An Astra missile fired by an Indian Air Force Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter. Photo: Twitter / News18

Last month, India awarded a US$424.4 million contract to state-run Bharat Dynamics Limited to supply the homegrown Astra Mk1 beyond-visual-range (BVR) air-to-air missile to its armed forces.

The move is in line with India’s efforts to improve its aerial warfare capabilities against Pakistan, indigenize its defense industry and potentially position itself as an alternative source of Russian standard equipment.

Under the contract, Bharat Dynamics will supply 400 Astra Mk1 missiles and their associated equipment, to be delivered in four years. The missiles will be used on the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) Su-30MKI and LCA-MK fighters and the Indian Navy’s (IN) MiG-29K carrier-based fighters.

The missiles will be assembled in Bharat Dynamics’ 632-acre manufacturing facility at Bhanur, which was established in 2017 at a cost of $74.5 million.

Astra was developed by India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) in the early 2000s and has since been manufactured by Bharat Dynamics. According to DRDO, India’s main agency for military research and development, the all-weather, night-capable missile is designed to engage and destroy fast-maneuvering supersonic aircraft

It is equipped with a fully indigenous active terminal guidance system and advanced electronic counter-countermeasures (ECCM) to reduce the effectiveness of enemy jamming. The missile also features lock-on before launch (LOBL) and lock-on after launch (LOAL) capability, allowing launching aircraft to take advantage of its reported maximum range of more than 100 kilometers.

The Astra may provide a much-needed upgrade to the country’s aerial warfare capabilities in view of India’s sub-par performance during the 2019 Jammu and Kashmir airstrikes.

During the aerial clash, India lost one MiG-21 fighter, while its more modern Su-30MKIs were forced to take defensive maneuvers to avoid getting hit by Pakistan’s US-made AIM-120 BVR missiles fired from F-16s.

A Pakistani F-16BM in flight. Photo: Wikipedia

Pakistan’s victory in this aerial clash may be attributed to its familiarity with India’s Su-30MKIs armed with Russian R-77 BVR missiles and its superior US-made AIM-120 BVR missiles fired from its F-16s.

The “Shaheen” air force exercises between Pakistan and China may have played a big role in familiarizing Pakistan with the capabilities of the IAF. In these exercises, China has used its J-11 fighters, which are themselves copies of the Su-30 and are also equipped with the same R-77 BVR missile that India also uses.

Pakistan may have also gleaned from the exercises information on the minimum abort ranges (MAR) of India’s R-77 missiles, and at the same time developed effective BVR tactics against India’s Su-30MKIs.

Pakistan has a known stockpile of 500 AIM-120 BVR missiles for its F-16 fleet, giving it an edge versus India in BVR combat since 2010. It is considered among the most advanced weapon of its type in the world, equipped with an active seeker head with a range of 100 kilometers, in contrast to the export versions of India’s R-77 BVR missile that have a shorter range of 80 kilometers.

Pakistan’s intimate knowledge about India’s BVR capabilities and doctrine, and superior technology may have given it the advantage during that decisive aerial clash. India may thus be trying to regain its lead in BVR combat by fielding the much more capable Astra BVR missile to replace its obsolescent Russian-made R-77s.

The Astra missile is also emblematic of India’s push to indigenize its defense industry. An early Astra version was equipped with the Russian Agat 9B-1103M active radar seeker and radio proximity fuse detonation mechanism.

However, sanctions on Russia – India’s traditional military supplier – could mean that sensitive components such as missile seeker heads may be harder to procure in the coming years.

India has claimed to have fully indigenized production of the Astra, with the Indian Ministry of Defense saying that the missile had been designed with the need to reduce dependence on foreign sources.

The statement also claims that the Astra is economically and technologically superior to many such imported missile systems now in Indian service, such as the Russian R-77, Israeli Derby, and French Meteor BVR missiles.

India’s air force test-fires an Astra missile from a SU-30MKI aircraft during an exercise at Pokhran in the state of Rajasthan, India, March 18, 2016. Image: Indian Air Force / Twitter

Moreover, India has included the development of indigenous BVR missiles in its Third Positive Indigenization List, which mentions 101 military items that India aims to produce domestically from 2022-2027.

India may also choose to export its Astra Mk1, capturing a market niche for alternative suppliers of Soviet and Russian-standard equipment as questions rise about their reliability and effectiveness in sight of the losses Moscow has sustained in Ukraine.

International sanctions on Russia may also have made it difficult for its client states to place new weapons orders. Countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam may opt to purchase the Astra, which may be compatible with their Su-30 fighters and be more capable than the older Russian R-77 missiles which they now have in their inventories.