Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Indian Air Force reaches out for the Sky

At the end of last month the Indian Air Force finally approved the introduction of the Akash (Sanskrit for Sky) missile. The Akash has been under development since 1983 as part of India's Integrated Guided Missile Development Program (IGMDP) undertaken by the state-owned Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO). The IGMDP comprises the strategic Agni ballistic missile, the tactical Prithvi ballistic missile, the Akash surface-to-air missiles (SAM), the Nag anti-tank guided missile and their derivatives. Until 2006 it also included the Trishul SAM, whose research and development was stopped. The IGMDP aims at achieving self-sufficiency in missile development and production. The Akash missile is intended to replace aging Russian air defense systems.

India Defence elaborates on the characteristics of the missile:

Akash is a medium-range surface-to-air missile with an intercept range of 30km. It has a launch weight of 720 kg, a diameter of 35 cm and a length of 5.8 metres. Akash flies at supersonic speed, reaching around 2.5 Mach. It can reach an altitude of 18 km. A digital proximity fuze is coupled with a 55kg pre-fragmented warhead, while the safety arming and detonation mechanism enables a controlled detonation sequence.

A self-destruct device is also integrated. It is propelled by a solid fuelled booster stage. The missile has a terminal guidance system capable of working through electronic countermeasures. Features include capability of attacking multiple targets, and use of ramjet propulsion system that enables maintenance of required speeds without deceleration, unlike the Patriot missiles. The missile is supported by a multi-target and multi-function phased array fire control radar called 'Rajendra' with a range of about 60 km.

Design of the missile is much similar to SA-6 with four long tube ramjet inlet ducts mounted mid-body between wings. For pitch/yaw control four clipped triangular moving wings are mouted on mid-body. For roll control four inline clipped delta fins with ailerons are mounted before the tail.

While the missile meant for the Army can be launched from tracked vehicles such as battle tanks, the Air Force version can take off from wheeled vehicles. Three ready-to-fire Akash missiles can be carried in a battle tank. The missiles can take off in different directions and destroy multiple targets. Akash can be deployed by rail, road or air.
According to Defensenews, Akash was slated to enter the air defense systems of the Air Force and Army as early as the 1990s, but both services rejected the missile on several occasions, claiming it did not meet specifications. While the Missile.Index erroneously reports a deployment since the year 2000, the Indian Air Force has only now ordered two units of the Akash missile for introduction, likely by 2009 – more than 15 years behind schedule.

The Akash's first flight occurred in 1990. By 1998 five flight trials had been conducted. Several more followed in the subsequent years. There were several official statements about successes. On the missile’s website one can read about “repeatedly successful trails”. India’s leading national daily Hindustan Times reports that the Akash has consistently failed all trials conducted by the Indian Air Force (IAF). The newspaper refers to classified documents. An IAF expert describes the Akash missile trials as a "disaster" and states that "out of 20 test trials seen by the IAF expert, the majority of them ended in a failure." He continues:

"In its present status, Project Akash cannot meet the operational requirements of the IAF, due to major design flaws, and if the IAF wanted to use this particular missile system, then it would have to lower its acceptability standards."
The DRDO, however, has strongly defended the missile system, saying that it had an edge over other systems like the U.S. Patriot system due to its multi-target handling capacity, being a fully automatic system. Another reason for fostering the Akash production – in addition to the (alleged) superiority –in spite of the concerns might be the experience with the Trishul missile. This system was scrapped in 2006 after being in the trial stage for 23 years and after conducting at least 50 trials of this missile. DRDO was eager to prove itself as a reliable partner for the IAF and avoid that its client to hunt for alternatives abroad.

The IAF is set to evaluate the Akash in a series of tests in the Rajasthan desert. Additional live firing is planned for December at India’s missile testing range at Balasore. These tests will show whether the Akash can be introduced in 2009 as planned or if the development phase has to be extended even further.

Top picture: © Hindustan Times
Bottom picture: © India Daily

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