India’s first step towards a ‘cheap’ missile force | Daily News Byte

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The Indian Armed Forces may soon get the go-ahead to procure the Pralai short-range surface-to-surface ballistic missile (SRBM).

If the news, which has not been confirmed by the three services or the Defense Ministry, is true, this could prove to be a major step towards India’s ambition to develop and deploy a missile force.

In September 2021, the late Chief of Defense Staff, General Bipin Rawat, revealed that India was “looking at building a missile force”.

Pralai Missile

The Pralai tactical missile has a stated range of 150-500 kilometers and carries warheads ranging from 350 to 700 kilograms.

Developed from India’s K-series ballistic missiles, or SLBMs, the first known tests of the Pralai missile were conducted on two consecutive days in December 2021.

Satellite images of the test show that the Pralai system is a canistered road-mobile system. Canisterization can significantly improve the mobility of a tactical missile system by reducing the time and resources required to prepare and launch a missile.

The mobility of a tactical missile system is important because it allows the system to be moved to different locations as needed to respond to evolving threats.

But more importantly, in one of two tests conducted last December, the missile was launched on a quasi-ballistic trajectory.

In a quasi-ballistic trajectory, the missile follows a relatively lower (though mostly ballistic) trajectory than a ballistic missile would, and has the ability to perform maneuvers in flight.

When traveling on a lower trajectory than a ballistic missile, a quasi-ballistic missile is able to maintain a higher velocity, giving its target less time to react to an incoming threat. This significantly increases the chances of the missile defeating the anti-missile defense system.

The Ministry of Defense called the missile a “conventional surface-to-surface missile” in an attempt to distinguish it from the Agni series of missiles, which are capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear warheads.

The use of Agni-I and Agni-II missiles with conventional payloads in a conflict situation could potentially lead to misunderstandings and escalation, as the opposing side would have no way of knowing whether the warhead on the missile is nuclear or conventional.

By classifying the missile as conventional, the decision to use it can be delegated to local commanders, as is the case with other tactical weapon systems.

Why India needs a missile force

The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF), formerly known as the Second Artillery Force, has the largest land-based conventional missile force in the world.

Its evolution from the PLA’s Second Artillery Force to the PLARF, making it a service like the army, navy and air force, and a 33 percent increase in size in the three years between 2017 and 2019 indicate China’s increased reliance on the missile force.

In the event of a conflict with India, China would use missile power to hit key operational targets such as command and control centers, air bases, force concentrations, logistics hubs and other critical infrastructure in the initial stages of the war to degrade India’s ability to fight.

India has land-based missiles to respond to such an attack, but options are severely limited compared to China and under the command of different services. Both the Indian Army and Air Force have BrahMos land-based missiles, but the lack of theaterization and commonality means that they cannot be used optimally.

An integrated missile force would not only act as a deterrent to China’s PLARF, but would also bring such assets under a unified architecture and doctrine.

Moreover, it would help achieve the most efficient economies of scale and concentration of massed firepower.

Compared to China, India has very limited capabilities in the tactical use of conventional land-based missiles.

BrahMos, which now has a relatively longer range than before, costs more than Rs 34 crore apiece. It will be reserved for a limited number of high value targets.

The Pralai, a much cheaper ballistic missile, would provide mass to the missile forces and allow them to target concentrations of Chinese forces along the Line of Actual Control and dual-use infrastructure in Tibet.

However, the missile force would still need a cheaper ground-launched cruise missile, which remains a key missing link in India’s missile arsenal, apart from long-range conventional ballistic missiles to hit targets deep in China.

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