India to test missile to hit aircraft beyond visual range

By Ritu Sharma, IANS,

New Delhi : India will conduct within a month the first full test flight of an indigenously built air-to-air missile that targets aircraft beyond visual range, a senior official said Wednesday.

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The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) will test Astra. If successful, the test will make India the fifth country to possess this technology.

Only the US, France, Russia and Israel have advanced missiles that can hit aircraft 90-120 km away.

“The test flight will take place either at the end of July or the beginning of August,” a DRDO official told IANS on condition of anonymity.

During the test, Astra will be fired from a Sukhoi fighter aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF). The missile has been tested on ground to prove its avionics, guidance and other sub-systems including propulsion.

“Astra is a futuristic missile and can intercept a target even at a speed of 1.2 to 1.5 Mach,” the official said. The speed of sound is 1 Mach.

Astra can be carried by the Mirage 2000, MiG-29 or Sukhoi-30MKI aircraft used by the IAF as well as the indigenously built Light Combat Aircraft (LCA).

In terms of technology, Astra is more complex than the nuclear-capable Agni series of strategic ballistic missiles, the official said.

Following the closure of the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) after a quarter of a century in December 2007, DRDO scientists are now focusing primarily on Astra and four other missile systems.

The other four are the 700-km range K-15 submarine-launched ballistic missile, the 290-km BrahMos supersonic and hypersonic cruise missile, the 3,500-km range Agni-III ballistic missile and the long-range surface-to-air missile system being developed jointly with Israel.

Currently, the Sukhoi-30 MKIs and Mirage 2000s of the IAF are armed with expensive beyond visual range (BVR) missiles of French and Russian origin like the Matra Super 530D and AA-12 Adder. India is also importing the Israeli Python and Derby air-to-air missiles.

It was in March 2004 that the government approved the Rs.10 billion project to develop Astra, with a 80 km ‘head-on range’, after DRDO test-fired three prototypes from the Chandipur-on-sea test range in May 2003.

However, the DRDO will not be able to meet the 2009 deadline for delivery of the Astra missile to the IAF. It will only be possible by 2012.

Once operational, scientists believe the single-stage solid-fuel propelled Astra will be cheaper and better than contemporary BVR missiles, capable of engaging and destroying highly-manoeuverable supersonic aerial targets.