India joins US, Europe, Russia and China in exclusive club of air-to-air missile developers
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 16th Sept 17
On Friday, the defence ministry announced the successful development of the most challenging missile India has developed so far – the Astra. Fired from a fighter aircraft travelling at over 1,000 kilometres per hour, the Astra destroys an enemy fighter 65-70 kilometres away.
According to the ministry, the latest round of trials conducted off the Odisha coast on September 11-14 saw seven Astra missiles fired from a Sukhoi-30MKI fighter at pilotless aircraft that were designated as targets. All seven Astras hit their targets.
This round of tests “has completed the development phase of the [Astra] weapon system successfully”, stated a defence ministry release on Friday.
Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman congratulated the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO), which developed the Astra; Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), which integrated the Astra onto the Su-30MKI fighter; and over 50 private firms that participated in building the missile.
The Astra – designated a “beyond visual range air-to-air missile”, or BVRAAM – involves radically different technology challenges compared to ballistic and tactical missiles. For one, a typical Astra engagement has both the launcher and the target moving at speeds in excess of 1,000 kilometres per hour.
Fired from a pylon on the wing of a Su-30MKI fighter, the Astra’s smokeless propellant quickly accelerates it to about 4,000 kilometres per hour, as it screams towards its target. The Su-30MKI tracks the target continuously on its radar, and steers the missile towards it over a data link. About 15 kilometres from the target, the Astra’s on-board radio seeker locks onto the target; now, it no longer needs guidance from the Su-30MKI. When it reaches a few metres from the enemy fighter, the Astra warhead is detonated by a “radio proximity fuze”, spraying the target with shrapnel and shooting it down.
Only a handful of missile builders – in the USA, Russia, Europe, China, Israel, South Africa, Japan, Brazil and Taiwan – have mastered the technologies that go into air-to-air missiles. India is now joining that elite group.
Ultimately, a fighter aircraft is only as good in combat as the missiles it carries. An aircraft can close in with an enemy fighter and position itself dominatingly. But, eventually, an air-to-air missile must shoot the enemy down.
The Astra is fired from the Russian Vympel launcher – a rail under a fighter aircraft’s wing from which the missile hangs, and is launched. The Vympel launcher is integrated with all four of India’s current generation fighters --- the Su-30MKI, MiG-29, Mirage 2000 and the Tejas – allowing the Astra to be fired from all of them.
Astra components that have been developed indigenously include the missile’s propulsion system, its on-board computer, inertial navigation system, the radio proximity fuze, and data link between aircraft and missile.
Even so, the missile’s seeker head – a key component of most tactical missiles – is still imported. This is a key development thrust for the DRDO.
On the drawing board is a longer-range Astra Mark II, intended to shoot down enemy fighters up to 100 kilometres away.
According to the defence ministry, the latest Astra tests included engagement of long-range targets, high-manoeuvring target at medium range and launches of missiles in salvo to engage multiple targets. Two missiles were also launched in the combat configuration with warheads.
With the Indian Air Force operating 600-700 fighter aircraft, there will be a need for several thousand Astra missiles. With air-to-air missiles costing in the region of $2 million each, the Astra will provide major business opportunities to Indian firms.