An IDC Analysis

(With inputs by Sayan Majumdar)


New Delhi, 10 February 2005

With the Aero India 2005 in full swing the IAF would do well to take a look at the European MBDA Consortium’s Meteor BVRAAM, suggests our analyst Sayan Majumdar.

The European MBDA Consortium has made persistent offers to integrate the Meteor Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile (BVRAAM 80+ nautical miles range) with the Indian Air Force (IAF) Sukhoi-30MKI fighters. The present Russian BVRAAMs like R-27 (AA-10 Alamo) and RVV-AE (AA-12 Adder) in service with the IAF Sukhoi-30s and MiG-29s are also in service with the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). Thus their performance spectrum would be compromised to a potential adversary, which is bound to “relatively blunt” the effectiveness of these otherwise excellent AAMs to a certain degree.

Meteor is slated to enter operational service by 2010 and as MBDA has hinted on a technology transfer arrangement, this project is bound to have a positive impact on the indigenous light (150-kg, 80-km range) Active-Radar Homing (ARH) Astra BVRAAM project, guided and led by the Hyderabad-based Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL).

Born out of the multi-national Project S225X examining the future BVRAAM technologies such as ram-rocket propulsion, two way data-links, dual-band and dual-type seekers, stealth technology and improved resistance to Electronic Counter Measures (ECM), MBDA Meteor sports a stealthy, low drag, lightweight body with two wings mounted centrally on the upper body and four fins mounted at the rear. The missile radome encloses the MBDA/Thales X or Ku-band radar seeker following the “fire-and-forget” Active Radar Homing (ARH) mode.

Meteor is capable of engaging air targets autonomously, whether fighters, bombers, transport aircraft, AWACS or cruise missiles by using its active radar seeker by day or night and in all weather or dense EW (Electronic Warfare) environments. Meteor’s solid Boron fuelled Variable-Flow Ducted Ram-rocket (VFDR) propulsion system will ensure a range well in excess of 100-km and a speed of more than Mach 4 and high terminal velocity. Thus even when launched from extreme stand-off ranges, the missile will have the energy in the end game to defeat fast, manoeuvring targets. The need for controlled airflow to the ramjet ducts ruled out the “skid-to-turn” manoeuvring of a conventional rocket-powered missile, as it will risk masking an intake and instead “bank-to-turn” manoeuvring is adopted. To ensure total target destruction, the missile is equipped with a combination of SAAB Dynamics laser proximity and impact fuzes and a fragmentation warhead that is detonated at the optimum point to maximise lethality.

For mid-course navigation guidance Meteor utilises Inertial Navigation System (INS) combined with information provided by the launch, or any friendly aircraft via the two way data-link, to adequately offset Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) complexities or challenges. During the terminal phase the active-radar homing method employs advanced proportional based navigation software. It can receive targeting data after launch from the launching fighter, another fighter, or Airborne Warning & Control Systems (AWACS) platforms. The two-way data-link partially solves the IFF problem at long ranges.

Since IFF remains a problem because of incorrect and absent returns and "spoofing", AWACS platforms are presently deployed for reconfirmation of enemy airborne targets at extended ranges and in this respect the IAF will naturally be benefited by induction of PHALCON AWACS platforms. The fighter pilots need not follow the risky "eyeball/shooter" sequence any more, where the flight leader comes unacceptably close to the enemy formation for positive identification and passes the data to other fighters to fire the BVRAAMs.

In the long term, work is in progress for development of electro-optical seeker technology coupled with on-board threat database that will let the missiles themselves determine the legitimacy of the target and this seems to be the logical option. Whether this futuristic option is being considered for the Meteor Project is not yet certain.

However Meteor is sure to “posses” provisions for the futuristic concept of “Cooperative Fighter Operations” or Mixed Fighter Force Concept (MFFC) that is essential for future BVR engagements and optimum performance and results. Pairs of aircraft will be data-linked; as one illuminates the other launches the missiles against the targets. In such engagements the “striker” fighter will be able to impart the greatest kinetic energy to the Meteor BVRAAM by accelerating up to Mach 2 and then manoeuvring out of the engagement. The illuminator fighter such as the Sukhoi-30MKI with powerful radar capable of performing like a mini-AWACS would remain firmly subsonic keeping a decent distance from the target, and providing either command-guidance updates or illuminating the target. The IAF have absorbed the MFFC well and superbly demonstrated his during Cope India 2004 air exercise with the United States Air Force (USAF).

Hitherto our indigenous anti-aircraft missile development have repeatedly encountered technological complications and thus close cooperation with the European Consortium MBDA, the manufacturer of Meteor high-performance BVRAAM will prove to be beneficial. The protracted delay in attainment of Initial Operational Capability (IOC) of anti-aircraft missiles like Trishul and Akash are partly because of absence of joint-cooperation with an established foreign manufacturing consortium.

This mistake should not be repeated during development of Astra especially as MBDA now enjoys very close relationship with the Indian defence industries. As USAF officials have hinted, the sophisticated MBDA MICA BVRAAM already “silently” serves under the wings of IAF Mirage 2000s with suitably updated radars. A transfer of technology arrangement in relation to the Meteor BVRAAM may prove to be the optimum logical step. Subject to critical decisions, in the long run the Meteor and Astra BVRAAM may complement the Russian ultra-long-range (400-km+) R-172 BVRAAM and R-73RDM2 or possibly Israeli Python 4/5 Near Beyond Visual Range/Within Visual Range (NBVR/WVR) AAMs in the IAFs formidable and fearsome AAM inventory.

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