As a major development on the platform, Python 5 and Derby air to air missiles have been successfully test-fired by an ADA Tejas aircraft on Tuesday. Announced via state-owned Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) on the official handle, the missile is now compatible for integration on the platform for operational purposes.
Coincidentally, the trial commenced on the same day when the picture of PL-10E equipped JF-17 went viral on the internet. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean a connection between the two.
“Derby missile achieved direct hit on a high-speed maneuvering aerial target and the Python missiles also achieved 100% hits, thereby validating their complete capability. The trials met all their planned objectives,” a press release by the Ministry of Defense stated.
Prior to these trials, extensive missile carriage flight tests were conducted at Bengaluru to assess integration of the missile with aircraft systems on board the Tejas, like Avionics, Fire-control radar, Missile Weapon Delivery System and the Flight Control System. At Goa, after successful separation trials, live launch of the missile on a Banshee target was carried out. Python-5 missile live firing was conducted to validate target engagement from all aspects as well as beyond visual ranges. In all the live firings, missile hit the aerial target.
The missiles were fired from Tejas aircraft of Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) flown by Indian Air Force (IAF) Test pilots belonging to National Flight Test Centre (NFTC).
“The successful conduct was made possible with years of hard work by the team of scientists, engineers and technicians from ADA and HAL-ARDC along with admirable support from CEMILAC, DG-AQA, IAF PMT, NPO (LCA Navy) and INS HANSA,” the release added.
Python 5, developed by Israeli firm Rafael Advanced Defence System, is an air-to-air missile equipped with 5th generation Imaging Infra Red (IIR) seeker. The kind of seeker is highly precise as it focuses on the aircraft own heat signature and resistant against infrared flares or countermeasures deployed by hostile aircraft. With High Off Bore Sight (HOBS) capability cued with Helmet Mounted Display and Sight (HMDS) and Lock-On After Launch (LOAL), it can be deployed without aligning the whole aircraft towards the hostile.
The missile will replace the ageing Russian origin R-73E missile that features old conventional Infra Red seeker. Previously, there were reports of vibration issues occurring during firing trials and hence, the missile was unfit for operation. With recent tests, it appears that all the flaws are now fixed and the system is ready for operational duties. In 2006, while serving for Israel Air Force, the Python 5 destroyed two Iranian Ababil UAVs over Lebanon.
How does it stack against PL-10E?
As JF-17 “Thunder” Block 3 is confirmed to feature PL-10E as its primary CCM, the Python 5 integration is also a major highlight for Tejas combat capability.
While both AAMs feature 5th generation IIR seeker and other similar characteristics, PL-10 offers a Thrust Vector Control (TVC) nozzles boosting its agility in-flight. However, Python 5 has 18 control surfaces on the airframe, that when utilised, making it as agile as missiles equipped with TVC. In conclusion, both are theoretically equally capable in close range dogfight.
However, it is also necessary to acknowledge that these systems can be deployed only when all attempts at Beyond Visual Range fail. And successful targeting also depends on other factors like launch aircraft’s manoeuvrability and hostile aircraft’s countermeasure deployment tactics.
Therefore, the actual effectiveness is the same on paper but the success can only be determined when used in actual combat against a competent target.
HAL LCA Tejas is supposed to be the sole platform in IAF to carry the missile, however the service also wants to integrate the missile with its Su-30MKIs. Inducted in 2016, Tejas Mk1 is a light combat aircraft designed for interception or point defence roles within the Indian Air Force. It features an EL/M-2032 pulse doppler radar with a range upto 150km for 5m2 target. The aircraft can be armed with Derby/I-Derby Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile (BVR-AAM) and various air-to-ground Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs). A squadron of the aircraft is also said to be deployed on the western front, facing Pakistan, making a debut in active operational roles.