HAL is developing the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft a 5th generation fighter jet

Air Marshal Raghunath Nambiar is the chief of the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) Western Air Command (WAC). He led the first mission during the Kargil War at Tiger Hill, where he gallantly bombarded and destroyed the clusters of infiltrators. An impeccable fighter pilot who is well-versed with the highest grade of technical know-how, he is credited with driving IAF’s modernisation plan and was awarded the Vayu Sena Medal (Gallantry). In a conversation with BW’s Manish Kumar Jha, Nambiar talks about the plans for the next-generation capabilities for the IAF.

You have the experience of flying 42 types of aircraft. What would constitute and define the next-generation fighter aircraft, especially in India?

The IAF is currently on the threshold of absorbing the fifth-gen technologies wherein sensor fusion, net centricity, long-range standoff weapons, smart engines, stealth/low observable features, etc. will be the basic tenets of future fighter aircraft. The ability to super-cruise has extended range and loiter times, and air-to-air refuelling capability is another inescapable requirement. Acquiring such capabilities assume even more significance in light of the rate of modernisation and new inductions taking place in another air force in our neighbourhood. The induction of Rafale later this year and the research & development effort towards the indigenous fifth-generation fighter aircraft called the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) in the coming years will see many of the above technologies being realised in the IAF.

As the Western Air Command chief, what is your priority and what are the perceived threats?

The strategic significance of the WAC lies in the fact that it shares boundaries with two neighbouring countries with whom we continue to have unresolved territorial issues. The WAC is always prepared to counter any threat and offers a befitting response to any contingency with all available assets. While there is a cause for concern due to the rate of modernisation and the induction of new equipment in our neighbourhood, the IAF is moving ahead with appropriate measures to cater to these new developments. Our first priority should be to ensure the induction of fighter aircraft and the modernisation programme of our legacy systems progresses as soon as practically feasible. The IAF must also focus on absorbing and assimilating the newer technologies through rigorous realistic training and development of appropriate infrastructure.

Airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft, flight refuelling aircraft (FRA), stealth technology, precision-guided munitions, electronic warfare (EW), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and military satellites are considered to be the force multipliers and assets that can dramatically increase the capability. What developments or future programmes are in line on these fronts of the IAF?

The IAF is operating the IL-76 based AWACS aircraft and the Embraer-based Netra AEW&C aircraft developed by the Centre for Airborne Systems (CABS), which was formally inducted last year. The AWACS (India) project, which involves the design and development of indigenous AWACS by DRDO, is likely to take some time. The process for the procurement of the platform for the first two aircraft is underway. In order to fill the gap between the induction of the CABS developed AEW&C and AWCS aircraft is being done. These will be the IL-76 based AWACS and are being procured under the repeat purchase clause of the present AWACS contract. The case is being processed for the Ministry of Defence’s approval.

The FRA is an important force multiplier and the IAF is planning to acquire FRAs. Fresh procurement of six FRAs has been initiated and the responses to the request for information (RFI) from vendors are being examined. The fifth-generation aircraft AMCA will incorporate stealth features. The IAF is providing active support to the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) for the development of the same.

EW systems play an important role in any operation and will continue to do so in the future. In the modern battlefield, no weapon system can survive or perform optimally without a comprehensive EW suite -- be it offensive or defensive operation. EW is a force enhancer in the true sense. All our aircraft and ground-based weapon systems are enabled with some form of EW system and need periodic upgrades. The IAF is looking to acquire the High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) class of armed Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) to meet its operational requirement. The IAF is also interested in HALE UAVs for intelligence, surveillance & reconnaissance (ISR) role. Rustom-2, the Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) RPA, is being developed by DRDO. Once the basic platform is fully developed, there are plans to further develop it as a weaponised platform. Rustom-2 may have its design validation flight in the near future. The IAF is also in a process of procurement of MALE UAVs under the ‘Make in India’ initiative from Indian companies. The UAVs are proposed to be developed and manufactured by the Indian industry under an appropriate category of the DPP like ‘Buy and Make (Indian)’.

You have been the test pilot for India’s homegrown Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas. It is morphing from Tejas Mk 1A to LCA Mk 2. How do you see Tejas developing into an air superiority platform?

The IAF has already signed two contracts for 40 LCA Mk 1 aircraft. Of these, 12 aircraft in IOC have already been delivered. While these aircraft have been operationalised to a significant extent, still it will take some time for the LCA Mk 1 to realise full capabilities. The IAF is carrying out extensive operational flying on these aircraft to optimise roles and tasks. The lessons learned/shortcomings are being fed back to the D&D agency for refinement in future versions. The IAF has issued an RFP for the procurement of 83 LCA Mk 1A from HAL. By the time LCA Mk1A matures, it would have enhanced capabilities to meet the requirements of the IAF. The development of LCA Mk 2 is in progress. The IAF plans to acquire 6 squadrons of LCA Mk 2 the induction of which is likely to commence in 2028.

How would the acquisition of 114 Medium Multi-role Aircraft (MMRCA) mark the coming of age of the aerospace ecosystem that places India amongst the coveted list of next-generation fighter aircraft hub?

The case for 114 fighter aircraft is being processed under the strategic partnership model the process for which is laid down in Chapter VII of DPP-16. Some of the aircraft assessed in 2007 MMRCA evaluation would also be in the competition albeit with newer contemporary technologies in specific areas. The DDP clearly lays down the procedure for such acquisitions. The offsets and spin-offs from acquisition of such massive proportion will definitely boost the aerospace ecosystem in our country. We can already see aviation-related companies, both domestic as well as foreign, trying to enlarge their footprints in the Indian military aviation market.

Will the IAF drive the quest for cutting edge technologies it wants from the public and private sectors to achieve the capabilities? How does it work?

Ideally, it is the doctrine that should drive technology. However, after World War II, only a few countries such as the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union had the luxury of achieving this. In a country such as ours, we in the past had been restructured to tailor our doctrine to suit the technology we could obtain. I feel that this will change. The IAF has always encouraged the development of indigenous defence production capability and capacities. We firmly believe that indigenisation provides flexibility by reducing dependence on external agencies and leads to the economic growth of the nation and it is the only way to achieve true strategic autonomy.

The IAF has been at the forefront in inducting indigenously manufactured weapon platforms and systems. The formation of the first LCA squadron and the substantial order for the Tejas aircraft are a testimony to the importance that the IAF places on self-reliance. A number of indigenously developed and manufactured aircraft, helicopters, radars, missiles, and electronic equipment have been inducted or are in the process of being inducted. 

The IAF in the past conducted a number of seminars to foster greater interaction with the defence industry. To have greater clarity in the industry so that it can map its capabilities and potential with the requirements of the IAF, the Indigenisation Roadmap Indian Air Force (2015-2025) was released by the IAF in April 2016. Further, DPP 2016 provides greater impetus to Indian MSMEs with a certain category of ‘Make’ projects reserved exclusively for them.