New Delhi: India’s defence research chief Dr S Christopher has explained the various stages of development of the country’s array of sophisticated weapons and where they stand currently. India already has anti-satellite capability. However, Dr Christopher says any ballistic missile that flies for a 1,000-plus km height can be designed in such a way that it becomes an anti-satellite weapon. “You do not necessarily need to specially use Agni-V (ballistic missile),” he told NDTV in an exclusive interview. The defence scientist says unmanned warfare is going to be the order of the day, with drone development taking centre stage.
Here’s the full transcript of the exclusive interview with Dr S Christopher, Chairman, Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), New Delhi:
NDTV: What you see is the India Gate or the Indian War Memorial. It has names of thousands of soldiers etched on it. These are the soldiers who lost their lives in the World War. They probably would not have had the scientific and technological support like Indian soldiers have today. I have with me Dr S Christopher. He is the chairman of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) of India, a mammoth organisation of 52 laboratories which makes everything from submarines to components for satellites and helps in life sciences. This is the 20th anniversary of the Pokhran nuclear tests and it also marks a very interesting thing, a new Bollywood film has come out which showcases the capability of the DRDO in a film called Parmanu, in which John Abraham is the lead actor. This particular film showcases the DRDO and the Pokhran tests of 1998. Dr Christopher is all-in-all a radar man. India’s future really rests on how well India is protected by its own technologies. Welcome to the programme, Dr Christopher.
NDTV: See, it’s been 20 years since we had those nuclear explosions, which means our nuclear bombs, atom and hydrogen bombs both are of 20-year vintage. Are they old? Do we need to do something, do we need to modernise?
Dr Christopher: This is one thing which probably I may not be in a position to give you.
NDTV: As a scientist, not so much as a person who makes policy but as a scientist, if today the prime minister were to ask you to come and say like he asked Dr Kalam, can you do in T minus 40 days? If he asks you, are we ready for it?
Dr Christopher: We are ready more than anything else. I wanted to tell you that technology-wise we are continuously growing, there is no doubt about it. You cannot stagnate at that position and the growth is continuously happening.
NDTV: So without testing, we are able to make more capable atom and hydrogen bombs?
Dr Christopher: Everything in this R and D you cannot test. Like for instance, before sending them on a mission to the moon, we are not testing like somebody going at least partly every other day. There are lot of simulations, which is today possible to say what exactly will happen. Proof of the pudding is doing only sample example which we are in a position to do it. We are in a position to say strongly that we are capable of doing it.
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NDTV: So if required, you can implement whatever happened in 1998 at a short notice?
Dr Christopher: Sure, it is possible.
NDTV: It is possible. And would it still be what T minus 40 days, or you can do it even shorter?
Dr Christopher: I do not want to comment on that.
NDTV: But we have the wherewithal and we have the capability…
Dr Christopher: We have the capability. We have the capability and notwithstanding that it is not only the nuclear part of it. There are so many other paraphernalia. Those are also to be in-parallel improved. Communication links for that matter how to have a contact with a person who is in charge with respect to the headquarters or from the centre or whatever is this. All those communications are to be hardened and strengthened and every possible place we can improve. There are several developments continuously going on.
NDTV: So, as far as our strategic sector, both nuclear weapons go as the head of our DRDO you can safely say we are in good hands even 20 years later?
Dr Christopher: I am absolutely sure and I am honest to say that the growth is so tremendous. We are almost at par with many other countries.
NDTV: Among other things people want to know how soon would the ballistic missile Agni V be inducted because that is our key missile for delivery of such systems.
Dr Christopher: Very soon because as a matter of fact if everything goes well even in the near future we will conduct almost the final trial or the user trial.
NDTV: And then it can be inducted or is the user agency like always still involved with all these trials?
Dr Christopher: All these trials are totally with them. Without them we are not doing right. From the word go every part of it they are involved, so there is no uncertainty or ambiguity at all.
NDTV: So very soon Agni V will be inducted into the armed forces… as a weapon of peace?
Dr Christopher: Absolutely, all the strength is shown only to have peace. All these weaponries are to show strength and to gain peace.
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NDTV: Among other one other area of the DRDO which attracts a lot of attention is the Main Battle Tank Arjun. While Arjun Mark-I is already there, what is the state of Arjun Mark-II?
Dr Christopher: Availability is enormously high and they call it a dessert Ferrari because the shock absorbers in that system are much better than the Russian system, so they do love it. In a similar fashion for Mark II, whatever you are going to make will be acceptable to them and we are going to get the existing indent will get energised and we will make 116 of them soon.
NDTV: Also, can you tell me a little bit about what we are doing in the future of unmanned warfare. People don’t want to put soldiers on the ground, in the air, or in ships wherever. Why are we so lagging behind in drone technology?
Dr Christopher: Unmanned is going to be the order of the day, no doubt. In 2030, we will have the maximum number of youth that no other country will have that is equivalent to us. It could be that that deficiency is one of the reasons why are they (foreign countries) are driving crazy on the unmanned front, but not only that, the life of any human being is much more precious.
NDTV: But so many countries are already deploying. Look at Afghanistan. The use of drones is so omnipresent. Why are we dragging our feet on drones? Let me put it a little more succinctly, for our viewers, see we build our own aircraft and we have our software and we have our cruise missile which can loiter, hover and can come back. Are we not completely drone ready? Why is there such delay that we are only stuck with Rustom II?
Dr Christopher: For instance, in Afghanistan, you said it is not Afghani planes that are going, it is somebody else’s planes being tried or the drones being tried. Another important point is that what has brought out is extremely good in Light Combat Aircraft. This is extremely important. It is of course an excellent plane because it is an unstably stable aircraft. It runs by the mission controller though the pilot is giving the control because it is such an unstable system. You give it one degree tilt, and within 200 millisecond it can go up to about 32 degrees. That is the swiftness the speed with which it is going to react. Consequently, what you need to do is you have to have a proper mechanism to do that so we have today in the LCA automatic takeoff and landing. Automatic take off is very much there. Flying safely is there today in the case of naval version of the LCA. All this like ski-jumping, flying the level version. It is all being done automatically and flying in level safely has been done automatically. But then for landing the last bit is some more pseudo lights and other things have to be put. We need to manage and see that it is lands properly. That is the only case that is pending. Even then there is a smaller vehicle we are making, that is the SWIFT in the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) in Bangalore. By this time next year we will have a SWIFT landing also.
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NDTV: What is the capability of SWIFT?
Dr Christopher: We don’t have any capability other than proving the platform itself. We will use one of the engines of none other than the nearby Nirbhay, and we will simply fly for proving the vehicle that it can take-off and land. We will not have more than 5 kg or 10 kg capability. That is not meant for any payload being dropped. It is mainly for proving the aircraft and when that is over, the full blown AMCA is getting ready that will use the dry Kaveri engine. But that’s a bigger fellow. You want to start with the small and then go to the bigger. That Kaveri engine is available for that purpose whereas for the drone you are denied. For engine, we do have a Kaveri substitute though the power requirement is 52 kilotons, which is possible from Kaveri as against what is required about 80 kilotons.
NDTV: So how soon can we have an Indian drone as capable as the US Predator?
Dr Christopher: Well, that I need to think because the point is we need to get a programme and we need to work on it. We will have the technologies by next year but after that I have to get a programme and tell you the time frame.
NDTV: We are still in the months where we are talking about 20 years of Pokhran. Now, what is the status of our nuclear triad? Is our underwater platform in a state of readiness? What is the status of that?
Dr Christopher: All of them are in order and they are in a condition for operation anytime.
NDTV: Are you saying that Arihant is in a state of operation?
Dr Christopher: I think so.
NDTV: So the missile has been mated with the submarines and now it is roving in the seas?
Dr Christopher: I don’t think to that extent but otherwise it is mated and tried.
NDTV: Have you fired from the INS Arihant platform and the submarine launched ballistic missile or SLBM?
Dr Christopher: Yes, from the stationary as well as from that also we have tried.
Dr Christopher: Obviously.
NDTV: Outstanding. Which means in a way we have completed our nuclear triad?
Dr Christopher: Maybe.
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NDTV: Why maybe, if you have succeeded, then you have succeeded. There is no maybe about it.
Dr Christopher: We need to have more of them. We need to try more number, and we need to plan. We need to have so many other things added. That is the target.
NDTV: That is the target?
Dr Christopher: (Nods)
NDTV: And also, what is the status of making more nuclear submarines because we have one and we have more in the pipeline. How are they doing?
Dr Christopher: The plan is there, and we are proceeding with all of them one after another.
NDTV: There is another capability which India has not shown, but we have, that is anti-satellite capability. What is the state of our anti-satellite weapons?
Dr Christopher: There are two aspects in that. One is that we need to know the location of the satellite as accurately as possible so that we can send the missile or whatever the weapon is that we would like to use as close to that. Because you cannot search where they are. You cannot go there and search because we don’t have that much energy and time, but all the missiles are generally going to be ballistic. That means they may not have manoeuvring capability. We must predict as accurately as possible from the ground. That is one aspect. After that, even when you have probably accurately predicted that we may have to take the vehicle, and by the time it reaches there could be some sort of meandering, so there has to be another mechanism which will take it close to that. These are the two aspects; both aspects we have started working.
NDTV: Some say Agni-V has the capability if you require because satellites have roughly known locations and Agni-V can be used as an anti-satellite weapon. It’s a heavyweight weapon like using a sledgehammer against a fly?
Dr Christopher: You said it correctly, but you have any ballistic missile which normally goes for a thousand kilometres plus height-wise, any of them can be applied. You do not necessarily need to specially use Agni-V.
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NDTV: Recently, there has been this Defence Planning Committee that has been made where the National Security Advisor is the chairman. I was very surprised that the Chairman of the Defence Research and Development Organisation was not even included in that at a point when the Prime Minister talks of Make in India as a very big push. Do you think that is oversight by the government and that it should be corrected?
Dr Christopher: In my opinion, certainly not.
NDTV: See the defence council is a new format. How has it been to deal with Nirmala Sitharaman?
Dr Christopher: You may be pleasantly surprised that DRDO is one of the organisations where we have about 16-17 per cent of women staff in all the categories… And madam is excellent in terms of dealing with things and she understands very instantaneously and gives full time for us to speak and explains our needs. And in a matter of nine days of taking over the charge, she came to Pokhran and saw that none other than Advanced Towed Artillery Gun (ATAG), which is equivalent to Bofors gun or even better than Bofors gun. She immediately pushed it along with the [army] Chief so that we could understand and we could immediately see that it is going further… We have absolute confidence that she will take us to the heights.
NDTV: The lack of her technical expertise, is that a hindrance?
Dr Christopher: I don’t think in the policy and decision making everybody needs to have a technical knowledge. As a matter of fact to the best of my knowledge other than Manohar Parrikar no one else was an engineer, so why do we all of a sudden have to bring in that a defence minister has to be a technocrat? Not required in my opinion.
NDTV: So the future of India is well protected in the hands of our defence scientists?
Dr Christopher: I as a scientist will strongly say that we are well protected. We can even protect more. Even our neighbours also we can protect if required.
NDTV: Why are we importing stuff like the Rafale aircraft? By the time it comes in, it will be vintage. Is buying Rafale planes a correct decision?
Dr Christopher: I will strongly say it is a correct decision. Rafale is a twin-engine category. We don’t have a twin-engine category and we have an Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), which is a twin-engine category design and development maybe by the private players or companies producing it. But that is the order of the day and I don’t think that it is a possibility anytime to say that in a near future of five to 10 years these aircraft will not be needed at all. That means 10-15 years definitely it will be needed in procurement and they will be in operation for maybe in some more time to go. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or UAVs will come, yes, it will come and the rules are yet to be designed and developed across the world, not only with us. The artificial intelligence or AI… how artificial we are in talking about? When we say artificial intelligence, if we give total autonomy, there is a possibility of much more damage to our side that the other side on odd location where we have to be very careful on that, this will continue till some more time in my opinion.
Drone warfare is likely to dominate future battlefields
NDTV: Dr Christopher, there is much talk in the future that warfare will be very different and the wars would be more cyber wars. How prepared are we and what is DRDO’s contribution in that?
Dr Christopher: Naturally, cyber warfare is going to be the order of the day… how do you do the impact probably you can paralyze the banking system, maybe the healthcare system can be paralyzed or the ticket-booking system can be stopped. All these things are a possible way of fighting a war. So for this, there are several people working together. The question is how fast you can put your bug inside and how fast you can detect and get out of it, both are to be done. We are preparing ourselves as we told you because of the nature; it is having a connotation across the spectrum. Several people are working on it. IITs and many other institutions, private companies and ourselves we are working very much on these areas.
NDTV: So are we prepared if there is a cyber attack, if people take down our ATMs? Will we face the consequences or will you be able to fix the system quickly and detect the intrusion?
Dr Christopher: I am sure you must also be using a lot of computers and other things. Can you tell me that you will not allow any more any virus to come inside? Answer is no. The moment you remove one virus people work on it for a different type of virus. So this warfare is one thing which is continuum. It will never stop. I can only tell that we are so capable we can find out and in a reasonable time we can pluck it. Same way if you like to do it elsewhere that’s not allowed today, but we may be in a position to do it because we are able to protect, which means we can create our own virus and see that how we are able to release it in a similar fashion that virus can be used for even attacking.
NDTV: So we have offensive as well defensive capabilities in cyber war?
Dr Christopher: It has to be, otherwise we can never ever develop any defensive weapon. For defence, we need to have something to hit you, so nobody is going to come and tell I have got a weapon so we generate our own weapon and protect against it so this could be deployed in any fashion.
NDTV: So we are capable?
Dr Christopher: We are capable. As a country you know very well as in a case of computer we are much more than many other countries. So we have got a lot of talented people. We have got much more youngsters. Youngsters have got a wild way of thinking and that is what is required in this area and I am sure we will be in a position to do much more than many other countries.
NDTV: So that was Dr Christopher, the chairman of the Defence Research and Development Organisation giving a rare interview to you and telling us that India is battle ready and that Indian scientist and the defence research organisation has contributed enormously towards protecting India.