After String of Failures, DRDO Successfully Tests Nirbhay Cruise Missile

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DRDO’s Nirbhay subsonic cruise missile is launched from the Integrated Test Range in Chandipur, Odisha on Tuesday. It was the fifth and only successful test of the DRDO-designed missile. Image Credit: PIB

India successfully tested its locally designed Nirbhay cruise missile on Tuesday, marking a return to form after two previous failures.

The 6 metre-long, 1,500-kilogram missile was launched on Tuesday at about 11:20 AM from the Integrated Test Range in Chandipur, Odisha. ‘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,’ an official release said.

The missile flew 647 kilometres, cruising for a total of 50 minutes. On the ground, the missile was tracked by radars and DRDO’s telemetry systems.

Bengaluru’s Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE), part of DRDO, is responsible for the Nirbhay project. The success of Tuesday’s test, the fifth to date, will come as a relief to ADE. The first test of Nirbhay in 2013 failed, the second was considered a partial success, and the third and fourth tests failed once again.

Nirbhay is India’s first attempt at locally designing and producing a long-range, land attack cruise missile. It has a maximum range of 1,000 kilometres and can cruise at 0.7 Mach or about 864 kilometres per hour. The missile has a 300-kilogram payload that can hold conventional or nuclear warheads. Its guidance system is equally impressive, largely relying on a homegrown inertial navigation system that can receive navigational updates from satellites.

What’s Nirbhay good for?

DRDO began work on the Nirbhay back in 2004, but failures cast a shadow over the project. It was supposed to be complete by December of last year, but the failure of the fourth test that month prompted the government to extend its completion deadline to June 2018.

Nirbhay is seen by some as a counter to Pakistan’s Babur cruise missile. While there’s enthusiasm from the armed forces for a long range nuclear-capable cruise missile, it’s not clear how Nirbhay will fit in with India’s nuclear posture. If the Nirbhay project is successful, there are plans to arm India’s Arihant-class ballistic missile submarines with the new cruise missile, possibly in place of the 750-kilometre range K-15 Sagarika ballistic missile. There’s also talk of arming surface ships with nuclear tipped Nirbhay missiles, though it’s not clear what strategic purpose this would serve.

As the Nirbhay project progresses, the challenge for India’s decisionmakers will be to find a place for the new weapon system in ways that enhance the country’s strategic interests.

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