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OneIndia Special: Sky thriller - When fighter plane Jaguar striker chased Nirbhay missile

By Dr Anantha Krishnan M


Bengaluru, Nov 3: Among the tweets that went viral on Oct 17, 2014, the day India successfully test-fired its first subsonic cruise missile, Nirbhay, one read, "Jaguar fighter chases Nirbhay missile!" This tweet from this writer took many by surprise. Fighter plane chasing a missile was definitely a new phenomenon for many devotees following India's military might.

And, two weeks after India's successful attempt of launching Nirbhay, details are now available with OneIndia about the well-coordinated ‘sky thriller' choreographed by the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) and executed by the Indian Air Force (IAF) with support from the Indian Navy.

According to sources, the IAF readied two Sukhois (one on as a stand-by) at the Kalaikunda Air Force Station ahead of the launch. The pilots were thoroughly briefed about the designated flight-path, timing of the launch and duration of the flight. Hotlines at the DRDO's Interim Test Range (ITR) in Balasore and IAF HQ in Delhi were busy with the top brass ensuring that the missile sky chase by the fighter goes as planned.

"We had a Sukhoi chasing Nirbhay during the terminated mission last year. The pilots had then captured the missile's journey till it started to veer off from the assigned trajectory. This time due to some last-minute technical issues, we had to hold the Sukhoi back and decided to sent a Jaguar on chase duty," an IAF official said.

The IAF had initially planned for a MiG-27, but Jaguar got the nod finally because of its higher endurance levels. The Jaguar was flown in from the Ambala base to Kalaikunda.


Pilots will have to keep a safe distance

The official said that Mirages, Jaguars and Sukhois were used in the past to chase long-range missiles. "The video footage becomes a vital data for the scientists to see the behaviour of the missile. Experienced pilots are generally picked up for the job, which involves lots of coordination. First the pilots will have to pick the launch point and later will have to keep a safe distance while chasing the missile. Whenever the Navy fires a missile, the IAF gets involved with the chase duties," the official said.

He said since the flight envelope is already planned and most of the parameters of the missile are known well in advance, the pilots normally have an easy task, capturing the missile in motion.

"The speed and the way point navigation (in case of Nirbhay) was well known to the pilots. The video footage looks very similar to Nirbhay's first launch. This time we couldn't chase the missile's entire journey as the Jaguar was short on fuel and we had to peel off after 45 minutes into the chase," he added.

Inspiring role by IAF & Navy, says DRDO Director-General

According to Dr K Tamilmani, Director-General (Aero), DRDO, the IAF and Navy played an ‘inspiring role' during Nribhay's launch. "One helicopter with a diver was kept ready in case of any eventuality to the chase aircraft. Another chopper was ready at the Kalaikunda base. With the support of both IAF and Navy, we were able to capture Nirbhay's outing," Dr Tamilmani said.

A great coordinated effort, says ADE Director

For P Srikumar, Director, Aeronautical Development Establishment, the chase by Jaguar was equally important as the launch of his pet weapon, Nirbhay.

"It was definitely a marathon coordination effort. Airborne resources like helicopters are commonly used to record the lift-off and splash down of missiles. Chase aircraft being deployed to capture various phases of flights have become a common practice now. The fact that we are able to synergise the efforts of various agencies and obtain valuable information during such important missions gives us the confidence that we are on the right track of development of indigenous systems," Srikumar told OneIndia.


Chasing is a skilled job, says Tejas Test Pilot

Terming chasing in air as a skilled job, a seasoned Tejas Test Pilot with the Aeronautical Development Agency says that the success often depended upon precision planning.

"You cannot be early or late. You got to be at the spot soon after the missile is launched. In the case of Nirbhay, it flies like an aircraft making the job easy for the pilot. He can match up with the missile's speed and even get closer," says the Test Pilot, you has been associated with the Tejas project for over a decade. To a query on the dangers of following a missile, he said that the chase aircraft has to always stay out of the weapon's field of way.

"The weapon should not lock on to your aircraft and you should never go ahead of the missile. There are incidents of chase aircraft being hit by the missile in the United States. Normally we keep a safe distance knowing that the missile can behave strange at times, especially if it is fired from an aircraft," he said.

"I have captured the Tejas firing R-73 (Russian-made) supersonic missile, flying a chase aircraft. It is a tough task as the missile disappears from your sight within no time (since it is supersonic). Here the key is to capture the release and initial movements of the missile," he added.

(The writer is a seasoned aerospace and defence journalist in India. He is a Consulting Editor with OneIndia. He tweets @writetake)

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