The Nirbhay Saga – 9th Test
An Alpha Defense Coverage
In a milestone achievement today, India has successfully tested one of its most crucial missiles underworks, the long-range, all-weather subsonic Nirbhay Cruise Missile, from Launchpad-3 ITR, Island, Orissa at 9:55 AM. The missile seems to have conformed to all test parameters, and the engine behaving as expected. The nuclear-capable cruise missile, covered approximately 150km while the on-ground and offshore telemetry monitored all the flight-test parameters. This marks the test of the ITCM-03 variant or the third launch under the new Indigenous Technology Cruise Missile program and pushing the indigenized content in the missile to greater than 95%.
ITCM is urgently needed to fill up various roles that form our offensive stand-off strike capability. When you do a cost-per-launch comparison, we can see how much value cruise missiles bring to the table with their ability to strike accurately, with low observability over distances that are considered way beyond the comfort of any other operational asset’s reach. However, there is quite a delayed success that is due for credit, an undermined DRDO laboratory, the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE). A lab often touted as the white elephant and not having seen a successful product fielded in decades. But today, its results have paid off, for designing and realizing a fully reliable, small turbofan engine of 450 KGF thrust class that proved itself worthy enough to replace the previous Russian origin NPO Saturn 36MT Turbofan.
What did this test achieve?
- The most important and key takeaway from today’s test will be the success of the STFE Engine (Manik) by GTRE, which powered the cruise missile in today’s test for the second stage flight duration. The engine performed well throughout the 150km distance it covered. It marks the first-ever successful maiden flight of the ITCM powered by STFE.
- Next, is the full realization of improvised RF-SAR Seeker and NavIC navigational and control systems onboard developed completely in-house.
- And finally, the trust quotient! The test just raised eyebrows from all three services who can now breathe a sigh of relief as they can soon expect their variants to deploy on various platforms suiting their needs. There are and have been numbers in the past stating requirements in the number of missiles required per service, but we cannot still be sure of it, and can only say, a lot of these numbers depend on the doctrine and operational needs.
Most importantly, this test indicates the missile is near production-ready, and all of its critical components and functionalities have been put to test, at least once. The past couple of tests have seen close involvement of the armed forces itself being present during the tests, indicating evaluation of test results were closely being monitored by both Air-Force and Army. And now as we are aware, out of a total of 9 tests including today, tests 1-6 count under the Nirbhay Project (that is, from 2013-2019). The project is no longer called Nirbhay anymore, the new name given to it is Indigenous Technology Cruise Missile (ITCM). This is the new series of Nirbhay based cruise missiles that are seeing an upgraded RF Seeker and the indigenous STFE engine being put to test.
Perhaps to say, the STFE was ready well before the test on the missile, as it was later revealed that the previous test where missile failed, was not because of STFE, but rather due to Booster ignition complications that led to the missile’s engine not receiving sufficient RAM air to power the STFE and hence the ditch into ocean. As a recent media statement read “The GTRE has tested the engine for max power setting at Bangalore for 90 minutes continuous operation. During peak winter, the engine was tested at Leh at (-15 degree Celsius)”. It is only indicative of the fact that STFE as an engine itself is quite a mature propulsion platform currently at our disposal.
As of today, a total of 9 trials have been conducted, and project Nirbhay+ITCM have demonstrated some
critical technologies over the years including:
- Dual-Stage propulsion (both Russian and Indigenous).
- A fully indigenized X-Band RF-SAR Seeker for DSMAC illumination and Terminal Guidance developed by Research Centre Imarat with Active Radar Homing, Electro-Optic Guided, and IR Guidance.
- GTRE made Manik STFE (Small Turbofan Engine). (GTRE has tested the STFE engine north of 90 minutes during tests conducted at Bengaluru-based test facilities).
- Guidance and Control Kit – (RINS-16) Ring Laser Gyroscope (Indigenous)
- Navigation Suite – choice of GPS or NavIC, or both coupled with (MEMS) Microelectromechanical System (Indigenous)
- Being a cruise missile has its advantages, standoff-strike capability, loitering, an array of warhead choices, etc. You can rain hell on your enemy sitting hundreds of miles away with <20 CEP accuracy. And moreover, we have Brahmos, so why Nirbhay you ask?
- It’s the versatility that it can perform its mission with, a cruise missile such as Nirbhay/ITCM is capable of loitering around the region of interest (RoI) and can fly using terrain-hugging and seaskimming techniques using the onboard guidance kit along with sensors.
- The best cruise weapons to employ during a SEAD mission would ideally be something like ITCM, where lurking into unknown airspaces and defended airspaces would need less human intervention, and provision like loitering capability would prove indispensable. It actually, in a way is the perfect weapon to take out forward listening posts of a fairly larger IADS set up by the enemy.
- Another factor to consider is that, from the start, the missile has been designed to deliver a humungous variety of warheads, up to 24, that is. Now if you couple it with the range and other capabilities that it is comfortably offering, it becomes a very attractive offer. This not only is an eyecatcher for most services, but rather a dire requirement.
All three services are keen on it, but to comment on the degree of usage and to say different variants will be developed to suit the needs of each service is not an overstatement. In fact, the Sea, Ground, and an upgraded Aerial version of the missile are already underway. And given below are how the three different services are planning to employ it.
Army has long operated Nirbhay related infrastructure, till the most recent launch, that is the ground-based launchers. Recent developments in the Line of Actual Control (LAC) region saw the deployment in short batches of the Nirbhay Cruise Missile as well. Safe to say that early adopters have been spotted, and to what extent, shall be answered as time passes.
- With no direct plans to induct ITCM into its arsenal, the Indian Navy is patiently waiting for the upgrade, which is LRLACM, (Long Range, Land Attack Cruise Missile). It will be an ITCM/Nirbhay based 1500km range cruise missile, that will seamlessly fit into the L&T make universal vertical launch cells (UVLC) already fitted onto 30+ Indian Navy vessels. These are the same ones currently housing the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile.
- A hint to the Navy’s expression of interest can be traced back to the MoD’s annual report, where it states, DRDO has successfully carried out the sea trials of X Band Seeker at Vizag with INS Astradharini as a carrier and Multipurpose Support Vessel SCI Saraswati as a target in March 2018. This could hint towards work being carried out for the AShCM (Anti-Ship Cruise Missile) variant of the Nirbhay.
- DRDO also plans to have a missile ready for Naval tests by 2023, which is planned to be launched from universal VLS. There are even plans to fire from the 533mm torpedo tubes of the submarines in our fleet, but only time will tell to what extent we can make this happen.
- Its induction into the Navy will be a huge boost to our blue water power projection capabilities, a Carrier Battle Group, whose escort destroyers and frigates armed with Nirbhay cruise missiles can potentially replace the existing Russian origin Kh-35 Uran cruise missile, thus ensuring self-sufficiency, and hopefully, by the time of induction, be way ahead of Kh-35 and its capabilities
Indian Air Force
- As discussed above, each service will want its own set of bells and whistles as customization to the missile’s behavior and operational capabilities. The IAF is no exception, it is expecting a slightly smaller variant of the missile, that can be air-launched via its Su-30MKI, LCA Mk2, and Jaguar DARIN-III platforms, all of which are planned to carry a similar class of weapon ( Brahmos-NG).
- The range of the weapon, in this case, will naturally be extended and will have a greater standoff strike capability. 2023 again, is the target year supposedly set by DRDO officials for realizing an aerial launched missile.
- One component can be taken off from this configuration, which would be the First stage solid booster, and would make the missile lighter. Post this as well, IAF now has experience handling a similar class weapon underbelly and will only further expedite this integration process.
Some key points and thoughts to ponder over
- Development of 5 engine sets for testing and 3 engine sets for Nirbhay integration with development partner M/s Brahmos Aerospace Thiruvananthapuram Limited (M/s BATL). Five prototypes (T1, T2, T3, T4, and T5) have been realized. High altitude start trials and endurance tests were completed in the 2018-19 annual year itself.
- The ITCM-01 (12 October 2020) test that was powered by STFE Manik was not the root cause of the problem, and was recovered near intact along with the rest of the missile frame and brought back for evaluation. Now the question arises if GTRE and the test personnel at Balasore and ITR Range have decided to reuse the same engine and refurbishing it, OR GTRE has transported the second prototype of the engine from Bangalore to Balasore ahead of the second launch ITCM-02 that took place today. Both ways, the prototypes in no way are expendable, as only 3 engines (for integration, not testing) exist in our knowledge.
- All tests of Nirbhay were conducted over open waters, it has not yet matured over land and continuous terrain mapping navigation. so Tercom remains untested, rather need more tests over land than our comfort zone ITR range.
- ITCM will soon pave the way to a more mature LRLACM, based on the ITCM itself. LRLACM will be three-staged propulsion to a include supersonic dive towards the target in the final phase of impact. Compromising of solid-fuel first stage booster, second stage Manik STFE, and third stage liquid fuelled ramjet. The LRLACM has already been approved by MoD for R&D.
- The Nirbhay missile is perhaps one of the first-ever cruise missiles to start its development itself with a maiden use-case of DSMAC illumination with RF-SAR seeker, which provides SAR feed for area correlation, is a relatively more advanced and fool-proof mechanism than optronic guidance. For context, the Tomahawk Block-4 variant and above use such advanced guidance, the older way to do it was to have pre-loaded DSMAC and Terrain maps uploaded to the mission computer, DSMAC would then perform area correlation.
Every rank in the organization needs to be thanked for making this happen. DRDO has gained significant, and in-depth knowledge by working on crucial projects such as Nirbhay, AASTRA, RUDRAM-1, and its underlying technologies that must and should be self-reliant, such as the development of indigenous seekers, turbofan engines, fabrication, etc.
To be able to infer from the foreseeable future, we can take a look at what the DRDO statement had said in 2019,
Given all this, we’d like to summarize the flight tests that have been performed on the Nirbhay as well as
Project ITCM. Take a look!
Total successful tests: 4 (3 Nirbhay, 1 ITCM)
Total unsuccessful tests: 5 (4 Nirbhay, 1 ITCM)