SWiFT is India’s highly secretive unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) program

Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari, the Chief of Air Staff takes over the baton in the midst where the combat readiness of IAF is of the highest degree. It is pertinent to map out as how the air forces around the world are playing the unprecedented role and critical missions in the conflicts. The next generation technological breakthroughs in aerial warfare are already unfolding in sheer magnitude and in the shape of unmanned systems, hypersonic combat aircraft and laser energy weapon. It is almost redefining the concept of modern warfare in air and in space. In an exclusive interaction, Air Chief Marshal Chaudhari speaks with Manish Kumar Jha of BW on building and acquiring such capabilities. He spells out his thoughts on such national projects in aerospace and defence—LCA TEJAS, AMCA, MRFA, HTT-40, and LCH—projecting the sheer commitment of 450 aircrafts. While he puts new direction and thrust on UAV, CUAS with Laser -Energy Weapon, IAF is not only going to change the contours of war but it could also lay ground for aerospace manufacturing base to be the key driver of defence economy and national growth. During the talks, CAS also put spotlight on the criticality of aero engine. Chief also spoke about the phasing out of MiG-21 Bison.

Manish K Jha: A look at the geopolitics and global conflicts gives the clear indication that aerial dimension of the warfare has established unprecedented superiority. How does IAF embrace such shift in terms of evolving threats and capability?

CAS: IAF is prepared for any conflict, conventional or otherwise. Our focus remains on building operational capability against prevailing threats. The IAF CONOPS (Concept of Operations), policies, force structure and operational training are designed to handle all envisaged and emerging threats on any front.

IAF has currently planned for 83 LCA, 70 HTT-40, two Sqns of AMCA Mk-I and five Sqns of AMCA MK-II. Additionally, the order for LCH and other developments in the helicopter fleet will provide for 400/450 aircraft.

"In the long term IAF will have LCA version AMCA and MRFA in its flight line along with 56 C-295 for tactical airlift. Nowhere in the world is such a commitment of 450 aircraft made. This depicts IAF's plan for capability building."

Manish K Jha: Recent drones attack at the IAF base in Jammu is the indication that IAF must build capability for advance UAV, CUAS and air defence mechanism. What is that we are building and how is IAF collaborating or acquiring such air defence l anti-drone systems? The IAF has floated RFI to purchase 10 CUASs with Laser Directed Energy Weapon (Laser-DEW) from Indian vendors. What has been the response from the industry on such advance tech?

CAS: We are seeking to operationalize capability under unmanned combat enablers and the entire spectrum ranging from armed UAVs to UCAVs in the coming decade. Our trials on swarm drone technology in HADR roles has been proven by start-ups and Indian universities through the 'Mehar Baba competition'. Procurement of these systems for operational use is under progress.

The acquisition of C-UAS technology is being undertaken through indigenous route. We are also involving start-ups in the Design and Development of counter measures as part of Defence India Start Up Challenge-2 (DISC-2) under iDEX framework of Defence Innovation Organisation (DIO).

Manish K Jha: Could you please share the IAF's projected roadmap for having 42 squadron as defined under the possible two front war? It is speculated that IAF will not be able to achieve the strength of 42 squadrons as planned.

CAS: IAF has planned for a steady build-up of its fighter fleet over the coming two decades. This includes 83 LCA MK1A, 12 Su-30 MKI, 21 Mig 29s, 114 MRFA, and the seven Squadrons of AMCA. The plan caters to a force build up along with filling of gaps when older types and squadrons are phased out.

Manish K Jha: Future conflict even in battle spaces like the LAC, LoC and the deep maritime spaces of the IOR and Indo-Pacific, is actually driven by the air strikes in all likelihood -- in fact any tactical offensive response in recent times from Balakot to troops deployment in Ladakh has been led by IAF. In such scenario, how does then the concept of leading the Theatre Command work for IAF? In light of that how jointness (operational capability & resource optimization) among forces can better be achieved?

CAS: Success in conflicts will depend on how well the three services are integrated. Joint Planning and execution is the cornerstone of integrated war fighting.

The three services have demonstrated this in the recent Eastern Ladakh impasse. Synergistic application of military power is necessary irrespective of the military structure that a nation adopts. Thus, IAF looks forward to evolve a future ready and capable system with this reform.

Manish K Jha: Besides IAF, Army and navy do have aviation wing. Though much smaller in size, they have an independent procurement process. Should there be a common ground for such acquisition across the services as it works for the cost optimization and technological gains by doing so for the Army and the Navy?

CAS: This is already being done. Similar requirements of the services for platforms, systems and weapons are procured jointly with nomination of a lead service by the MOD.

Manish K Jha: Could you talk about LCA TEJAS MK-1 and MK-1A production timeline which is also expected to be powered by General Electric F404-GE-IN20 engines of 80-85 KN thrust. Has the work started on Mk1A as HAL is yet to deliver all FOC versions of TEJAS? Could you elaborate on the weapons and combat systems to be integrated?

CAS: TEJAS MK-1 FOC version aircraft are under delivery by HAL. The production of TEJAS MK-1A is likely to commence shortly. The TEJAS MK-1A will have better capabilities with indigenous technologies such as AESA Radar, Integrated Electronic Warfare (EW) Suite, Long Range Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile, Air to Air Refuelling with better maintainability and avionics suite.

Manish K Jha: You have spoken about the possibility of developing aero engine with international collaboration. IAF needs 500 jets down the line so the need for engine. Could you throw light on this? So far, there is no such collaboration taken place?

CAS: There is no doubt that it is important to develop aero engine technology indigenously. Since we still have some way to go in this regard, one option would be to collaborate with a foreign partners to imbibe this technology. The specifics have to be worked out by the R&D and manufacturing agencies.

Manish K Jha: Could you throw light on the development stage of AMCA? It is through SPV with HAL as lead. Has the project AMCA been funded? Do you think, we get that crucial NGTD-1 by 2024? What is needed to boost project AMCA? Does IAF see AMCA as the flagship combat jet in the making?

CAS: "A joint review of the AMCA program by DRDO and IAF was conducted in Aug 2020, while the Critical Design Review is planned tentatively in Dec this year. Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) along with active support of IAF, is working towards development of Next Generation Technology Demonstrator."

IAF envisages AMCA to encompass state of the art design and better multi role capability with infusion of 6th Gen technologies. The experience of producing LCA will influence the design of AMCA to suit operational requirements of the future.

Manish K Jha: Does IAF plan to have in-house design/research bureau (similar to naval design bureau) that participates in conjunction with DRDO or other research and development agency from the stage of conceptualizing to developing the prototype?

CAS: The Directorate of Aerospace Design (DAD) has been formed at Air HQs. It is the nodal directorate tasked to meet technology requirements of the IAF in liaison and coordination with R&D labs, industry and academic institutions. The service has been involved in the LCA and indigenous helicopter programmes project through flight test crew and project management teams since the very inception of the programmes.

Manish K Jha: What is current status of IAF's plan for 114 fighter jets under MMRCA/MRFA 2.0? Do you see this as a giant opportunity to build up world class defence and aerospace industrial ecosystem that could, in fact, be the key economic drivers for growth?

CAS: IAF plans to induct 114 MRFA in phased manner for which Qualitative Requirements are being finalised. The program would be progressed under 'Make in India' initiative of DAP-2020 focusing on transfer of key technologies to Indian Production Partners. This as a major opportunity for partnership between the public and private sectors, both in design, development and manufacturing subsequently.

Manish K Jha: How keen is the IAF for medium transport aircraft which will replace Avro-748? Will such acquisition entail the full TOTS for Make in India?

CAS: IAF is augmenting its medium tactical airlift capability with the procurement of 56 C-295 MW aircraft under the 'Buy and Make' category. While 16 aircraft will be delivered in a flyaway condition, 40 are to be manufactured in India by the TATA consortium.

Manish K Jha: When do we expect 5 Almaz-Antei S-400 Triumf self-propelled surface-to air missile systems?

CAS: "The delivery of the first Unit of S-400 Missile System is scheduled to commence shortly."