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IAF Synergising The ISR Process: B.S. Dhanoa, Chief of Air Staff

In an exclusive interaction, BW’s Manish Kumar Jha speaks with Chief of Air Staff B.S. Dhanoa over the critical acquisition of 114 multi-role fighter jets, next-generation upgrade in ISR and leveraging IT into the defence, among other things.

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Would you like to share your vision for the modernisation of the Indian Air Force?

The IAF would in the coming years develop and create aerospace capabilities to move to a position of active deterrence. The endeavour would be to provide a robust air defence, effectively manage sovereign airspace and enhance our core competence. The IAF needs to enhance its capacity and capabilities to reflect the current necessities of shaping the battlefield environment to enable operations by surface forces. As a key responder, the IAF would continue to contribute to enhance India’s capabilities as a net provider in the Indian Ocean Region.

The role of IT-based technologies in aerospace is ever increasing, and India is well-paced to leverage it fully. How do you look at it? 

Indian industry today is on the threshold of entering a new era where it will assume greater responsibility in making the nation self-reliant in defence production with IT as an enabling ingredient. The resurgence of India’s manufacturing will be a huge success given the demographic advantage that India has in the IT landscape. We understand that we are internationally competitive with IT as services but leveraging it to scale it for defence is a very different ball game.

We have had an unprecedented growth of technology in the IAF with a network-centric warfare capability. We were the first to have technologies such as Multi-Protocol Label Switching (MPLS) with effective traffic engineering solutions to support real-time operations pan-India, making the IAF a true net-centric combat force. We have a large Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) layer with stringent quality of service enforcement to facilitate robust, high quality voice, data, and video conferencing solutions. 

A cohesive strategy to use IT effectively and scale it up would be to leverage information technology as a force multiplier for intelligence analysis, mission planning & control and automated post-mission feedback. Critical areas like maintenance, logistics and administration including HR management are already chugging at full speed riding on various IT-based automation solutions. The IAF has its own avionics development agency.

The network and peripheral security in this regard is a huge organisational responsibility and needs a cyber security perspective. The Defence Cyber Agency is a giant leap that integrates all cyber initiatives.

The acquisition of MRFA is touted as a major initiative in our quest for advanced and next-generation fighter aircraft for India. How do you look at the acquisition in terms of creating aerospace ecosystems in India? What broad guidelines have you set?

The proposed procurement of 114 Multi Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) would be as per the strategic partnership model wherein an Indian company would be selected as a strategic partner which will tie up with the foreign OEM for a comprehensive transfer of technology and make these fighters in India. One of the important objectives of the strategic partnership model is to promote transfer of technology in critical technologies and maximise ‘Make in India’ through development of an aerospace ecosystem of vendors in the field of aviation.

Induction of the MRFA will bring with it contemporary technologies in the fields of military aviation. The transfer of technology (ToT) and the extent of ToT notwithstanding, the country would benefit from the availability of the weapon platform itself. Induction of any weapon platform entails requirements of its long-term sustenance. 

The requirement of long-term sustenance drives the need for being self-reliant to the extent possible. This would entail indigenisation of spares and developing capability to repair components. This would enable the industries to upgrade their technology to build up such capabilities. Another major takeaway is the requirement of setting up various testing facilities confirming to latest international standards for enabling indigenisation/indigenous development. A major requirement that emanates from the need to support long-term operation and sustenance is availability of various testers and ground equipment for the fleet. Large-scale induction provides enough incentive to local industry to involve in development and maintenance of such equipment suiting Indian operating conditions. The need for sourcing consumables locally, including oil and lubricants, provides opportunity to related industries to develop their capability.

Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance  (ISR) is the cornerstone of any major country’s defence arsenal. Could you talk about the next generation upgrade in this area for IAF?

In future battles, in order to attain effect-based operation the whole spectrum of ISR would be exploited to the fullest and the synergy between the various components would define the output of the conflicts. The IAF is heading forcefully in this direction. It is in the process of synergising the whole ISR process, wherein the commanders in the C2 centre would have the complete battle picture. A fused picture of satellite data, IEW asset Radar Order of Battle (ORBAT), RPA feed, ground Intelligence and inputs from civil intelligence agencies would be available for combat decision making. The Indian space-based surveillance programme has proposed to launch a large number of Electro Optical, Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) and SAR satellites in the near future towards enhancing our ISR capability. Dedicated military communication satellites will provide wideband and faster connectivity in the future and would enhance data linking between unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), airborne early warning and control system (AWACS) and other airborne sensors. 

Are we adding more AEW and AWACS aircraft in order to supply and support critical aspect of intelligence gathering?

The AEW and AWACS are potent capability enhancers owing to the presence of ELINT and COMINT systems apart from the primary and secondary surveillance radars. The IAF is processing cases for procurement of more of these systems as part of the long-term perspective plan (LTPP). The indigenous AWACS proposed to be designed and developed by the DRDO is also in the pipeline. In the interim the proposal to acquire two additional AWACS is with the government.

What would it take to create a next-generation research and development capability in the defence sector?

The IAF has actively engaged in promoting the local industry in procuring capabilities emerging from cutting-edge research. The IAF has launched the Mehar Baba Swarm Drone competition, sponsored the bio-jet fuel project as well as an artificial intelligence project for electronic warfare and multi-sensor data fusion. These projects involve cutting-edge research and some of the top research institutes and design houses of the country. More of such projects should be undertaken by all services.  

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