Research In China

It was recently reported that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was extremely unhappy about the state of affairs at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).

According to the Times of India, when he visited the DRDO headquarters on August 20, Modi “has asked the tardy organisation to shape-up in the face of competition from the private sector”.

Modi asked the defence minister to conduct a detailed review of the DRDO, and eventually come out with a white paper. Modi also asked the officers to give up their ‘chalta hai’ (lackadaisical) attitude. It appears that 15 top DRDO scientists, including Director General, Avinash Chander, are on extension; Chander holds three posts—Secretary (Defence) R&D, DG (DRDO) and Scientific Advisor to the defence minister.

A senior defence ministry official told the Times of India: “The PM was not happy about [this]. As per a Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) ruling, only the best scientists of international stature should be considered for extensions. He asked for all the details. He was told about the high attrition rate among the younger scientists.”

The daily remarked: “DRDO spokesperson Ravi Gupta could not be contacted for a comment”; ‘Missing in Action’ in Army terms.

In the meantime, China takes giant strides to catch up with the US in the field of military innovations.

Xinhua reported that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would soon take delivery of a new generation’s aerial drone.

China Central Television (CCTV) showed a test flight of the Rainbow 4 (CH-4), a hunter-killer drone, which successfully hit a target with a missile. The new CH-4 has been developed for reconnaissance and military strikes by the China Aerospace Science and Technology.

Li Pingkun, the head of the CH-4 project, told CCTV that the new drone could fly long-distance and hit a target with a error margin of less than 1.5 metres. Li explained that the precision was due to several new original ways to guide the missiles (or smart bombs) to their target.

The South China Morning Post, quoting some reports in the mainland, said: “The Rainbow 4 was developed as the PLA’s answer to the MQ-9 Reaper, a hunter-killer drone mainly used by the US military for reconnaissance and high-precision air strikes.”

The nine-metres-long CH-4 has an 18-metre wingspan. With its 40-hour autonomy, it can carry four missiles, while its ground control centre can be fitted on two trucks.

Can the CH-4 catch up with the US Reaper in terms of targeting precision, flight length and payloads? Certainly not as yet, though intense efforts are being put in the project by the Chinese scientists.

If today, the Reaper can fly at 740km/h, the Chinese drone’s maximum speed is 235km/h, but the Chinese project is progressing fast.

But that is not all.

Have you heard of ‘supercavitation’ technology?

During the cold war, Soviet scientists had developed a technology called ‘supercavitation’, by which a submerged vessel would proceed inside an air bubble to avoid water drag.

Theoretically, a supercavitating vessel could reach the speed of sound, and this underwater; it would reduce the time for a transatlantic underwater cruise to less than an hour and for a transpacific journey to about 100 minutes. Today, it may be science-fiction, but the Chinese scientists are working hard to solve the many technical hurdles. The South China Morning Post explains: “China has moved a step closer to creating a supersonic submarine that could travel from Shanghai to San Francisco in less than two hours.”

It is hard to believe, but a team of scientists at Harbin Institute of Technology’s Complex Flow and Heat Transfer Lab has made some breakthrough which should help a submarine, or a torpedo, to travel at extremely high speeds underwater.

Li Fengchen, professor of fluid machinery and engineering, announced that the new technology “could create the complicated air ‘bubble’ required for rapid underwater travel.”

Well, it is not done, but China is working on it.

Li affirmed that his team has found innovative means of addressing some of the unresolved problems: “Our method is different from any other approach, such as vector propulsion, or thrust created by an engine. By combining liquid-membrane technology with supercavitation, we can significantly reduce the launch challenges and make cruising control easier.”

In future, the supercavitation technology will not be limited to military use only; it could also be utilised for civilian projects. Professor Wang Guoyu, of the Fluid Mechanics Laboratory at Beijing Institute of Technology admits huge scientific and engineering challenges: “The size of the bubble is difficult to control, and the vessel is almost impossible to steer. While cruising at high speed during supercavitation, a fin could be snapped off if it touched the water because of the liquid’s far greater density.”

There is more. The Chinese press recently conducted the second flight test of a new, ultra-high-speed missile. Analysts believe that it is part of a global system of attack weapons capable of striking the United States with nuclear warheads. The flight of the new hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) or Wu-14 took place August 7 at a missile facility in western China.

The Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Jeffrey Pool stated: “We routinely monitor foreign defense activities, however we don’t comment on our intelligence or assessments of foreign weapons systems.” He, however, confirmed a first test of the Wu-14 in January, though declined to provide a similar confirmation on the second test.

According to The South China Morning Post: “The first flight test of the Wu-14 took place January 9 and flew at speeds of around Mach 10, or 10 times the speed of sound—around 7,680 miles per hour. Hypersonic speed pose severe guidance and control challenges for weapons engineers and produce extreme stress to metal and components.”

The US intelligence circles see this as an emerging hypersonic arms race. The Chinese press did not mention the August 7 test, but reports about the presumed Wu-14 launch appeared on internet which mentioned a missile launched from the Jiuquan satellite launch facility located in the Gobi Desert. Further, reports and photos posted online indicated that the booster rocket used in the test crash landed in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The booster crash is consistent with a hypersonic test. Hypersonic glide vehicles travel in near space and thus the rocket that launched it may not have left the atmosphere. The Pentagon has tested several hypersonic weapons platforms such as the X-37B Space Plane, the Lockheed Hypersonic Technology Vehicle-2 or the Boeing’s hypersonic craft known as the X-51 WaveRider.

What worries the US defence establishment are the sharp Pentagon budget cuts which may strike the funding for U.S. hypersonic craft.

In the meantime, President Xi Jinping (who is also Chairman of the Central Military Commission) spoke a ‘new military revolution’: “The new military revolution has provided China with opportunities and challenges at the same time and we must have foresight to adapt to changes in warfare.”

He was addressing his 24 colleagues of the Political Bureau Xi asked Communist Party members to devote more attention to military issues, national defense and military development and military preparedness, and to support national defense and military reforms. The message is clear. Further, according to Xinhua, Xi said: “The changes will include developing new military strategies, technologies, doctrines, combat forces and management models with military informatisation being central to modern combat”.

Xi also mentioned four principles of comprehensive planning for military ‘renovation’. The Party should formulate an overall strategy to enhance its military strength:

  • by developing a new mindset for the different military departments
  • by uniting under a coherent strategy,
  • by adopting a coordinated approach to innovation, and
  • by fostering independent innovation.

The CMC Chairman added: “The new military revolution is developing at a pace so fast and with its impact so broad and profound that has rarely been seen since the end of WWII. The Chinese military must make great leaps in development and innovation so as to close the gap with its better-developed peers in the world.

He further urged the integration of military and civilian innovation “so that the two can accommodate each other and develop together”.

It is time for DRDO (and HAL) to wake up from their slumber. The world is moving; China is progressing fast, India will be left behind. A solution might be to split DRDO into several autonomous projects with orders to deliver the goods.

By Claude Arpi

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