And Now, 248 ASTRA Missiles For Navy & IAF Fighters

In perhaps the most significant procurement order of an indigenous weapon system, the Indian Air Force and Indian Navy were cleared today to acquire 248 ASTRA beyond visual range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAM). The missile will arm IAF Su-30s, on which they’ve already been extensively tested, and Indian Navy MiG-29K jets.

‘The induction of Astra missiles, having beyond visual range capability, will serve as a force multiplier and immensely add to the strike capability of Navy and Air Force,’ the Indian MoD said in a statement today on a slew of acquisition approvals that included expected clearances to procure 21 MiG-29s from Russia and 12 Su-30s from HAL, detailed by Livefist here.

First fired from a Su-30 MKI in 2014, the ASTRA has seen a relatively smooth journey through development, with the Indian Air Force impressed by its capabilities all through. Since 2018, the 110 km range weapon has been tested with an indigenous seeker (replacing the Russian Agat 9B1103M active radar seeker), making it a truly Indian weapon. The ASTRA now stands cleared for entry into service.

Providing background on the weapon today with milestone approvals for a first contract, the ASTRA’s maker, India’s DRDO, said, “The missile is designed to engage and destroy highly manoeuvring supersonic aircraft. The missile has all weather day and night capability. The missile is being developed in multiple variants to meet specific requirements. The ASTRA Mk-I Weapon System integrated with SU-30 Mk-I aircraft is being inducted into the Indian Air Force (IAF). It can be launched in autonomous and buddy mode of operation with features for Lock-On-Before Launch (LOBL) and Lock-On After Launch (LOAL).”

The milestone order for the ASTRA is of enormous significance, especially since the Indian Air Force has publicly said it wants to standardise the missile across its fighter fleet where sensible to do so. Apart from the Su-30 MKIs, the Astra will be deployed from LCA Tejas Mk.1A jets (an order for 83 aircraft is expected this December) and the upgraded MiG-29s.

The Astra order, coincidentally, comes just days after the first MBDA Meteor BVRAAMs arrived in the country. The latter system is part of the weapons package on India’s new Rafale jets, five of which land in India on July 27. While there had been internal suggestions that the LCA Mk.1A would sport the Meteor, this hit a wall with the French government, since the airborne radar on the Tejas is Israeli. Either way, the Astra will be a standard weapon option on the Tejas fleet.

The ASTRA, Meteor and a slew other other acquisitions were the subject of this column last year by Livefist contributor Mihir Shah on what he believes is a revolution coming in the Indian Air Force’s air-to-air missile arsenal.

India’s first SFDR test in Feb 2019

Apart from an ASTRA Mk.2 version is also in the works with longer range and higher maneouverability, a program one step higher than the ASTRA is also making progress. In February last year, the DRDO tested a complete solid fuel ducted ramjet (SFDR) propulsion system from a ground based launcher, blasting a missile system to a high altitude and achieving speeds in excess of Mach 3. Unlike the ASTRA, which rides on a smokeless solid fuel rocket motor, SFDR technology — a $70 million joint effort since 2013 by India and Russia — takes every performance aspect of the Astra to the next level, crucially range, sustained speed and kinetic energy during the difficult endgame phase when such missiles close in on normally manoeuvering targets.

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