Wednesday, February 20, 2008

More hi-tech than Agni, Astra to take flight this year

After being in the doldrums for quite some time, India's first beyond visual range (BVR) air-to-air missile Astra is now finally set to take flight. Defence scientists, in fact, hope to integrate the missile with a fighter jet for full-scale tests later this year.

In terms of sheer technology, the 80-km-range Astra is more complex than even the nuclear-capable Agni series of strategic ballistic missiles. And that is primarily the reason it has remained largely restricted to the drawing board stage till now.

But now, in the wake of closure of the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) in December 2007, after a quarter of a century of hits and misses, defence scientists are basically focusing on Astra and four other missile systems.

The other four are the 700-km range K-15 submarine-launched ballistic missile, the 290-km BrahMos supersonic and hypersonic cruise missiles, the 3,500-km range Agni-III ballistic missile and the long-range surface-to-air missile system being jointly developed with Israel.

"Astra is a very complex missile. We have completed the tests of its navigation, control, airframe, propulsion and other sub-systems. Now, we want to integrate it with a mother aircraft for flight trials," DRDO chief controller Prahlada said. "We have identified three fighters - MiG-29, Jaguar and Tejas Light Combat Aircraft - for integration. But we will have to test it 20 to 50 times, covering the entire flight envelope, before it can become operational," he added.

India requires BVR missiles, fired by fighters to destroy enemy aircraft at ranges beyond 40 km, since the days of dog fights are virtually over now. Being extremely complex, only a few countries like US, Russia, France and Israel have managed to develop BVR missiles till now.

The Indian Sukhoi-30MKIs and Mirage-2000s, for instance, are armed with expensive BVR missiles of French and Russian origin like the "Matra Super 530D" and "AA-12 Adder". India, incidentally, is also importing the Israeli Python and Derby air-to-air missiles.

It was in March 2004 that the government approved the Rs 1,000-crore project to develop Astra, with a 80-km "head-on range", after DRDO conducted test-firing of three prototypes from the Chandipur-on-Sea test range in May 2003. But DRDO will not be able to meet the 2009 deadline for delivery of the Astra missile to IAF. It will only be possible by 2012 or so.

But once operational, scientists hold the single-stage solid-fuelled Astra will be cheaper and advanced than contemporary BVR missiles, capable of engaging and destroying highly-manoeuvreble supersonic aerial targets.

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