Just before noon on September 14 last year, an 11-foot long missile zoomed off from the wing of an Indian Air Force Su-30 MKI fighter jet about 120 kilometers off India’s east coast. Leaving behind a pulse of purple flame, the Astra careened off into the invisible horizon. Tracked both by the two pilots in the jet, another Su-30 flying some distance away as well as an observation team stationed on a ship in the Bay of Bengal, the Astra roared through thin air over a steady cloud deck over 50 kilometers from the jet that fired it, finally smashing into a bright orange British-built BTT-3 Banshee target drone.
The missile had just been fired for the first time, not with a dummy warhead, but with the kind of warhead that would be used against an actual enemy aircraft. The 15 kilogram warhead, built by the DRDO’s Chandigarh-based Terminal Ballistics Research Laboratory (TBRL) is like to have exploded bare feet away from the Banshee, bringing its target down towards the sea in a scattered cloud of debris. Later that day, the same Su-30 jet fired another missile, this time at a range much closer to the missile’s maximum range of 75 kilometers. This time too, the weapon blew effortlessly apart its target.
To be sure, the target wasn’t a twisting, maneouvering human-driven enemy jet, but the two tests conducted in the missile’s ‘combat configuration’ were everything the Indian Air Force wanted to see.
But there was something else in the September tests that had gladdened hearts. Two of the seven Astra missiles tested had undergone a crucial modification. The very heart of their ability to hunt down aircraft in the air, their seeker, had been replaced. The existing Russian Agat 9B1103M active radar seeker used on the Astra had been replaced with an Indian Ku-band seeker developed by the DRDO’s Research Center Imarat (RCI) in Hyderabad. While the Indian Air Force has taken on the task of further testing of the Astra as part of a ‘capability discovery’ exercise with the new seeker this year (in coordination with the DRDO), the very fact that it has committed precious financial resources to pre-production units is proof of its pleasure.
Fired for the first time from a modified Su-30 MKI in May 2014, the Astra has battled steady headwinds (unsurprisingly including delays from Russia) to turn the corner and find an unusually pleased customer in the Indian Air Force. Following a rapid-fire spate of seven guided tests last September, topped off with the two ‘combat’ tests described above, the Indian Air Force was persuaded to sign on for 50 pre-production Astra missiles, its healthiest show of confidence in a program that’s still, effectively, in its proving stage.
Speaking exclusively to Livefist, Dr. S. Christopher, Director General of the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) said, “The IAF is extremely happy with progress and has ordered 50 versions of the missile we have proven so far in the prototype phase. That’s a big boost to the program even before series production has started.”
The IAF and DRDO have endured more than their share of adversarial flashpoints in a history dotted with bad blood. With the Astra though, the sense of partnership and goodwill has been almost singular — owing mostly to a weapon system that has been speeded through its testing phase, but also because of the manner in which the Astra’s makers are hoping to save time. It has been notoriously difficult in the past for the DRDO to persuade its customers to agree to such a ‘concurrent engineering’ approach, given that the military has traditionally been suspicious of the DRDO’s promises. This time, the IAF has been confident enough to sidestep the phased development approach. For Astra project director Dr S. Venugopal and his team, that’s an enormous show of faith.
“Earlier we would have completed trials and then gone back to the IAF for acceptance of necessity (AoN) and other formalities, which would have taken months if not years,” Christopher said. “There is usually a long back and forth that follows such a process. In the meantime, the energies invested in setting up a production line would have gone to waste.”
Instead, India’s state-owned missile maker Bharat Dynamics Ltd (BDL) has already been enlisted to tool up for the Astra. The idea is that by the time the IAF is ready to place bulk orders for the missile beyond the 50 already contracted, a warm production line would have been progressively debugged and ready to churn out Astras on or ahead of schedule.
“This is to ensure the production line is created quickly so that the final series production Astra comes out without any flaws. The 50 missile order is currently being serviced,” Christopher said.
The Indian Air Force will conduct further tests of the Astra this year and the next as part of a user trial phase before it commits to orders of the final Astra missile. DRDO expects such an order to be in the hundreds, given that the Astra will arm not just the IAF’s Su-30 MKI, but also its upgraded MiG-29s, LCA Tejas and other platforms.
The Indian Air Force’s 36 Rafale fighters that begin deliveries next September will come armed with MBDA Meteor missiles, a weapon system that the Astra seeks to emulate in performance over a period of time. In fact, the DRDO informed India’s Parliament earlier this month that it had formally sanctioned a project to develop the Astra Mk.2 missile, which it hopes will more closely mirror the Meteor’s range and performance qualities.
“There is a long road before the Astra can come anywhere near mirroring the performance qualities of the Meteor, which we have seen in its testing phase in Europe as part our Rafale acquisition. But the Astra has made a very promising start. Moreover, it is almost entirely an Indian weapon system,” a senior IAF officer who deals with the DRDO told Livefist. It has taken a typically hard fight for the Astra to get where it is now. Challenges have included a year’s delay in approvals from Russia for the original seekers (now replaced with Indian ones). The DRDO listed these challenges earlier this month in Parliament:
The Astra has an officially stated range of 75 kilometers. Sanctioned as a project in March 2004 with a budget of just under $150 million (Rs 955 crore), the project missed its completion deadline of February 2013 for a variety of reasons, and now aims to officially wrap everything up by December this year. Crucially, the project team has decided it can complete the task at hand on the Astra Mk.1 without additional funds — a rarity in the pantheon of indigenous development.
The Astra project also involves over 50 public and private firms, leading to consortium of industries building the weapon the system through its final integration line at Bharat Dynamics Ltd in Telangana. Best of all, the systems being proved on the Astra will likely spawn of fully family of air defence weapons from DRDO, all sporting significantly higher indigenous content than in-service systems.