Unlike its Agni-V ballistic missile, do not expect New Delhi to draw a lot of international attention to upcoming testing of its Nirbhay cruise missile, even as the weapon holds far more significance to the Indian weapons program than is widely appreciated.

In August, the country is scheduled to conduct the first test of its little known Nirbhay (“fearless”), a subsonic weapon with a maximum range of 1,000 km. Designated secret, the weapon’s development has remained concealed ever since its existence was first revealed in 2006.

Like the Agni-V, the Nirbhay will be tested from India’s missile range over the Bay of Bengal. The missile has two stages, is understood to be powered by a Russian-built NPO Saturn engine, will cruise at 0.7 Mach and is being developed to demonstrate loitering capabilities. Sources at the Hyderabad-based Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL) that built the missile prototype say the weapon is ready in all respects for its first flight. As a secret strategic program, the Nirbhay doesn’t work on a timeline.

ASL director V.G. Sekaran recently said the Nirbhay was slated for a July-August debut. While the agency has refused to comment on the Nirbhay’s capabilities, there remains some ambiguity about whether the ‘Nirbhay’ name pertains only to the primary weapon — the subsonic cruise missile — or to a family of cruise missiles, including a yet-unnamed, long-range, scramjet-powered supersonic cruise missile.

The ambiguity is an inevitable part of the project’s secret status. The agency has worked with intrigue before — in July last year, it tested the Prahaar quick-reaction, surface-to-surface missile after first revealing the existence of such a system barely two weeks before.

The Indian armed forces are watching the Nirbhay program with perhaps greater focus than they did the Agni. While the Indian weapons program has matured in the ballistic missile arena, it has precious little or nothing to show in cruise missiles. In the Indo-Russian BrahMos, Russia still builds critical technologies like the engine and seeker, while India contributes the inertial navigation and fire control systems. On the Nirbhay, while Russia is understood to have contributed the engine, sources say it will be replaced with an Indian turbojet or tubofan engine in a later phase.

“In many ways, the Nirbhay is a more crucial weapon system than the Agni family,” says an officer with one of the Indian Army’s BrahMos missile regiments. “The lack of a long-range cruise missile has long been felt by the armed forces. The BrahMos is an excellent border weapon, but we need a terrain-hugging missile with a range of 750-1,000 kilometers for more potent deterrent value. That’s why we’re waiting for the Nirbhay more than we’ve perhaps waited for anything in the last 20 years.” The BrahMos supersonic cruise missile has a stated range of 290 km.

In 2007, India’s Defense Research & Development Organization (DRDO) revealed at a seminar that the Nirbhay would be capable of delivering 24 different warhead types. DRDO sources say that while the engine is Russian, the rest of Nirbhay is fully indigenous, including sensors, guidance and flight control systems. In 2008, reports suggested the Nirbhay was a loose derivative of the indigenous Lakshya target drone, operational with the armed forces. A mock-up of the Nirbhay was to have been displayed at Aero India in February 2011, but was pulled at the last moment after a change of heart at DRDO.

A former rear admiral from the Indian navy’s gunnery says, “The Nirbhay is rightly a hushed-up program. It shouldn’t draw too much attention until it has begun testing in earnest. Three years ago, there was a lot of confidence in the program and scientists were confident they could deliver such an ambitious weapon. It is a clean break from anything India has developed before.”

The Nirbhay has never been seen or photographed, and India’s DRDO wants to keep it that way until the actual debut test. DRDO sources say the missile is being built to be used from land, sea (ship and submarine) and air. India’s Center for Military Airworthiness and Certification has revealed that it has been asked to integrate the Nirbhay to an IAF Su-30 MKI airframe, while the land variant’s mobile launcher was recently revealed to be an Indian-built Tata 12x12 Prahaar launcher vehicle unveiled at Delhi’s DefExpo trade event in March.

Agni-IV photo: DRDO