R N Agarwal, the developer of Agni missile living a quiet life in Hyderabad

In India’s missile circles he is fondly called as ‘Agni Agarwal’. An outstanding aerospace engineer, Ram Narain Agarwal should be credited with being the architect of Agni missiles. Agni V, the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), has catapulted India into the exclusive club of nations—US, Russia, China, France, UK, Israel and North Korea.

On May 22, 1989, exactly 33 years ago, as Programme Director, Agarwal and team successfully flight tested the Agni missile over 800 km with a payload of 1000 kg. It was the medium range ballistic missile launched from the Interim Test Range at Chandipur on sea, Balasore, off the Odisha coast.  It had to be postponed twice – first on April 20, 1989, and then on May 1, 1989 due to last minute detection of technical glitches.

The success surprised many developed nations and invited their wrath too. India described the Agni at that stage as a “technology demonstrator”. In short, it established the rare capability of re-entry technology–the missile leaving the earth’s atmosphere and then coming back. It opened up many applications in space from next generation launchers, planetary exploration, transportation into outer space etc. to India. There was no intention to deploy this version as a weapon delivery system, was the government stand then.

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Agni–crown jewel of IGMDP

The Agni project was the ‘Jewel in the crown’ of the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) launched in 1983 by the Indian government. The ambitious programme was sanctioned by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at a time when missile technology could not be obtained for ‘money or friendship’. Ms Gandhi entrusted the leadership responsibility to A PJ Abdul Kalam.

The mandate was to develop 5 different missiles–Agni, the technology demonstrator, surface to air missile;  Prithvi– a surface to surface missile; Trishul– a quick reaction short range, surface to air missile; Nag– a third generation anti-tank missile system and; Akash– a medium range, surface to air missile system.

In 1982, Kalam had joined the Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL), Hyderabad. He had come from the Indian Space Research Organisation and was committed to transform the struggling defence lab. The leadership and the IGMDP gave the right impetus and brought out the best in him as a team leader, motivator and coordinator.

However, the basic development initiatives for missile technology were started by R N Agarwal and his team in the DRDL few years before. Agarwal was heading the Aerodynamics Test Facility at the Lab. The group was involved in building a supersonic wind tunnel and high altitude test facility. In addition, it prepared a report on the re-entry test vehicle to test the re-entry technology, which was critical for Agni class of missiles.

Building on these foundations and the coordinated work involving different labs of the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) in Hyderabad and the Terminal Ballistic Research Laboratory (TBRL), Chandigarh, defence scientists progressed steadily in the development of the slew of missiles.

From 1989 to 2020, the defence scientists successfully developed Agni 1 to V versions with different ranges from 700 km to 5000 plus km.  Agni V, the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) launched in 2012 catapulted India into a global power to reckon with and made China sit up to the reality, the pivotal role played by Ram Narain Agarwal and his team in the initial stages had undoubtedly laid the foundation.

Agarwal and Hyderabad

Dr Agarwal drove the Agni mission as it’s programme director from 1983 till 2005, when he retired as the Director of the Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL). As the IGMDP gained momentum and missiles started getting tested the DRDO created the ASL and Research Centre Imarat. Later BrahMos came. With Bharat Dynamics Limited into manufacturing, Hyderabad emerged as the ‘Missile Complex’ of India.

Hailing from a family of businessmen from Jaipur, Agarwal moved to Hyderabad and the DRDO in the early 1970s. His fascination for flying and space drew him to aeronautics. In a way Agarwal turned out to be an exception in the family. He went on to obtain an engineering degree in aeronautics from the Madras Institute of Technology, also the Alma mater of Abdul Kalam. Thereafter, he did masters from the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.

In a way Hyderabad proved to be the right fit for the short statured, Aerospace engineer, a demanding leader, who went about his tasks with a high degree of commitment. Incidentally, the city of Nizam’s had a sizeable population of business communities from the North, especially Rajasthan, who held important portfolios under the Nizam’s rule. The Kayasthas, the Marwaris and traders have made significant contributions to the city. During a visit to his home in ‘Rakshapuram’,  Kanchanbagh, which houses the cluster of defence labs, by me and Mir Ayoob Ali Khan, a senior Journalist, he lucidly explained these aspects and how easily he could connect with the people in Hyderabad, especially the old city. Incidentally, Mrs Agarwal, a Kasyatha from an eminent family in the city, worked in a School too in the neighbourhood and the family happily settled there post his retirement from DRDO in 2005.

On January 1, 2002, the first foundation day of ASL, I had a chance of attending the event with Dr R Chidambaram, one of the key nuclear scientists behind Pokhran-2 of May 1998 as chief guest. It was very revealing to understand the wide range of indigenisation that the ASL had achieved from light weight composites used in the nose tip of Agni that withstood the above 3000 degree temperatures to rocket motors and many key components. ASL was the lead Institute for the Agni Programme.

Agarwal was a doer, an achiever and a task master. But, the top secret nature of the Agni project, the need to keep everything under wraps and Abdul Kalam’s high profile in a way overshadowed his achievements in the public domain. Further, in 2004, to his disappointment, he was surprisingly pipped to the post of Director General, DRDO by Dr M Natarajan, who was heading, Arjun, the Main Battle Tank project.

In a long career of over four decades, Agarwal won many awards and recognitions including the Padma Bhushan. He also groomed several leaders of whom Avinash Chander,  who became DG of DRDO and V Sekharan (former Director ASL) made significant contributions in the development of Agni 1 to V and taking them into the production and induction phases into the defence forces. Agarwal, who is now into his early 80s, preferred to settle down in Hyderabad to a quiet life.

To sum,   ‘A for Agni missile and Agni is Agarwal, could well be a befitting description to his invaluable contributions to India’s missile development. Even Kalam, who later became the DRDO Chief, Principal Scientific Adviser to the Union Govt. and President of India in his biography ‘Wings of Fire’, acknowledged Agni development to R N Agarwal.

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