The End in Sight for Akash

It is now confirmed that the Akash medium range surface-to-air missile programme will formally enter the user trial phase with the Indian Air Force (IAF) in July this year ahead of the monsoon, at which time it will be tested both at Chandipore-on-Sea and the Mahajan Field Firing Range (MFFR) in Rajasthan. As a small treat, here are two new photographs I received from DRDO yesterday (don't remember seeing them on the net before anyway, so I'm assuming they're new). On May 11, Defence Minister AK Antony told Parliament that no decision had yet been taken about inducting Akash into the Army, though the W&E Directorate has confirmed that user trials with the Army will take place simultaneously at the MFFR using the tracked mobile-launcher configuration and the L&T-made truck mounted launcher in August (a similar launcher that will be used for the AAD, incidentally).

Last month, in a conversation with Vice Admiral Raman Puri (who was inducted onto the board of HAL in September last year for his missile and gunnery expertise), he said, "The Akash is a top-class missile that was unfortunate to face some technological problems that could have been faced by anyone. Realisation of ramjet propulsion independent of foreign assistance is something that misses most people. We have done just that, so we don't need to go around with a begging bowl for this critical technology that will serve us well in future systems. Though I was not involved with the programme at any point, I have carefully scrutinised trial and test reports and was always of the opinion that the IAF made unreasonable and mid-way demands of a missile that our scientists were careful to match against big odds. What does the IAF think it had with the Pechora? Those systems are more archaic than anything else in its arsenal. As it stands today, the Akash is hugely more capable than any SAM in the IAF's inventory. Instead of throwing up nit-picks in the developmental trials phase, the IAF should encourage DRDO to move towards user trials so all outstanding issues -- which I personally don't think exist, except for some fantastic observations on low-level intercept -- can be ironed out and productionisation pursued expeditiously. Look at everything these boys have developed indigenously. From group control and battery control equipment centres, acquisition and battery-level radars, excellent launcher platforms, and a missile with massive g-resistance without slackening velocity. I got into a tiff with my colleagues in the IAF during a review of the programme a while ago. There was a big argument about the missile's agility. I told them, if there was one thing that the multiple target intercept test had proved, it was the missile's virtually matchless agility in the air."

In December 2005, after the Akash's 50th test, then DRDL's director Dr Prahlada said, "The speed will never drop. So you are able to maintain superiority over the target. Even the Patriot missile does not have ram-jet propulsion. The Patriot missile, after its boost phase, keeps decelerating but Akash does not decelerate."

In October 2006, then IAF chief Air Chief Mshl SP Tyagi said that problems and delays in the Akash programme had compelled the IAF to choose to import 18 SpyDer systems. This became something of a joke at the time (since the SpyDer-SR is an LLQRM like the Trishul). However, this was checked out with the IAF, and it became clear that the IAF (and Tyagi) had wanted to import the much more expensive SpyDer-MR, which has range capabilities that match the Akash. This demand was shot down by the MoD, which said that the ground-equipment modification (GEM) of the Pechoras would suffice for now, and that an import of the SpyDer-SR was more in line with the capability gap expressed with the obsolescence of the 24-odd OSA-AK (purchased in 1989-90) that are being brutally cannibalised for spares. Either way, of 70 Pechora systems procured from Russia between 1974-90, only 24 are still operational.

Be that as it may, the Akash programme hasn't been all smooth sailing obviously. User trials were to have been kickstarted as far back as 1999, right upto the second half of 2006, but this did not happen. The programme got some star attention in Parliament when Jaya Bachchan queried Defence Minister AK Antony about it in December last year. She was plainly told that the programme had just been completed and would shortly be pushed through user trials with the air force, a stance the government has taken since 2003, to be sure. The Akash has undergone over 53 developmental flight tests so far (including Phase-II trials from a T-72 platform in December 2006) ending the developmental phase of the missile programme. The programme was kickstarted with a sanctioned project cost of Rs 95.34 crore in 1983 and extended from July 1995 to December 2007 to Rs 548.45 crore. Most of the missile's programmes pertained, as DRDO admitted to Parliament, to integral ramjet propulsion and command guidance, both of which have been fully resolved and demonstrated in user-participated trials.

As a side nugget, the IAF has refuted the recent Hindustan Times story and said that the information mentioned in the report is at least fourteen months old -- and that subsequent developmental trials with user participation have ironed out these problems. The IAF has also said on record now that user trial criteria have been worked out and full-fledged user trials will begin shortly.

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