NEW DELHI — India's Ministry of Defence (MoD) has put on hold the purchase of two intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) aircraft from Raytheon of the United States, due to internal wrangling between the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Defence Research Development Organization (DRDO) over which of the two should be the technical evaluator, according to a source in the MoD.

The cost for the two aircraft was to be about $1 billion, with payment structured around the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. 

"The thinking here [of the MoD] is that the two agencies — DRDO and IAF — should sort out the issue and only then we proceed towards purchasing the two ISTAR aircraft," the source said.

The eventual designated agency will be responsible for deciding which software and other equipment should be used and how to procure it.

"DRDO must certainly be wanting to work on related projects. Blocking any acquisition that is critical to war fighting capability is patently anti-national," retired IAR Air Marshal Muthumanikam Matheswaran said. "DRDO understands this, and I don't think they will do this. I think this must be a case of misunderstanding where DRDO must be trying to leverage technologies. That they can and must do anyway, through offsets or [US-India Defense Technology and Trade Initiative] routes."

A senior IAF official said the service should have selection authority because it will be the operating agency for the two ISTAR aircraft. The official claimed that DRDO does not have the technical capability or expertise needed to evaluate the aircraft.

DRDO scientists were unavailable for comment.

IAF officials and analysts agree the ISTAR purchase is too important to be put off.

"ISTAR capability is very vital in today's operational and technologically networked environment," Matheswaran said. "Given the networked warfare scenario, and our adversaries' capabilities, the IAF is certainly in dire need of ISTAR capability."

Last year, the MoD decided not to float a global tender and instead procure two ISTAR aircraft from Raytheon through the FMS route.

While MoD bureaucrats wait for the inner wrangling to be resolved, IAF waits for the aircraft. Matheswaran said purchase of the ISTAR technology is "a critical requirement. However, the IAF is in a serious crisis as many of its modernization programs have been delayed."

The ISTAR aircraft is expected to be equipped with active electronically scanned array radar and capable of scanning more than 30,000 kilometers in a minute, analyzing the data in 10 to 15 minutes to identify targets.

Explaining the working of the ISTAR, Matheswaran said: "It is the central airborne platform that has state-of-the-art communications and sensors, along with advanced analytical capability to achieve real-time targeting capability in the battlefield and operational environment. It also networks with other sensors, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, to build a common picture for effective targeting. This information is fed to ground commanders for effective decision-making."

Once the ISTAR aircraft are inducted, they will be integrated with the IAF's indigenous air command-and-control system (IACCS).

Being built on the lines of NATO's air command-and-control system, IACCS handles air traffic control, surveillance, air mission control, airspace management and force management functions.


Vivek Raghuvanshi is the India correspondent for Defense News.

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