Aviation Week & Space Technology
May 10, 2010
By Douglas Barrie, Neelam Mathews
London, New Delhi
India intends to integrate a variant of its Nirbhay long-range cruise missile on the Suhkoi Su-30MKI Flanker strike aircraft, following the weapon’s initial development in the ground-launch configuration.
The addition of the Nirbhay to the Flanker’s weapons inventory would give the platform a long-range—and potentially strategic—strike capability. While details on the Nirbhay program remain scant, Indian officials have suggested the weapon will have a range of 800-1,000 km. (500-620 mi.).
An air-launched derivative of the Nirbhay would be a candidate platform for the air force element of India’s strategic nuclear triad ambitions. Packaging of a warhead in the constrained space of a cruise-missile body is a key technical challenge. The current Indian air force nuclear weapon capability consists almost certainly only of free-fall weapons.
The Nirbhay project is being led by India’s Defense Research and Development Organization’s (DRDO) Hyderabad-based Advanced Systems Laboratory.
The overall design and aerodynamic study work has been completed, as has the design of the propulsion system. There are suggestions that a mock-up of the design could be displayed at the AeroIndia show in 2011. A transporter erector launch vehicle is already being developed for the ground-launched version of the cruise missile by the DRDO’s Pune-based Research and Development Establishment (Engineering).
The acquisition of a 1,000-km.-class cruise missile is part of New Delhi’s strategy to match and surpass systems being developed by Islamabad. Pakistan is working on a ground-launched cruise missile called the Babur, likely with substantial Chinese help, and is probably receiving support from South Africa in developing the Ra’ad air-launched weapon. The Babur was unveiled in 2005 and the shorter-range Ra’ad was announced in 2007. The service status of both weapons remains uncertain.
Development of the Nirbhay apparently began at least five years ago. It would be the third indigenous weapon to equip the Su-30MKI, joining the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile—a variant of the NPO Mashinostroenia 3M55 (SS-N-26)—and the Astra medium-range air-to-air missile. The Nirbhay would have three times the range of the Brahmos. The army is also acquiring a ground-launched land-attack version of the Brahmos alongside the system in development for the air force.
An air-launched variant of the subsonic Nirbhay “is in the initial stages,” says an Indian industry official. There are “plans for it, but not immediately,” he adds.
The Nirbhay likely adopts a conventional cruise missile configuration with some form of flip-out mid-body wing and cruciform tail surfaces. The turbofan engine most likely will be recessed in the airframe body, given the requirement that the weapon be canister-launch-capable.
It is not yet clear which turbojet India plans to use for the Nirbhay. It did strike a deal with Russia over the supply and in-country manufacture of the Saturn 36MT engine in 2006, though the extent to which this deal has been implemented is uncertain.
There are also suggestions that India’s development program has had some technical support from Israel.
Given the size of the Nirbhay—reports suggest it is 6 meters (19.6 ft.)—the Su-30MKI would likely carry one or two of the missiles. To maximize platform range, the aircraft could carry one weapon on a pylon in the tunnel between the two engine bays. This is the approach being taken with the Brahmos missile, which is now scheduled to begin initial launch trials from a test aircraft in 2011. If the aircraft were to carry two Nirbhays, one could fit under each inboard wing-station.
New Delhi has also yet to disclose what kinds of mid-course and terminal guidance the Nirbhay will use. India and Russia did, however, strike a deal this year allowing Indian access to the high-precision signal of Moscow’s Glonass satellite navigation system.
In terms of medium-range standoff weapons, the Indian air force’s Su-30MKI can carry the Russian Missile Corp. Kh-59M (AS-18 Kazoo). A conventional variant of the Nirbhay, with the requisite level of accuracy, would provide a long-range precision-strike complement to the Kh-59M.