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Astra: India's quest to overcome dependence on foreign missiles

Astra is intended to engage and destroy aerial targets with high manoeuvrability and supersonic speeds

Astra: India’s quest to overcome dependence on foreign missiles
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Astra: India’s quest to overcome dependence on foreign missiles

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At a time when India continues to have a military stand-off with China and hostile Pakistan and there's a perceptible threat looming, the Astra Mk-1 will make a long-term strategic impact

Shares of state-run missile maker Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL) have more than doubled after government awarded Rs 2,971 crore worth of contract to supply of the first domestically developed air-to-air missiles Astra MK-I for the Indian Air Force and Indian Navy, paving the way to end the country's dependence on foreign beyond-visual-range missiles.

The Defence Public Sector Undertaking (DPSU) Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL) recently bagged a contract worth Rs 2,971 crore to supply ASTRA MK-I, Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile (BVRAAM), and associated equipment for the Indian Air Force and Indian Navy. This development has likely given buoyancy to the company's share prices. The stock of Hyderabad based manufacturing base for guided missile systems and allied equipment for the armed forces, BDL has jumped by 51.8 per cent to Rs 810.15 per share this year. The company's shares closed at Rs 390.8 on December 31 last year. Despite domestic equity indices plunging sharply over few weeks due to inflationary concerns and its subsequent monetary policy actions by the Reserve Bank of India, it has managed to sail through and still managing around Rs 750 per share.

It is believed that this new acquisition will substantially boost Indian defence manufacturing industry, including Bharat Dynamics, and reduce foreign spending significantly. The "state of the art" technology, developed and designed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) will pave the way to end the country's dependence on foreign beyond-visual-range missiles.

Astra is intended to engage and destroy aerial targets with high manoeuvrability and supersonic speeds. The missile's advanced air combat capabilities allow it to engage multiple high-performance targets. The Astra Mk-I, having a length of 3.57 metres and a diameter of 178 mm, has a range of 80 to 110 km in a head-on chase and can travel at 4.5 Mach speed. The missile also has a locally developed Ku-band active radar guidance system and a 15 kg warhead. The features of Astra Mk-I make it a very effective weapon, enabling a very high single-shot kill probability in both head-on and tail-chase modes.

The induction of Astra Mk-I will provide a large standoff range to India's fighter aircraft that can neutralise the enemy aircraft without exposing itself to air defence measures. The missile will also reduce India's dependency foreign sources. Only a handful of missile builders in the US, Russia, Europe and China have mastered technologies that go into BVRAAMS. India has now joined that elite group.

Under the contract, Bharat Dynamics will supply about 400 Astra MK-I missiles and associated equipment, to be delivered in four years. The missile is expected to reduce India's dependency on Russian R-77, French MICA and Israeli Derby beyond-visual-range missiles. The missiles will cost over Rs 7 crore apiece, a fraction of the cost of Russian, French, and Israeli BVRAAMs that IAF fighters are now armed as defence sources disclosed.

"The project essentially embodies the spirit of 'Aatmanirbhar Bharat' (Self-Reliant India) and will help facilitate the country's journey towards self-reliance in air-to-air missiles" the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said in a statement.

The missile is fully integrated into the Su-30MK-I fighter aircraft and will be integrated with other fighter aircraft in a phased manner, including the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). The Indian Navy will integrate the missile on the MiG 29K fighter aircraft. The transfer of technology from DRDO to BDL to produce the missile "will create opportunities for several medium and small industries in aerospace technology for a period of at least 25 years," the Ministry said.

The MoD has said that Astra is technologically and economically superior to many such imported missile systems and will give India's fighters a definite edge over China's PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). As per reports, the Astra is operationally superior to China's PL-15 BVRAAM that the PLAAF inducted four years ago. A long-range Astra is also being developed, for which initial tests have been conducted.

Apart from the technological developments, the indigenous production of the Astra missile is likely to create opportunities for several micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in aerospace technology apart from export potential. The weapon would be considered for sale to friendly countries as well. While it has export potential, the current timeline for domestic procurements entails that it will take time as with BDL having received the first order, the production missiles will have to go long way before settling down as a credible combat product.

India's defence and aerospace manufacturing market is worth Rs 85,000 crore, with a private investment of Rs 18,000 crores. The value of defence exports in 2020-21 was Rs 5,711 crore, and the government aims to increase investment to Rs 1 lakh crore in 2022 and Rs 5 lakh crore by 2047. Earlier this month, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) cleared capital acquisition proposals worth Rs 76,390 crore for the armed forces.

Missile technology is one field in which India has made substantial progress with first came Prithvi, then Agni. BrahMos, at 2.5-3 times the speed of sound, was among the fastest in the world when developed. All these missiles are nuclear-capable. With Agni-V ready, India is working on Agni VI and Agni VII, which will have a much longer range.

India has been working on hypersonic missiles - "weapons of deterrence" - for a few years and is just behind the US, Russia, and China. DRDO successfully tested a Hypersonic Technology Demonstrated Vehicle (HSTDV) in September 2020 and demonstrated its hypersonic air-breathing scramjet technology. Only Russia has proven its hypersonic missile capability so far, while China has demonstrated its HGV capacity. India is expected to be able to have a hypersonic weapons system within four years, with medium to long range capabilities, according to the sources. At a time when India continues to have a military stand-off with China and hostile Pakistan and there's a perceptible threat looming, the Astra Mk-1 will make a long-term strategic impact.

(Author is a journalist who writes on defence, strategic affairs and technology)

Ravi Shankar
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