After Astra, DRDO now focuses its sight on more indigenous BVRAAMs for the IAF
Now that the Indian Air Force (IAF) and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) have together completed testing of the first indigenous beyond-visual-range air-to-air (BVRAAM) Astra, the DRDO has embarked on the new long-range missile programme to fulfil all the remaining air-to-air strike roles in the IAF including the AWACS-killer. These programmes involve future advancement of Astra, which is called Astra Mk.2, Solid Fuel Ducted Ramjet (SFDR) propulsion-based BVR and the multi-role Brahmos-NG.
All pre-induction trials of Astra have now been completed and the missile is fully ready after two-decades of development. The DRDO is hopeful that the IAF will place an order for around 200 Astras for its Su-30MKIs fleet. Once mass production begins, Astra will also be mounted on IAF Mirage-2000s, Mig-29UPGs and LCA-Tejas.
Astra is India’s first air-to-air missile that is designed and developed by Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL), a lab under state-backed DRDO that redesigned the missile to improve aerodynamics and controls as well as reduced the weight. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL) supported DRDL for aircraft modifications and electronics, while over 50 public and private Indian companies contributed in manufacturing Astra BVRAAM.
All critical technologies such as the missile’s RF seeker, navigation and propulsion system were developed in the country. The smokeless missile is fitted with a dual pulse solid rocket motor and RCI’s Ka-band active RF seeker that helps the missile to propel at very high speed of 4.5 Mach and provides an excellent single shot hit probability at short-range as well as long-range during end-game engagement.
According to the DRDO, the missile can hit aerial targets between 80-110 km depending on launching altitudes. The indigenous missile utilises a fibre optic gyroscope-based inertial guidance system for mid-course update and active radar homing for the endgame. In recent set of trials, the missile performed excellent manoeuvres and destroyed targets with a pinpoint accuracy beyond 86 km range in various combat configurations. “The technologies developed under the programme will be the building blocks for developing future variants of air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles,” a DRDO official was quoted in Times of India.
Currently, Astra is being built by state-owned Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL) at its Bhanur facility in Telangana. The company is working to supply the first batch of 50 missiles to the IAF and delivery could start by early next year. Astra will be a much cheaper substitute to expensive foreign imports and may cost around only USD1 million per piece.
As far as capabilities are concerned, Astra could be a suitable counter against AIM-120C that was used by Pakistani Air Force (PAF) fighter F-16 during the Balakot standoff. Moreover, Astra has an edge over old Russian R-77 and Israel I-Derby missiles in terms of range and capabilities.
Astra’s success inspired the development of Astra Mk.2, an improvement over the present Astra Mk.1. It has a better range and control surfaces, and a more advanced seeker to avoid detection and enhance endgame engagement. Astra Mk.2 could possibly be powered by a slightly bigger and refined dual pulse solid rocket motor.
The DRDO is confident that the new BVRAAM could feature a strike range of over 160 km, and a more advanced ECCM, Inertial navigation guidance and seeker would enhance the missile’s range, reliability and lethality. ‘Astra is one of the best BVRAAMs in the world today. We have the capability to develop it for longer ranges,” chairman DRDO Dr G. Satheesh Reddy was quoted in the Times of India.
However, Astra Mk.2 seeker is unknown for now but a Software-Defined Radio (SDR)-based active seeker could be an option to make the missile invisible by giving no clue to the enemy aircraft. Moreover, new software upgrades might also help the missile over jamming and extending its range.
For new software upgrade, the DRDO could seek some inputs from Israel’s Rafael. Rafael’s latest I-DerbyER features an SDR seeker and an advanced dual pulse rocket motor. The IAF has been considering I-DerbyER for its Su-30MKI and LCA fleets, and in that respect, the missile could take on aerial targets even beyond 100 km. Astra Mk.2 is still some years away; however, hopefully, it could be developed within the shortest time-frame as compared to Astra Mk.1.
As China starts fielding its long-range PL-15 BVR missile, Astra Mk.2 promisingly will provide the IAF with an excellent counter against Chinese PL-15 that could be integrated on the PAF’s JF-17 Block III aircraft in the near future.
India has also successfully test-fired a new advanced SFDR technology-based missile system that will further accommodate longer-range up to several hundred kilometres but it is more or less confirmed that this new SFDR technology will be integrated with Astra Mk.2.
The SFDR missile features a reduced smoke nozzle less booster and solid fuel ramjet sustainer with air intake and fuel controller and insulation system. The thrust modulation system and boron-based ramjet sustainer of SFDR will give a set impulse of 1000-1200 sec in ramjet mode. The DRDO has developed this cutting-edge missile technology with its all-weather ally Russia and two test-firing of the SFDR with nozzle less booster has already taken place. With this India has successfully joined the elite league of nations who have developed and tested the nozzle less booster technology.
In its second trial, which took place in February this year, the missile was test-fired from a ground-based launcher and successfully achieved a ramjet speed of Mach 3. The most impressive feature of this state-of-the-art missile is its propulsion system that can strangulate the fuel supply instead of burning all the fuel during the different phases of its flight, and due to this, the missile will have more fuel to use during end-game killing. According to the ministry of defence (MoD) annual report 2018-19, SFDR-based BVR will be capable of hitting air targets within the range of 70-340 km in the power ‘ON’ mode.
SFDR is the second significant milestone after Brahmos supersonic cruise missile of Indo-Russian joint venture. This new missile with SFDR technology is considered as potent as MBDA’s Meteor BVRAAM that operates on the same propulsion concept. It will also be a rival to PLAA’s PL-21 which is being developed in the Chinese Missile Research Institute laboratory. SFDR will, however, take a decade to enter the IAF service, and will hopefully, become the primary BVR weapon for Su-30MKI and future versions of LCA – ADA MWF and AMCA.
The IAF will have an advantage with SFDR against western as well as the northern front. Eventually, the technology will further inspire the development of a capable long-range surface-to-air missile defence system.
Besides the Astra variants and SFDR, the DRDO has been working with Brahmos aerospace to develop a multirole strike weapon called Brahmos-NG, a lighter and refined version of supersonic Brahmos-A. The other features of the missile include air-to-air strike mode besides anti-ship and anti-surface attack capabilities. The missile can take out enemy force multiplier AWACS, strategic airlifter and other slow-moving transport aircraft. Dr Sudhir Kumar Mishra, CEO of BAPL, has informed the media about this new missile’s development early this year. “The Brahmos-NG will be the future system of our armed forces. We had earlier designed it for the navy, and this time we are developing an air to air version,” Sudhir Mishra, CEO & MD of BAPL confirmed to the Economic Times.
The new Brahmos-NG will be 50 per cent lighter and three metres shorter than the current Brahmos and can easily be carried by the Indian-made LCA-Tejas fighter jet. The mini version of the world’s fastest cruise missile will incorporate more electrical parts instead of mechanical, which will further reduce the weight of the missile. An upgraded, perhaps smaller, ramjet motor and a refined AESA seeker could possibly be fitted on this 1.5-tonne beast. It will also stimulate the firepower of the home-made LCA-Tejas capable of carrying two Brahmos-NGs while Su-30MKI will carry five of these missiles. The first developmental trial will take place within two-three years. The missile with a range of 300km and a speed of 3.5 Mach, would serve as a unique multirole weapon (AAM & ASM) and could emerge as a potent AWACS-killer in the IAF missile arsenal.
The development of these future indigenous BVR missile systems will not only boost the IAF’s firepower but also actively contribute to the government’s flagship ‘Make in India’ programme.