Air Chief Marshal R K S Bhadauria interview: 'Indigenisation essential for strategic development'

Indigenisation is essential for true strategic development: IAF Chief

Bengaluru: The Indian Air Force (IAF) celebrates its 88th anniversary on Thursday. Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal R K S Bhadauria, who completed one year in office recently, tells Onmanorama in an interview that these are exciting times for the IAF with unprecedented infusion of technology.

"In the coming decade, IAF would have evolved into a modern, networked and effective force capable of thwarting future threats," says Air Chief Marshal Bhadauria. Edited excerpts from an interview.

It will be a high-elevation battlefield with the Indian Army expecting IAF to perform at high altitudes. Does our entire aerial platform geared up for this?

All our aerial platforms are capable of undertaking unrestricted operations over high-altitude terrain. While the key role played by IAF during the Kargil war is a testimony to our experience, we have continued to refine our expertise over the years in this domain.

With two- frontier war inevitable, if the conflict escalates, the most important factor is the rapid mobilization. Can the existing C17s and Chinooks play a significant role?

C-17s and Chinooks have potent airlift capability and the same is being utilised in the northern sector. The IAF transport and helicopter fleet has adequate capacity and numbers to meet our strategic and tactical airlift requirements.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) in military applications will decide the future course of conflicts. Where do we stand compared to China? And, where do we see ourselves by 2030?

In China's context, there has been an increased focus on integrating AI with the military. IAF is alive to these developments and a clear roadmap has been laid down to ensure effective AI capability by 2030. Presently, multiple projects related to AI integration in key domains of warfare are underway and significant progress has been made.

What is holding up the LCA Mk-1A and Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) deals?

Indigenisation is essential for true strategic development: IAF Chief

The contract for 83 LCA MK-IA is likely to be signed in this calendar year. It is currently at the CFA stage. As far as LCH is concerned, the Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) for LCH limited series production has been accorded and the cost has already been finalized by the cost committee. The contract is likely to be signed in this calendar year and we expect the induction to commence a year or so thereafter.

Given the LCH and Light Utility Helicopter (LUH)'s performance in Ladakh (both reported superlative, and the LCH was deployed for war fighting), will the IAF be seeking accelerated production of the two platforms?

Once the LCH is inducted, the initial phase would entail operationalisation of the platform. Once the platform is stabilised and the desired integration has been achieved, accelerated production could be sought to meet our operational requirements. With regards to LUH, we are sure that HAL will complete the full development this year. Case is already progressing on the procurement of an initial batch of helicopters.

We have been using the C-17 airframes quite a bit ever since they were inducted. What does the IAF's path for a follow-on heavy lifter look like?

The current utilisation rate of C-17 is factored in the overall airframe lifting and as mentioned earlier, we have adequate capacity and numbers to meet our strategic airlift requirements.

What is IAF's road map towards upcoming technologies like loyal wingman, 6G fighters with onboard DEW, UCAVs, optionally manned fighters and so on?

We have a clear roadmap. The planning process is already underway for combat systems like optionally manned sixth generation technologies, smart wingman concept, swarm drones, long persistent HALE (High Altitude Long Endurance) platforms and hypersonic weapons, among others.

Given the two front war becoming a reality more than ever and drastically changed situations of air warfare now, does the IAF still think that 42 Squadron assessment stands or is a new number and capability definition in the works?

At present, we are well short of the desired 42 Squadron strength that caters to a two-front contingency. Hence, rather than defining a new number and capability definition, IAF is presently focused on a more pragmatic approach to bridge the shortfall by improving serviceability and enhancing weapons suite. In this context, the planned induction of LCA Mk1A and other platforms is critical for halting the reducing trend and ensuring increase in the desired numbers in a short to medium timeframe.

What ails India's home- grown R&D efforts?

Indigenisation is essential for true strategic development: IAF Chief

While it is true that the pace of building niche capabilities in defence manufacturing has been slow at times, the success of key projects like LCA, BrahMos and Astra highlights the talent and potential of our scientists and engineers. Indigenisation is a KRA (key result area) for the IAF. We firmly believe that indigenisation is essential for true strategic development. This will only be possible by a concerted effort from all stakeholders including Services, DRDO, PSUs and the private sector.

Tejas MK-2 and Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) are two aeronautical programmes that the IAF has keen interests in. How is IAF planning to drive these programmes differently keeping in mind the lessons from the past?

Every new programme evolves based on the experiences and lessons gleaned from previous ones. IAF is committed to the development of the LCA and the fifth generation AMCA which will be the mainstay of the IAF fighter fleet in the coming decades. The declared timelines are tight and we are hopeful that both the R&D agencies and the industry will deliver as promised. For AMCA programme to succeed, a focused collaborative effort involving the public and private sector is essential starting now. The IAF is closely enmeshed in both the Tejas and AMCA programmes and our teams are contributing to the development efforts.

IAF is losing some of its best professionals and officers to civil skies. What are the measures taken to avoid talent and leadership drain?

Due to the opening up of civil aviation, pilot retention has been an issue. IAF has initiated multiple steps to address the problem. Promotion policy is under review to reduce the stagnation and ensure faster promotions for meritorious officers. The eligibility criteria for granting release have been tightened and more clarity is being given to officers about career growth.

You have completed one year in office now and what are the areas that got a renewed look during this time?

In the last one year, major focus has been on fast tracking weapons and system integration on our fighter platforms. Our operational training philosophy has been revamped to train in a realistic scenario and the use of simulators for combat and weapon training has been enhanced. Digitisation and automation of our processes whether in operations, maintenance or administration is a key focus which is crucial for a technologically sensitive force as ours. Many steps have been taken to reorient our HR policies to attract and retain our best people who are the mainstay of our organization.

What are your views on IAF in the next decade?

Air Forces are sensitive to changes in technology in multiple domains. These are interesting times as today we are laying a robust foundation for the future. In the coming decade, IAF would have evolved into a modern, networked and effective force capable of thwarting future threats through increasingly networked sensor and shooter systems and more lethal, precise and longer range weapons. The space domain is likely to dominate in times to come and is being given the required thrust. I would say we are moving in the right direction at the required pace and by 2030, we would be able to maintain the desired combat edge with respect to our adversaries.

Finally, what's your message to the new-age air warrior?

I would say that these are exciting times for IAF with unprecedented infusion of technology. Our air warriors have always displayed exceptional professionalism and courage during adversity. Air warriors would play a critical role in ensuring seamless assimilation of new technology and would need to display technical acumen to handle complex systems. At the same time, the IAF has rapidly progressed in enhancing the quality of life of our air warriors and steps are in place to ensure further improvement.

(The writer is an independent aerospace and defence journalist, who blogs at Tarmak007 and tweets @writetake)

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