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Army warms up to Akash missile

Ajai Shukla  |  Hyderabad 

India’s long-criticised Akash anti-aircraft missile is now blazing towards success. Its counterparts in the DRDO’s Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme, the Prithvi and Agni ballistic missiles, were on target from the start; the anti-tank Nag missile will also enter service shortly; the Trishul short-range anti-aircraft missile was abandoned unceremoniously. Now, after years of rejection from the military, the Akash is being accepted as a world-class missile.

The IAF’s order last year for two Akash squadrons — dismissed by sceptics as a face-saving burial for the Akash programme — has just been doubled with a fresh IAF order for 16 more launchers that will be stationed in northeast India. And now, Business Standard has accessed even better for the Akash programme: the Indian Army is considering ordering several Akash squadrons for its ground forces.

The DRDO’s Chief Controller for R&D, Prahlada, has confirmed that the army is displaying fresh interest in the Akash. Asked for details, Prahlada told Business Standard, “I cannot say whether the army is interested in the Akash for its strike corps, or for another role. In any case, the Akash is a mobile system that is suitable for various roles.”

But protecting fast-moving tank columns from enemy fighters is what the Akash does best. For years the DRDO laboured to fit the entire Akash system — including radars, missile launchers and command centres — into T-72 tanks. This provided the Akash with the cross-country mobility to advance deep into enemy territory along with Indian Army strike corps, shooting down enemy fighters at ranges as far out as 25 kilometres.

Planned as a replacement for the army’s obsolescent Russian SAM-6 Kvadrat, the heart of an Akash missile battery is the Hyderabad-developed Rajendra phased-array radar that tracks up to 64 enemy fighter aircraft simultaneously, in a radius of 60 kilometres. The mobile command centre selects up to four of the most threatening air targets, and two Akash missiles are fired at each from the T-72 based Akash launchers, which move alongside. The Rajendra radar continuously guides the missiles, eventually “flying” them smack into the enemy fighters.

Theoretically, a “ripple” of two Akash missiles has a 99 per cent chance of shooting down a modern fighter aircraft. Practically, however, in 9 live Akash trials so far, all 9 missiles that were fired hit their targets. Videos of the firing trials, witnessed by Business Standard, show the Akash missiles smashing their targets into tiny fragments at ranges beyond 20 kilometres.

The DRDO has taken 20 years to develop the cross-country mobile, tank-mounted version of the Akash missile system that the army is now interested in. Criticism of this delay has been vocal, but the DRDO counters by pointing to the quality of its product: the Akash, says the DRDO, is the only system of its kind available globally.

A top DRDO scientist at the missile complex in Hyderabad points out, “Western countries like France, which make missiles in the technological league of the Akash, don’t mount the entire system on a tank, something that the Indian Army insists on. Only the Russians build tank-mounted missile systems, but their missile technology is far inferior to that of the Akash. All that the Russians can offer today is the next generation of the Kvadrat.”

The defence PSU, Bharat Electronics Limited, is the nodal production agency for the Akash missile system, supported by a broad consortium of Indian public and private sector manufacturers who contribute components and sub-systems. Bharat Dynamics Limited manufactures the solid-fuel, two-stage, ramjet Akash missile itself.

First Published: Sat, November 07 2009. 00:34 IST