developed radomes. "Radome" is a portmanteau word, coming from radar and dome. "The largest radomes, including those for the Light Combat Aircraft, have been developed by the ASL and flight-tested sucessfully," Agarwal said.

Agarwal, who narrated to Frontline the success story of the development of the Agni, Agni-II and Agni-I missiles at the Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL), Hyderabad, paid generous tributes to his colleagues. "It is always team work. Big jobs cannot be done by a single individual. Big technologies and systems cannot be developed by one individual. We have a dedicated team," he said.

In the initial days, when Agarwal and his team did not have enough resources in terms of manpower and technology, they would meet A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in the evening and express their "woes" to him. Kalam, who is now the President of India, had in 1982 joined the Defence Research and Development Organisation as DRDL Director.

Agarwal recalled those days of struggle and "slogging". He reminisced how the conversation would run between him and Kalam. "My problem was that I did not have sufficient manpower. And Kalam would say, `I am working for you.' " The room burst into laughter as Agarwal said, "Our reaction then would be, `If Kalam and Agarwal alone were to make Agni, then every household would have Agni.' "

Agarwal hails from Jaipur, Rajasthan, where he had his early education. After graduation, he joined the Madras Institute of Technology (MIT) at Chromepet, Chennai, for his post-graduate course in Aeronautical Engineering. After passing out from MIT, he completed his Master of Engineering in Aerospace Engineering from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. He has won several awards. They include Padma Sri (1990) and Padma Bhushan (2000); the Dr. Biren Roy Space Science Award (1990); the DRDO Technology Leadership Award (1998); the Chandrasekhara Saraswati National Eminence Award for Science (2000); and the DRDO Lifetime Achievement Award (2004).

When the programme on the development of a technology demonstrator for the Agni missile began as part of the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) in 1983, the objective was to establish the re-entry technology for long-range missiles. "Re-entry was the original aim, not the missile itself. So we started working on the re-entry vehicle for long-range missiles," Agarwal said. He and his team had aimed at a 100 kg payload to reach velocities between 5 km and 8 km a second for simulating re-entry conditions. But in mid-course, in 1985, it was decided that the payload should weigh one tonne. So the entire scenario - of the size of the missile, its launch systems and critical dimensions - underwent big changes. "Although it was painstaking in mid-course to make a change of this magnitude, we slogged and revised the designs for the one-tonne payload, including the launcher and the launch complex," Agarwal said.

Kalam was the Project Director of the Satellite Launch Vehicle-3 flights of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in 1979 and 1980. During one of his early visits to the aerodynamics test facility group headed by Agarwal at the DRDL, Kalam asked Agarwal, "What is happening?" The group was then engaged in building a supersonic wind tunnel and high-altitude test facility for high-enthalpy tests. A surprised Kalam asked, "High-altitude test facility? You make a report on the re-entry test vehicle for re-entry technology and also for setting up the high-altitude test facility."

When the project report was ready, it was reviewed by a forum of scientists and technologists. The project formed part of the IGMDP, which also included Trishul, Prithvi, Akash and Nag. Kalam gave the go ahead and the Agni-Technology Demonstrator project was born.

"In July 1983, when Indira Gandhi launched the IGMDP, I was surprised to see that the Project Director for Agni was R.N. Agarwal," said Agarwal, with justifiable pride. Within six years, the Agni-Technology Demonstrator project team was ready with the missile for its maiden flight. But the flight had to be postponed twice - first on April 20, 1989, and then on May 1, 1989. The missile finally soared into the sky from the Interim Test Range at Chandipur-on-Sea, near Balasore, Orissa, on May 22, 1989. The country had looked forward to the launch of this intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM). As an analyst put it, the launch of the Agni missile had become a talking point across the country.

The launch was a success. "It had a textbook trajectory, validating the total design and development of all hardware and software," recalled Agarwal. At a technical briefing in New Delhi, when Kalam, who was the DRDL Director, was asked about the consequences of the Agni-Technology Demonstrator, his terse reply was: "Strength respects strength and technology honours technology." The range of the Agni-Technology Demonstrator was 1,600 km.

Encouraged by this success, the project team made technological refinements and modifications in the next flight of Agni to achieve a longer-range missile with manoeuvring re-entry. Two more flight-tests of Agni were held, in 1992 and 1994, establishing the re-entry technology for long-range missiles and the manoeuvring re-entry technology.

In 1995, the operationalisation of Agni began with the development of the Agni-II missile. It was an ambitious project because the missile was capable of delivering payloads over a distance of 2,000 km. Many new areas of technology, including mobile launch systems and upper-stage motors, were developed. The first flight of Agni-II took place on April 11, 1999, from a mobile launcher at a new launch complex. "It was again a total success in its launch systems, missile systems and velocity," said Agarwal. Agni-II weighed 17 tonnes.

The second flight of Agni-II also went off well, validating the system's design, development and reliability. With the user identified, there was another flight in August 2004 with the user's participation, and it was again a success.

Meanwhile, there was a felt need for a missile with a range of 700 km. According to Agarwal, although the Agni-I system was smaller, it had its own technological problems, particularly during its flight through the atmosphere for about 10 to 12 seconds with the closed-loop guidance system, high acceleration and associated rocket motor propellant issues. But these problems were tackled. The first flight-test of Agni-I from a road mobile launcher took place in January 2002. This was within 15 months of the project being sanctioned - a significant achievement. Agni-I weighed 12 tonnes. The second flight took place a year later in January 2003 and the third flight in July 2004. The third flight was done with user participation.

"All the three flights met the mission objectives, and validated the designs and reliability of the systems," said Agarwal.

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