Three of the four earlier Nirbhaya tests ended in failure, making the outcome of this test crucial for the continuation of the troubled DRDO project. Its test record contrasts unfavourably with that of the successful Indo-Russian BrahMos cruise missile, which has been in operational service since 2007 and will soon be carried by Indian Air Force Sukhoi-30MKIs.
The BrahMos has a range of 295 kilometres (being upgraded to 600 km) and flies at supersonic speeds (Mach 3, or 3,700 km per hour). The Nirbhay’s reach is longer (over 1,000 kilometres), but it flies slower, at a subsonic speed of 865 km per hour. While that makes it vulnerable to enemy air defence guns and aircraft, its survivability rests on flying low – just 100 metres above the ground – making it difficult to detect with radar.
While Russian propulsion technology has powered the BrahMos missile, the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) continues to grapple with developing an adequate engine and pinpoint navigation systems for the Nirbhay.
So far, Pakistan leads India in subsonic cruise missile development, having tested and operationally deployed the Babur (Hatf VII) cruise missile that has a range of 700 kilometres, significantly less than the Nirbhay’s. Analysts speculate that the Babur’s engine is Chinese, supplied by Beijing in violation of the Missile Technology Control Regime.
The Nirbhay can carry a payload of 300 kilograms, the weight of a well-designed nuclear bomb. It is 7.5 metres long, which would allow it to be carried inside a submarine. However, India has not claimed nuclear capability for the Nirbhay. In contrast, Pakistan portrays the Babur as a nuclear delivery platform.
“Perhaps India’s anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defence that the DRDO is developing makes Pakistan present the Babur as a nuclear delivery platform to add credibility to its deterrent. Besides, Pakistan has no submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and, therefore, plays up the Babur as a vehicle for assured submarine-launched, second-strike capability”, says a well-known deterrence specialist with an Indian think tank.
Second-strike refers to a country’s capability for assured nuclear retaliation after absorbing the full weight of nuclear attack from an adversary.
India’s assured second-strike capability is based on the 750-km range K-15 SLBMs carried by INS Arihant, the navy’s first sub-surface ballistic nuclear (SSBN) submarine. Arihant-class SSBNs (the second, INS Aridhaman, is nearing completion) are now being configured to carry the more capable K-4 SLBM, which has an estimated range of 3,500-4,000 km. It is doubtful whether the Nirbhay will ever form part of a SSBN’s arsenal.
The Nirbhay’s first test on 12 March 2013 was a failure. About 15 minutes into the test, the DRDO had to activate an on-board, “self-destruct” system after the missile deviated from its planned path and headed towards inhabited areas.
The Nirbhay’s second test, on October 17, 2014 was an unalloyed success. In a 70-minute flight, the missile’s inertial navigation system, assisted by the GPS satellite network, took the missile accurately to 15 pre-designated “way points. After 1,050 kilometres, the missile splashed, as planned, into the Bay of Bengal.
But two successive failures followed this, one in 2015 and the preceding test last December. Perhaps, for that reason, the defence ministry release on Tuesday stated: “The flight test achieved all the mission objectives completely from lift-off till the final splash, boosting the confidence of all scientists associated with the trial.”