Dr. Sudhir Kumar Mishra graduated with a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from IIT Madras in 1995. Since August 2014, he has served as Distinguished Scientist & Director General (BrahMos), DRDO, Ministry of Defence, and CEO & MD, BrahMos Aerospace, leading an R&D team to design, develop, test, produce and maintain the world’s fastest supersonic cruise missile BrahMos, encompassing its complete life cycle. Chennai36 had the opportunity to interview him when he came down to the Institute to collect the Distinguished Alumni Award.
Congratulations on winning the DA award, Sir! Could you share your thoughts at this juncture?
Today is not just any other day, it’s a very special day. I have mixed feelings. I have a feeling of a sense of achievement and responsibility. I am feeling very humbled and happy that one of the best institutes in the country has recognized me. Thank you
Could you describe your time at IIT Madras? Your memories and takeaways.
I have both sweet and bitter memories on this campus. When I came here, I was full of anxiety and confidence. I shouldn’t have had the confidence because when I started my classes, I realized that every other guy was better than me and the faculty was just too good. And soon I could understand that I was going to face the biggest challenge of my life. And in other ways, the campus provided the best facilities both academic and in the environment. It was a very green campus! Nothing can be better than this, nothing could have been better than this.
You see what happens is that, when you graduate, you feel you know everything in the world. When you complete your post graduation, you then realize that you don’t know many things in the world. And after completing your doctoral research, you realize that you don’t really know anything in the world. So I was in the midway (when I was in my post graduation) that I realized that I don’t know anything in this world. And IIT has equipped me with the knowledge and tools to understand engineering problems and situations. And best of all is that it has given me the confidence to take my real life engineering problems head-on. More than that it taught me the kind of integrity and morality to say what is correct and what is not. It might be somewhat arrogant, but in engineering, if something is correct, it is right, if something is not and it doesn’t work, it means it is not correct. So, there is no grey area.
IIT has equipped me with all the tools to analyze and achieve something in my life. I really thank this institution for preparing me to face the life.
You went on to take Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from NIT Warangal. What was the focus of your research there?
I have done my Masters project in Job Shop Scheduling. This is a problem of production engineering and a lot of research has been taking place in the last forty years for optimizing the Job Shop Scheduling. I have extended this research to my Ph.D. also. So, it was a classical problem of Job Shop Scheduling, optimizing the size inventory and I came out with a new way of doing research using invasive re-optimization tactic and this technique has given very optimistic results. We have compared results with the stunted benchmark problems and found that all the solution that came out of my method were meeting the best possible results. This was my research. I am sure that this problem will continue to be there because this is a non-polynomial hardcore problem. So, we need to find out a way to find some near-optimal solutions.
What are the changes you see on this campus, now that you have come here after a long time?
There are many changes. Most of the changes are positive. One positive I see now is a young, bright and colorful crowd. There are more girls on the campus. It is a very good thing as it brings in heterogenous thought processes.
Another positive thing is that new facilities, which were a luxury back then have come up. And if you decide to work on cutting-edge technology, then you have access to it in this campus.
And I am happy to tell you that campus is still very green. Not many changes there and I am sure there are many deer too. I am really thankful to the authorities for maintaining the basic spirit of this campus. And the campus is full of positive energy and positivity. And I’m sure you all must still be having your dinner before 7, or does it go beyond that?
It goes beyond 9.
We used to start our dinner at 6:45 and most of the things used to get over by 7. So, if that is not happening, then it is bad. You should have your food early and then study.
Converting the BrahMos dream into reality must not have been an easy feat. What were some challenges you faced and how were you able to face them?
As you all know BrahMos is a joint venture between India and Russia and the countries have different cultures, different mindsets and different ways of handling the problems. It has really been a challenge and we have competed for twenty years. These twenty years have been full of challenges, bridging the gaps. The best minds of India and Russia have collaborated and come up with the most powerful weapon system existing in the world of cruise missiles. I would like to tell that this missile has a great potential. It has several roles. It can engage various kinds of targets and can follow different kinds of trajectories. This missile has satisfied the requirements of our armed forces and there is a huge requirement from the other countries also. This culture of joint research in defense was non-existent. The reason is that defense is a very isolated field and no country is likely to share their apprehensions, their ideas, their strengths and capabilities with any other country. The scientists in India and Russia decided that we will devise a new way and these twenty years have been very fruitful. We have come up with different versions and we feel that the BrahMos can meet the requirements of armed forces for twenty more years. It has tremendous potential. We can change the software, we can change the way the missile behaves and hence it can meet our requirements. BrahMos is the result of the collaboration of the strengths of two countries. We decided in India that we can develop the software. So, we did the analysis and found that our strength lies in light control systems, fire control systems, and manufacturing airframes. The supersonic engine was already under development in Russia, so, we brought the strengths of the two countries together and came out with the world’s best system. I am sure that when others catch up with this, we will be ahead of them.
You have made the country immensely proud and IITians even prouder by leading the research team on the BrahMos missile. What do you say is the secret behind the victory?
The first thing about BrahMos is that it is the world’s fastest supersonic cruise missile and has a lead of almost 5 or 7 years more in this area. We want to leapfrog from supersonics to hypersonic and we are already doing research in this. And as an IITian I get a basic advantage of my thought process which was taught to me by IIT-M. And when somebody is thinking at a certain level, I think in the next level. This is an advantage, I feel IIT has taught me.
Second thing is, I have been working in the field of missile technology for the last 34 years and I joined this when India started missile research. We have come out with various kinds of missile programs, and today I am leading a cruise missile program. IIT taught me a very very basic thing, that whatever you make, it should work, it should satisfy the user. So you have to do the design, the development, and the realization. Then you must think of productionising it because ultimately the research should lead to some kind of sumptuous revenue and only then does it mean something. And about the missile program, this missile program is one of the most successful programs of our country and I feel that without the basic ingredients taught to me by IIT, this wouldn’t have been possible.
We learnt that you have received the guidance of the distinguished Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. How would you describe your experience and what were your key learnings in that collaboration?
In fact, Dr. Kalam recruited me and I joined his laboratory. It was the Defence Research and Development laboratory located at Hyderabad. Truthfully speaking, I didn’t know a single word about missile before that. From that day till today whatever I have learned, the basic foundation, the guidance and hand-holding were all done by Dr. Abdul Kalam. And when I met him for the first time, he asked me, ‘Can you make a missile?’ And in those days we had no internet. If suppose you want to develop a missile, you have to go and spend a lot of time in the library or you had to be an apprentice under some scientist for a very long time. Only then could you understand and do something. But the spirit and the confidence that Dr. Abdul Kalam generated in his disciples and in people were very different. And my immediate answer was “Yes, I will make a missile”. I did not know exactly what were going to be the challenges, problems, and obstacles, but that was the spirit Dr. Kalam could generate in anybody.
Dr. Kalam was an institution himself. He was a person who could bring scientists, technologists, technicians, the problem, the human resources and everybody together with the ideas. He could just throw everything into a churning bowl and come out with the most delicious and satisfying dish. And above all, he was a great humanist, a great integrator of man, machine, material, and ideas. A great generator. And, if you see his public life, he has been called the People’s President. The kind of new direction he gave to our youngsters and adults alike was something no President has ever given. And people say he was a dreamer. I say, ‘No he was not’. He knew how to convert ideas into reality. He taught me one more thing, ‘strength respect strength’. Gandhiji who is treated as a messenger of peace in our country preaches peace, but he never preaches weakness. And Dr. Kalam taught us, ‘If you are strong, then India will be strong. If India is strong, then the whole world will respect. People who are strong, they will respect us only when India is strong.’ When we started, in the 1980s the research, India was considered as an ‘untouchable country’. No country was ready to collaborate with us. No country was ready to sell us anything. And Dr. Kalam taught us that you would come out with the best solutions when you are really cornered. And that’s how, if you remember, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR treaty) and the NSG were all created to block India. So, that we will not be able to develop the strategic weapons and the delivery vehicles. We have worked in those restrictive regimes under Dr.Kalam’s leadership. He asked us, “Now you have nothing, you are a man on an island, how would you survive?”. And those survival instincts are helping us even now. Today India is a developed country as far as missile technology is concerned. And we are having dozens of countries ready to collaborate with us. You name a country and I can tell you where they have collaborated with us. So, that is a paradigm shift Dr. Abdul Kalam has brought to an ‘untouchable country’ and converted it to the most loved country. Dr. Kalam created a pool of trained scientist. I will say, not only trained but a pool of trained, confident and dedicated scientists. We could’ve gone abroad, we could’ve gone on to lead a very happy life in developed countries, but we have chosen to live here. When we have chosen to live here, we have chosen to face the problems and today we are the most confident people. We are the happiest people. We are doing the best cutting technological research in the country. That is what Dr. Abdul Kalam has taught us. And this legacy of Dr. Abdul Kalam will live in this country for hundreds and thousands of years.
You have represented the country internationally in promoting defense cooperation. What would you say are some of your achievements in that front?
Let me extend the answer from the previous one. From an ‘untouchable country’, we have become a country with whom everyone wants to collaborate. I have worked as a counselor in the Embassy of India in Russia. It has given me a lot of international exposure. It has taught me how to work along with the foreigners. People have a mindset which you should be able to decipher. You should have the skillset to decipher the mindset of others, talk in the language of your counterpart, think the way he/she is thinking and bring success to the table. This is an idea. It is more of a mind game. The other person would also be playing the same kind of games. So, you have to bring the strength of your country and your counterpart and come up with the best solution. We have close cooperation with Russia, Israel, France and so many other countries internationally. So in my experience, I am leading Indo-Russia Joint venture program. Apart from this, I have delivered many other international programs also. You must have heard of the Long Range Surface to Air Missile, Medium Range Surface to Air Missile. These are the programs with Israel. I have contributed to the formation, conceptualization and then the implementation of these programs. Then there were a few programs in France and one major program that I am doing with Russia. So, this is an international joint venture. The idea is that I should be an orchestra master and I should play the best symphony so that everybody feels very happy and that is what I am doing. And I feel that my international exposure has given me a lot of advantage to run companies like the Brahmos. Future is going to be like this. The technology calls for a huge investment and when you can bring the strength of your partner country, and come up with your strength, you join these strengths. Then it is a win-win situation for both the countries. If you start reinventing the technology, it costs money, time and resources. Every weapon system has taken like 10 years, 15, years, 20 years to invent. So, if you are reinventing the technology, by the time you develop, we shall be in the past. The idea is you identify your strengths, you find out your partner country, come up with the best possible solution and offer it to your customers. This strategy is going be there every time in the future from now. There is one more reason for it, investment. A new weapon system calls for a huge investment, the breakeven numbers are very high, the requirement might not be of that much number. So, the best is, you have a joint venture, come up with a solution, offer it to the user and go to the development of the next level of technology. You may be able to develop that on your own so that would become your intellectual property and you will be able to leverage it some years later. However, the idea is to become (I’ll not say superpower), but a generator of technology. That would happen sooner or later.
Brahmos has contributed tremendously in solidifying India’s position in missile technology today and has significantly aided the ‘Make in India’ venture. Apart from that, you have served the DRDO and Ministry of Defence. To young researchers and scientists who are passionate about missile technology, what would you say is the importance of focusing research and development within the country.
I would like to tell you that there are varieties of missiles. There are broad categories, one is a strategic missile and one is a technical missile and today India is able to develop surface to surface, surface to air, ship to ship, ship to air, land to ship, etc. It is a cross-platform, you can engage any kind of things which can crawl, swim, fall into the water or fly in the air, anything which can engage is a missile. These missiles have reached a fair degree of maturity in our country. Still, there are certain areas where IIT can work together. IIT holds the best of the minds of the country. When you have reached a level of maturity and you want to go to the next level of maturity, there are always challenges. Those challenges look small but they call for a very intense and spirited solution. That is what our IIT can offer. There are many problems in which we are certainly going to collaborate. There is a Centre of Excellence setup in IITs, we have a laboratory working in the Research Park. They are also giving projects to the research scholars in IIT. Apart from that missiles are going to be here for maybe another twenty years. You see, missiles are basically kinetic weapons. The way you have in mobiles, where from the press we moved to touch, aftertouch you will be having some kind of touch-free control. In the same way, missiles are also going to be touch-free. You have high power microwave weapons, laser weapons and all kinds of weapons. The defense is going to be basically in the field of cyber, going to be in space (where our space assets, satellites are there to provide support to the country) and under the water (where you have all the connectivity, where your internet cables and data cables are lined). So, under the water, space and cyber. They are going to be the new frontiers after twenty years. DRDO is working in these fields. And as of now, we have a fair degree of working together with IIT. And always there is a scope for more and more, and I am sure we are going to work more and more with IITs to come up with cutting-edge solutions.
Do you have any piece of advice for the current students and research scholars of IIT Madras?
As you know, and you must be proud of it, IIT Madras is ranked as the number one institution by NIRF. And it is difficult to give advice to people who are already number one. But I can always reiterate the old advice. Keep putting mind, body, soul and hard work very sincerely, honestly and maintain this number one position. Be number one in teaching and research. Of course, I can give one more advice, give some break to your body and mind. Listen to some good music, good classical music. Because classical music gives peace to your body and soul. Give a break to your body, play some games. You have world’s finest sports facilities in this campus, go swimming, go jogging, go for badminton, tennis, cricket. They will give you a burst of energy. Be happy. IIT Madras is doing a fantastic job for the nation. I am proud of my connectivity to this institution, my roots, mind, body and soul root in this campus.
Author: Tanvi Shrivastav (BT-CE ’20)