Meteor Missile: How India’s Air-to-Air Missile Capability will gain Regional Edge

India is spending close to 710 million Euros in procuring cutting edge next generation weapons suite for its Dassault Rafale fighter jet. The main highlight of this weapons arsenal will be Meteor Air-to-air missile which is described by many as the worlds’ most advanced air-to-air missiles.

According to media reports, Indian Air Force is actively considering the integration of the European Meteor missiles along with Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air Missile (ASRAAM) to 83 Tejas MK-1A fighter jets which will soon go into the production.

Meteor is the next generation of Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile (BVRAAM) system designed to revolutionize air-to-air combat in the 21st Century. The weapon brings together six nations with a common need to defeat the threats of today as well as the future emerging ones developed by MBDA.

The Meteor is a radar-guided air-to-air missile like the US-made AIM-120 AMRAAM, which was fired by Pakistani F-16s in the aerial skirmish with India in February last year. At the time, it was reported the Indian Air Force lacked an air-to-air missile that could match the AMRAAM, which is believed to have a range of around 100km.

The common perception is that the Meteor’s capability is linked to its long range, which is estimated to be well over 120km. However, this is not the only reason why the Meteor is unique.

The Meteor missile’s USP is not its range, but its unique propulsion system. The Phoenix, R-33 and AMRAAM all have rocket engines. In such air-to-air missiles, the rocket engine delivers a uniform amount of thrust over certain duration of flight after which the motor burns out. The missile then ‘coasts’, or glides at high speed, to its target, which it tracks through radar. US defence website The Drive explains the longer the distance a rocket-powered missile has to travel to its target, “the less energy the missile will have for its critical terminal phase of flight, and that is not a good thing”. As an air-to-air missile approaches, a target aircraft will engage in steep manoeuvring and deploy countermeasures to confuse the incoming missile.

Interestingly, Su-30MKI fighters of the Indian Air Force were able to dodge the AMRAAM missiles fired by Pakistan’s F-16s last February.

The Meteor missile has a miniature supersonic jet engine, called a ramjet. Explaining the aerodynamic advantage of the Meteor, The Drive notes, “Instead of burning off all its fuel right after launch, it [Meteor] can throttle its engine back during cruise, thus saving fuel. As it approaches its target it can throttle up, eventually making its terminal attack while at its highest possible energy state, around mach 4.5, even when fired over long ranges.” This helps the Meteor missile engage rapidly manoeuvring targets like China’s Su-30 and J-11 jets.

The missile has a range in excess of 100km. Meteor is estimated to have a range of 250-300 km with ballistic flight path. It is designed for a speed greater than Mach 4. The missile has a large no escape zone (almost 60 Km). The missile trajectory is controlled aerodynamically using four rear-mounted fins. Meteor’s control principles are intended to allow high turn rates while maintaining intake and propulsion performance.

Meteor can be launched as a stealth missile. It is equipped with enhanced kinematics features. It is capable of striking different types of targets simultaneously in almost any weather.To ensure total target destruction, the missile is equipped with both impact and proximity fuses and a fragmentation warhead that detonates on impact or at the optimum point of intercept to maximize lethality.

India’s Astra BVRAAM and Russian R-73 WVRAAM will be other two Air-to-Air Missiles which will be operational with the Tejas MK-1A and Tejas MK-1 fighter fleet in near future.

Tejas MK-1 already comes with Israeli supplied Derby Beyond Visual Range (BVR) active radar-guided air-to-air missile and Israel also had made an offer for the supply of beyond 100 km range I-Derby ER which comes with a new seeker .

Since Meteor BVRAAM is also considered for India’s Sukhoi-30MKI after it goes through the Super-30 Modernisation program in near future. Equipping it on Sukhoi-30MKI, Tejas MK-1A along with Dassault Rafale makes more sense, since this three aircraft fleet will be India’s go to fighter jets which will be deployed to defend and enforce Aerial domination .

A deadly combination of BVRAAMs like Astra/Meteor/R-77 will tilt aerial battles heavily in India’s favour in event of war.

In a recent research paper, retired Indian Air Force air vice marshal Arjun Subramanian estimated China could have around 1,000 fourth-generation fighter aircraft by 2050. The majority of these are expected to be derivatives of the Su-27 fighter. Hence, the Indian Air Force would be counting on the Meteor/Astra missile to retain its tenuous edge in the event of conflict with China.

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