Barely twenty-four hours after Defence Ministry sources said the defunct Trishul surface-to-air missile project would be wound up in December this year, Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee was forced to state that the project was being extended by a year. This is despite the fact that the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO)'s15-year-old attempt has cost the exchequer nearly Rs 300 crore, and failed despite over 80 tests.
Yet Mukherjee claims that work on the Trishul Anti-Missile Defence system, which is part of the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP), is likely to be completed by December 2007.
There is little doubt that the extension is political, and derives from the determination of a section of the Congress leadership to implicate former Defence Minister George Fernandes in a dubious kickbacks case involving purchase of the Israeli Barak missiles during the Kargil war. Recently, the CBI claimed that the Barak missile deal was signed in 2000 despite DRDO objections; the agency implied that the indigenous Trishul was virtually ready for adaptation by the Navy, which, of course, is at variance with the truth.
In reality, DRDO could not operationalize Trishul on account of snags in the missile guidance and control systems and problems in perfecting the three-beam missile guidance system. It has also extended the alibi about non-availability of critical component devices and sub-systems due to embargoes after Pokharan, and loss of scientists who migrated abroad. This being the reality, the DRDO should not have objected to the Ministry'sfield trials of foreign missiles, which led to Barak being selected. The correctness of the decision is proven by the fact that the Ministry is now buying Barak-II missiles, as Shri Fernandes has pointed out.
The Barak deal has acquired a potentially explosive edge with Naval chief Admiral Arun Prakash firmly supporting it, calling the anti-missile defence system comparable with the best in the world. Admiral Prakash asserted that the system was selected after extensive trials. Going public on the occasion of the recent Naval Commanders? conference, the Naval chief reflected the anger of the ranks against the slander against former Navy chief Sushil Kumar for alleged corruption in the Rs. 1150-crore deal. Others implicated by the CBI include Ms. Jaya Jaitly.
Navy sources have also let it be known that the Joint Chiefs of Staff will protest to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about the maligning of former Navy chief Sushil Kumar and demoralizing the forces, merely to settle political scores with rivals. Admiral Prakash said that at a time when the Navy was trying to equip itself for future conflict, the attempt to jeopardize the equipment programme through motivated slander was a cause for concern.
This emphatic statement from a serving officer comes as a serious embarrassment to the ruling UPA, particularly Congress president Sonia Gandhi, whom Shri George Fernandes has openly named as the main inspiration behind the CBI case. That the case now stands without legs is obvious. Worse, from the government'spoint of view, is the face that Admiral Prakash has revealed that some controversy in the Navy about induction of the Barak system does not concern the original Barak, but is rather about the Barak-II (designated NG or next generation) that is to be co-developed by DRDO and the Israeli firm IAI. The first deal pertains to the tenure of the NDA regime, the second to that of the ruling UPA alliance.
While this is not to say that there are genuine problems with Barak-II, it bears mentioning that the very fact that the defence ministry decided to deal with the same firm for its next generation missile system, is proof that the experience with the firm'sfirst product (Barak-I) was satisfactory. This knocks the bottom out of the allegations of irregularities in the selection procedure.
Meanwhile, Shri Pranab Mukherjee has been saddled with the unenviable task of defending some highly awkward positions. The first is the status?or non-status?of the Trishul missile. Though aware that the missile will never be delivered, Shri Mukherjee has diplomatically asserted that Indian scientists have managed to achieve some milestones over the past 15 years, such as perfection over guidance and control of missile against sea skimming targets, interception of air target by warhead system, integration of surveillance radar, tracking radar, missile guidance system and launcher in one vehicle system.
But with the Naval chief defending both the performance of the Barak missile and the selection procedure, Shri Mukherjee has a tough job defending the CBI fishing expedition for criminality in the transaction. That he is uncomfortable with this assignment can be seen from the fact that he has refused to blacklist the Israel Aircraft Industries, which has manufactured the Barak.
There is a view that both Shri George Fernandes and Admiral Sushil Kumar are being hounded because they are nationalist Christians, i.e., Christians who are happy to live with and serve a Hindu-majority country. At a time when persons with a hidden agenda are instigating groups like Jains and depressed castes to break away from the Hindu community, members of minority communities who are genuine nationalists are a serious inconvenience. The CBI case is an attempt to chastise or crush them. As the case cannot stand judicial scrutiny, the UPA would do well to read the writing on the wall and drop it. It does not have even the semblance of credibility.