It’s all systems go for the first test-firing of an MBDA ASRAAM close combat missile from an Indian Air Force Jaguar combat jet. The photograph you see here, taken late last year, is the the first known photograph in the public domain of an IAF Jaguar sporting the ASRAAM. It depicts qualification tests for the overwing launcher adapter and ground vibration tests under the aegis of the National Aerospace Laboratory (NAL) in Bengaluru. The lab has also conducted flight flutter tests on the integration. A first test firing of the ASRAAM is expected to take place before the end of the year off the coast of Goa.
The IAF’s new chief Air Chief Marshal Rakesh Bhadauria happens to be a Jaguar pilot, though he has taken office at a time when the IAF has had to take tough decisions on strengthening its Jaguar fleet. At his inaugural press conference earlier this month, Bhadauria said, “The Jaguar DARIN 3 (Display Attack Ranging Inertial Navigation) upgrade will be implemented as per plan, engines and obsolescence will be managed, but no new engines will be fitted.” He was referring to long-standing $700 million plans to replace the Jaguar’s old and notoriously underpowered engines with new turbofans, an effort in which U.S. firm Honeywell’s F125N engine emerged the sole possibility. The re-engine program is now dead owing to cost and priorities.
The ASRAAM is the second new missile integration on the Jaguar in the last few years. In 2013, the IAF’s Jaguars began flying with new Boeing Harpoon anti-ship missiles. Earlier this year too, HAL unveiled what it called the ‘Jaguar MAX’ upgrade to open up its DARIN II airframes to more weapon choices, including the ability to deploy 4 privately developed swarm drones. The IAF remains divided on spending scant modernisation resources on an ageing platform, so the ASRAAM is likely to be the last new bit of kit slung on.
In January, Livefist scooped IAF plans to integrate the ASRAAM on its Su-30 MKI fighter platform, with bigger plans to standardise the missile system across its fighter fleet. The Su-30 MKI integration plan though has expectedly hit rough weather with Russia. While the ASRAAM’s maker MBDA U.K. has said its ASRAAM-related activity in India is currently focused on completing the Jaguar tests, the IAF’s next steps on the fleet-wide adoption of the ASRAAM will be more clear in the next few months. Over the last two years, it has become known that the IAF is weighing ASRAAMs on its Hawk trainers for a mixed force profile and considering the ASRAAM for its LCA Tejas, where it will need to dislodge HAL’s current choice of the Rafael Python.
“The Jaguar is no longer easy prey,” says Russel Martin, head of technical and military operations military advisors at MBDA UK. “We’re working with the IAF and HAL to conduct the first firing from a Jaguar as soon as possible.”
While clarity remains elusive on the extent to which the IAF will manage to standardise the ASRAAM across its fleet, MBDA recently unveiled an agreement with Indian state-owned missile maker Bharat Dynamics Ltd (BDL) to transfer final assembly and integration functions of the ASRAAM to India, a move reported by Livefist last October. The Indian forces have been saddled with a smorgasbord of airframe and weapon types over the years, so the prospect of an Indian production line certainly helps. But Israel, which has made deep strides in missile partnerships with India, won’t for a moment make this an easy ride.
The ASRAAM program is part of a larger churn in the the Indian air-to-air missile scene, with several new missile assets becoming operational in IAF service in the near future. Apart from the ASRAAM, MBDA’s Meteor, the indigenous Astra and a new generation version of Russia’s R-73 missile will be inducted in a matter of months.
Topping things off, India’s Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) in February tested a complete solid fuel ducted ramjet (SFDR) propulsion system from a ground based launcher as part of a $70 million joint effort since 2013 by India and Russia to create a new generation air-to-air weapon.
Livefist also recently reported that the IAF’s keenness to explore a Meteor fit on its upgraded Mirage 2000 won’t be working out. MBDA has responded saying the MICA NG would be a better fit, given the Mirage 2000’s radar and fire control system wouldn’t be able to exploit the Meteor’s full capabilities. India’s upgraded Mirage 2000 fleet comes with a MICA IR/RF missile package similar to the one chosen for the Indian Rafale. The MICA NG is being made available to the latter platform too.