A year ago, the army was planning “surgical strikes” across the India-Pakistan Line of Control (LoC) to avenge the killing of 19 Indian soldiers near Uri, on September 18. But Pakistani retaliation was anticipated and a key Indian Air Force (IAF) base, protected only by aging Soviet-era missiles, was vulnerable to Pakistani air strikes.
There was only one option. In Hyderabad, Bharat Dynamics Ltd (BDL) was putting the finishing touches on a potent new missile – the eponymous Medium Range Surface to Air Missile, or MR-SAM – which the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) has just developed.
The die was cast. Without fanfare, the IAF’s first MR-SAM squadron was airlifted to the vulnerable base – a vote of confidence based on recent firing trials. When Indian commandos crossed on LoC on the night of September 28, 2016, the brand new missile was ready for operational use.
On Monday, the army signalled its confidence in the MR-SAM, signing a contract in Hyderabad that requires the DRDO to develop an army version of the MR-SAM and BDL to build and supply it. A defence ministry release stated, “The contract was signed for production, deliveries and product support of MR-SAM system for the Indian Army.”
The MR-SAM and its naval version, called the LR-SAM (Long-Range Surface to Air Missile), were developed by the DRDO in partnership with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). DRDO developed about 30 per cent of these missile platforms, while IAI developed the bulk of it.
This makes these missile platforms the first tri-service weapon in service with India’s military. There are only minor differences: the naval LR-SAM is fired from sealed canisters below warship decks that protect the missile from the corrosive marine environment. The LR-SAM primarily targets sea-skimming, anti-ship missiles.
The IAF version of the MR-SAM is mounted on trailers, and is fired from the open at enemy fighters screaming in to attack air bases. The army version, which provides protection against enemy ground attack aircraft, will be mounted on high-mobility vehicles that can keep up with tank columns moving cross-country.
The missiles are the same for all versions, except for the software that controls their “self-destruct” function. The LRSAM, which is a sea-skimming missile, self-destructs simply by pitching its nose down and plunging into the sea. The MRSAM, which would be mainly used over land, is required to “pitch up” before it self-destructs, so that the debris are scattered.
DRDO sources claim the cost of Rs 6 crore per missile is cheap, given that it shoots down sophisticated fighters costing hundreds of crore; and protects warships that cost thousands of crore.
All three versions of the missile have a sophisticated central radar – called the Multi-function and Search and Track Alert Radar (MF-STAR). This detects incoming enemy aircraft and missiles that are well over a hundred kilometres away, and then guides the missile to the target, intercepting it at ranges out to 70 kilometres.
The MR-SAM contract was signed in 2009, but complex technological challenges have caused delays. In May 2016, Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence said in a report that the MR-SAM project has been delayed by 4 years.
In another report dated March 2017, the Standing Committee stated the MR-SAM project cost a total of Rs 10,076 crore. Of this, the DRDO’s share, which constituted the development cost, added up to Rs 1,680 crore. The remaining amount, which amounted to Rs 8,396 crore, was committed by the IAF towards the guaranteed purchase of missiles and other systems.
Credits – Ajay Shukhla