Prithvi is outdated, not its launching
A successful training launch of a short-range ballistic missile, Prithvi-II, was carried out on January 10 from the Integrated Test Range, Chandipur off the coast of Odisha . A well-established system, Prithvi-II missile, has been an integral part of India’s nuclear deterrence. The missile struck its target with high accuracy. The user training launch successfully validated all operational and technical parameters of the missile.
But, why did India test Prithvi II, a short range ballistic missile (SRBM) that it had already decided to discard in favour of the more potent varieties of “Pralay” and “Prahar”, not to speak of the supersonic Brahmos cruise missiles?
Last time that the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the maker of the Prithvi II, had tested the missile was in June 2022. It had done that during “night time as part of a user training trial” from a test range off the Odisha coast. Earlier, Prithvi-II also was successfully test-fired during night time on February 21, 2018 from the ITR at Chandipur. Later on November 20, 2019, two trials consecutively of Prithvi-II were conducted successfully during night time from the same base.
It may be noted that the Prithvi series of SRBMS – Prithvi I, Prithvi II and Prithvi III – was born out of the DRDO’s Integrated Guide Missiles Development Program (IGMDP) which was launched on 27 July 1983, under the able stewardship of late Indian President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. The Prithvi I class has a range of 150 kilometers and a maximum warhead mounting capability of 1,000 kilograms. It can be launched using transporter erector launchers and has a 10–50 m accuracy. The Indian Army has been its principal end-user.
Prithvi-II has a maximum warhead mounting capability of 500 kilograms and a 250 kilometers (160 mi) range. Reportedly, it has been upgraded, with its range increasing to 350 kilometers, and the payload capacity has also been increased to 500 to 1000 kilograms. The Indian Air Force is the primary user of this missile.
Prithvi missiles can carry nuclear warheads. The I and II versions are liquid propelled, whereas the Prithvi III versions, essentially made for the Indian Navy, is a two-stage surface-to-surface missile, with the first stage being solid -fueled and the second stage liquid-fueled. The missile can carry a 1,000 kg warhead to a distance of 350 km (220 mi) and a 500 kg warhead to a distance of 600 km (370 mi) and a 250 kg warhead up to a distance of 750 km (470 mi). In fact, this naval version is called Dhanush.
Prithvi I and Prithvi II were the ones that were supposed to be “outdated” and increasingly “irrelevant”, mainly because they are liquid-propelled and there are now more reliable, accurate and powerful longer-range missiles. It is said that being a liquid-fueled rocket, the Prithvi missile is extremely difficult to handle and must be refuelled prior to launch. Liquid fuels are extremely corrosive, which means they ruin metal storage containers. If liquid fuel is held in a missile for an extended period of time, the missile will corrode or may even leak.
This is the deficiency that made the DRDO produce Pralay that is solid fuelled and boasts the most modern electronics. And Prithvi Missiles were scheduled to be withdrawn in a phased manner.
The Pralay is a canisterized missile; as a result it can be transported in a sturdy metal container designed to store chemicals or gases. It follows a desired Quasi Ballistic Trajectory, which is a low, curved route an object travels when thrown or shot. Additionally, it is capable of direction and range changes. It also carries Multiple warheads (MIRVs), including false warheads, to confuse enemy anti-missile defences.
The Pralay missile has a high explosive preformed fragmentation warhead weighing 350 kg to 700 kg. It boasts Penetration-Cum-Blast (PCB) and Runway Denial Penetration Submunition (RDPS) at a range of 150 km to 500 km. It is designed to destroy enemy radar and communication installations, command and control centers and airfields. One of its most significant advantages is that it is road mobile and fulfils the Indian Army’s requirement of a conventionally armed tactical ballistic missile that is not hampered by India’s ‘No First Use’ nuclear policy.
It may be noted that by former Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), the late General Bipin Rawat was a great votary of the idea that Pralay, along with the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, will form the crux of India’s planned Rocket Force to meet the border threats from both Pakistan and China.
Besides, the DRDO is working on Prahar. The Prahar is a road-mobile, all-terrain, all-weather, single-stage, solid-fuelled SSM with an effective strike range from 60 to 150 km. This Tactical Ballistic Missile (TBM) is capable of carrying conventional High Explosive (HE), nuclear or sub-munition payloads. Prahaar is mounted on and launched from a road-based Transporter-Erector-Launcher (TEL), which carries six missiles. The TEL can be operated in stand-alone mode, thus giving the missile significant flexibility in deployment and operation.
The TEL can be deployed in less than 5 minutes and can launch the missiles in salvos at different targets spanning a wide arc, with no prior preparation! “The Prahaar is also expected to counter Pakistan’s Hatf-IX or Nasr nuclear capable TBM, believed to have been developed to strike India’s mechanised forces in the battlefield” says Brig Arvind Dhananjayan (Retd).
It is against this background that the testing of Prithvi II could surprise many, particularly a group of strategic analysts who have been arguing that with much more sophisticated missiles that they possess, it is time for India and Pakistan to decommission outdated first generation missiles like Prithvi I & II and HATF 1 & 2 respectively. In doing so, they will be having a better confidence building measure (CBM), without impinging on the continuing modernisation of both sides’ strategic forces, so the argument goes.
Now, let us see the merits of this proposition. As a matter of principle, one should have no problem declaring that CBMs are always desirable. However, the question arises whether they are doable or realisable. And when one talks of the CBMs, they usually are of three types—multilateral, bilateral and unilateral. The proposed CBMs are not multilateral in the strict sense of the term, but then any disarmament/arms control measure between India and Pakistan goes beyond bilateral realms, thanks to the factor of China. Unlike Pakistan whose security concerns are India-centric, India’s potential challenges also emanate from China, rather in a big way. In that sense, Indo-Pak CBMs are easier said than done, more so because in many instances the weapon systems that Pakistan has are procured in toto from China and in certain cases stored in Chinese territory.
Now let us look at the existing CBMs between India and Pakistan. One is “the Prohibition of Attack Against Nuclear Facilities”, which was signed by Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on December 31, 1988. It was ratified in 1991 and implemented in January 1992. This requires an annual exchange of lists detailing the location of all nuclear-related facilities in each country. It is being done annually, though there have been occasions when the exchanged list has not been wholly accepted by the two sides, that is one side doubting the authenticity of the list of the other.
Another CBM has been the establishment of hotlines between the military commanders of the two sides at DGMO level (agreed after the 1971 war) and between the two Prime Ministers (agreed in 1987). This also has not exactly worked always. As regards the hotline between the Prime Ministers, it was not used after 1990. It worked briefly during the Kargil War, though it is said that it can be restarted at a very short notice.
Another CBM has been the 1991 agreement to inform each other before conducting any kind of military exercise. A prior notification to inform each other is required for those military exercises comprising minimum two or more armed divisions in specific areas. The military exercises at the corps level are supposed to be conducted at the minimum distance of 45 km from the international border and the exercises at division level should be done 25 kilometres away from the border. Any kind of military activities are not allowed within a 5 kilometres range of the border. However, this agreement of pre-notification has been more honoured in the breach than in the observance.
The same has been the case with the agreement on non-violation of Air Space (made in 1991 and implemented in 1992) that envisages that fighter aircraft are not allowed to enter within 10 kilometres of foreign space (logistic aircraft and unarmed air traffic are allowed up to 1000 metres from the international border and flights within the given range are allowed for rescue or supply of goods only after the advance notice given by the governments). In Siachen Glacier the rules of this agreement have not been applied, with helicopters of both countries being shot down.
It may be noted here that in February 1999, Prime Ministers Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif met in Lahore and agreed to a series of CBMs that dealt with the terms of nuclear risk reduction. The Lahore Declaration emphasised measures to improve nuclear security and prevent an accidental nuclear exchange. One of the measures sought to prevent the accidental or unauthorised use of nuclear weapons. Another called for the creation of communication mechanisms similar in some aspects to those required by “the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident”. The two sides also committed to exchange information on their nuclear doctrines and security concepts; prevent accidental nuclear crises; work on measures to improve control over their nuclear weapons; and strengthen their respective moratoriums on nuclear testing by making their commitments binding. But then the world knows what happened three months later—the Kargil war. The Lahore Declaration became a part of history.
Viewed thus, CBMs between India and Pakistan at bilateral level have many handicaps to overcome. There is a huge trust-deficit, which, in turn, is due to the fragile politics of Pakistan where the military justifies its overwhelming dominance in the name of countering “survival threats” from India and achieving “strategic parity” with India. It is not the civilian government in Pakistan but the military that has the last word on geopolitical issues. Thus, the inherent discomforts at the political level adversely affects “transparency” and verification”, the two essential components for the success of any CBMs, let alone those between India and Pakistan.
Viewed thus, Prithvi I and II cannot be discarded just to create a new CBM between India and Pakistan. And the fact that Prithvi II is being tested means that it perhaps has not outlived its purpose and that India’s strategic decision-makers are not convinced that Prithvi missiles are obsolete.
Even otherwise, as a former senior DRDO scientist Ravi Kumar Gupta says, “testing Prithvi the other day may provide a lesson to the launching –process or system of similar missiles in future. We may not make Prithvi, but the launching process with all its implications such as operational and technical parameters may remain valid for the types of Pralay and Parahar in the days to come. After all, many of the components used in the making of Prithvi could be the same for other newer SRBMs”.
Gupta seems to have a point as missiles do borrow technologies and components from other systems made by the same developer, which, in India’s case, happens to be the DRDO. For instance, the Pralay missile combines technologies developed for exoatmospheric interceptor missile Prithvi Defence Vehicle (PDV) from the Indian Ballistic Missile Defence Programme. It also utilises the same composite propellant developed by the High Energy Materials Research Laboratory (HEMRL) for the Sagarika missile (K-15) from the K Missile family developed for the Indian Navy.
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