Saturday, August 3, 2013

Misses, waits & progress in naval missiles

The aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, formerly the Admiral Gorshkov,  expected to join the Indian Navy later this year, is already late by five years and its price has risen three-fold, from $947 million in 2004 to $2.3 billion today.

And, it emerges now that for the next three years or so, Vikramaditya will function without effective defences against anti-ship missiles, a key threat to warships today. For this, the Russians are not to blame; the Israelis are. The futuristic missile defence system supposed to be fitted on the Vikramaditya, called the Long Range Surface to Air Missile (LR-SAM), is also late by at least three years. The LR-SAM is a missile, fired from a warship to shoot down an incoming anti-ship missile at ranges out to 70 kilometres. Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) is developing the LR-SAM in partnership with the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO).

On Thursday, the Vice Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral R K Dhowan, said here that Vikramaditya would arrive without a “close in weapons system” (CIWS, pronounced sea-whiz), a ship-borne system to destroy incoming missiles and aircraft.

The navy will fit an AK-630 rapid-fire gun system on the Vikramaditya when it arrives but the more potent LR-SAM will only be fitted during the aircraft carrier’s first refit. That would be at least three years down the line.

Given these continuing delays, the navy’s ageing INS Virat, already half a century old, will continue in service till 2018. INS Vikrant, the aircraft carrier being built at Cochin Shipyard Ltd, is being launched on August 12 but will only enter operational service by end-2018, says Dhowan.

The LR-SAM was to be ready by 2011 for equipping three Indian destroyers that Mazagon Dock Ltd is building in Mumbai under the so-called Project 15A. The delay has held up Project 15A, with INS Kolkata, the first warship in this series, floating in the docks for the past seven years. INS Chennai and INS Kochi, the other two destroyers in Project 15A, are delayed, too.

However, there is light at the end of this tunnel. Business Standard has learnt that a DRDO team is heading for Israel for the first “hot test” of the LR-SAM this month. This will check out the functioning of all the missile systems — detection, propulsion, guidance, command and control — in tandem. While the radar, control and navigation systems were tested last year, this will be the first test of the entire system functioning together.

Says DRDO chief, Avinash Chander, “The crucial part of the test will be the missile’s ability to perform manoeuvres. After this full-configuration test, we will carry out trials next year from a ship. There are always uncertainties when one is developing a system of a technology class that exists nowhere in the world.”

In exclusive briefings at the DRDO’s missile cluster in Hyderabad, Business Standard was told that the Israeli company was developing the front section of the LR-SAM, including the seeker head that guides the missile, the front controller, command electronics and the explosive warhead that destroys the target.

The DRDO has developed the rear section, including the two-pulse rocket motor, the rear controller, the thrust vector control and the folded fins. DRDO scientists and designers have also participated in the Israeli part of the development.

The LR-SAM is made especially deadly by its two-pulse rocket motor. The first pulse propels the missile towards the incoming target, while a ship-borne radar tracks the enemy missile continuously, transmitting course corrections to the LR-SAM. When the LR-SAM is near the target, its seeker locks on to the target, taking on the job of guidance. Simultaneously, the rocket motor fires its second pulse, imparting to the LR-SAM a high velocity which leaves the target with little time to manoeuvre. The LR-SAM has both front and rear steering, which allows it to manoeuvre sharply, remaining locked on to even a twisting and turning target.

Once tested and proven, many LR-SAM components will be built in India. The DRDO says it has developed suppliers within Indian industry, with two vendors developed for each sub-system. For example, Godrej and SEC, a company in Hyderabad, will build the two-pulse rocket motor.

A ground-based version of the LR-SAM is simultaneously being developed for the Indian Air Force, which is desperately short of air defence systems.

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