Indian Space & Indigenous Missile Programmes: Similarities & Distinctive Features

The advances made by India in the field of Space and indigenous missile programmes are bench mark for technological excellence for other sectors. Although the framework for development  for space & missile technologies are tailored to their end use and  differ in many ways in terms of conceptualisation, execution & implementation.  The author deliberates on distinctive features of these programmes...

In a rare scientific feat, the Indian space research organisation (ISRO) successfully launched a record 104 satellites into orbit at one go, shattering the previous Russian record of 37. The launch was conducted from its Space Centre in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh on 15 feb 2017. ISROs cost effective and reliable satellite launch model, amongst its other achievements, is certainly reason to conclude that the space agency represents the best of India's scientific prowess. It is mostly an indigenous effort and reflects highly on the innovative skills of our scientists and the manufacturing capabilities of our industry. There couldn't be a better example to “make in India” programme than this.

This is also, a true reflection of the advances made by India in the field of Rocket science technology. Similar technologies have also been used in the indigenous missile programmes by Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO). Both these organisations have developed range of propulsion systems to carry their respective payloads i.e satellites in case of ISRO & warheads in case of DRDO. Such technological excellence is rarely visible in other sectors. From consumer goods to defence, the presence of indigenously developed systems with global standing is minimal.  Therefore, it would be of interest to consider the broad framework under which the space & missile programmes under two different organisations work & lessons for defence industry.

Distinctive Features of Development: ISRO (Satellites) Vs DRDO (Missiles)

In the case of ISRO, the operation of technologies designed and developed by their scientists is being done in-house. They are taking up programmes for end use applications as well as technology demonstration for which the system requirements and design concepts are formulated by the respective space centre. The objectives of the missions are set in accordance with their existing capabilities in terms of technology and timeframes. Thus there is enough flexibility built into the system from conceptualisation of projects to their execution & implementation. This model has endured the test of times and has met with reasonable success. It is there for all to see, in terms of remote sensing, communication transponders, weather forecast or satellite imagery; the latest being the launch of Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) which is likely to become operational soon. On that account, one can surmise that country is surely on the right tract to build up its capability in the field of space research, notwithstanding that we are demonstrating technologies which have been produced by more advanced nations nearly two to three decades earlier. We still need to enhance our capability to launch manned missions and heavier payloads.

In the case of Missile Programme under DRDO, there is a different model working. It is engaged in the design & development of missile systems for the armed forces which are also the end user of these systems. The requirements (general staff qualitative requirements/ services qualitative requirements) for these systems are formulated by the services in consultation with other stakeholders & projected to DRDO. Based on these projected requirements, the system design parameters are evolved. There is long cycle of development which entails demonstration trials for prototype evaluation, development trials, and user trials in all types of terrain before the system is accepted for induction into service. At each & every stage, the user is closely associated in monitoring the progress of the projects and also ensuring that no major design changes are made by the designer without its concurrence. There are also instances when changes in the qualitative requirements are suggested by the user leading to design/specification changes. When, there are different agencies involved, an institutionalised framework for regular interaction has to be an integral part of the development cycle. It is therefore logical to conclude that the framework for development for space & missile technologies are tailored to their end use & differ in many ways in terms of conceptualisation, execution & implementation.

Further unlike ISRO, DRDO has been taking up projects as per the stated requirements of the services, which are at par with the best in the world. These may or may not be within its capabilities. There are also increasing inputs of technologies of civil industrial origin into military weapons and systems. These could be acquired by ISRO and not by DRDO as some of these technologies will be subject to export control regimes when required for military use. Therefore, in view of the different ground realities, any comparison of achievements of ISRO & DRDO may not be a fair measure of their failure/success.

An institutionalised framework for regular interaction has to be an integral part of the Missile system development cycle.

Similarities in Organisational Thrust Areas.

Both organisations have followed the standard development models commonly applicable to all development projects. However, the reasons for successful outcome of the space & missile programmes could be attributed to the thrust areas as indicated below:-

  • Adherence to International standards (space/Mil) in selection of materials, components & process execution.
  • Screening of components is one hundred percent. Procurement from approved sources only.
  • High standards of documentation (drawings/specifications). Change & approval mechanism is in place.
  • Conformance to highest standards of quality & reliability. Availability of state of art testing facilities.
  • Defect investigation & failure analysis are the cornerstones of their development cycle.
  • Participative reviews (preliminary design reviews/critical design reviews) with all stakeholders.
  • Keeping pace with emerging technologies.
  • Sufficient autonomy given to project directors in planning & implementation of short term goals.

Lessons for Defence Industry

Indian defence industry is greatly influenced by the modernisation drive for our armed forces and is actively seeking to participate in this endeavour due to the business opportunities which are now available for them.  The government on its part has now liberalised the defence procurement policy for participation of private industry and this is manifested in the large number of industrial licences given to this sector in the recent times. ISRO/Missile Programme offer good lessons for defence industry which is keen to attain OEM status in design, development and manufacture of defence systems. The factors which contribute towards achieving this organisational goal are as listed in the succeeding paragraphs.

Technological growth and competency development.  One of the prime factor,  which has contributed, towards the impressive growth of ISRO has been its single minded pursuit of technological up gradation and indigenous competency development. Its focus on creation of scientific talent in terms of skilled workers and acquiring domain knowledge has paid rich dividends. Indigenous defence industry should clearly understand that modern weapon systems are highly integrated products and embody increasingly complex technologies. Acquiring these technologies is time consuming and very often, due to their sensitive nature, these are not easily purchased or acquired other than by painstaking local development. For example, cryogenic engine technology which ISRO has developed and successfully tested in the recent time is a result of sustained effort over a period of more than two decades. This technology is critical for the future of our space programme. This is closely guarded and such technology is available only to few nations. Building a skill base in such technologies takes a lot of time and patience. Industry should be fully aware of this fact & prepare its roadmap accordingly.

Step wise phases.  Given the overall scope and complexity of the industry, any effective roadmap must define a step wise growth. Our space/missile programmes have been consistent in this approach and it has yielded good results. There are many other similar examples throughout the world which make interesting case studies. As a common case study these days, Embraer in Brazil has effectively executed such a phased roadmap to achieve considerable domination of the regional jet market globally.

The roadmap crafted for the Indian defence sector must therefore comprehend not only the technology gap, but also the additional dimension of time and evolution. The roadmap must make apparent, stages of evolution and capability, and in the process set out intermediate goals and milestones.

Quality & Reliability.  Space systems require a high level of inbuilt quality & reliability. The product range of such systems comprise of many single shot devices, the failure of which can result in total mission failure. This is as much applicable for missile programme as it is in case of space programme wherein the rocket technology is a predominant factor. We are all well aware of a number of missions which had to be aborted or failing to takeoff at the launch pad. It causes great financial loss and adds to further delays in the cycle of product development, notwithstanding the loss of morale as well as confidence. In recent times, the space agency has achieved considerable success in meeting its objectives. This was possible because the organisation has been able to create a strong quality culture through a dedicated and experienced team of scientists.

There are different models working for ensuring very high standards of quality & reliability in ISRO & DRDO Missile Programmes. One of the discerning features observed in ISRO programmes is the active participation of the QA scientists in design & development activity. It ensures that quality & reliability concerns get due attention at the most critical stage, i.e. design.  In addition, for high precision jobs, some of which are outsourced, there are small teams of scientists placed at such work centres. Thus, highly skilled and qualified manpower is there to oversee various critical processes on ground and render necessary advice to vendors who may lack the domain expertise. Issues pertaining to minor deviations to the stipulated drawings and specifications are analysed on the spot, thus reducing interruptions to the manufacturing process.

The defence technology development takes a lot of time and patience besides closely guarded. Industry should be fully aware of this fact & prepare its roadmap accordingly.

Creation of Techno Industrial Base

ISRO as well as DRDO faced many hurdles in the initial stages of its journey due to lack of requisite techno industrial base within the country. This could be mainly attributed to non availability of advanced manufacturing and testing facilities, restrictive export control regimes which deprived access to the competitive technologies and critical components needed in major space/defence programme. Moreover, in country like ours, investment in research was always viewed as wasteful expenditure. Thus, there were always constraints of funds which adversely affected any major research being undertaken. With this background, it has been a challenging task for our research organisations. The country has paid a heavy price for this as we still look up to advanced nations for state of art technologies. The private industry in India, which is now on the look out for business opportunities in advanced technology areas through indigenous route has to learn lessons from the past history  of our space & defence R & D and chalk out their long term strategies accordingly. It has to be clearly understood that research can prosper in an environment which does not lack advanced manufacturing & testing facilities. An integrated approach towards creation of a requisite techno industrial base is the need of the hour.


The private industry has an important role to play and it is interesting to note that, both, the space as well defence is now relying heavily on the private industry. A good example of this is the large clusters of medium & small scale hi tech industry, mainly for aerospace sector that has flourished in Bangalore & Hyderabad. Private industry is an important stakeholder and is now becoming an equal partner in success/failure of any technology mission being undertaken by ISRO/DRDO. The last few years have seen growing confidence emerge from Indian industry coupled with a willingness to make investments in R & D. When an organisation like ISRO is lauded for its achievements, it is natural that comparisons will be made, with other similar organisations. The space & missile programmes embody the best of indigenous research & development which is there to emulate by others. In the field of defence, our national objective should be to develop products, , the first choice of our Armed Forces.

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