Astra air-to-air missile is major indigenous success - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Saturday 16 September 2017

Astra air-to-air missile is major indigenous success

India joins US, Europe, Russia and China in exclusive club of air-to-air missile developers

By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 16th Sept 17

On Friday, the defence ministry announced the successful development of the most challenging missile India has developed so far – the Astra. Fired from a fighter aircraft travelling at over 1,000 kilometres per hour, the Astra destroys an enemy fighter 65-70 kilometres away.

According to the ministry, the latest round of trials conducted off the Odisha coast on September 11-14 saw seven Astra missiles fired from a Sukhoi-30MKI fighter at pilotless aircraft that were designated as targets. All seven Astras hit their targets.

This round of tests “has completed the development phase of the [Astra] weapon system successfully”, stated a defence ministry release on Friday.

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman congratulated the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO), which developed the Astra; Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), which integrated the Astra onto the Su-30MKI fighter; and over 50 private firms that participated in building the missile.

The Astra – designated a “beyond visual range air-to-air missile”, or BVRAAM – involves radically different technology challenges compared to ballistic and tactical missiles. For one, a typical Astra engagement has both the launcher and the target moving at speeds in excess of 1,000 kilometres per hour.

Fired from a pylon on the wing of a Su-30MKI fighter, the Astra’s smokeless propellant quickly accelerates it to about 4,000 kilometres per hour, as it screams towards its target. The Su-30MKI tracks the target continuously on its radar, and steers the missile towards it over a data link. About 15 kilometres from the target, the Astra’s on-board radio seeker locks onto the target; now, it no longer needs guidance from the Su-30MKI. When it reaches a few metres from the enemy fighter, the Astra warhead is detonated by a “radio proximity fuze”, spraying the target with shrapnel and shooting it down.

Only a handful of missile builders – in the USA, Russia, Europe, China, Israel, South Africa, Japan, Brazil and Taiwan – have mastered the technologies that go into air-to-air missiles. India is now joining that elite group.

Ultimately, a fighter aircraft is only as good in combat as the missiles it carries. An aircraft can close in with an enemy fighter and position itself dominatingly. But, eventually, an air-to-air missile must shoot the enemy down.

The Astra is fired from the Russian Vympel launcher – a rail under a fighter aircraft’s wing from which the missile hangs, and is launched. The Vympel launcher is integrated with all four of India’s current generation fighters --- the Su-30MKI, MiG-29, Mirage 2000 and the Tejas – allowing the Astra to be fired from all of them.

Astra components that have been developed indigenously include the missile’s propulsion system, its on-board computer, inertial navigation system, the radio proximity fuze, and data link between aircraft and missile.

Even so, the missile’s seeker head – a key component of most tactical missiles – is still imported. This is a key development thrust for the DRDO.

On the drawing board is a longer-range Astra Mark II, intended to shoot down enemy fighters up to 100 kilometres away.

According to the defence ministry, the latest Astra tests included engagement of long-range targets, high-manoeuvring target at medium range and launches of missiles in salvo to engage multiple targets. Two missiles were also launched in the combat configuration with warheads.

With the Indian Air Force operating 600-700 fighter aircraft, there will be a need for several thousand Astra missiles. With air-to-air missiles costing in the region of $2 million each, the Astra will provide major business opportunities to Indian firms.


  1. Dear Ajai,
    As per your article the missile seeker is Russian/Imported. While other articles on the launch detail the seeker to be a new indigenous ku band seeker. What is the correct .


  2. Lovely. I hope the user trials too get over quickly. Let us induct it and improve it continuosly . It should not become endless tests like Nag or Arjun

  3. Geez, another exclusive club. Is there some other phrase we can use?

  4. NSR says ---

    Seeker head is the most important and most expensive element and only handful of countries makes them very well...

    From whom does India import seeker head?

    What is the status of indigenous development of seeker head?

    A seeker head will unlock every other missile - Short range surface to air missile, Akash, long range missiles, air to air, ship based missile (cancelled by India),, etc

    I hope India doles out multiple contracts to multiple companies and also to multiple university based research institutions to hasten the progress..

    It is very important to India...

  5. As per PIB lastest phase of Astra MK-1 trials has an indigenous RF seeker.

    "All the sub-systems including the indigenous RF Seeker performed accurately, meeting all the mission parameters and objectives."

  6. This is an important and welcome milestone in the development of the Astra BVRAAM. More tests must be planned to refine the design and performance of this missile. The Mk-II version with range beyond 100 km is also necessary to give the IAF an edge in stand-off situations. What is interesting to watch in the coming years is that the thirty six Rafales ordered on Dassault will come equipped with the MBDA Meteor BVRAAM. Also, if the IAF chooses the JAS Gripen E over the F16 block 70, these are also expected to be equipped with the Meteor. One hopes that the Astra will then get its well deserved chance to be the default BVRAAM of the IAF against its foreign competitors and their lobbyists in the MoD!

  7. This is great news. Let us hope we can operationalize Astra and make it in great numbers. Perhaps it is time for DRDO to be just that - an R&D lab, for it to pass the license to the private sector for license production.

  8. great news. biggest lesson is that don't give up just yet when success is round the corner. Hope orders are placed given the fact that all will be made at DPSU.

  9. There are many headaches with Indian weapons induction that seem peculiarly Indian. For example, once Astra clears IAF user trials:

    1. Will the baboons on the Defence Acquisition Council actually clear the order to buy these missiles in mass? Remember the pinaka...cleared army trials in 2006, 2 regiments ordered immediately, inexplicably an order for another 2 waited until 2014, and inexplicably an order for another 6 waited until 2016.

    2. Will the baboons in the Defence PSU's do their part to induct systems quickly? Note that the Akash missile was cleared for induction to India's northeast in 2010...but the baboons at BEL still couldn't complete the necessary infrastructure development at northeast airbases in time, and the missile remains undeployed in the northeast to this day.

  10. You missed out Israel (Shafrir 1/2 (retired), Python 3/4/5, Derby), Japan (AAM-1/2 (retired) AAM-3/4/5, in fact, the AAM-4B was the world's first air-to-air missile with an AESA radar seeker), Brazil (MAA-1A/B Piranha & A-Darter), South Africa (A-Darter & R-Darter (retired?)) & Taiwan (Sky Sword I & II).

    Even Iran & Iraq claim to have developed A2A missiles based on other operational missiles in their service, but I would be loathe to attribute any credit to those two as no verifiable information regarding those is available online.

  11. @ Girish

    You're right. Was writing in a hurry. Amended.

  12. @Broadsword - 19 September 2017 at 16:07

    Thanks. I do appreciate your acknowledging the correction and updating the relevant details.



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