A handful of yellow journalists in the Indian media have been postulating that the Indian Air Force is not even ready for any kind of aerial skirmish with PAF similar to the events that occurred last year after the incisive Balakot air strikes. Contrary to these ostensibly motivated alarmism, DRDO and the IAF have readied a potent air-to-air missile which is touted to be the best in class currently available anywhere in the world. Way back in May 2014, the Astra has battled steady headwinds to turn the corner and find an unusually pleased customer in the Indian Air Force. Following a rapid-fire spate of seven guided tests, topped off with the two ‘combat’ tests, the IAF was persuaded to sign on for 50 pre-production Astra missiles, its healthiest show of confidence in a program. These missiles could prove invaluable if and when an exigency arises.

One of India’s most ambitious and challenging missile projects, the ASTRA (Sanskrit for ‘weapon’) beyond visual range air-to-air missile had entered a final round in Sept 2018 of trial launches ahead of service with the Indian Air Force. With over 20 the missile was fired in a fully guided mode at a manoeuvring aerial target drone. With over 20 aerial tests since it was first fired from an IAF Su-30 MKI in May 2014, the weapon is to be tested a handful more times before being handed over to the Indian Air Force for a cycle of user trials before induction into service.

ASTRA initially had some technological challenges which have been overcome successfully. With persistent effort by DRDO and with active IAF support, all the user evaluation has been completed and ASTRA is now ready for induction. DRDO is very confident of extending the range to nearly double of its existing range, making it the most lethal BVR missile.

In Sept 2018, a 11-foot long missile zoomed off from the wing of an Indian Air Force Su-30 MKI fighter jet about 120 kilometres 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 kilometres 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 kilometres. This time too, the weapon blew effortlessly apart its target.

To be sure, the target wasn’t a twisting, manoeuvring 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 Centre Imarat (RCI) in Hyderabad. While the Indian Air Force had 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, writes eminent defence journalist Shiv Aroor.

India’s state-owned Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL) has inaugurated a special production facility to manufacture an initial production batch of the indigenously-developed Astra Mk1 beyond-visual range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM). The production batch is intended to begin arming the Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) fleet of Sukhoi Su-30MKI’s multi-role fighters by the year-end.

Launched on 27 August 2017 at Sangareddy in southern India, BDL’s ‘dedicated’ unit will initially build just 50 of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO)-designed all-weather Astra Mk 1.Thereafter, a planned follow-on Astra production order is intended to equip IAF Mirage-2000H and MiG-29 fighter aircraft – and possibly the locally developed Tejas Light Combat Aircraft – supplementing the IAF’s Rafael Advanced Defence Systems Derby BVRAAM system.

New Kid On The Block?

As per defenceupdate.in, the new kid on the block, the Astra Mk2 will be using dual pulse rocket motor (cheap alternative of ramjet) which will boost it range to 125km if launched from 12km altitude and will gradually increase the NEZ (no escape zone) of the missile. Astra will be the mainstay of IAF and Navy A2A missile arsenal in the future. Currently about 50 Astra missiles have entered in the initial production will be handed over to the IAF for some more testing, and will be inducted after the all the tests are done and bugs are sorted out. It is also reported that Mk2 may feature 3D thrust vectoring capability as it won’t have those mid body control surfaces, a unique high-tech feature that few missiles of this class that DRDO can tout.

Solid Fuel Ducted Ramjet tactical Air launched Missile is a new breed of an Air-to-Air missile which India has been jointly developing with good friend Russia. SFDR or Astra-2 is India’s first at Next generation beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) which will incorporate booster-ram jet sustainer propulsion system, which will propel new missile in the same class as MBDA’s Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile.

The missile flew in its intended trajectory at a speed of Mach 3 and performed as expected perfectly validating the new indigenous technology. “It was a booster phase test of the missile and the mission was a major milestone for the strategic missile

The DRDO which was in charge of developing Astra Mk1 AAM had planned a successor which was still supposed to use a solid propellant which included improvements capability such has increased in excess of 100 km and LOBL (look down shoot/down-look capability) and LOAL modes of operations with improved two way secure data link system .

Present Astra Mk1 has a non-classified range of 75-80km and proposed Astra Mk2 was convinced as a newer version of the missile system developed to compliment each other. Since Astra Mk2 was supposed to be an Extended Range version of the baseline Astra Mk1 which utilized proven technology derived from the Mk1 program it had additional fuel space for the propulsion system to achieve extended range. Astra Mk1 and Astra Mk2 could have provided a superior war-fighting capability for the Indian air force while working in tandem and as an alternative to the import which now IAF is seeking.

With the Indian Air Force operating 600 to 700 fighter aircraft, there will be a need for several thousand Astra missiles. With air-to-air missiles costing in the region of $2 million each, the Astra will provide major business opportunities to Indian firms.