Enhancing the Force

The IAF operates a diverse array of combat aircraft, including the Sukhoi Su-30MKI (NATO reporting name Flanker) seen here. This creates challenges regarding the upgrade of legacy combat aircraft with capable self-protection systems.

The Indian Air Force is at a crossroads as far as electronic warfare is concerned believes Air Marshal (rtd.) Daljit Singh.

AM Singh is the former air officer commanding-in-chief of the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) South Western Air Command. He remarks that the service’s latest fighters like its Dassault Rafale series combat aircraft, 36 of which have been ordered with the first example being delivered on 8 October, and the Dassault Mirage-2000H/I jets “have been inducted with a comprehensive and integrated self-protection suite” equipping these aircraft. However, he warns that “most of the other legacy aircraft were inducted with limited self-protection capabilities.”

Nonetheless, the IAF is taking steps to ensure that the self-protection systems used by its aircraft are robust: “Helicopter fleets are being modernised and upgraded with new electronic warfare suites,” observes AM Singh.

In early October it was reported that the IAF will upgrade its Mil Mi-17 series medium-lift utility helicopters with new EW systems. The news followed the loss of a Mi-17V5 helicopter on 27 February 2019 during a short conflict with Pakistan. The loss was believed to have occurred as a result of friendly fire by a Rafael Advanced Defence Systems’ Spyder short/medium-range surface-to-air missile system.

There have been no reports regarding when this initiative is likely to start, the number of aircraft to receive these enhancements or what the upgrade might entail? He adds that the indigenous production of self-protection systems to equip fighters is moving ahead, having been “approved in principle”.

To this end, the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited Tejas light combat aircraft series which is equipping the IAF, along with the Indian Navy, will receive domestically-developed equipment like Bharat Electronics Limited’s (BEL) Mayavi integrated self-protection system.

This includes the company’s Tarang Radar Warning Receiver (RWR). AM Singh warns that retrofitting legacy platforms with state-of-the-art self-protection systems is not always easy as such integration often “requires cooperation from the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEMs),” which maybe difficult to secure. Similar challenges exist in maintaining self-protection systems already in use on IAF aircraft as “they are once again from diverse origins and obsolescence management is likely to be a serious concern.”

Domestic capacity

Despite these challenges, AM Singh states that the IAF has comprehensive plans in place to provide effective self-protection systems across the fleet: “Some modernisation plans are already progressing,” he adds, citing the modernisation of the Mi-17s with new EW systems as discussed above.

Moreover, the trend towards the indigenous design and production of platform self-protection materiel is proceeding apace, AM Singh asserts, exemplified by the Mayavi and Tarang systems. Over the long term, “all countermeasure dispensing systems are planned to be manufactured in India,” he states while cautioning that there is still work to be done at the industrial level.

“The Indian Defence Industry has yet to fully mature the EW field to meet the services requirements. This is considered essential to have unrestricted and timely modernisation capabilities for the EW Systems.”

Despite potential difficulties in collaborating with OEMs for the retrofit of aircraft with up-to-date self-protection apparatus, he believes that “collaborative production with original equipment manufacturers would be a good solution to ensure delivery of the systems in time and without any dilution in the projected system capability.”

AM Singh recognises that India’s domestic defence electronics industry has enjoyed success in the past developing systems such as RWRs and some SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) systems, as illustrated by BEL’s product lines. Yet he argues that there is room for improvement: “There still is a large gap between what is manufactured and the current technological level of contemporary EW systems prevalent throughout the world. The Indian defence industry has yet to mature its EW field to meet service requirements. This is considered essential to have an unrestricted and timely modernisation capability for EW Systems.”

He also urges the Indian defence community writ large to treat EW innovation as evolutionary: “EW research must be a continuous process to ensure a future ready capability to tackle more complex hostile systems in future.”

At the operational and tactical levels continued investment in training will be paramount: “Another very important consideration is to have realistic EW training system capable of emulating realistic hostile EW environments to evaluate and refine EW tactics and techniques.”

This is in tandem with ensuring that the all-important tools to analyse SIGINT are fit for purpose: “Electromagnetic spectrum employment for both communication and non-communication systems has become very complex, dense, and agile with layers of embedded encryption algorithms. All new SIGINT procurements should be able to handle such dense and complex electromagnetic environments, to remain relevant,” AM Singh advises.

by Dr. Thomas Withington