Monday, 4 July 2016

Taking forward the Tejas

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 5th July 16

Over the preceding decade, under-informed defence writers and commentators have made careers out of bad-mouthing India’s Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). The commentary focused primarily on development delays, criticized the fighter’s performance and sneered at the under-funded, under-staffed Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), a Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) agency responsible for the Tejas programme. Regrettably, the Indian Air Force (IAF) colluded in undermining ADA, passing on tidbits to the media in order to show the Tejas in a poor light, apparently to clear the way for importing expensive aircraft. Thanks to this, most Indians came to regard the Tejas as a byword for delay, incompetence and the untrustworthiness of the DRDO. Most Indians concluded that the purchase of exorbitantly priced foreign aircraft like the French Rafale was unavoidable to keep India safe.

These critics have now done an about-turn after Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar inducted the first two production version Tejas Mark I fighters on Saturday into the IAF’s first operational Tejas squadron (45 Squadron). In January, the Tejas made its foreign debut, performing well-received aerobatics displays at the Bahrain international Air Show. Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, a steady hand at the IAF’s tiller, has supported the Tejas and committed to ordering 100 Tejas Mark 1A fighters --- similar to the current version, except for four specified improvements. Test pilots involved in the Tejas’ flight-testing had always praised its performance and reliability, but now there is also praise from the IAF. Group Captain Madhav Rangachari, the 45 Squadron chief who flew the Tejas on Saturday, reportedly observed afterwards: "I felt like being on top of the world when flying the Tejas fighter. It’s an excellent aircraft and a generation ahead of other fighters in the world.”

That nobody has contradicted Rangachari is a measure of how effusive the media has suddenly become in reporting this story. It needs to be pointed out that the Tejas is not “a generation ahead of other fighters”; it is a contemporary fighter, with several features that match the “best-in-class”, while others still require improvement. Even so, the most astounding achievement of the Tejas project is the development of a fourth-generation fighter and a respectable aerospace development, production and testing eco-system in India for the pittance of Rs 14,047 crore, just over $2 billion. This was done in the face of intensified international technology sanctions since the 1998 nuclear tests and, as discussed above, amidst media and IAF hostility.

The operationalization of the Tejas has not taken “over three decades” as critics dishonestly maintain. They incorrectly cite August 22, 1983 as the start of the Tejas project, when the government allocated Rs 560 crore for “feasibility studies and project definition”. In fact, it took another decade, until April 1993, when the defence ministry sanctioned the “Full Scale Engineering Development” (FSED) of the Tejas, and provided funds to build two fighters as “technology demonstrators”.

Taking April 1993 as the start of the Tejas development programme, the timeline suddenly looks more respectable. It took just eight years for the Tejas’ first flight in 2001; 20 years for initial operational clearance in 2013, and 23 years for final operational clearance and induction into IAF service. The significantly more capable Tejas Mark IA is expected to be completed by 2018 to meet standards that four agencies --- the defence ministry, IAF, ADA, and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), which builds the fighter --- have hammered out between them, to make the Tejas clearly more capable than current enemy fighters. If that deadline is met, the Tejas will have taken exactly a quarter century in development. That is a creditable record for building a first fighter.

The improved Tejas Mark IA will have an AESA radar, which the DRDO-HAL combine proposes to build in partnership with Israeli company Elta. It will be capable of air-to-air refueling to increase range and combat endurance. It will also have a “self-protection jammer” (SPJ) mounted in an external pod to confuse enemy radar. Finally, it will have an improved layout of internal systems to ease maintenance and allow rapid “turnaround time”, i.e. the quickness with which the Tejas can leave on a fresh mission after returning from an earlier one.

The IAF has already detailed the Tejas’ performance parameters, announcing: “The LCA has a very competitive and cotemporary operational envelope. It is capable of operations up to an altitude of 50,000 feet and a maximum speed of 1.6 Mach at [high] altitudes or 730 knots… at low levels. The aircraft [can turn at] +8G to -2.5G (which allows it to U-turn in 350 metres) in operationally clean configuration… or +6G to -2.5G with other external stores.” This respectable performance envelope will be further enhanced when the Tejas IA enters service. It is, therefore, incorrect to suggest, as some commentators and editorial writers have done, that only the import of fighters like the Rafale would give the IAF an operational edge. Directing those billions into the Tejas programme instead would be a more sensible course.

Even as the Tejas Mark IA is being developed, ADA is working on the Tejas Mark II. The key enhancement in that will be the replacement of the current General Electric F-404 engine with the larger, more powerful GE F-414 engine. The technological challenge --- which is to re-engineer the Mark I fuselage to fit in the bulkier F-414 --- would be offset by the Mark II’s greater power. The re-engineering would also provide the opportunity to replace the current generation of avionics with enhanced, new-generation avionics. Realistically, the Mark II can be expected to enter service by 2023-24, until when HAL can build the 100 Mark IA fighters that the IAF has committed to buying.

Supporting ADA through this programme is essential. That agency is simultaneously working on an Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), which will be a fifth-generation fighter with stealth features, and incorporating an advanced engine that will allow it to supercruise (fly at supersonic speed without lighting the fuel-guzzling afterburner). To enable and empower this project, it is essential to quickly conclude the contract with Russia to co-develop the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) that has been mired in negotiations for a decade. The FGFA experience would provide Indian aeronautical engineers the knowhow and experience in working on fifth-generation technologies, which would be translated into the AMCA.

The area of concern, which the defence ministry needs to address on priority, is to ensure that HAL builds the Tejas Mark I and Mark IA at a rate of 12-16 fighters per year. That would allow the IAF to conduct operational planning, obtain buy-in from that service, and translate the Tejas from a debutante into a real combat asset.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Missile test an urgent step towards defending IAF bases

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 1st July 16

On September 6, 1965, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) launched its first major air attacks into India. Ranging freely across the border, PAF fighters attacked multiple Indian Air Force (IAF) bases, destroying (according to Indian accounts) ten Indian fighters on the ground in Pathankot, damaging another three, and downing two IAF fighters protecting Halwara air base. The next day, another 12 Indian fighters were destroyed on the ground in Kalaikunda air base, in West Bengal. The IAF remained on the back foot for the rest of the 1965 war.

The likelihood of another such debacle receded on Thursday, with the successful test firing of the eponymous medium range surface to air missile (MR-SAM) off the Odisha coast. Jointly developed by the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) of Israel, the MR-SAM detects incoming enemy aircraft while they are well over a hundred kilometres away and destroys them at ranges out to 70 kilometres.

Broadly, the DRDO has developed the propulsion systems of the MR-SAM, while IAI has developed the radar and guidance systems. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) confirmed that Indian and Israeli experts were present at the test today, in which the missile detected and destroyed a pilotless target aircraft.

This will be welcome news for the IAF, which still protects its air bases with vintage Soviet-era surface-to-air missiles that should have retired decades ago, and with the DRDO’s Akash missiles that have an inadequate range of 25 kilometres. In the modern concept of “layered air defence”, short range missiles like the Akash are responsible only for close-in defence, while longer range missiles like the MR-SAM engage hostile aircraft at longer ranges.

The MR-SAM project is a twin of the Indian Navy’s Long Range Surface to Air Missile (LR-SAM) project, also being developed by the DRDO-IAI combine. While the key missile and guidance technologies and the missile capabilities are identical, the MR-SAM is a ground-and-vehicle based missile, while the LR-SAM is being deployed in warships.

In tandem with the LR-SAM, the MR-SAM is late by years, partly because of the cutting-edge technologies they incorporate. In March 2009, the IAF signed the contract for 18 fire units (each equipped with 24 missiles), which were to be delivered by October 2016. But with just the first test having been concluded, it will take at least another two years for the first MR-SAM batteries to enter squadron service.

Each self-contained fire unit includes a radar, three missile launchers, and a sophisticated Combat Management System. Since the missiles themselves have a limited shelf life, orders for missiles will be placed incrementally, as they are consumed in training, testing and operations.

When Business Standard visited the DRDO’s missile complex in Hyderabad, officials stated that the IAF had funded 90 per cent of the MR-SAM’s development cost of Rs 10,075 crore. The DRDO funded the remaining 10 per cent.

In an unusual arrangement, the DRDO did not just carry out technology development of the MR-SAM, but effectively functioned as the project manager. Officials confirmed that that the DRDO was handed control of the development budget, and asked to develop private industry partners who would assist in the development of MR-SAM sub-systems, and also manufacture those when it entered commercial production.

Acknowledging their contribution, a defence ministry statement today said: “Many Indian industries like BEL (Bharat Electronics Ltd), L&T (Larsen & Toubro), BDL (Bharat Dynamics Ltd), Tata group of companies, besides other private industries have contributed to the development of a number of subsystems which have been put into use in this flight test.” 

After the test today, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar congratulated the DRDO and the industry partners, while the DRDO chief, Dr S Christopher, declared the test a major milestone for the IAF’s air defence.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

After long development path, BrahMos comes into its own

Air-launched version in testing; export interest from many countries

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 1st July 16

After entering modern warfare in 1944 as the V-1 and V-2 rockets that a desperate Germany fired into England towards the end of World War II, cruise missiles had a second coming as high-technology showpieces during the First Gulf War of 1990-91. The world watched television images of Tomahawk cruise missiles flying along the streets of Baghdad and precisely entering targeted buildings through open windows.

Yet, even the iconic Tomahawk cruise missile was effective mainly against incapable and weakened enemies like Iraq and Afghanistan. In contrast, countries with potent air defences and capable fighter aircraft can detect and shoot down cruise missiles, most of which fly at sub-sonic speeds, i.e. slower than sound, which travels at 1,224 kilometres per hour.

In contrast the Indo-Russian BrahMos, its name an intermingling of the Brahmaputra and Moskva rivers, is the world’s first cruise missile that flies at high supersonic speeds --- Mach 2.8, or 3,450 kilometres per hour. Since it hugs the ground, enemy radars can detect it only at short ranges. By the time they fire a missile to down it, the BrahMos is far away, perhaps already close to its target.

Last Saturday, India test-flew a potent, new version of the BrahMos --- a lightened missile that can be carried on, and fired from, the Sukhoi-30MKI fighter that is the backbone of the Indian Air Force (IAF) fleet. Transported on the Su-30MKI to the vicinity of the target, this overcomes the BrahMos’ one drawback --- a short range of just 295 kilometres.

This range restriction was imposed on the Indo-Russian missile by the provisions of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which prevents member countries from transferring missiles, including unmanned aerial vehicles, which can carry a 500-kilogramme payload to a distance of 300 kilometres.

Russia is an MTCR member-partner; and India, which became a member-partner on Monday, has voluntarily adhered to MTCR guidelines since September 2008. While this imposed a 300-kilometre limit on the BrahMos’ range, there are no technological difficulties in increasing it. Both countries wave away enquiries about plans to do so.

With the BrahMos having carefully kept out of the MTCR’s purview, plans to export it are afoot. In May, the BrahMos Aerospace spokesperson, Praveen Pathak, told TASS: “talks [for the export of BrahMos] with countries like UAE, Chile, South Africa and Vietnam are in advanced stages.” He said discussions were also under way with the Philippines, South Korea, Algeria, Greece, Malaysia, Thailand, Egypt, Singapore, Venezuela and Bulgaria.

Including India’s own requirements of the missile, DRDO officials indicated that eventually $15 billion worth of BrahMos could be built for various militaries. If that happens, economy of scale would bring down the current high cost of the system.

A long development path

New Delhi and Moscow hold up BrahMos as their most successful defence project. It germinated in 1992-93, when India and Russia --- then in dire economic straits --- conceived the idea of co-developing a supersonic cruise missile. Russia’s rocket design bureau, NPO Mashinostroyenia, would develop the supersonic propulsion, while the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) developed the guidance and navigation systems and the command and control elements.

Sceptical of the DRDO’s capabilities, Moscow sent a team to evaluate whether it could actually develop sophisticated guidance systems. After carefully inspecting three DRDO laboratories --- Hyderabad-based Research Centre Imarat (RCI), which develops navigation systems; Defence R&D Laboratory (DRDL), which develops missile systems; and the Dehradun-based Defence Electronics Applications Laboratory (DEAL), which develops communications technologies --- the Russians agreed to the work distribution.

Yet, for long, the arrangement remained secret. In 1995, then DRDO chief, APJ Abdul Kalam, signed a preliminary agreement with Russia, after which Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, personally approved the project. This led to the establishment of the BrahMos Aerospace joint venture (JV) in February 1998 through an Inter-Government Agreement (IGI) between India and Russia.

AK Antony, then defence minister, told parliament on May 9, 2007 that Brahmos Aerospace has a share capital of $250 million, with India holding 50.5 per cent and Russia the remaining 49.5 per cent. While this paid for designing, developing, producing and marketing the basic BrahMos, the share capital was enhanced later by $50 million for developing the aircraft-launched version. This means India has contributed about Rs 850 crore at current exchange rates. The DRDO has spent another Rs 370 crores on developing Brahmos systems.

The missile burst into public domain with its first test-flight in 2001, which was witnessed by then defence minister Jaswant Singh, and all the service chiefs. What had been developed was a two-stage cruise missile, fired from a canister. The first stage, a solid-propellant engine, rapidly boosts the missile to supersonic speed and then drops off. The second stage is a liquid-fuel, air-breathing ramjet engine that powers the missile for most of the journey to the target.

Quickly realising its potential as an anti-ship missile, the Indian Navy offered two frontline destroyers, INS Rajput and Ranvir, to be fitted with the BrahMos. The admirals insisted it be capable of evading enemy missiles through complex manoeuvres, including right angle turns at supersonic speed. Later, the navy demanded a “salvo capability”, in which warships carrying the BrahMos can fire eight missiles at an enemy flotilla, two seconds apart, each targeting a different enemy warship.

With this achieved, the navy demanded a demonstration of these capabilities. In March 2010, INS Ranvir fire a BrahMos missile at a decommissioned vessel, INS Meen, which sank quickly after the missile slammed into it above the waterline. Since then, a satisfied navy has included the Brahmos in the arsenal of every Indian capital warship being constructed, including three destroyers of Project 15A, four of Project 15B and seven frigates that will be built under Project 17A. Even Indian warships built in Russia are fitted with the BrahMos.

The army too came aboard, given its need for precision firepower in implementing its new “Cold Start” doctrine, also referred to as “proactive strategy”. Given the differences in targeting, range and flight path, the army version of the BrahMos required a different configuration and software. A more precise guidance system was included in a new BrahMos series called Block II. The army then asked for a “steep dive” version for mountains, in which the BrahMos, after flying over a high ridgeline, could dive steeply to strike a target in the valley several thousand feet below. The complex changes needed in guidance software have been implemented in the Block III version. A satisfied army has ordered three regiments of BrahMos.

“We are entirely customer-oriented. Any programme that is not oriented to the customer will not succeed”, said K Sivathanu Pillai, the former director of BrahMos Aerospace.

Following the navy and army lead, the IAF has asked for two BrahMos versions. One is a surface-to-surface version for striking ground targets that are important for the air battle --- enemy radar and communications networks, and forward air bases. A second, lighter version of the BrahMos, its weight pared to 2.5 tonnes, will be carried on the Sukhoi-30MKI for deeper-lying targets. This involved strengthening the fighter’s airframe to allow it to carry a 2.5 tonne payload, and to ensure the missile does not impeded the flow of vast quantities of air needed to keep the fighter’s Saturn-Lyulka AL-31FP engines going.

With the missile having already flown on the Su-30MKI, the next step is to test-fire it to ensure the missile separates cleanly from the aircraft, after which its booster will ignite.

Also developed and test-fired in 2013 is an underwater-launched BrahMos, which can be fired from a depth of 40-45 metres. In the future is a “hypersonic” version of the Brahmos, which will travel at Mach 5-6.

On February 7, 2014, testifying to their confidence in the BrahMos’ future, India and Russia signed a document indefinitely extending the venture.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Mullah Mansour killing highlights Pakistan’s narrowing options in Afghanistan

By Ajai Shukla
India in Transition (
Centre for Advanced Study of India (CASI)
University of Pennsylvania

Did Pakistan facilitate the May 21st killing of Mullah Muhammad Mansour because the Taliban chief refused to join peace talks with Kabul? Mansour’s obstinacy was, after all, preventing Islamabad from delivering on its promise to the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) to bring the Taliban to the dialog table. Was the drone strike that killed Mansour a wasted effort, given that his successor, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, is equally disinclined to barter away battlefield gains [1] in a political settlement that would leave most power with the “puppet regime” in Kabul? Given the Taliban’s stubbornness, did the Pentagon miss out on a Heaven-sent opportunity to strike the Taliban leadership when they met to choose his successor?

The answers to these questions, while necessarily speculative, are broadly discernible from the sequence in which events played out. Three days before the attack, the Taliban had boycotted peace talks with Kabul, organized in Islamabad by the QCG -- which included the US, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since Mansour’s elevation as the Taliban chief last July, this had been his consistent response to dialogue proposals, mirroring the attitude of his predecessor, the Taliban’s first chief, Mullah Muhammad Omar who reportedly died in a Pakistani hospital in 2013 [2]. Embarrassed thus by Mansour, Pakistan’s foreign secretary, Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhary, toned down Islamabad’s previously unqualified support to the insurgent group, declaring on Friday the 20th that Afghanistan needed to take stronger military action against the Taliban, which should also be offered “incentives” to come to the table [3]. The next day, Mansour was killed.

Islamabad’s response to the killing was unusually muted; especially compared to its voluble outrage after Osama bin Laden’s killing in 2011. On Saturday, May 21st, soon after the Pentagon announced the attack, a pro forma statement from Islamabad regretted the “airspace violation”. On Sunday, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif issued a mild reproof from London. [4] On Monday, America’s ambassador to Pakistan, David Hale, was called in to the foreign ministry office in Islamabad and handed a demarche against the “violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.” [5] The same day, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan criticized the drone strike as “totally illegal, not acceptable and against the sovereignty and integrity of the country” [6]. This relatively strong condemnation placated conservative segments of the populace. Yet, significantly, not until Thursday did the most powerful man in the land, army chief General Raheel Sharif, break his silence, asking Hale to desist from unilateral actions. [7]

Few have taken Pakistan’s protestations of non-involvement in Mansour’s killing at face value. The skeptics include Indian policymakers, whose bleak assessments of Pakistani double-dealing in Afghanistan have proven right over the years. New Delhi pundits are certain that the Pakistan Army (which controls policy on four areas: Afghanistan, India, the US relationship and “strategic assets”, which includes the nuclear arsenal and jihadi groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba) sacrificed Mansour to signal to other Taliban factions, and to the next Taliban chief, that bucking the Pakistan Army, and its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), would incur a heavy cost. Simultaneously, by denying any role in his killing, Pakistan could continue playing good cop to America’s bad cop, flavoring its leverage over the Taliban with a subtle touch of menace.

Pakistan’s obsession with Afghanistan stems from its conviction that India seeks influence in Kabul to “outflank” Pakistan and engage it on two fronts. This stymies Islamabad’s vaguely defined notion of “strategic depth”, in which the military relies on Afghan territory to compensate during wartime for Pakistan’s limited geographic depth. Pakistani analysts have also rationalized the need for influence and territorial access in Afghanistan in terms of alternative havens for jihadi groups; and, incredibly, even for housing nuclear weapons beyond the range of Indian strike aircraft. A former Pakistan military intelligence and ISI chief, Lieutenant General Asad Durrani writes: “Strategic depth is a sound concept. All countries strive to gain and retain it. It is not merely a geographical or spatial notion, but has many dimensions: military, economic, demographic, social and political”. [8]

The Taliban with influence in Kabul is central to Islamabad’s project for strategic depth in Afghanistan, given that Pakistan is widely reviled amongst other groups in that country as a domineering neighbor. Even the Taliban is by no means an unquestioning proxy [9], preferring to follow its own interests rather than those of Islamabad. Yet, Pakistan realistically calculates that a Taliban toehold in Kabul is its best shot at retaining leverage and serving as a check on India, which is as popular across Afghanistan as Pakistan is reviled, particularly in the north.

For this, Pakistan has translated its influence over the Taliban leadership and the Haqqani Network into membership of the QCG, from where it could influence the formation of a convenient post-conflict government in Afghanistan [10]. Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz told a Washington audience in March: "We have some influence on them because their leadership is in Pakistan, and they get some medical facilities, their families are here. So we can use those levers to pressurize them, to say, 'come to the table'." [11] Islamabad’s undisguised opportunism suited everyone in the QCG: Kabul desperately wants a settlement with the Taliban; Beijing is backing close ally, Pakistan, to create the post-conflict stability in which China could economically exploit Afghanistan; and Washington hopes the Taliban’s inclusion in a broad-based government would provide a fig leaf of respectability to its withdrawal from Afghanistan. The 9,800 US soldiers currently in Afghanistan need to be drawn down to 5,500 by the start of 2017.

This applecart was upset by the Taliban’s flat refusal to join peace talks with Kabul, jeopardizing Pakistan’s place in the QCG, as also its game plan for Afghanistan. Even if the Pakistan military did not actually pull the trigger on Mullah Mansour, the khaki-clad generals in Rawalpindi who Mansour was defying would have shed few tears.

The question of who actually killed Mansour has three possible answers. First, it could have been a unilateral American attack, riding on the experience gained during years of armed drone operations that have decimated the jihadi leadership in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The Mansour strike occurred in neighboring Baluchistan that, like FATA, would have very thin air defenses, given that the bulk of Pakistan’s assets guard against pre-emptive strikes by India on the eastern front.

The second possibility is a fully Pakistani military operation. That would have required the US to supply Pakistan the American platforms and systems needed for unmanned strikes --- unlikely, given the current trust deficit. Furthermore, Washington knows maintaining security is difficult in the leaky Pakistani system.

The most likely possibility is a joint US-Pakistani operation. Unlike the bin Laden operation, this time American and Pakistani interests strongly converged. Both needed to send the Taliban leadership a message --- comply, or die. Pakistani ground intelligence would have helped place the crosshairs of an American drone on Mansour, since the CIA has no ground intelligence network in Baluchistan of the kind it painstakingly developed in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and FATA.

Mansour’s killing underlines that the Taliban is not so much a Pakistani proxy as an independent player guided by its own organizational interests. Proving many assessments incorrect, recent Taliban statements and actions (e.g. Akhundzada’s defiant rejection of talks) suggest that most Taliban leaders still see continued battle as the route to power in Kabul, rather than negotiating with a depleting enemy. This is not accepted by US policymakers, who allowed the Taliban factions to meet unharmed, to select a new leader, who would inevitably be as recalcitrant as the last. It was an opportunity lost.

[1] Reuters,
[2] BBC,
[3] Interview to Reuters,
[4] Dawn,
[5] New York Times,
[6] The Guardian,
[7] Dawn,
[8] Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi:
[9] Ajai Shukla, Time to Talk to the Taliban?
[10] The New Yorker,
[11] BBC:

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Brahmos missile flies on Sukhoi-30, IAF moves towards deadly new capability

A Sukhoi-30MKI being integrated with a Brahmos missile (in foreground) at HAL Nashik

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 26th June 16

With the successful test flight on Saturday of a Sukhoi-30MKI fighter fitted with a Brahmos cruise missile, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has moved closer to a potent new capability.

When the Indo-Russian Brahmos is operationalized on the Su-30MKI, IAF pilots would no longer have to fly deep into heavily defended airspace to strike enemy fighter bases, or targets like terrorist camps, nuclear installations and military headquarters. Instead, they can launch a Brahmos from as far away as 295 kilometres, and turn back to safety while the missile flies on to do the destruction.

Business Standard learns the IAF will modify at least 40 Su-30MKI fighters to carry the Brahmos missile.

Air-launched land-attack missiles are not new, nor are cruise missiles like the vaunted US Tomahawk missile, that can be launched from thousands of kilometres away. What makes the Brahmos-Su-30MKI combination lethal is the speed with which it strikes --- the aircraft flies well above Mach 2, and the missile flies at Mach 2.8, giving enemy air defences little chance to detect and shoot them down before they strike the target.

Besides eliminating the need for taking a human pilot over heavily defended targets, the Brahmos has also proven to be a highly accurate missile. For the IAF, getting Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) --- which builds the Su-30MKI under licence at Nashik --- to integrate the aircraft with missile has been a priority.

On instructions from Air Headquarters, Sukhoi (in Russia) and HAL (in India) independently conducted feasibility studies. After the IAF determined that HAL had evolved the simpler, most manageable, design, it placed an order on HAL in January 2014 to integrate the Brahmos onto the Su-30MKI.

“It is a perfect example of ‘Make in India’ and an engineering marvel in aviation history of India. It proves that when all agencies come together with one mission, there is nothing like impossible”, declared the HAL chief, T Suvarna Raju, after the flight test today.

Business Standard was granted exclusive access to the Brahmos upgrade, while HAL was carrying it out at a facility called the Aircraft Upgrade R&D Centre (AURDC) in Nashik.

The AURDC had earlier upgraded the MiG-27 and MiG-21 fighters, partnering a Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) laboratory called the Defence Avionics Research Agency (DARE). Along with DARE, the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, also played a part in the Brahmos upgrade.

A key challenge was to strengthen the Su-30MKI airframe, particularly its underbelly weapons station, to carry the huge Brahmos missile (8 metres long, 0.7 metres in diameter, and 2560 kilogrammes in weight).

Since the Brahmos protrudes beyond the Su-30MKI’s air intakes, it was imperative to ascertain that it did not impede the flow of air into the fighter’s engines. This was achieved through computational fluid dynamics modeling.

Meanwhile DARE modified the pilots’ digital cockpit display, creating a new “page” that the pilots would use while launching the Brahmos.

Having established that the Su-30MKI can carry the Brahmos in flight, the IAF will now carry out flight-testing to determine the penalty such a bulky external load imposes on flight parameters like speed and turn performance.

After that, the IAF will actually fire the Brahmos from the aircraft, ensuring that the missile separates from the fighter smoothly. This phase of testing will also check how accurately the Brahmos hits its target.

The Su-30MKI is already a highly modified aircraft, with HAL having carried out more than 40 modifications to the fighter originally delivered by Russia. It is expected that countries like Malaysia, which fly a similar version of the Su-30, could also seek the Brahmos capability.