India’s missile programme took a crucial step forward on Saturday with Indian Air Force test pilots carrying out the captive flight trials of the indigenously designed and developed Astra beyond visual range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM).

A Su-30MKI combat aircraft especially tasked for the trials took off from Air Force Station Lohegaon (Pune) for a 90-minute sortie with the Astra missile. Till Thursday, four sorties, including flying the missile to super sonic speeds and to 7Gs, had been accomplished. Captive trials are mandatory to actual firing of the missile from the aircraft.

The active, radar homing Astra -- India’s first air-to-air missile -- which, at its design altitude of 15 km, will enable fighter pilots to lock-on, evade radar and shoot down enemy aircraft about 80 km away, is part of India’s Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme and has been under development at a number of defence laboratories led by the Hyderabad-based Defence Research and Development Laboratory.

Astra can be compared to the U.S.’ AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile, or AMRAAM, France’s MICA (Missile d’interception et de combat aérien, “Interception and Aerial Combat Missile”) and Russia’s R77 (RVV-AE) missile.

The ground launch of Astra was successfully conducted at Chandipur-on-Sea, off the Orissa coast in September 2008.

Captive flight trials involve the Su-30MKI carrying under its wings at one of its six hard points (stations designated for the carrying of stores) an inert missile (with no explosives but simulating the real missile) which has not been electrically or electronically ‘connected’ to the aircraft’s on-board systems.

Captive or aero mechanical integrity tests allows a verification of aspects such as the mechanical, structural and electrical compatibility between the missile and the aircraft, and whether vibrations, strain, stress, etc. are within design levels.

Only after the missile is proven in captive flight trials can it be fired from an aircraft.

Disclosing news of Phase 1 of the captive flight trails which have come after about four years of planning and certification, senior officials said the trials would cover the entire flight envelope of the Su-30MKI, including attaining the fighter’s altitude ceiling of 18 km and a speed of 1.8 Mach, and undertaking the various complicated manoeuvres that the aircraft is designed for. The trials are likely to involve around 15 sorties.

Russian launcher

Though the missile has been indigenously developed, Astra currently depends on a Russian launcher and seeker head. The seeker is yet to be integrated with the missile’s radar, algorithms, etc.

Officials said Astra has been designed to pull a latax (lateral acceleration) of 40g. (40 times the acceleration due to gravity).

The second phase of the trials -- avionics integrity tests -- are expected early next year and will involve the integration of the missile’s avionics with that of the aircraft, and a dialoguing between the cockpit and the missile. Officials also disclosed that “some guided flights with a seeker to check for guidance will take place early next year.” The actual firing of Astra from the Su-30MKI is expected in July-August 2010.

Astra is to be initially fitted on the Su-30MKI and the Mirage 2000, with the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft and the MiG-29 scheduled to be equipped with it later.

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