It’s Testing Times for Akash Ahead
IT IS do or die time for a prestigious missile endeavour. In December, the country’s fully indigenous Akash missile system will be put through trials that will decide the programme’s future.After a quarter century in development and Rs 493 crore in costs, the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) is under pressure to prove and deliver the vital missile system.
Between November 3 and 18, Akash, a medium-range surface-to-air missile (SAM), went through a series of low-key simulated tests with the Indian Air Force (IAF), its primary customer, at the Pokhran range in Rajasthan. Starting next month, the missile will undergo six firing tests from the Inner Wheeler island off the coast of Orissa’s Balasore district. If Akash fails to impress the IAF this time, the government is likely to invite foreign missile contractors to supply a technology bail-out to save the missile from total oblivion — a slap in the face of indigenous development.
The tests in Pokhran saw no actual firing of the missile. Real aircraft and helicopters were used to test target engagement, radar, fire control, target lock-on, command homing, overall system integrity, ground-air interface integrity and response time. Next month’s trials will test all parameters of the missile system, including launch, accuracy, impact, sensitivity, flight path and radar guidance.
An IAF officer who did not want to be named said, “This is definitely a make or break for Akash as far as the IAF is concerned. The wait has been too long. It has completely altered our planning processes for air defence. So if the missile does not perform now, and is not ready for flight service by late next year, then some drastic decisions will be required at the highest levels.”
The DRDO said the Pokhran tests went “smoothly”, but a review of the trial report is currently pending with the IAF leadership, which will be briefed by the test team before its observations are handed back to DRDO. This reading of the trials will be the final technical word on the Akash programme. Akash, with a range of 27 km, was first tested in 1990, with development flight tests up to March 1997. Operational tests and evaluations of the supersonic missile were completed in 2006 and it was expected to be inducted by the end of 2006.
It can attain a speed of 2.5 Mach during its flight and an altitude of 18 km. The missile is primarily being developed for the theatre defence role, in which missile batteries will be deployed to protect sensitive military or other establishments from an air threat, including aircraft, helicopters and unmanned craft. With its depleting fleet of obsolete Russian SA-3 Pechora and OSA-AK missile systems —which were inducted in the 1980s — the IAF pushed in for an indigenous ground equipment modification (GEM) a year ago. After the government refused to entertain Polish and Russian upgrade offers, the IAF is in desperate need of missile squadrons to plug holes in the air defence cover in the western sector. Of the 60 Pechoras bought between 1974 and 1990, only 24 are operational now. Last year, citing the delay in Project Akash and its sister programme Trishul as primary factors, the IAF placed a Rs 2,000 crore order for 18 Israeli Spyder surface-to-air missile systems.
Despite the Akash programme’s patchy record, DRDO chief M. Natarajan says, “The Akash missile system has been successful.” According to official testimony from the DRDO and the defence ministry, the Akash programme has been slowed down by the time taken to realise ramjet propulsion, the development of phased array target acquisition radar with command guidance, the development of a suitable platform for launch and American sanctions and embargoes which led to a crippling technology pull-out from the West.If Akash succeeds in the upcoming trials, it could be fully inducted into the IAF by early 2009.