The disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in the Indian Ocean ought to worry India more than it appears to. After all, the plane flew over or close to Indian air space over the Andaman and Nicobar Islands after which it could only have gone down into the sea since it is assumed that it has not landed anywhere. It has been incommunicado except for the automatic ‘pings’ exchanged with some satellites after the transducers were deliberately switched off.
That an intruder aircraft of any size or utility has disappeared in what India claims to be its area of responsibility says a great deal about the network centricity that it hopes to create with chain of satellites, airborne warning and command systems (AWACS) aircraft and the accompanying ground/surface environment.
India launched the GSAT-7 multi-band communications satellite in August last and it had sent up earlier the first of the navigational constellation IRNSS (Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System). While it has to be conceded that just these two and SPOT pictures from the other constellations and INMARSAT are inadequate to cover so vast an open ocean space that fact itself should alert India to the kinds of possibilities that could arise in the event of declared or undeclared hostilities.
The 9/11 attack on the twin towers in US was executed by a passenger aircraft hijacked and flown into the building. The Malaysian aircraft pilot in his personal flight simulator installed in his house had three Indian sites on its flight program computer. The worst case scenario could have been that he was preparing to crash the aircraft into or near one of these locations. All the nations in the Indian Ocean littoral were under threat. The alternative narrative is that the pilot (or someone else) wanted to take all the passengers with him to a watery grave.
The Scientific Adviser to the Minister of Defence Dr Avinash Chander has suggested that India would need between 80 to 100 satellites to be able to keep the whole of the Indian Ocean within surveillance. That is a huge order but it still begs the question what indeed is such a large network intended to look for?
The Malaysian airline episode has made it clear that what has hitherto not been within the ambit of tracking-an aircraft not on its filed flight plan-should immediately raise suspicions and set in motion a whole series of international measures including counter-terrorism and search and rescue and disaster management. That the disappearance continues to be a mystery is also because the Chinese who have about 20 satellites scanning the Indian Ocean at any given time were unable to track an aircraft that was supposed to land on its soil and had veered off course so drastically.
For this reason, the assets acquired for network connectivity by India will have to be put under the scanner because new dangers are emerging almost by the day. India has a huge expanse of land borders and maritime frontiers to defend. It needs a 24x7 operational system based on overlapping network centricity of its surveillance, target acquisition and communications system so that information is shared by those who ‘need to know’ in real time.
The fact that an intruder aircraft flew either directly over or in close proximity of one of India’s most important Tri-Service Commands in one of the most congested chokepoints on earth and remains clueless is not an acceptable situation from the military point of view.
India has designed its own AWACS platform using a Russian Il-76 transport aircraft on which are grafted Israeli avionics and sensors like the Phalcon radar. The integration was done by the Israelis and it has delivered the three AWACS some years ago. More such hybrids were supposed to join the fleet but like many other projects this too is behind schedule.
Simultaneously, India and Brazil collaborated in incorporating an Indian active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar on a Brazilian Embraer aircraft. This a smaller and cheaper system compared to the Il-76 based AWACS and is described as an airborne early warning and command system (AEWCS).
A global tender has been floated recently for six large aircraft for the AWACS configuration with the vendor required to make the necessary design changes to accommodate Indian qualitative staff requirements for the system. It will have a rotodome unlike the Embraer based system which will carry the pencil like sensor with a 280 degree coverage by back-to-back antennae.
The IAF is working on a schedule that will induct a total of about 30 aircraft in both configurations, the smaller one complimenting the larger platform in surveillance and electronic intelligence gathering. The datalink is to be indigenous and will be created in Indian laboratories based in Bangalore and Dehradun.
This follow-on to the Embraer configuration is intended to acquire the know-how and know-why of airborne surveillance and communications systems. Both these platforms are central hubs for achieving broad area network centricity, they will play critical roles in the acquisition from onboard sensors for battlefield situational awareness (both terrestrial as well as airborne) and disperse it to both the headquarters and the shooters for seamless operations by all military assets working in tandem and conjointly.
The Indian AEW&C aircraft will have an AESA radar with indigenously created identification friend or foe (IFF) system. It will also have ESM (Electronic Support Measures) and CSM (Communications Support Measures) ability. Datalinks to network the AEW&C with fighters, and ground based control systems will also be provided, as will be the SATCOM (Satellite Communication System). The aircraft will also have a comprehensive self-defence suite which means that it will carry chaff and flare dispensers to decoy away enemy surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles. The avionics suite will be linked into the network via the datahandling system, controlled by mission computers.
At the same time India is acquiring aerostat technology to send aloft cameras, radars and infrared sensors for day/night surveillance and signals and electronic intelligence for specific segments of Indian territory where the coverage needs to be enhanced.
However, in the final analysis it will be the space-based assets that will facilitate sub continental-wide surveillance and target acquisition. The Scientific Adviser to the Minister of Defence has put a figure on the number of satellites of varying capabilities required to ensure failsafe coverage of the Indian Ocean littoral.
The Malaysian aircraft is but one new aspect of airborne threat that needs to be addressed. India is currently capable of making both satellites and booster rockets to place them in orbit. A successful launch of the Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) will open the doors for placing in appropriate orbits sever satellites per launch that will give 24x7 coverage of the entire Indian landmass and the adjoining hinterland as well as the huge mass of oceanic terrain which peninsular India dominates.
It needs to be remembered that forewarned is forearmed. India will have to create a whole new cadre of electronic warfare specialists who will be able to deal with the stealth phenomenon that is increasingly being used to bluff radar and achieve surprise and awe. This is a truism that continues to be as relevant as in the days of the telegrapists’ did-did-dah-did style of communications. (Incidentally, did-did-dah-did is the first letter of the alphabet in Morse code transmitted in short bursts of dot-dot-dash-dot over landlines).