Missile test an urgent step towards defending IAF bases

On September 6, 1965, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) launched its first major air attacks into India. Ranging freely across the border, PAF fighters attacked multiple Indian Air Force (IAF) bases, destroying (according to Indian accounts) ten Indian fighters on the ground in Pathankot, damaging another three, and downing two IAF fighters protecting Halwara air base. The next day, another 12 Indian fighters were destroyed on the ground in 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, with the successful test firing of the eponymous medium range surface to air missile (MR-SAM) off the Odisha coast. Jointly developed by the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) and Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) of Israel, the MR-SAM detects incoming enemy aircraft while they are well over a hundred kilometres away and destroys them at ranges out to 70 kilometres.

Broadly, the DRDO has developed the propulsion systems of the MR-SAM, while IAI has developed the radar and guidance systems. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) confirmed that Indian and Israeli experts were present at the test today, in which the missile detected and destroyed a 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 (LR-SAM) 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 in warships.

  • The medium range surface to air missile (MR-SAM)was successfully test fired off the Odisha coast
  • It has been jointly developed by the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) and Israeli Aerospace Industries
  • The MR-SAM project is a twin of the Indian Navy’s Long Range Surface to Air Missile (LR-SAM) project

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

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