New Delhi: India is working on an extended range of the indigenous beyond-visual-range (BVR) air-to-air missile ‘Astra’, which will enable it to strike enemy targets 160 km away, without getting out of its own airspace, reports said.
The development comes even as work is on to integrate the current 110 km version of the Astra Mk 1 on board the Indian Air Force’s MiG-29 and Light Combat Aircraft ‘Tejas’ Mk 1, and the Indian Navy’s MiG-29K aircraft. The Astra Mark 1 is already integrated with the IAF’s Su-30 MKI fighters, and the production process — by state-owned Bharat Dynamics Limited — has begun.
Once the overall integration plans are completed, the Astra will be the standard long-range air-to-air missile across India’s entire fighter fleet, except the French-origin Rafale and Mirage.
In July this year, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) formally sanctioned the purchase of 248 Astra missiles, including 48 for the Navy, after a successful September 2019 trial in which it hit a target 90 km away.
Sources said Astra has export potential too, and will be considered for sale to friendly countries.
As of now, with a range of over 110 km and a maximum speed of Mach 4.5 (over 5,500 kmph), the Astra Mk 1 is seen as a game-changer, which can bring back India’s air-to-air combat superiority over Pakistan.
While India now also has European developer MBDA’s Meteor missiles with the Rafale’s induction, they are much more costly (Rs 25 crore each) compared to the Astra (Rs 7-8 crore).
For the second version of the Astra missile, called Mark 2, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is working on dual-pulse rocket motor to extend the range up to 160 km by May 2022, sources in the defence and security establishment said.
Work is also going on to replace the Russian radio frequency (RF) seekers’ on the missile with indigenous ones, a source said.
“Three air launch and captive flight tests have been completed with indigenous RF seekers. The indigenous seeker will be proven by June 2021. Subsequently, Astra Mk-1 & Mk-2 missile will be using the indigenous seeker in production,” the source said.
At present, all subsystems, except the RF seeker and the inertial measurement unit (IMU), are indigenous. The seekers are being indigenised by Bharat Electronics Limited, Bengaluru, and will be inducted by June 2021, sources said.
In 2001, the DRDO had initiated discussions with various stakeholders on the design and development of an indigenous air-to-air missile system, which could take on adversary targets beyond the visual range, thus providing a strategic advantage.
Subsequently, Hyderabad’s Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL) was identified as the nodal lab, and a task force was formed to undertake preliminary studies.
Sources said although financial sanctions were not available then, activities were initiated with the internal funds of the DRDO.
“The major challenges were the development of RF Seeker, miniaturised and robust missile hardware, and integration on IAF frontline aircraft without the support of the foreign Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM),” a source said, adding that DRDO’s management wanted DRDL to demonstrate the basic capability even before the project sanction.
Simultaneously, the IAF was requested to generate the programme standard and quality requirement (PSQR).