Smart and lethal weapons : A New India in the making
The end of World War-2 in 1945 led to a new era in weapons development. The beginning of the Cold War in the second half of 20th century led to the advent of a new age in which aircraft speeds increased by leaps and bounds due to the application of turbojet and turbofan engines, whereas ballistic missiles led to the development of new payload-delivery vehicles over longer ranges. The deployment of tactical nuclear weapons aided by medium-range terrain hugging and radar evading cruise missiles played the role of a huge force-multiplier in the domain of tactical/ theatre-level battlefields, and the widespread deployment of heavy armour along with cutting edge guided artillery systems set a new benchmark in the history of modern warfare. While the primary focus of the two superpowers- US and the Soviet Union, during the cold war was on the development and testing of weapons of mass destruction and heavy intercontinental ranged ballistic missiles tipped with nuclear and thermonuclear warheads capable of wiping out entire metropolitan cities, the focus shifted towards development of precision strike and purpose-built weapons in the last two decades of the 20th century. Be it the strategic level battlefield or a tactical level war, the intention was to reach the necessary objectives at the earliest without prolonging the conflict. Smart weapons with increased lethality and precision still remains an area undergoing evolution and massive technological transformation since the beginning of the new millennium. Facing an Islamic Pakistan in the west, and an expansionist Communist China in the east and northeast frontiers, India must tread the path towards development of a whole gamut of next-generation smart and lethal weapons.
Laser and directed energy weapons
While conventional anti-satellite weapons armed with kinetic kill vehicles and anti-aircraft missiles tipped with incendiary/explosive warheads have been persisting since long, focus has now shifted towards the development of new generation directed energy weapons capable of destroying aerial targets and space-based threats with high energy pulses and lasers. Such weapons can also use particle beams and microwaves to fuse and burn high-velocity mobile targets. In the United States of America, organisations like the DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency), the Pentagon, AFRL (Air Force Research Laboratory), ARDEC (Armament Research Development and Engineering Centre), and NRL (Naval Research Laboratory) are actively working towards the development of directed energy weapons for anti-ballistic missile and anti-cruise missile warfare. The focus is on shooting down targets flying at hypersonic and high-hypersonic velocities. While Russia, China and the United Kingdom are working on similar weapons, India is also actively pursuing the same, albeit in a covert manner. The DURGA (Directionally Unrestricted Ray Gun Array) and KALI (Kilo Ampere Linear Injector) weapons have been in the works since the late 1980s.
While DURGA is expected to be space-based laser weapon capable of destroying satellites in any orbit, KALI is speculated to be a linear electron initiator capable of firing very powerful pulses of Relativistic Electron Beams (REB). The new weapon is being jointly developed by the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) and Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). Unlike laser weapons, KALI will not bore a hole on the surface of the target, but will rather fuse all electronic systems in it. It can be used as a beam weapon emitting large bursts of microwaves packed with gigawatts of power, which when aimed at hostile aircrafts and missiles, can burn the onboard computer chips along with electronic circuitry and can bring them down right away. KALI is also capable of converting electron energy to EM (Electromagnetic) radiation which can be further adjusted to flash X-Rays and high-powered Microwave frequencies as per operational needs. So, the weapon can be used as a high-powered microwave gun against flying projectiles. Some of the Kali series of accelerators like KALI-80, KALI-200, KALI-1000, KALI-5000 and KALI-10000 are described as ‘Single Shot Pulse Gigawatt Electron Accelerators’. These are single shot devices using water-filled capacitors for building the charge energy. The discharge is in the range of 1 gigawatt. The initial discharge starts at 0.4 gigawatts in some devices and reach as high as 40 gigawatts. The microwave radiations emitted by KALI-5000 are in the 3 to 5 gigawatts range. It is noteworthy to mention that the microwave producing version of KALI has been used by DRDO scientists for testing the vulnerability of the electronic systems of Light Combat Aircraft- Tejas. It has helped in designing electrostatic shields to harden the LCA and missiles from microwave attacks by the enemy as well as protecting satellites against deadly Electromagnetic Impulses (EMI) generated by nuclear weapons and other cosmic disturbances which can fry and destroy electronic circuits. The weaponisation process of KALI is still under implementation as efforts are underway to make it more compact and improve its recharge time. Multiple components are being developed to make it a fully operational system. As per latest reports, KALI is currently being integrated for testing onboard an Ilyushin IL-76 military aircraft at some undisclosed location in peninsular India. The first prototypes are likely to be airborne versions.
Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS)
Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) is a space-based nuclear weapon delivery system through which nuclear and thermonuclear warheads are launched into space (Low Earth Orbit) and brought down near the target cities. As the warheads re-enter the earth’s atmosphere before completing a full-cycle orbit around the globe, FOBS doesn’t violate the Outer Space Treaty signed in 1967. Like a kinetic bombardment system, but with nuclear weapons, FOBS has several attractive qualities.
The warheads have no range limits and can be launched over the South and North Poles, evading detection by many of China’s East and West facing early-warning radars and anti-missile systems. The nuclear payloads can also be launched into the near-equatorial orbit as per operational requirements. FOBS payloads are faster than ICBMs (Intercontinental range Ballistic Missiles) and can be launched towards the target from any direction. The system gives the user a massive pre-emptive nuclear strike capability. Russia’s upcoming heavy ICBM- ‘RS-28 Sarmat’ has potential FOBS capability. As India builds up a steady and large force of active nuclear warheads and long-range ballistic missiles, the country’s future ICBMs like Agni-VI and Surya must be armed with FOBS warheads. This cutting-edge technology will give the country a massive global strike capability with unlimited range thus bringing many heavily populated urban centers and big metropolitan cities directly within India’s killing radius. It is high time that the union government gives the mandatory go-ahead for the Agni-VI ICBM and FOBS programmes.
A neutron bomb also known as an Enhanced Radiation Weapon (ERW) is a low-yield thermonuclear weapon which is designed to maximise lethal radiation in the immediate vicinity of the blast while minimising the physical power of the blast itself. The neutron release generated by a nuclear fusion reaction is intentionally allowed to escape the weapon, rather than being absorbed by its other components. The neutron burst, which is used as the primary destructive action of the warhead, is able to penetrate enemy armor more effectively than a conventional warhead, thus making it more lethal as a tactical weapon. ERWs were first operationally deployed for anti-ballistic missiles (ABM). In this role, the burst of neutrons would cause nearby warheads to undergo partial fission, preventing them from exploding properly. For this to work, the ABM would have to explode within a range of 100 meters from its target.
Whereas in a standard thermonuclear design, a small fission bomb (atomic weapon) is placed close to a larger mass of thermonuclear fuel. The two components are then placed within a thick radiation case, usually made from uranium, lead or steel. The case traps the energy from the fission weapon for a brief period, allowing it to heat and compress the main thermonuclear fuel. The case is normally made of depleted uranium or natural uranium metal, because the thermonuclear reactions give off massive numbers of high-energy neutrons that can cause fission reactions in the casing material. These can add considerable energy to the reaction. In a typical design as much as 50 percent of the total energy comes from fission events in the casing. For this reason, these weapons are technically known as fission-fusion-fission designs. But in a neutron bomb, the casing material is selected either to be transparent to neutrons or to actively enhance their production. The burst of neutrons created in the thermonuclear reaction is then free to escape the bomb, outpacing the physical explosion. By designing the thermonuclear stage of the weapon carefully, the neutron burst can be maximised while minimising the blast itself. This makes the lethal radius of the neutron burst greater than that of the explosion itself. Since the neutrons disappear from the environment rapidly, such a burst over an enemy armoured column would kill the crews and leave the area vulnerable to quick reoccupation.
Compared to a pure fission weapon with an identical explosive yield, a neutron bomb would emit about ten times the amount of neutron radiation. In a fission bomb, at sea level, the total radiation pulse energy which is composed of both gamma rays and neutrons is approximately 5 percent of the entire energy released. But in neutron bombs it would be closer to 40 percent, with the increased percentage coming from the higher production of neutrons. Furthermore, the neutrons emitted by a neutron bomb have a much higher average energy level (close to 14 MeV) than those released during a fission reaction (1 to 2 MeV). Neutron bombs are designed to cause more damage to life than property and can be used against invading ground forces.
An electromagnetic railgun (EMRG) is a device that uses electromagnetic force for launching high-velocity projectiles. It works by the means of a sliding armature that is rapidly accelerated through a pair of conductive rails. Instead of using conventional or incendiary explosives in the warhead, the projectile uses the enormous kinetic energy to hit and destroy the target. It is based on the principles of homopolar motor. While normal explosive powered guns can’t usually achieve a muzzle-velocity of more than 2 km a second, railgun-based projectiles can fly at speeds of more than 3 km per second. Increased muzzle velocities with better aerodynamically streamlined projectiles can convey the benefits of increased firing ranges while, in terms of target effects, increased terminal velocities can allow the use of kinetic energy rounds incorporating hit-to-kill guidance, as replacements for explosive shells. Therefore, typical military railgun designs aim for muzzle velocities in the range of 2 to 3.5 km per second with muzzle energies of 5–50 Megajoules.
While railguns have been in development in the United States, Germany, Turkey and China since the last couple of decades, India has also joined the bandwagon to develop these next generation weapon systems. In 1994, India’s DRDO’s Armament Research and Development Establishment developed a railgun with muzzle energies of 240 Kilojoules, low inductance capacitor bank operating at 5 Kilovolt power able to launch projectiles of 3 to 3.5 grams weight at a velocity of more than 2 kms per second. On November 6, 2017, India took a giant leap in developing futuristic weapon platforms when the country tested an electromagnetic railgun capable of firing a projectile at a speed of more than 6 kms per second. DRDO officials claimed that they tested a 12 mm square bore EMRG (Electromagnetic Railgun) and in the next stage they will go for the 30 mm variety. At a time when India faces hostile neighbours in South Asia, railgun-based surface-to-surface and surface-to-air weapons will prove to be a massive gamechanger for the country’s military. The thrust must be laid upon increasing R&D expenditures for developing and operationally deploying such advanced systems in the tactical level battlefield.
Hypersonic cruise missiles
While the last two decades witnessed the emergence of ramjet-powered terrain-hugging supersonic cruise missiles like BrahMos, focus is now shifting towards developing more lethal hypersonic cruise missiles powered by scramjet (supersonic combustion ramjet) engines. While the DRDO is developing the HSTDV (Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle) project, another game changing weapon system in the category, BrahMos-2 is also being developed simultaneously. Flying at a speed of up to Mach-12 (14,817 kms an hour) HSTDV is capable of penetrating any kind of anti-aircraft and endo-atmospheric anti-missile interceptor in the world due to its high-hypersonic velocity. Meanwhile two prestigious academic institutions in India and Russia- IISc-Bangalore and Moscow Aviation Institute (MAI) is actively working on the heatshield of the BrahMos-2 hypersonic missile. The missile will be capable of flying at velocities up to Mach-7 (8650 kms per hour). The first prototypes of BrahMos-2 are supposed to be ready for flight testing in the next three to four years, whereas DRDO is on the verge of wrapping up the HSTDV project which can be flight-tested for the third time (with a slow-burning propellant in the booster rocket) soon.
At a time, when India is aspiring to become a 21st century global military superpower under the strong and decisive leadership of a visionary union government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the process of developing smart and lethal weapons for the tactical and strategic level battlefields must continue unhindered. As the great Indian scholar Vishnugupta once quite aptly said: “The power of a king lies in his mighty arms. Security of citizens at peacetime is very important because state is the only saviour of men and women who get affected only because of the negligence of the state”, the age-old doctrine is still relevant and universally applicable in the 21st century and the new millennium.
By Amartya Sinha