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IAF bases won't be caught off guard in war

By Ajai Shukla
July 01, 2016 09:43 IST
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The successful test firing of medium range surface-to-air missiles is welcome news for the IAF, reports Ajai Shukla.

IMAGE: The Indo-Israel medium range surface-to-air missile being test-fired successfully from the Integrated Test Range off the Odisha coast. Photograph: DRDO

On September 6, 1965, the Pakistan air force launched its first major air attacks into India.

Ranging freely across the border, PAF fighters attacked multiple Indian Air Force bases, destroying (according to Indian accounts) ten Indian fighters on the ground in Pathankot, damaging another three, and downing two IAF fighters protecting the Halwara air base.

The next day, another 12 Indian fighters were destroyed on the ground at the Kalaikunda air base in West Bengal.

The IAF remained on the back foot for the rest of the 1965 War.

The likelihood of another such debacle receded on Thursday, June 30, with the successful test firing of the eponymous medium range surface-to-air missiles off the Odisha coast.

Jointly developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation and Israeli Aerospace Industries, the MR-SAM detects incoming enemy aircraft while they are well over 100 kilometres away and destroys them at ranges out to 70 kilometres.

Broadly, the DRDO has developed the propulsion systems of the MR-SAM, while Israeli Aerospace Industries has developed the radar and guidance systems.

The defence ministry confirmed that Indian and Israeli experts were present at the tests on Thursday, in which the missiles detected and destroyed pilotless target aircraft.

This will be welcome news for the IAF, which still protects its air bases with vintage Soviet-era surface-to-air missiles that should have retired decades ago, and with the DRDO's Akash missiles that have an inadequate range of 25 kilometres.

In the modern concept of 'layered air defence,' short-range missiles like the Akash are responsible only for close-in defence, while longer range missiles like the MR-SAM engage hostile aircraft at longer ranges.

The MR-SAM project is a twin of the Indian Navy's Long Range Surface-to-Air Missile project, also being developed by the DRDO-IAI combine.

While the key missile and guidance technologies and the missile capabilities are identical, the MR-SAM is a ground-and-vehicle based missile, while the LR-SAM is being deployed on warships.

In tandem with the LR-SAM, the MR-SAM is late by years, partly because of the cutting edge technologies they incorporate.

In March 2009, the IAF signed the contract for 18 fire units (each equipped with 24 missiles), which were to be delivered by October 2016. But with just the first test having been concluded, it will take at least another two years for the first MR-SAM batteries to enter squadron service.

Each self-contained fire unit includes a radar, three missile launchers, and a sophisticated Combat Management System.

Since the missiles themselves have a limited shelf life, orders for missiles will be placed incrementally, as they are consumed in training, testing and operations.

When Business Standard visited the DRDO's missile complex in Hyderabad, officials stated that the IAF had funded 90 per cent of the MR-SAM's development cost of Rs 10,075 crore (Rs 100.75 billion). The DRDO funded the remaining 10 per cent.

In an unusual arrangement, the DRDO did not just carry out technology development of the MR-SAM, but effectively functioned as the project manager.

Officials confirmed that that the DRDO was handed control of the development budget, and asked to develop private industry partners who would assist in the development of MR-SAM sub-systems, and also manufacture those when it entered commercial production.

Acknowledging their contribution, a defence ministry statement said: 'Many Indian industries like BEL (Bharat Electronics Ltd), L&T (Larsen & Toubro), BDL (Bharat Dynamics Ltd), Tata group of companies, besides other private industries have contributed to the development of a number of subsystems which have been put into use in this flight test.'

After the tests, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar congratulated DRDO and the industry partners, while DRDO chief Dr S Christopher declared the test a major milestone for the IAF's air defence.

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Ajai Shukla
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