Saturday, March 24, 2007

Astra BVRAAM Tests Continue

The Astra beyond visual range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) will go through its a series of tests on March 26 and March 27 at Complex II of the Integrated Test Range off Orissa's coast. This is great news. News about the elusive programme, which pretty much fizzled out of public view after the initial three highly-publicised tests almost four years ago in May 2003, except for stalls at Def Expos and Aero Indias. Here's some tactical munition technology that DRDO really has a chance to prove itself with. As usual however, there are understood to be development roadblocks in the missile's guidance system, and it's almost certain that DRDL is exploring the possibility of a European or Israeli bailout as a leap-frog option that will see the missile operational by 2010-11 for weapons integration on the LCA (hopefully!), Su-30MKI, Mirage-2000 and MiG-29 (the latter two of which will be souped up after great upgrades by that time).

On 25 July, 2001, then Defence Minister Jaswant Singh said, "A feasibility study for air-to-air missile Astra has been undertaken, after the completion of which a project for development of Astra missile is planned to be undertaken. Development of this missile is likely to take about seven to eight years."

On 9 May, 2003, the first ballistic flight of ASTRA air-to-air missile was undertaken successfully from Interim Test Range, Balasore in Orissa today at 1215 hrs. The Defence Ministry announced that all the mission objectives had been achieved. May 11 & 12 were the second and third tests at the Integrated Test Range, all three from fixed ground launchers. There were no more tests following the initial three, though there was no official word on why.

There were to have been field tests in 2004, but they didn't happen. In February 2006, DRDO chief M Natarajan told me at a press conference, "The Astra is a BVR air-to-air missile which is being developed indigenously. The development of the system has been going on for some time and we would be testing the missile in the next two months. The government’s nod for the Astra programme had come a year ago and we are planning to develop it into a missile capable of engaging targets 80-km away. The first field test of the missile will be taking place in another two months. This will be for a shorter range."

Defense News recently quoted DRDL sources as saying that "they will sign a pact with MBDA to develop a dedicated active seeker-head system for the indigenous Astra beyond-visual-range missile", because of problems in the inertial navigation/active radar homing guidance systems -- the reason that there have been no further tests since 2003. Don't know how true this is, though there's been frenetic activity between DRDL and MBDA otherwise as well. Pranab Mukherjee, who visited France and Germany last year almost signed a deal with France for missile cooperation (MBDA was obviously the main contributor), though it fell through at the 11th hour because the French refused to accede full technology transfer.

Well, that aside, 6,000 folks have been evacuated ahead of the tests from Chandipur and Balasore (which incidentally kicks off on Sunday with a test of the the naval TBM Dhanush from INS Rajput, which should be most interesting). After the ABM tests, let's hope good things come in packs for DRDO this year.

(Photo ©Arun Vishwakarma)

Update>Sunday, March 25: India on Sunday successfully tested the indigenously developed air-to-air missile Astra, a system with a range of up to 80 kilometers (50 miles). Great!

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