Astra MkII and SFDR :- India’s next Silver bullets in the air?
If the Indian Air Force’s unusual satisfaction and eagerness with the indigenously developed Astra air-to-air missile is any indicator, then a technology test conducted on India’s east coast last week should clear the decks for some serious joy ahead.
A successor to Astra Mk1 will be Astra MkII which has been on drawing board for some time but due to the slow pace of development phase which bogged down Mk1 program, it is likely to have shorter developmental trials due to missile system carrying forward many of the systems which have already been developed. IAF and DRDO are yet working out technicalities of Astra MkII program it’s more or less confirmed that it will have longer range and will have additional capabilities making it a vital air-to-air dominance arsenal of IAF in near future.
Astra mk2 will be using dual pulse rocket motor(cheap alternative of ramjet) which will boost it range to 125km if launched from 12km altitude and will gradually increase the NEZ (no escape zone) of the missile. Astra will be the mainstay of Indian airforce and Navy A2A missile arsenal in the future.
Present Astra Mk1 has a non-classified range of 75-80km and proposed Astra Mk2 was convinced as a newer version of the missile system developed to compliment each other. Since Astra Mk2 was supposed to be an Extended Range version of the baseline Astra Mk1 which utilized proven technology derived from the Mk1 program it had additional fuel space for the propulsion system to achieve extended range. Astra Mk1 and Astra Mk2 could have provided a superior war-fighting capability for the Indian air force while working in tandem and as an alternative to the import which now IAF is seeking.
Yet we saw DRDO starting developmental trials of Solid Fuel Ducted Ramjet (SFDR) first than that of MkII? Well, development of the ramjet motor and sustained long-range flight in the air while pulling 30-40gs required deeper research and studies due to high thrust levels provided by the ramjet propulsion which needs to be channeled properly so that it can sustain Mach 4 speed from launch till it hits its target and also enforces a no-escape zone.
Astra Mk-1 program suffered from the inflight performance due to instability at high speeds leading to considerable delays in the program and almost whole missile design had to be redone to fix flight trajectory issues that took years to perfect. Ramjet over conventional motor could have cropped up similar issues but this time DRDO roped in Russia’s Vympel JSC company which had carried out studies a few decades back to mate a ramjet motor on its famous R-77 BVRAAM derivate but couldn’t execute the program for unknown reasons and was happy to help India for technical collaboration in lieu of funding.
Solid Fuel Ducted Ramjet tactical Air launched Missile is a new breed of an Air-to-Air missile which India has been jointly developing with good friend Russia. SFDR aka Astra-2 is India’s first at Next generation beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) which will incorporate booster-ram jet sustainer propulsion system, which will propel new missile in the sameclass as MBDA’s Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile.
In February,the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) tested a complete solid fuel ducted ramjet (SFDR) propulsion system from a ground based launcher, blasting a missile system to a high altitude and achieving speeds in excess of Mach 3. Unlike the Astra, which rides on a smokeless solid fuel rocket motor, SFDR technology — a $70 million joint effort since 2013 by India and Russia — takes every performance aspect of the Astra to the next level, crucially range, sustained speed and kinetic energy during the difficult endgame phase when such missiles close in on normally manoeuvering targets.
The big plan is for the SFDR-powered missile to closely mirror the world’s currently most advanced air-to-air missile, the MBDA Meteor, a system that the Indian Air Force will operate on its Rafale fighters arriving this year, and has been hoping to deploy on other platforms too but has hit an integration roadblock.
With the Astra in a final stage of acceptance trials with the Indian Air Force before entry into service (later this year is the hope), with the SFDR technology, the DRDO will be looking to replicate a template of close ground-up coordination with the IAF, concurrent engineering and a plan that allows pilots to discover the capabilities of the missile as it’s being developed, instead of simply being saddled with a developed system at the end, with a hope and prayer that they like what they’ve got.
“The SFDR technology will be a legacy leap in our air combat weaponry,” said an Indian Air Force officer embedded with the SFDR development team, speaking to Livefist on condition of anonymity. “The Astra itself is turning out to be a very capable weapon system, even beyond some of our expectations. With SFDR, as they say, the sky is the limit. We are waiting to see what else this technology can demonstrate, especially from air launches and sustained velocity tests, which we will be gearing up for later this year.”
Last year, the Astra missile system also transitioned from a Russian-built seeker to an Indian Ku-band seeker — an enormous leap, considering India’s traditional dependence on Russia for these critical computers that actually guide missiles to their targets. This development will carry forward and be fine-tuned on the SFDR-based weapon, a crucial requirement for the higher performance weapon.
With the Indian Air Force operating 600 to 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.