In late November 2020, reports emerged that IAF is going to integrate Astra Mk1 on to Tejas and the test of the same will be conducted soon. As we all know that Astra Mk1 has been integrated onto Su-30mki already, other platforms like Mirage 2000 and Mig29 will follow. The ground trails of the Astra missile over Tejas were completed by November last year over an LSP aircraft. The first lot of the Astra missiles will be given to the Su-30 fighters and the second lot will be allotted to the Mig-29s. After carrying out the tests on Tejas, the coming lots will then be allotted to Tejas aircrafts.
The reports about I-Derby ER and other missiles for LCA surfaced and vanished but appears indigenous Astra Mk1 and its variants will remain its mainstay for time to come. Two of the most important reasons for this development could be to increase the indigenous content in Tejas and if an Indian BVR missile is integrated, it will not only make us independent from foreign vendors but also makes the logistics simpler as it is going to be integrated with most of the fighters in our fleet. Tejas with an indigenous BVR can be a good export option as these missiles are cheaper to manufacture and there is no need for us to take the permission of any foreign vendor.
Astra and its variants
Astra program was the first ever indigenous A2A program started in 1990 for the Tejas jet fighter program. The original plan was to develop Astra as a short range missile and by the time Tejas makes it to production and later Astra program got an upgrade and was made the primary BVR (Beyond Visual Range) missile for the Tejas platform.
Astra was first showcased to the public in Aero India 1998 and a fund of 955 crore rupees was sanctioned in 2004. The initial version of Astra weighed about 300 kilos with a touted range of 25-30 km and was first test-fired in 2003. After the initial tests, the missile was redesigned a number of times and the latest iteration of the missile weighed around 130 kilos with a range of around 100 km in head-on engagement and 60 km in tail-chase (or maybe more) and went into Limited Series Production in September 2017 with an initial order of 40 missiles. The serial production started after a follow-up order of around 250 missiles.
With Astra being inducted and integrated with platforms such as Mig-29, Tejas, Su-30 MKI, work on the next improved version the Astra Mk2 was initiated recently. Mk2 variant of Astra will have a range of more than 150 KM.
There’s going to be a major upgrade in the propulsion system for Astra Mk-2 as DRDO is planning to use a dual pulse solid rocket motor. The dual pulse solid rocket motor allows the propellant motor to be burned in two-pulses, which inturn addresses the basic design limitation of single pulse solid rocket motor. A single pulse burns the entire fuel in a single stretch which results in smaller powered flights. The maximum speed of this missile system will go beyond 4.5 Mach.
The Mk3 variant of the Astra missile is going to be the most advanced and the longest range of the three variants. The reported range of the Mk3 variant will be 350 km which makes it one the best air to air missile in the world. This missile will be powered by the Solid fuelled ducted ramjet technology that is being developed by DRDO for longer range missiles.
Solid fuel ducted ramjet contains solid fuel and the engine will be a ducted ramjet engine. In order to burn the fuel, the air will be sucked into the missile via ducts and so the propulsion is called solid fuel ducted ramjet engine. This missile can also be used as a surface to air missile as confirmed by DRDO chairman, Dr. Satheesh Reddy. In an interview, he told that a vertical launched surface to air variant of Astra Mk3 will be made and will be used for short-range defense. Reports also suggest that a naval variant is also on cards for the Indian navy.
The MK3 variant of the missile is going to be the most versatile variant mainly because of the type of fuel and the propulsion that is being planned. This missile will also become the mainstay of future jet fighters such as AMCA and MWF. This missile will also see action on the TEDBF, a naval twin-engine variant of the Tejas jet fighter.
Integrating indigenous BVR missiles onto indigenous platforms not only makes these platforms deadly and cheap as we can change the configurations whenever we want, but it also makes us self-reliant.