MBDA’s Meteor will equip IAF Rafales while the advanced ASRAAM (pictured) has already been integrated on IAF Jaguars and is soon to be mated with the Su-30MKI and TEJA jets

Getting A Modern Inventory

by Atul Kumar

Access to modern WVR and BVR air to air missiles are essential for any Air Force for gaining air supremacy over its adversaries during an aerial engagement. The development of modern WVR or BVR air-to-air missiles has come about thanks to dramatic technological advancements in propulsion, guidance (navigation) and sensor (seeker) technology, these being the most critical technologies which help the missile not only to detect targets but also to engage them. While heat-seeking close combat missiles have become more accurate because of new superior dual-mode high resolution IR seeker technology, the radar technology has also revolutionised long-range BVRs. At start of this century even more capable radar-guided beyond-visual-range air to air munitions with active-seeker have been developed to increase the aerial engagement ranges of fighter aircraft, even up to over hundred kilometres ranges such as the MBDA Meteor, Vympel’s R-37M and the Chinese PL-15 or PL-21: of these missiles, the “game changing” Meteor is set to enter the IAF’s missile inventory this year, being the first time the IAF is getting this class of long-range air to air missiles. Besides this, there is some talk on the IAF ordering the I-Derby ER which also has very long range but its details are confidential.

After the Balakot airstrike and dogfight with the Pakistan Air Force in February 2019, the Indian Air Force is in the process of enhancing its operational capability in the short and long term by boosting its woefully outdated missile arsenal. Currently, the IAF already has many foreign missile systems of Russian, Israeli and French-origin, with its frontline fighters such as Su-30MKI, Mirage-2000 and Mig-29UPG but most of them are obsolescent and need to be supplanted as soon as possible. The world’s 4th largest Air Force is now set to induct more new-generation indigenous and foreign air to air missiles in this year. Current AAMs in IAF service The current existing AAM inventory of the Indian Air Force are mostly short-range and medium-range air-to-air missiles, with ranges between 20 km to 100 km. Apart from this, the IAF is also rumoured to possess the long-range ‘AWACS killer’ called Novator KS-172, a Russian designed long-range AAM which can hit targets at 300-400 km range.

For close combat, IAF presently uses the Vympel R-73, Israeli Rafael’s Python-4 and Python-5, MBDA’s short-range ASRAAM and the older R550 Magic-2. Of the close combat munitions, the R-60K and R 550 Magic-2 are obsolete while Vympel’s R-73 is still a capable CCM in dogfights. There was some surprise in late February 2019, when this ageing close combat missile was fired from a MiG-21 Bison to down a Pakistan Air Force F-16. IAF uses this CCM with its Tejas and MiG-21 Bisons, MiG-27UPG, MiG-29UPG and Su-30MKI. It has an engagement range of 30 km with speed of Mach 2.5, the infrared homing missile fitted with a sensitive, cryogenic-cooled seeker. This can also be directed by helmet mounted sight as confined when an IAF Mirage-2000 was seen with the Russian R-73 air to air missiles for the first time in June this year, media reported on this new mating of the Russian CCM to an IAF pilot’s helmet mounted display DASH, manufactured by Israel’s Elbit Systems.
The Israeli Python 4 and 5 have been in service with the IAF for some years. While the Python-4 AAM is a fourth-generation missile with limited ‘fire and forget’ capability, the Python-5 is superior because of its full sphere attack ability, the missile also comes with lock-on-after-launch and features an advanced electro-optical-infrared-homing seeker for scanning and lock-on, the seeker having the ability to acquire targets up to 100 degrees of the missile’s centre line. With the help of eighteen control surfaces as per its design, the missile can perform excellent manoeuvres comparable to a thrust vectoring nozzle powered air to air missile like Diehl’s IRIS-T, but is 15-20 kg lighter than its predecessor and can hit aerial targets at over 20 km range with speeds of Mach 4. The IAF was in the process of integrating the missile on its indigenous Tejas fighter but in 2017 they selected MBDA to integrate the ASRAAM on the Tejas as the same missile has already been integrated on the Jaguar. 

The most advanced short-range air to air missile in IAF inventory is the MBDA heat-seeking ASRAAM which has high speed (over Mach 3), is extremely manoeuvrable and is a fire-and-forget missile. The ASRAAM has a long acquisition range of up to 50 km because of its large rocket motor which gives more thrust and range, has high countermeasures resistance. Its most modern feature is its seeker’s 90 degrees off-boresight ability which provides the missile outstanding ‘lock-on-after-launch’ capability. The missile entered in IAF service in 2014 when the IAF signed a contract worth $428 million with MBDA to arm its upgraded Jaguars: the contract reportedly comprised over 380 ASRAAMs. It has also been reported for some time that the IAF is also looking to equip its frontline Su-30MKI and Tejas with the ASRAAM and that early in 2019, two Su-30MKIs went for the requisite software modification for ASRAAM integration. The ASRAAM is to replace the now obsolescent R-60K, R550 Magic 2 and R-73s.

The IAF’s medium-range AAM inventory is dominated by the Russian RVV-AE, R-27R1, R-27T1, R-27ER1, and R-27ET1 missiles. Apart from them, there are also the Israeli I-Derby and French MICA-RF, MICA-IR. I-Derby and MICA are the only two modern AAMs that will remain operational with the IAF’s present and near future fleet while all other medium range weapons are fast being phased out.

The I-Derby AAM has been in active service with the IAF since 2012, which was part of contract for the Rs. 1,800 cr Spyder AD missile system. It is an active-radar homing BVR missile fitted with a fire-and MBDA’s ASRAAM forget guidance system and an Active RF seeker, the missile having ability to engage targets at a range of up to 50 km with a top speed of Mach 4. It has been selected to be the primary AAM weapon for the Tejas and was successfully test-fired in July 2018. The IAF will use both versions of MICA air to air missile: MICA RF consists of an active-radar-homing seeker and has a range of 80 km and the MICA IR fulfils its dual role as a medium as well as a capable close combat missile because of its advanced imaging infra-red homing seeker; the missile’s propulsion rocket motor is fitted with a thrust vector control unit which gives excellent agility during aerial engagements. As of now, only the upgraded Mirage-2000s are equipped with the MICA but the soon to be inducted Dassault Rafale will also be equipped with these AAMs.

New-Generation AAMs

In pursuit of strengthening of its combat fleet, IAF has started the process of acquiring 21 Russian MiG-29s and 18 Su-30MKIs, while HAL is also ramping up the production of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft; along side, the IAF is also putting in a great effort to equip these types with the latest new-generation AAMs.

On 13 June 2019, it was reported that the Indian Air Force had ordered missiles worth $700 million from Russia, the order comprising new generation short range RVV-MD and mid-range RVV-SD. The RVV-MD is export version of Vympel’s R-74, the missile having an improved range of 40 km and a more effective two-band IR seeker while the RVV-SD missile has an edge over older RVV-AE (R-77) because of its longer range and better guidance system.

Apart from these Russian orders, the IAF has also decided to procure Rafael’s newly developed radar-guided I-Derby ER, having a range of well over 100 km and a top speed of over Mach 4. The missile features a software-defined radar seeker and a powerful dual pulse rocket motor for long-range; the IAF plans to integrate these with its Su-30MKI and Teja's by 2022-23.

The medium-range inventory of IAF will also include the indigenously designed beyond-visual-range air to air missile Astra. The Astra features a dual pulse ramjet rocket motor and a Ku-band active-seeker (RF) making it highly manoeuvrable and accurate during endgame engagement, endowing the missile with a high single-shot kill probability. It can engage a target at max range of upto 110 km when launched at a height of 15,000 meters. In recent trials, the IAF test-fired the missile five times from a Su-30MKI in different scenarios including three tests in full combat configuration with warheads. The missile performed excellently against the Banshee target aircraft, and successfully neutralised it beyond 100 km with pinpoint accuracy in one of the tests. DRDO has started work on a new longer-range BVR the Astra Mk.2 with a more powerful dual pulse motor and a new RF seeker, most likely a software-defined-radar one.

Besides all these, the most significant development will be induction of MBDA’s Meteor BVR air-to-air missile which is considered to be the most advanced and modern BVR in the world extant.

On 19 September 2019, the first batch of 36 Rafales contracted for was handed over to IAF in France, along with the Meteor BVRAAM and will be inducted in the newly revived 'Golden Arrows' No. 17 Squadron. The missile can hit the targets beyond 150 km and has the world largest NEZ (No Escape Zone). Thanks to this, the IAF will assume a major edge over both its adversaries Pakistan and China. The Meteor has an active-seeker and throttled solid fuel ramjet rocket motor which propels the missile to attain high supersonic speed of Mach 4.5. The Meteor can throttle its engine during different phases of flight instead of burning off all fuel after the launch, which is why Meteor has more energy to manoeuvre during endgame engagement this capability of the missile drastically increases the size of missile’s NEZ.

In order to develop its own ‘indigenous’ Meteor, India’s DRDO also has tested a complete Solid Fuel Ducted Ramjet (SFDR) propulsion system from a ground-based launcher, this project worth $70 million which began in 2013 jointly with Russia. Since then, two successful test firing of the SFDR system have been completed, the last trial of the system taking place in February 2019 in which missile successfully achieved a top speed of Mach 3.

Thus, in the mid-to-near-future, one can see rapid induction and modernisation of the AAM inventory of the Indian Air Force. One hopes that better planning will ensure constant cutting edge weapons are available in the IAF’s arsenal.

Atul Kumar is a defence journalist who reports for Vayu Aerospace