An Astra in the armoury

Print edition : June 06, 2003

Astra, the air-to-air missile designed to arm India's own LCA, has been test-flown successfully.

INDIA'S missile development programme crossed yet another milestone when Astra, an air-to-air missile, was test-fired for the first time on May 9, from the Interim Test Range at Chandipur-on-sea, 15 km from Balasore, Orissa. The missile was test-fired again on May 11 and 12.

Although Astra is designed to be launched from an aircraft targeting an enemy aircraft, all the three launches were done from fixed launchers. Many more such flights from the ground will be carried out before it is launched from air. Officials of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), which developed the missile, called the flight-tests a new success for the DRDO. A Ministry of Defence statement released after the first test flight, said: "All the mission objectives have been achieved."

Astra is developed to arm the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), which has been already flown 76 times. When the LCA fires Astra during trials, the target will be Lakshya, a pilotless aircraft. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee christened the LCA "Tejas" (Radiance) at a function in Bangalore on May 4. On that day, two technology demonstrators of the LCA (that is two LCA aircraft) performed a series of manoeuvres.

The LCA is at present fitted with engines from General Electric, of the United States. Vajpayee said that the American engines would soon be replaced with the indigenous Kaveri engines to make the plane about 75 per cent indigenous.

The LCA, described as the world's smallest, lightest, supersonic multi-role fighter, was developed by Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA). On June 6, 2002, the ADA and the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited signed a memorandum of understanding for the production of a limited series of the LCA.

The maiden flight of the technology demonstrator, LCA TD 1, took place on January 4, 2001. News reports quoted Dr. V.K. Aatre, Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister, as saying on the christening day that the two LCA had flown 76 times and a prototype would soon join them.

With the launch of Astra, India is claimed to be the only country outside the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and Russia to develop a sophisticated air-to-air missile. Astra, which is more than 3.5 metres long and weighs about 300 kg, has a range of 25 to 40 km. In other words, it can hit targets flying 40 km away or it has Beyond Visual Range (BVR) capability.

A DRDO missile technologist explained that if the enemy aircraft were to fly close, it would be registered in the cockpit of the LCA. If the enemy aircraft were to fly, say 10 km away, it cannot be detected by the instruments in the cockpit. So it is beyond visual range; only radar signals will be received. The enemy aircraft too would be moving at a high speed. Astra would adjust its own speed to that of the enemy aircraft and home in on it.

Dr. A. Sivathanu Pillai, Chief Controller, Research and Development, DRDO, said the organisation had conducted technology demonstration trials of Astra to evaluate its basic design, configuration, air frame and propulsion. "We need to conduct many more launches to prove the systems. This is only a starting point. The aim is to use Astra with the LCA," Dr. Sivathanu Pillai said.

DEFENCE Minister George Fernandes has repeatedly said that a test-firing of the Agni-III missile, which will have a range of more than 3,000 km, will be done by the end of 2003. He has also said that the production of the Agni-I and Agni-II missiles has already begun and that they will be deployed this year. Agni-I has a range of 700 km and Agni-II can hit targets about 2,500 km away.

Agni-I fills the gap between the Prithvi-II missile, which has a range of about 250 km, and Agni-II. Prithvi-II was deployed when India and Pakistan massed troops on their border in 2002.

Starting from January this year, the DRDO has conducted a series of tests of various types of missiles such as Agni-I, BrahMos, Akash, Nag and Prithvi. The test-firing of Astra is the latest in the series. These tests have showcased India's strength in the field of missile technology.

On January 9, the DRDO test-fired Agni-I, the short-range ballistic missile, for the second time, from Wheeler Island, Orissa. It was test-fired for the first time on January 25, 2002. On February 12, BrahMos, the supersonic cruise missile jointly developed by India and Russia, was flight-tested successfully for the third time, off the Orissa coast. But it was for the first time that the missile was launched from a ship, INS Rajput. The first two flights took place on June 12, 2001 and April 28, 2002, from ground launchers. BrahMos is a versatile missile that can be launched from a fixed launcher, a mobile launcher, a silo, a ship, a submarine and air.

Nag, India's anti-tank missile, was also test-flown three times. The flights reportedly met the Army's requirements. The speciality of Nag is that it flies, climbs and comes down on the enemy tank like a cobra. With a range of 4 km, Nag is a third generation guided anti-tank missile that can be fired in all types of weather. It has fire-and-forget capability: after it is fired, one need not worry whether it has homed in on the target. It is capable of destroying composite and reactive armour of enemy tanks. "It can defeat any armour," said a missile technologist.

Akash, the surface-to-air missile, was fired on January 18. It has a range of 25 km. Its development has seen both successes and failures because of the complex technology involved.

Prithvi-II has been flight-tested twice this year - on March 26 and April 29. A surface-to- surface missile, Prithvi is driven by liquid propellant. The missile has an inertial navigation guidance system on board, which enables it to stick to its trajectory. Prithvi has a range of between 150 and 250 km and has a unique feature - it can change its trajectory in mid-flight. "We are the first in the world to introduce a manoeuvrable trajectory. We did it in 1988 itself," said Dr. Sivathanu Pillai. About the successful Prithvi-II flight on April 29, Mission Director Dr. V.K. Saraswat said it was an excellent flight.

The naval version of Prithvi, Dhanush, can be launched from ships.

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