Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria, Chief of Air Staff recently spoke to Kamal Shah, Editorial Director, Indian Aerospace and Defence Business.
Q 1. How is IAF’s Indigenization plan progressing?
CAS: The vision of “Atmanirbhar Bharat” is central to our force planning process for the future. The IAF has operated several indigenously designed aircraft such as the HT-2, HF-24, HPT 32, ALH, Kiran and the LCA. The Ajeet, MiG-21, MiG-27, Jaguar, Avro (HS-748), Chetak, Cheetah, Dornier 228, Hawk and Su-30 are examples of indigenously manufactured aircraft operated by us. MiG-21, MiG-27, MiG-29, Mirage, Jaguar, Dornier 228, An-32 and Mi-17 have been successfully upgraded with the participation of domestic industry.
Today, all the IAF’s ground based radars are either indigenously designed or made by BEL (MPR Arudhra, LLTR Ashwini, LLLWR Aslesha, and Rohini). Amongst airborne radars, we have already inducted the AEW&C and the Uttam is under preliminary testing. We are also inducting many indigenous missile systems (Astra, AKASH, NGARM, SAAW etc.) and locally manufactured EW suites for our fighter fleet. Besides these, Indian firms develop critical operation support systems such as the IACCS, AFNET, eMMS and IMMOLS.
The indigenous projects, which we whole-heartedly support and would like to see taking to the skies in the near future include the LCA MK1A and its future upgrades, LCH and the HTT 40. In the medium to long term, we have placed our trust in the fifth generation AMCA project. The Avro replacement project, which will be under Make in India, has a huge potential for setting up the ecosystem for transport ac production. Overall, our requirements provide an excellent opportunity for the entire domestic aviation industry to evolve and grow rapidly.
Q 2. Your efforts to promote & improve made in India LCA Tejas has been evident. What more is being done to develop it further?
CAS: Advanced version of LCA i.e. LCA Mk-1A will be inducted in IAF from 2024 for which a contract has already been signed with HAL. LCA Mk 1A will have better capabilities such as AESA Radar, Integrated Electronic Warfare (EW) Suite, Long Range Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile. Enhanced maintainability of the advanced version would ensure that the equipment is available to the IAF for effective and optimal operational exploitation. LCA and its further developments are critical for enhancing the capabilities of indigenous industry.
Q 3. What are the IAF’s areas of focus & vision for the 5th & 6th generation fighter jets?
CAS: IAF is fully supporting Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) in the design and development of AMCA. As we are already late, the focus is to incorporate contemporary sixth-generation capabilities in terms of technologies and sensors in our fifth generation platform. This would involve a huge involvement by DRDO and the industry in terms of advanced R&D in airframe, systems, structures, weapons and incorporation of AI.
Q 4. How has been the response from PSUs like HAL & private sector to IAF’s indigenization push & plans?
CAS: Defence PSUs are the main stay for sustenance and operation of equipment. Successful induction of LCA and ALH and many new types of radars, sensors and weapons are testimony to this. IAF has initiated numerous indigenisation programmes through HAL. We have been constantly tapping the strengths of various R&D Centres established at each HAL Division for upgradation, life extension, modifications and certain specific studies. IAF and HAL are targeting 100% indigenization of fast moving and regularly consumed spares as a joint effort.
Private sector is a potential that is not yet fully tapped and I feel that this is a most opportune moment to do so. More than 750 firms are already working with IAF’s Base Repair Depots (BRDs) to indigenize around 1000 spares per year. Approximately 48,000 spare parts for maintenance of our equipment have been indigenised until now and there is potential for much more. The operational availability of aircraft fleet is bound to be enhanced with this effort. The focus now is on indigenization of high cost and high-tech parts. From our experience, the scope to cooperate with the private sector is immense which includes the opportunity for partial tasking of structural modifications and repair activities in BRDs with industry partners. I am happy that we are making some progress in this regard. I have no doubt that even DPSUs would also work towards tapping the potential of the private sector.
Q 5. What are the major domains or projects for the Indian companies, start-ups, Indian JVs & Indian PPPs to focus on?
CAS: The Governments of India and Russia have already signed an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) for facilitating joint manufacturing through transfer of technology and setting up of JVs. This is the first time ever that the Russian Government is according such a permit for manufacturing defence items outside their country. The first supply order to Indian JV partner will be placed shortly. The Indian companies should embrace this opportunity. Simultaneously, we are focusing on Helicopter and Fighter aircraft repairs and overhaul, manufacture of propulsion systems, indigenization of imported spares, tools, testers and ground equipment to name a few. We are also moving in a big way towards use of AI in Air Operations, maintenance and Electronic Warfare.
Q 6. What are the major future projects of IAF that industry should be prepared for?
CAS: The IAF has many future projects that industry, whether in the public or private sectors, can participate in. On platforms, we have the AMCA, LCA Mk1A, HTT40, LUH, AEW&C, UAV and their follow on programmes. Drone and Counter UAS systems, along with several radars are in pipeline. A suite of mid to long range air to air and air to ground weapons include Astra, Brahmos and their derivatives, NGARM and SAAW are on order. Akash follow on, indigenous LRSAM etc. are programmes in the surface to air category. IR and imaging sensors, network architecture and security solutions as well as Electronic Warfare systems are other potential areas of interest for the industry to support.
Q 7. What are the areas/ sub-areas IAF is focusing on in the domain of drone & anti-drone warfare? Offensive & Defensive, both?
CAS: After the drone incident at Jammu, the subject has garnered wide attention. IAF had already started to institute measures for handling rogue drone threats at its bases. These include soft kill options, procedures and actions to be taken and coordination required with civil police to counter such threats. While I cannot reveal specific details, IAF is significantly enhancing its existing counter-drone capabilities and is in the process of procurement of comprehensive Counter Drone systems with both hard kill and soft kill options.
In Oct 2018, IAF had announced a Swarm Drone Competition, with a HADR concept, christened ‘Mehar Baba Competition’; eliciting positive response from hundreds of academic institutions and start-ups. Three years of IAF’s rigorous testing and mentoring of the participants has culminated in Mar 21. IAF is now procuring this with further development to suit the requirements of Defence Forces for employment in operations aiming for production by 2022.
Q 8. What is your vision & plan for the manned & unmanned aerial assets’ acquisitions & utilisation?
CAS: Manned-unmanned teaming is the future. The unmanned component will be used for extending reach into highly contested airspace while the base vehicle will retaining the flexibility and multi-mission effectiveness of a manned platform. We are also closely designing optionally manned capability in our next generation of indigenous combat platforms. We are working with ADA, HAL and private players on these aspects.
Q 9. Digitization in IAF has been one of the key focus areas under your leadership. What all has been done already & what more required to be done in it?
CAS: The IAF has invested heavily in NCW applications from over a decade ago, and that effort has borne fruit. We have a secure and reliable pan India network in the AFNET, which is the backbone of our Integrated Air Defence Command and Control system, enabling sensor data covering the entire country to be available to decision makers in real time. Our networks also host and link our electronic maintenance management system (e-MMS) and materials management system (IMMOLS), which have completely digitized our aircraft maintenance and sustenance chain processes. Similarly, the introduction of e-office a year ago has made the entire IAF internal workflow paperless. Both these enterprise wide initiatives have resulted in significantly speeding up response and decision cycles. The e-office includes modules for digital processing of functions across the spectrum, from complex mission planning and rehearsal, to seemingly mundane, but time-consuming activities like payments, leave applications, online appraisal, training modules and many more. The aim is to maximise automation and reduce paper-processing time, thus freeing the air-warrior to effectively carry out his primary task. We have also stepped into the world of AI, Big Data and Machine Learning with several applications in Electronic Warfare and maintenance management already in place. This is an area, which I envisage has immense potential, and is poised for rapid expansion.
Q 10. Cyber & Space have emerged as new and rapidly developing domains. What is IAF’s vision and plan for these?
CAS: IAF has well established directorates dealing with both Cyber and Space matters. We maintain close coordination with both the Defence Cyber Agency and Defence Space Agency at the policy and working levels. We are keenly aware that cyber poses a very real threat and we continue to enhance our wherewithal in terms of equipment and skill to protect our critical information infrastructure from any form of disruption. In the space domain, we are working towards seamlessly integrating the output from space-based assets into our Intelligence matrix. We are utilising considerable space based bandwidth towards maximising our network and communications redundancies. Both these domains are well dovetailed into our concept of operations. However, we are keenly aware that we can do a lot more in both these areas, and we have plans to considerably enhance our footprint in the next decade.
Q 11. The IAF’s weapon inventory has seen drastic improvement under your leadership. IAF’s target engagement capacity has been increased multi-fold in last few years. What are the steps being taken to further enhance IAF weaponry, Qualitatively & Quantitatively?
CAS: Without going into the specifics or details it will be right to say that we have intensely focused on integration of new generation weapons offering high precision and enhanced range to address aerial and all kinds of surface targets. We are also actively engaged with DRDO to develop enhanced capability weapons to enable us to move to a completely indigenous procurement of such capability in future. Weapons like Astra and Brahmos are important facets of this drive and will see many such indigenous weapons in IAF’s frontline combat aircraft in the near future. I am confident of the capability that has been demonstrated in this regard by the ecosystem.
Q 12. How do you see the status of the Indian Aerospace industry ecosystem? What are the areas that require more thrust?
CAS: It is evident that the Indian aerospace industry has come of age. Though we all wish that the pace be accelerated and we move ahead rapidly, we must understand that the requirement to develop reliable systems with stringent quality as an operational product is an involved process. This process is time consuming and it is important to focus on the foundation to move forward with the impetus required. Notwithstanding, I am happy that the changes are visible including certain niche areas wherein the private sector is already contributing significantly.
Q 13. In order to have an excellent aerospace industry ecosystem in India, do you see the need of civil & military domains to come together backed by the policies?
CAS: Absolutely. The gap between civil and military domains is closing with advancement of technology. Many aviation technologies are dual use and so is the case with the civilian technologies. Policy support for adaptation of such technologies is happening. Civil domain has the energy that needs to be harnessed in terms of creativity and R&D. Another important area is collaboration with academia, for which funds need to be provided to them along with accountability. It would go a long way if we decentralize part of the R&D to universities. Synergy in the two domains at industry level has the potential to bring about a radical change in the ecosystem for seamless R&D and its consumption within India.
Q 14. IAF deployed its major assets during India’s fight against Covid, especially in the second wave. How was it done & how big a task was it for IAF men, women & machines?
CAS: An important consideration for us was that due to the situation in the North we were already operationally involved. We needed to plan our operations meticulously, to ensure that the IAF maintained its deterrent posture and continued to provide support to the Army, while committing all resources to meet the requirements of the civil authorities. Our initial focus was to retain our capability by taking strict measures to protect our human resource. Simultaneously we significantly ramped up our flying effort to ensure that supplies of oxygen, medical equipment, medicines, and personnel, were speedily and effectively airlifted wherever required. In order to achieve this, we augmented our crews to the field units as we do in actual operations, and maintained very high flight-line availability of aircraft to effectively run 24×7 operations on our heavy lift fleets. A Task Force set up at HQ’s handled the timelines and prioritisation.
The transport fleet carried out short notice commitments from 18 countries amounting to a total of just under 1100 hours. Additionally, over 2600 hours were flown within the country, speedily positioning oxygen and supplies where required. The ability to rapidly relocate oxygen, including heavy oxygen tankers in a matter of hours helped to mitigate oxygen shortages at the peak of the crisis. Incidentally, this effort covered an air distance of just under 27-lakh km. To put it in perspective it is like travelling to the moon and back almost four times.
Medical Staff and associated personnel was provided to six hospitals dedicated to treating civilian COVID patients. Additionally, six AF Hospitals treated civilians alongside the airforce personnel in various parts of the country. The COVID effort was massive, and was possible only because of the motivated men and women of the IAF who delivered when called upon to do so in the finest traditions of the IAF.
Q 15. How has been the progress on Integration & Theatre Commands front?
CAS: Undoubtedly, integration is the need of the hour and multiple solutions to achieve this are under discussion. This is an important higher defence reform, which will determine the way ahead, and the IAF is fully committed to achieve this integration. Evolution and an appropriate robust and truly integrated structure will determine the success of such a comprehensive combat capability to the next level. I am confident that an optimum solution can be found as we continue to work in close consultation.