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A young achiever

Print edition : Oct 07, 2005 T+T-
Agni-II in flight. There were three successful test flights of the missile.-

Agni-II in flight. There were three successful test flights of the missile.-

ON September 28, the Advanced System Laboratory (ASL), in Hyderabad will turn four. Although it is a "baby," it has already broken new ground in several important, missile technologies, according to R.N. Agarwal, who retired as its Director on July 31. These technologies include carbon-composites, carbon-carbon composites, large-sized solid propellant rocket motors, their composite casings, integration of rocket motors and checkout. Three "core technologies" where the ASL has done world-class work are: re-entry technology, large solid rocket motors and pyro-mechanisms.

"Actually, carbon-carbon composites represent state-of-the-art technology. This technology is not available from developed countries. But our scientists have worked hard to develop this technology, including its process equipment, their manufacture, multi-directional fibre weaving and so on," said Agarwal. The ASL team headed by Agarwal developed and established the Agni-I and Agni-II missiles. The team is currently working on the development of the Agni-III ballisitic missile, which is on course for launch by the end of this year. Agni-III will have a range of 3,000 km to 3,500 km.

It was in 1958 that the country's decision-makers realised the importance of guided missiles in warfare. A team called the Special Weapons Development Team (SWDT) was formed in New Delhi on October 3, 1958. Based on the recommendations of Dr. B.N. Singh, who was the Officer-in-Charge of the SWDT, the government approved the expansion of the SWDT into the Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL). The DRDL came into being on June 28, 1961, in Hyderabad. Its mandate was to study and obtain know-how on the design and development of guided missiles.

In its infancy, the DRDL successfully designed first-generation guided anti-tank missiles for the Army. A new chapter began in the history of the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) and the DRDL when the Union government approved the Integrated Guided Missile Development Project (IGMDP) on July 26, 1983, with A.P.J. Abdul Kalam as its chief. The mandate of the IGMDP was to design and develop four missiles - Trishul, Prithvi, Aksah and Nag - and to develop a technology demonstrator for the Agni missile's re-entry technology.

According to DRDO literature, when the development of all the five missile systems gained momentum, there was a need for more space and advanced, specialised facilities, particularly for guidance control, avionics, environmental testing and missile integration. To meet these requirements, a technical complex called Research Centre Imarat (RCI) was founded on August 27, 1988. (Imarat is the name of a village near the RCI site.)

The ASL was formed on September 28, 2001, with special emphasis on composite products development and large-sized rocket motors. The three laboratories - DRDL, RCI and ASL - are together known as "the Missile Complex".

The missile technologies that the ASL has pioneered form a long list. They include a heat shield for the missile payload, large-sized composite rocket motor casings, larger nozzles, separation systems for the missile stages and other aerospace mechanisms and pyrotechnical devices. The rarefied strata of missile development could scarcely believe it when the ASL developed a carbon-carbon composite for the Agni missile's heat shield. The heat shield is one of the most important components of a missile, because it protects the warhead from combusting during the missile's re-entry into the earth's atmosphere.

Metal made the heat shield heavy, so the weaving and winding of the carbon- fibre around the shield was a demanding but necessary task to lighten it, Agarwal said. Carbon-composites are not only crucial in the fabrication of the Agni heat shield but they also cover a part of the body of Tejas, India's Light Combat Aircraft, and brake discs in fighter planes and light-weight callipers for polio-affected children.

The ASL has already transferred to the industry the raw materials and the technology needed to create carbon-composite. "Therefore, Indian industry has successfully developed various process equipment which are unavailable from developed countries," said Agarwal.

There are three aspects to the development of any missile. They are: technology, raw materials and process. Initially, India was dependent on other countries for all three. "We slogged, and industry cooperated with us. Even though Indian industry did not have a market for this, it braved the situation, and spent a lot of time in the development of all the three," Agarwal said.

In designing the missiles and sub-systems, the ASL also had a partnership with academia. For the technology and process development, research institutes, scientific organisations and the ASL joined together. Agarwal recalled the struggle they faced together. "We tried to get the technology and equipment for process and testing from other countries but they were denied to us. We devised our own test methods and test set-ups to simulate conditions close to the re-entry environment. Today, the country has the capability to make large-sized composite rocket motors with totally indigenous know-how, equipment, components and raw materials. This is possible because the ASL, academia, industry and various science departments came together to beat the embargoes placed on India by developed countries," Agarwal said.