New Delhi: Having effective cruise missiles significantly bolsters a country's land attack capabilities. It adds a totally new dimension to a nation's striking ability with features such as ability to fly low and avoid detection. It can quietly enter the enemy territory and deal a deadly blow with a precision strike.

Nirbhay can be a formidable weapon for the armed forces capable of carrying 24 different types of nuclear warheads, but the indigenously developed subsonic cruise missile just keeps failing in the tests. The Nirbhay is a land attack cruise missile armed with a 300-kilogram warhead capable of reaching speeds of 0.6-0.7 Mach and designed to be launched from air, sea, and land. But, ever since its conceptualisation, Nirbhay's test results have not yielded results that were expected.

So much so that some reports in 2018 were saying that the Nirbhay program could be scrapped. The last test was conducted on October 12, 2020, which was a success. DRDO clarified that all mission objectives were met. The test also validated the terrain hugging and the sea skimming capability of the missile. This trial completed the developmental tests of the missile. 

Nirbhay is a two-stage missile and capable of carrying 24 different types of nuclear warheads. The missile has a range of more than 1,000 km, weighs about 1,500 kg and has a length of 6 metres (20 feet). The missile is being developed by the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE), Bangalore, which has no prior experience in developing such a system. The DRDO would have been a better choice to design and develop this critical weapon. However, after the design was finalised, the technology required for the missile was developed. It was integrated by R&D Engineers, Pune, a specialised arm of DRDO. The first test flight of the missile was planned in October 2012, but the launch was postponed to December owing to the changes being made to the launcher.

According to DRDO, Nirbhay missile is a 1000-km class cruise missile that has the capability to strike "deep" into the enemy's territory. The missile has the capability to loiter and cruise at 0.7 Mach, at altitudes as low as 100 metres.

All the features on the paper are fine but the missile should become operational first. Only once the missile passes all the tests satisfactorily will it be cleared for mass production.

Out of the seven tests of Nirbhay subsonic missile, four were declared as failures and the results of the fourth test was never declared by the DRDO. That amounts to around only 42% success rate for the missile.

Problems With Nirbhay:

Nirbhay was initially conceptualised to counter Pakistan's Babur Land-attack cruise missile (Incidentally Babur is a badge-engineered Korshun missile system sourced from the Ukraine and not an indigenous systems as claimed by Pakistan). Pakistan has no such worries or hiccups which India is facing developing cruise missile technology which is a daunting task, primarily since ADE lacks prior experience in developing such a system and the missile itself involves several complex and highly sophisticated technologies. Babur on the other hand is a complete CKD kit, our adversary has one big advantage though, they don't have to conduct these excruciating validation tests since the Ukrainians have already tested and operationalised the missile.

India is developing Nirbhay from scratch. From its engine to navigation system, all are indigenously made. Biggest problem with a cruise missile is its propulsion. US developed specific jet engines which were small but had enough thrust, eventually these were adopted to use in the Tomahawk missiles. The latest failure of Nirbhay could have been the failure/under performance of the new indigenous small turbofan engine.

First Test:

The first trial of Nirbhay was held on March 12, 2013, from the Integrated Test Range at Chandipur. The missile took off from the launch pad successfully and reached the second stage of propulsion, travelling 15 minutes through its envisaged path at a speed of 0.7 mach. After that, it veered away from its trajectory. This forced the command centre to detach the engine from the missile mid-way into the flight.

Second Test:

The second test of Nirbhay was held on October 17, 2014, from Chandipur. This time the missile met all the parameters and completed all 15 way-points. The missile travelled for more than 1000 km that lasted for a duration of over 1 hour and 10 minutes. Indian Air Force fighter jet Jaguar chased the missile during its flight to capture the video of the flight.

Third Test:

During its third test on October 16, 2015, all initial critical operations were successful and Nirbhay even and the missile even reached the desired Cruise Altitude. But, it crashed into the Bay of Bengal 11 minutes into its flight after covering only 128 km of its 1000 km range.

Fourth Test:

Nirbhay's fourth test took place on December 21, 2016, from ITR Chandipur. The results of this test have not been made public yet. Reports say that the missile blasted off from its launcher but shortly afterwards it started veering dangerously towards one side two minutes after lift-off. The missile then had to be destroyed mid-air after it strayed from its programmed course. A potential reason for the failure was described as a hardware problem with one of the missile's component.

Fifth Test:

The cruise missile took off from a specially designed launcher from the launch complex-3 of the Integrated Test Range or ITR at Chandipur, near Balasore on November 7, 2017.

"All initial critical operations of the trial such as a blast of the sophisticated missile are successful as it moved up in its trajectory," a DRDO statement said. The test was dubbed successful but the exact details of the test are not known yet.

Sixth Test:

Sixth missile trial from Integrated Test Range, Odisha on 15 April 2019. The sixth successful trial took place on April 15, 2019. Traversing around 650 km, the test missile navigated way-points located at altitudes varying from 5 meters to 2.5 km. DRDO clarified that all mission objectives were met. The test also validated the terrain hugging and the sea skimming capability of the missile. This trial completed the developmental trials of the missile. The next set of trials will be conducted as per the requirements of the Indian Armed Forces.

Seventh Trial:

The seventh trial took place on October 12th, 2020 at 10:30 AM from Wheeler Island, it was given a test-launch window of 2 days. The test was aborted after 8 minutes of launch and the missile ditched into open waters due to a technical glitch, which is yet to be ascertained.

Probable Cause

Media report were aflush in the past coupe of days reporting of an imminent test of the GTRE's indigenous Small Turbo Fan Engine (STFE) fitted on a Nirbhay cruise missile an Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE).

Now known as the Indigenous Technology Cruise Missile (ITCM), the weapon, which is essentially the Nirbhay missile fitted with the indigenous Small Turbo Fan Engine (STFE), being developed by Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE). ADE has planned two developmental tests using the ITCM to demonstrate the STFE capabilities, in addition to the engine a new radio frequency seeker is also planned to be validated.

The ADE official also confirmed that new variants are being developed, including the ground/ship-launched Long Range Land Attack Cruise Missile (LRLACM), the Submarine Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM) - or Nirbhay SLCM - and the future air-launched version, possibly known as Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) or Nirbhay ALCM.

"The GTRE 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)", a media statement read.

The 110 kg STFE straight jet engine has an on-board gas generator for powering on the engine, which generates 425 kgf of thrust and is credited with a 2 kW power off take. Measuring 900×360 mm, the engine has already completed stand-alone ground testing, a GTRE official told Jane's.

IDN assumes the STFE could have been the main culprit for the failure of the latest ITCM mission. However, official confirmation on the nature of the failure is expected any time soon from the DRDO.

Future Program

Nirbhay like the American Tomahawk has a modular design, allowing a wide variety of warhead, guidance, and range capabilities. ADE plans for the future includes a insensitive extended range warhead, time-of-arrival control and advanced navigation capability which can reduce mission-planning time and increase navigation and terminal accuracy. Enhancements may include increased flexibility utilising two-way communications using India's NavIC (GPS) satellite system, increased responsiveness with faster launch timelines, better loiter capabilities in area of emerging targets and improved affordability.

Nirbhay, if future tests turn out to be successful in all parameters, would be a formidable missile that can send shivers down our adversaries spines. But all these ambitious plans requires the DRDO/ADE to set right the niggling issues at the earliest and build a robust weapon system.

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