Saturday, February 24, 2024

IAF Chief Details Aerospace Advancements & Vision For Self-Reliant Future

By Kamal Shah

Indian Aerospace & Defence had a candid conversation with Indian Air Force Chief, Air Chief Marshal Vivek Ram Chaudhari on modernisation, indigenous development, and emerging technologies in India’s aerospace domain.

Q. How is the IAF’s plan of future acquisitions for fighters progressing? Please update us on the 114 MRFA planned by IAF. How do you see the upgradation plan for the fighter fleet to enhance the IAF’s combat potential in the future?

Ans: IAF currently has 31 fighter squadrons and will be inducting 83 Light Combat Aircraft  (LCA) Mark1A from 2024 onwards. We are also processing a case for additional LCA Mk1A. Going by the envisaged timelines for induction of the LCA Mk2 and the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), the IAF is also pursuing the case for induction of 114 Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) to bridge the gap of the depleting squadron strength and to have adequate numbers of 4.5 generation aircraft.

We have already initiated a case for in-house upgradation of our Su-30 fleet. The upgrade would involve the integration of indigenous Radar, new generation Indian weapons and board sensors improvement by integrating Indian equipment like Infrared Search and Tracker (IRST), Early Warning Suite, Glass Cockpit, etc. Further, the indigenisation of Su-30 MKI aeroengine will also be undertaken. 

With this effort, the indigenisation content of Su-30 MKI is expected to reach more than 80%. Also, integration of Astra Mk I Beyond Visual Range (BVR) Air-to-Air Missile (AAM) on LCA MK 1A and firing trials are under progress. MiG 29 and Mirage 2000 have already been upgraded, and we are in the process of integrating indigenous weapons across our fighter fleet. 

Our operational experience, coupled with a vibrant upgradation programme, will enable the IAF to take on all future challenges. In addition, the development of infrastructure like WSAs, Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs), and the upgradation of existing airfields and hardened aircraft shelters will go a long way in enhancing our combat potential.

Q. What is the IAF’s roadmap for Unmanned Platforms, especially armed unmanned aerial systems? What updates would you like to share about the counter UAS capabilities of the IAF?

Ans: The IAF is working on a roadmap for the acquisition of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) to meet both the short-term and long-term operational requirements by addressing the limitations of existing RPAs. The endeavour is to bridge this gap and have persistent surveillance in our Area of Responsibility (AoR). The plan includes the procurement of several types of RPAS ranging from Small Drones and Counter Drone Systems to Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance and High-Altitude Long-Endurance (HALE) classes of RPAS. The Heron MkII has already been inducted into IAF. 

Development of Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) is being undertaken by very few countries, and the underlying technology is heavily guarded. The Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE), Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) has been entrusted as the nodal agency for the design and development of indigenous UCAV with the formation of various core teams, including experts from all DRDO labs, IAF and agencies involved in the project.

Heron Mk II in action; Concept Art

Q. What lessons has the IAF drawn from the protracted Russia – Ukraine conflict?

Ans: The most important lesson is the resilience of air power demonstrated in this extended war. The Russia-Ukraine conflict has also shown that sustained operations to achieve the required degree of control of air are crucial for the furtherance of all other operations. This requires full spectrum Air Defence (AD) capability, which includes weapons from shoulder-launched missiles to Long Range Surface-to-Air-Missiles (LRSAM).

The war has also highlighted the need for a multi-layered air defence system with both hard and soft kill options for dealing with RPAS, drones, etc.

Wars in the future could be short and swift or long and protracted. While short and swift conflicts would require an agile and rapid offensive force; the outcome of a protracted conflict would be determined by force preservation and sustenance. 

The use of Hypersonic weapons has been seen in this conflict, and what emerged is that there are no effective counters to this technology. The Russia – Ukraine conflict has resulted in challenges in obtaining services and spares for major aggregates like the aero-engines, critical avionics, and specialist weapons abroad for Repairs and Overhaul (ROH). The current geopolitical scenario emphasises the importance of self-reliance more than ever before.

Q. Any Air Force in the world is overly sensitive to new and emerging technology. How is IAF preparing itself to induct and utilise such technology to its advantage?

Ans: As part of Atmanirbharta, the government has undertaken a number of policy initiatives to encourage and increase private sector participation in the defence and aerospace industry. IAF aims to create an ecosystem which fosters innovation and encourages technology development in Defence by engaging Research and Development (R&D) institutes, academia, industries, start-ups, and even individual innovators. 

Currently, IAF is pursuing numerous projects under various schemes like Innovations for Defence Excellence (iDEX), MAKE, Technology Development Fund (TDF), etc. IAF is aiming to induct modern defence technologies like Loitering Munitions, Swarm Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Solutions and multi-disciplinary Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Augmented Reality (AR)/Virtual Reality (VR)-based technology solutions. 

Additionally, IAF also expects the Indian industry to venture into domains like Hyper Spectral Imagery Solutions, Quantum Computing and Communications, Precision GNSS Independent Navigation Systems, Hypersonic Weapons, etc. 

We have recently signed a contract for Swarm Unmanned Munition Systems, which was the outcome of an extremely successful Mehar Baba Swarm Drones competition launched by the IAF to encourage and support indigenised development of niche technologies with high operational utility. Such initiatives, along with other events like Bharat Drone Shakti, endeavour to give a fillip to the Indian industry and enable IAF to acquire niche technology.

Q. The domain of space is seen as the ultimate high ground in any conflict of the future. How is the IAF preparing to transform into an Aerospace Power?

Ans: As is the case with most modern Air Forces, an efficient exploitation of space is critical to the IAF’s operations at all levels. IAF is in the process of setting up a comprehensive space ecosystem for projecting, planning, and implementing military space capabilities needed in the future. The IAF has taken a conscious decision to expand its operations beyond the threshold of military space services and applications into the realm of space operations to transform itself into an Indian Air and Space Force.

This evolution would be in keeping with the statement made by the Defence Minister during his keynote address delivered at the 37th Air Chief Marshal PC Lal Memorial Lecture on 5 May 2022, where he had exhorted the IAF to become an aerospace force and be prepared to protect the country from challenges of the future.

Q. The aerospace sector of any country is heavily dependent on the R&D environment prevailing there. How do you see the R&D environment in India in terms of achieving ‘Aatmanirbharta’?

Ans: The progress of R&D in defence industrial capabilities and, especially, in the aerospace domain has been encouraging. While the Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs) and bigger domestic players are actively engaged in developing high-end systems, it is heartening to see the progress made by start-ups and Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) in the aerospace domain. Due to India’s sustained efforts in “thinking out of the box,” we are ranked as the world’s sixth most ‘Innovative’ Country as per GE’s annual Global Innovation Barometer. 

IAF is fully committed towards the Nation’s vision of achieving Atmanirbharta, and we have charted a focused approach for achieving it. Initiatives through in-house R&D, iDEX and MAKE etc., are helping us in our pursuit to acquire niche technologies.

The impetus towards self-reliance and strategic autonomy is something which has happened in a big way in the last decade. While I am aware that a lot is being done, I feel that much more needs to be done. Recently, the National Research Foundation has been instituted, which will have dedicated funds for R&D. 

The private sector is also slowly stepping up its own R&D. This Government-User-Private partnership is a crucial step being executed seamlessly and has brought in self-reliance in certain critical areas of defence production.


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