Hope For Trishul

As we've read in a few recent reports, and to be made official by the Ministry of Defence later this month, DRDO's Trishul point defence SAM programme will become an 51:49 BrahMos-like joint venture between the Hyderabad-based Defence Research & Development Lab (DRDL) and French missile firm MBDA. The tri-service utility programme envisages a technological and financial infusion by MBDA into the Trishul programme to engender what reports suggest are the Revati low-level quick reaction missile for the Navy, Maitri for the Army and Rohini (not to be confused with an upcoming BEL radar) for the IAF. It is understood that the government and MBDA will each invest $240 million, and look to a productionisation deadline of late 2009 or early 2010.

The Trishul programme's final days were probably its most political. The lack of anything even resembling an operational missile after 21 years of research, Rs 250 crore and the collective work of 200 scientists meant that it was easy meat as the underdog when the CBI shovelled up charges in October last year of (ho hum) kickbacks in the IAI-Rafael Barak SAM purchase. The day after the charges were announced against George Fernandes, I faxed DRDO a small list of questions on the Trishul and was amazed to receive a return fax with the organisation's replies in less than a day. Here's what they had to say:

"Consistency of the missile guidance and control system - mainly the technical problems in perfecting the three-beam missile guidance system. Non-availability of critical components, devices and subsystems due to embargoes imposed upon the country and also depletion of experienced specialist manpower during a critical phase of the development has led to delay in the project."

But closure had been underway for a while already. Research and development on the programme had received orders to stop a year before directly from the DRD council, and the programme was all but in the process of winding up. Full chunks of manpower were given the opportunity to shift to the February 2006-signed Rs 2,606.2 crore Barak-II programme (another JV, between DRDL, IAI and Rafael with a deadline of 2011), Bharat Dynamics, even the hush-hush Sagarika programme and a few to BrahMos Aerospace.

The term technology demonstrator suddenly hung like a millstone around DRDL's neck -- not because there's anything inherently wrong with being a TD, but because, as DRDO admitted itself in a pang of candour in its written replies, it was just "unable to bring closure to the technologies developed under the programme". Those are tough words, and tougher to admit.

Everyone remembers what a mess last October was -- I remember dashing to George Fernandes' house on Krishna Menon Marg the minute I heard about the charges in the Barak purchase case (predictably, Barakgate). In astoundingly feeble form, Fernandes waxed eloquent on the Barak purchase, claimed complete ignorance about the progress of the Trishul. In the ensuing days, mud was boisterously flung at former Navy chief Admiral Susheel Kumar, President Kalam and a scattering of others. Trishul and Barak were suddenly sexy in a full-frontal political sense. Everyone had a field day.

So many questions still left unanswered though -- that's the problem.For example, if since October last year, DRDO has consistently fig-leafed the programme by saying Trishul was always meant only to be a TD, then it's obviously being entirely disingenuous -- letters from Kalam opposing the Barak purchase (in anticipation of proximal clearance for the Trishul) and then finally acquiescing are now a matter of record. Why does DRDO still say the Trishul is ready for user trials (most recently in Parliament answers of late 2006)? Is there something we really don't know? What has DRDO finally got after the programme -- an official record of what technology it has mastered (it certainly hasn't composite beam guidance, or they wouldn't admit it on paper). According to most accounts, the missile projectile itself is a fine piece of work, but it's all over the place once it leaves Dronacharya, so what's the point.

Now we have two joint venture SAM programmes, both ambitious, both expensive, both promising. Who does what on the Maitri programme? Not sure how accurate this is, but FORCE reports that MBDA will make the active radar seeker and vector-control propulsion systems, while DRDO will make the flight control applications, command and control systems, fire-control posts, stabilised vertical launchers. If anyone has more information on the technologies that DRDL has got down pat with the Trishul programme, do comment. More details on the Maitri JV when it's signed this month.

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