Contributor: Laurent Rathborn
India faces unique air security challenges. It suffers from a quasi-belligerent, nuclear-armed neighbour at its border and an increasingly outdated Cold War air-defence system.
The bulk of India’s Cold-War era SAM systems are of the OSA-AKM [SA-8 Gecko] and ZRK-BD MR/LR-SAM type, which are rapidly being surpassed by modern offerings from suppliers such as France and Israel. The Ministry of Defence has also partnered with both countries to co-develop a replacement system, taking advantage of India’s growing technical knowledge-base. Three systems under development are of interest.
The first of these is Akash, a replacement for old SA-3 systems in the hilly northeast of the country, and a wholly indigenous development. Akash’s missile has a reported range of up to 30km and an altitude ceiling of 18000m. While primarily meant as an anti-air system, it has also been tested in an ABM role. The Indian Air Force completed trials for the system in 2007.
Akash represents the first fully internally developed anti-air system that India has deployed to date. By contrast, two other systems flagged for acquisition are either joint-development projects with another country or a straight purchase from foreign manufacturers. Barak is an example of the former.
Barak is a supersonic, vertically-launched short range air defence system, with an operational range of about 10 km (6 miles). That pushes it past the standard ranges of shoulder-launched options with naval counterparts, like the MBDA Mistral/SIMBAD or Saab Boofors’ RBS-70, but short of other small vertical launch options like the RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow. India has ordered $300 million worth of these missiles as a substitute for the indigenous but long-delayed Trishul (“Trident”) missile project, and Barak systems now equip many of the ships in India’s Navy.
The land-based version is under development by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) which will be the ‘prime developer’ for the MR-SAM project, alongside Israel. This contract has a Rs 2,300 crore (INR 23 billion, $450 million) indigenous component within an estimated Rs 10,000 crore (INR 100 billion, about $1.93 billion) total.
As seen with both Barak and SPYDER, India is focused on moving into production partnerships with heavyweight arms manufacturers. While the intellectual rights may come from overseas, India’s strategy of using a mixture of foreign-designed and indigenous systems means that local technicians get the widest possible exposure to technical standards and design frameworks.
India’s paradigm shift towards domestic procurement is not just confined to its SAM systems. The IAF has recently completed a series of trials on its in-house HAL Tejas MiG-replacement fighter aircraft, which should be ready to fly within the next few years, and is currently in the process of reviving its Airavat project, which is an indigenous airborne electronic warfare platform effort, as well as a light combat helicopter platform.