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Drones Had Limited Impact In Ukraine War As Battle Shifted East: IAF Chief

Remotely-piloted aircraft are highly vulnerable to layered air defence, Air Chief Marshal Vivek Ram Chaudhari tells BW Businessworld’s Vishal Thapar in an exclusive interview

Photo Credit : IAF


Chief of the Indian Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Vivek Ram Chaudhari

Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Vivek Ram Chaudhari’s analysis of the limitations of drone warfare against a multi-layered air defence is significant at a time when remotely-piloted aircraft are being touted as game changers in new age warfare. 

While elaborating on capability-building plans with the Aatmanirbharta (self-reliance) agenda as the pivot, the Chief of Air Staff makes a strong case for the evolution of the IAF into an Air and Space Force and for air power to be given its due place in India's unified Theatre Commands of the future. 

The full text of the interview:

Q. What’s the road ahead for Make in India/ Atmanirbharta with respect to capability building for the IAF?

A. The IAF has always supported the national vision of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’. Even before the ‘Make in India’ initiative was launched, IAF was at the forefront of indigenisation efforts. IAF has inducted various aircraft, radars and airborne platforms developed within the country. The induction of LCA (Tejas), ALH, Aslesha Radars, Astra Air-Air Missile, Akash Surface to
 Air Missile System and Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) are capability building through indigenous sources. In the coming years, hi-tech platforms and systems produced indigenously will continue to increase as a part of the IAF inventory. This will include the LCA Mk IA, Mk II, AMCA and a number of weapons, AEW&C Mk-II on A-321 platform developed by DRDO and IMRH by HAL. 

Q. The IAF’s unconditional support to Make in India is well received.   What’ve been the IAF’s concerns with respect to Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mk-2, and have these been addressed?

A. LCA Mk-2 was initially planned to be rolled out in 2018. CCS approval for the design and development of the aircraft has been granted recently.  Readiness for flight testing is envisaged by 2024 followed by induction from 2030-31.  This is an aggressive timeline and we hope that ADA and HAL will be able to meet it. 

Q. How would the IAF want HAL to evolve and change in the current policy environment? 

A. IAF has several decades of association with HAL. HAL is aware of the IAF’s requirements and is trying to address issues related to delivery schedules and maintenance of recently inducted platforms. HAL should look at setting up a robust framework for support and sustenance of all its platforms.  This would require an increased engagement with MSMEs and other private enterprises to ensure a complete supply chain. We also hope that the LUH and IMRH programmes will progress as per the defined timelines. 

Q. India’s first full-spectrum private sector aerospace manufacturing complex in coming up in the context of Airbus-Tata facility. Is the military in a position to give a look-ahead for future orders to this facility so that costs can be amortized viably? 

A. The IAF hopes the Airbus-Tata collaboration will kick-start a new indigenous defence manufacturing ecosystem in the country. This will lead to greater self-reliance and import substitution. The current order for C-295 is one of the largest such orders.  Once the facility is set up, there is a potential for export from this facility too.   This is something that Airbus & Tata have to jointly explore.  We also expect that long-term sustenance of the aircraft will happen through this venture. 

Q. Will the IAF lead and drive the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) programme or will be lead be with Aeronautical Development Agency(ADA)/ Defence Research and Development Organisation(DRDO)?

A. AMCA programme is being led by DRDO/ ADA. IAF has a dedicated team at ADA Bangalore. Flight test crew at National Flight Test Centre (NFTC) are actively involved in the development activities. IAF is fully committed to the AMCA programme, for which an aggressive timeline has been set by DRDO.

Q. Would the IAF want scope for foreign collaborations in the AMCA programme in areas other than jet engine?

A. Considering the timelines and niche technologies being looked at for AMCA, it would be prudent to have a backup development/ realization plan in place to ensure availability of alternative systems and sensors in case indigenous plans fail to mature as per planned timelines.  However, we would prefer key technologies to be indigenous to avoid any foreign dependence during the life cycle of the platform. 

Q. Is the IAF in a position to define a business case/ model for foreign OEMs with respect to all its procurements at a time of overwhelming emphasis on Atmanirbharta/ self-reliance?

A. The foreign OEM can tie-up with Indian production agencies (PAs) for responding to the needs of the Armed Forces under Buy & Make (Indian) Category  wherein certain quantities in fully formed state are acquired from the Indian PA followed by indigenous production involving ToT of critical technologies. Option of tying up with Indian vendors through ToT for import substitution can also be gainfully explored under Make-III category. The Defence Acquisition Procedure (DAP) 2020 provides foreign OEMs several options to partner with Indian companies. 

Q. Why has the Strategic Partnership Concept failed to take off, and does it have a future?

A. The Strategic Partnership Model was unveiled relatively recently. Two years were lost due to Covid pandemic. It is a work in progress.

Q. Has the IAF been able to make a case for evolution as an Air and Space Force? Why would this evolution be vital for the future of warfare?

A. Definitely yes, there is a close link between both the air and space domains.  In fact, space is a continuum of air. It could be seen that all over the world, the military realm of space has been vested with their respective air forces and therefore, modern and space faring air forces are called Aerospace forces. This is because of the very fact that air force has the wherewithal to operate seamlessly from such ‘High Ground’ be it for defensive or offensive operations. Space Situational Awareness (SSA) is a natural extension of Air Situational Awareness (ASA). IAF is actively involved in developing the concepts, strategies and doctrinal approach to exploit this domain. Formation of Defence Space Agency (DSA) is a step in the right direction for long term space security by integrating available resources and also to enhance as well as develop future offensive & defensive capabilities from the medium of this ‘Strategic High Ground’. The experience garnered by IAF in terms of its core competence to set up a comprehensive AD umbrella will help us significantly to plan and develop military space defence capabilities. Such an unified arrangement, wherein there is no distinct separation in conduct of air and space military operations, will eventually transform the IAF into a comprehensive Indian Aerospace force. 

Q. The Theaterisation concept appeared to be giving a raw deal to the IAF, with talk about it being relegated to a support role.  What should be the place and role of the IAF in integrated war fighting?

A. The place and role of IAF emanates from the basic doctrinal tenets, CONOPS of air power and IAF’s capabilities that have developed over the years. It has been well established world over that the role of air power assumes utmost importance in any conflict. Technological advancements and inherent characteristics of air power make it the bulwark of our military options.   Air power by nature is an offensive arm and plays a pivotal role in overall military strategy. Theaterisation is just a process to find optimal jointness in planning and integration in execution to achieve common goals and objectives. Any new structure should be future ready, reduce the decision making cycle and take into account the doctrinal strengths of each service.

Q. What is the big lesson for India from recent international conflicts particularly the one in Ukraine?  Also, what is the position on spares of Russian origin equipment?

A. The Russian-Ukraine war has thrown up plenty of lessons which can be gleaned from operations of both sides. The resilience of air power has been demonstrated in this extended war, where we have seen the Ukrainian air force managing to protect its assets and retain the capability to conduct limited offensive operations. The need for use of air power to shape the battlefield and to enable the conduct of ground operations has clearly become evident. It has also shown that a sustained DEAD (Destruction of Enemy Air Defences) campaign is important to achieve the desired objectives. Similarly, a full spectrum AD capability is needed which includes weapons ranging from shoulder launched missiles to long ranged surface-to-air-missiles (SAMs). 

Inputs about the effectiveness of the Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPAs) have been mixed. While initial reports were largely positive, as the major action shifted to the East, where a structured Russian AD system was available, most inputs indicate high vulnerability and limited impact. This highlighted the need for a multi-layered and ranged air defence system with both hard and soft kill options for dealing with RPAs. However, definitive conclusions can only be reached once the entire context and conditions become clear. There has been some impact on supply of spares but we have put in place certain mitigation measures. There has also been a concerted effort to indigenise spares of imported fleets to reduce our dependence on foreign sources.