NEW DELHI ― India has made an official request to purchase two ISTAR aircraft under a government-to-government deal. The move comes within a month of U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ visit to India.
A formal letter of request was sent to the U.S. Defense Department earlier this month expressing intent to procure two intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance aircraft via the Foreign Military Sales program, a Ministry of Defense official said.
“This is a priority program, as many of the [Indian Air Force’s] surveillance programs have been delayed,” the MoD official said.
The ISTAR aircraft is a critical requirement and will be operated by the Air Force, the official noted, adding that the deal is estimated to cost $1 billion.
ISTAR aircraft will be supplied by Raytheon of the U.S. on a Gulfstream platform.
The purchase of two ISTAR aircraft has been put on hold due to internal wrangling between the Indian Air Force and the Defence Research Development Organization, according to a source in the Indian Ministry of Defence.
The MoD also constituted a joint committee comprising of scientists from the Defence Research and Development Organization, officials from the Air Force, and MoD officials. The aircraft acquisition is expected to be expedited. The committee will finalize the mission software and critical equipment for the ISTAR aircraft.
Raytheon has provided a classified briefing on the ISTAR aircraft program to related agencies in India. Raytheon executives in India were unavailable for comment.
An MoD source told Defense News the ISTAR program is delayed by more than a year “due to dispute between DRDO and IAF over the issue of being designated as prime evaluating authority. IAF had said DRDO is incapable and does not have expertise to evaluate the aircraft; therefore, the service should be the technical evaluator as the aircraft will be operated by them.”
The source added that this matter is now settled and that technical evaluation will take place under the purview of a joint MoD committee, which was set up in August this year.
Commenting on the requirement for ISTAR aircraft, a senior Air Force official said: “It will be a game-changer and very vital in India’s operational and technologically networked environment.”
India-specific ISTAR aircraft for the Air Force will be equipped with active electronically scanned array radar that can scan more than a 30,000-kilometer area in a minute, and analyze data and identify the target in 10 to 15 minutes.
India’s global hunt is for twin-engine jets, and preference will be given to overseas companies able to provide custom, Indian-built electronic warfare equipment.
The service intends to operate ISTAR aircraft as its central airborne platform for analytical, communications and sensor-related tasks to achieve real-time targeting capability in the battlefield. The aircraft will eventually be networked with the service’s indigenous air command-and-control system, or IACCS, the Air Force official noted.
Another service official said the aircraft ”will be used against ground targets and for battlefield management, whereas the airborne warning and control system, or AWACS, used by the service are meant for air defense and aerial targets. The service also used aerostat radar systems, which are mini versions of the AWACS and do not help in ground target acquisition. The capabilities of unmanned aerial vehicles used by IAF for surveillance and reconnaissance are limited.”
The IACCS is designed and built on the lines of NATO’s air command-and-control system, which handles air traffic control, surveillance, air mission control, airspace management and force management functions.
The Air Force also floated a restricted global request for information for the acquisition of ISTAR-capable aircraft in 2013 to Thales of France, Raytheon and Boeing of the U.S., Elta of Israel, and BAE Systems of the United Kingdom; but the case did not progress further, as it was only an expression of interest.
In 2015, the Indian Air Force submitted a formal request to acquire ISTAR aircraft, which was approved by the MoD that same year.