Ad Astra: India’s Indigenous Air-to-Air Missile
November 9/15: India’s Astra air-to-air missiles could be fielded next year, according to Indian press reports . The recent testing of the indigenous missile on Su-30MKI fighters tested the propulsion and aircraft integration capabilities of the missile; further testing of the Astra’s sensors and other sub-systems is planned for coming months.
Pakistan’s November 2006 purchase of 500 AIM-120C AMRAAM missiles created counter-pressure on the subcontinent, and reportedly had India looking for 120km BVRAAMs (Beyond Visual Range Air-Air Missiles). Missiles with this notional head-on range would far outstrip the 60km of the AIM-120C, and even the 60-90km (36-54 miles) reported for the Russian AA-12/R-77 ‘AMRAAMski’ that India already deploys. Indeed, this figure would be closer to the ramjet-powered Meteor under development via MBDA.
“There are moves also to start indigenous development of such long-range missiles by DRDO with possible foreign collaboration,” a DRDO source reportedly said.
As it happens, India has elected to pursue a wholly indigenous, and less ambitious project, called ‘Astra’…
Contracts & Key Events
The Astra Mk.2 missile is currently envisaged as having a head-on intercept range of 80 km/ 50 miles, and 20 km/ 12.5 miles in tail-chase mode. Those figures are comparable to American AMRAAMs, and Russia’s R-77/AA-12. The external look is similar to the previous generation MBDA Super 530, which equips its current Mirage 2000 fleet. Russia’s Agat, who supplies the R-77’s radar seeker, is reportedly assisting with India’s seeker development.
India says it eventually wants to deploy the Astra on its Su-30 MKIs, upgraded MiG-29s, and Tejas Light Combat Aircraft. At present, however, the IAF’s Russian-designed planes use R-77 missiles, while the Tejas will be fielded with RAFAEL’s Derby. If an upgrade contract is signed, its Mirage 2000s will carry MBDA’s Mica. If the Astra doesn’t live up to its promise, therefore, it can be discarded without affecting the IAF. If it does succeed, it can begin to provide a fleet standard missile option that offers greater inventory flexibility, and lower support costs.
November 9/15: India’s Astra air-to-air missiles could be fielded next year, according to Indian press reports. The recent testing of the indigenous missile on Su-30MKI fighters tested the propulsion and aircraft integration capabilities of the missile; further testing of the Astra’s sensors and other sub-systems is planned for coming months.
May 21/11: India conducts 2 successful Astra tests. The missile is currently envisaged as having a head-on intercept range of 80 km/ 50 miles, and 20 km/ 12.5 miles in tail-chase mode. Times of India.
Aug 9/10: Defence Minister Shri AK Antony updates the status of various missile programs, in a Parliamentary reply to Shri SB Wankhede and Shri AP Shivaji:
“Astra – It is Air-to-Air Missile system for beyond visual range, designated to be a missile for Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). Its two guided flight trials from ground launcher have been undertaken during July 2010.”
Sept 13/08: The Hindustan Times reports that India’s indigenously developed, beyond visual range (BVR) ‘Astra’ air-to-air missile is successfully test-fired from the integrated test range at Chandipur in Orissa. To date, the missile’s navigation, control, air frame, and propulsion have been validated, but more testing will be required, The report also gives an interesting set of performance figures for the single-stage, solid-fueled missile:
“Though the exact range of Saturday’s trial has not been disclosed, scientists are working to ensure that ‘Astra’ performs effectively at different altitudes – one cruising at an altitude of 15 km with 90 to 110 km range, another at an altitude up to 30,000 ft, having a range of 44 km and the third at sea level altitude with a range of 30 km… The missile is 3.6 meters long, 7 inches in diameter and has launch weight of about 154 kg, thus it is the smallest weapon of the DRDO’s guided missile development programme in terms of size and weight. It is capable of carrying 15 kg war head.”
March 26/07: Or, India could be moving to push ahead with its own design and less range. “After a gap of nearly four years, India’s indigenously developed Astra air-to-air missile [DID: link added], the sleek beyond visual range missile has been launched from the launch complex-II of Integrated Test Range (ITR), at Chandipur near Balasore… The missile has a range of 80 km and its launch speed was estimated to be 0.6 to 2.2 mach, the sources said. Astra has a length of 3570 mm and a diameter of 178 mm.” did Indian government news link | India Defence report.
March 19/06: DRDL scientists say they will sign a pact with MBDA to develop a dedicated active seeker-head system for the indigenous Astra beyond-visual-range missile, which is being developed in Hyderabad.
DID Analysis: India’s Options – and their Potential Effects (February 2007)
Indian defense procurement is full of announcements and ‘confirmed’ purchases that end up wildly late, or lost in limbo; but the effect on the global defense market could be very significant, depending on India’s choices. India has specified no foreign partners at this stage. Nor has it specified a development platform. Unless they wish to develop a missile from scratch, however, the global market gives them only 4 realistic options:
The Meteor from MBDA et. al. has the required performance built in, as it was designed specifically to help aircraft defeat opponents with R-77 or AMRAAM level missiles. It is currently in the late developmental/ testing stage. The problem is that it would require considerable time and effort to integrate it with every single one of India’s fighter aircraft. The only possible exceptions would be if India chose the Eurofighter Typhoon, JAS-39 Gripen, or Rafale in its current MRCA medium fighter competition, in which case it would have one compatible aircraft. Even this is currently considered to be unlikely.
RAFAEL’s Derby 4 is already headed for Indian service via the SPYDER air defense system, the Derby 4 is already in service on India’s Sea Harriers, and the Python 4 missile on which the Derby is based is reportedly in service with other IAF aircraft. Israeli avionics and DASH targeting helmets in a number of India’s planes may make Derby integration easier for India, and a ramjet “Derby 5” with more than 50km range might be very attractive to the Israelis; they would finally be able to give it a niche of its own beyond the AIM-120 AMRAAM, and might also be interested in the large export potential.
India also has a strong defense relationship with Israel. As such, a deal would depend on 3 factors: integration obstacles, how much the Israelis were prepared to commit in time and resources, and confidence in a lack of interference from the USA via technical export pretexts.
Raytheon’s AMRAAM is catching up the AA-12’s presently reported range via the new AIM-120D, which is said to have a range in the 75-90km band plus better seeker and ECCM (electronic counter-countermeasures) capabilities – but that would not be enough. In addition for the need to develop a ramjet version, AMRAAM suffers from many of the same disadvantages as the Meteor because it would also require integration on many existing IAF platforms. Israeli and Western avionics in some of India’s modernized fighters may help here, or they may not – if not, integration with Russian aircraft would be a major stumbling block.
Choosing the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet or F-16 E/F Block 70 for the MRCA competition would remove part of the integration burden, and the USA might be interested in picking up a large R&D share for the missile given the potential threat represented by the alternative… on which more below.
Last, we come to the The AA-12/R-77, which already is deployed on India’s SU-30MKIs and even the MiG-21 BiS aircraft that caused US aircraft so much trouble at COPE India 2004 & 2005. Reports of a longer-range, ramjet-powered R-77M that might satisfy India’s range requirements have persisted for years, but they remain sketchy and the missiles do not appear to have been fielded… yet.
The R-77 would also be compatible with the MiG-29Ks being purchased for use from its aircraft carrier, and with the MiG-29OVT/MiG-35 if it wins some or all of the orders under the MRCA competition. This makes it a very logical base from which to develop a longer-range BVRAAM for India. When one considers Russia’s past R-77M ramjet efforts, the successful recent collaboration between India and Russia to produce the PJ-10 BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, and the recent extension of the technical defense collaboration framework between India and Russia, the Russians would appear to have a very strong position if India is serious.
The bottom line? A partnership with India could well put the R-77M ‘RAMRAAMski’ over the top into finished development and active military service… and into the global export market.
This would leave all of the countries who have depended on America’s AMRAAM badly outranged by any opponent who could couple the new ‘RAMRAAMski’ with an aircraft like the widely-exported SU-27/30 family, whose radars are powerful enough to operate effectively at long range.
If so, AMRAAM customers would quickly find the air-air balance tilting against them – absent either a strong stealth advantage, supersonic cruise speeds to extend missile range, and/or longer-range missiles to replace their AMRAAMs. It would also add a new dimension to the threats faced by critical tanker and AWACS aircraft, who depend on distance to give friendly aircraft a chance to intercept whatever may threaten them.
Until compatible counters could me made available, the damage would extend beyond American aircraft and missile sales, and into the realm of American influence.
India may or may not be serious enough to push a 120 km BVRAAM missile through to successful project completion. If they are, however, it could be a game-changing move.
- Bharat Rakshak – Astra
- Aviation Week (July 19/10) – Astra Fireworks.
- India Defence (Feb 18/07) – Air Force Looks For Long Range (120Kms) BVR Missiles. “There are moves also to start indigenous development of such long-range missiles by DRDO with possible foreign collaboration,” a DRDO source said. This likely means a boost for collaboration on the Russian R-77/AA-12 ramjet version, given the PJ-10 BrahMos missiles’ success… though a Raytheon partnership toward similar ends is not ruled out at this stage.