Dealing with obsolescence and upkeep points, IAF appears at indigenising surveillance tools for its imported aerostats

Vijay Mohan

Tribune News Service

Chandigarh, January 4

With the surveillance equipment being used in its imported aerostats facing obsolescence and maintenance issues, the Indian Air Force is exploring the feasibility of developing replacements through the indigenenous route.

The Air Headquarters is looking at Indian industries, research and development establishments and academic institutes that have the requisite technical expertise and financial capability as well as experience in developing and testing aviation related military grade equipment, IAF sources said.

In the mid-2000s, the IAF had procured aerostats from Israel for surveillance of border areas. An aerostat is an unpowered helium-filled balloon tethered at a certain height above the ground and equipped with surveillance and communication equipment. It can remain deployed for a number of days at a stretch, scan a wide swath of area and is particularly effective for detecting low-flying or surface objects, making it a cost-effective alternative to aircraft in peace time.

The Air Force has had operational and maintenance issues with its aerostats, with the Comptroller and Auditor General in the past taking the IAF to task over the deployment and manner of handling of aerostats.

It was as far back as 1996 that the IAF projected the requirement of six aerostat systems to provide gap-free low-level surveillance coverage over large areas. The procurement of aerostats was also part of a series of recommendations to streamline border management and enhance surveillance capabilities in the aftermath of the 1999 Kargil conflict.

In 2015, the IAF again drew up plans to procure eight aerostats. There have also been attempts to design and develop aerostats locally.

The equipment being sought to be indigenised by the IAF includes both the airborne segment that detects, intercepts and monitors electronic and communication signals as well as the ground-based segment that is meant for command and control of the airborne platform, analyse and process data, record and disseminate information.

According to senior officers, aerostats are viable means for low-level surveillance in the air as well as maritime domains and a number of such systems are required. With the increasing use of drones for border surveillance as well as smuggling, the constant surveillance cover provided by aerostats would be effective in countering such threats. The Army is also working towards the employment of mini aerostats to keep an eye on mountain passes and remote tracks.

The development of indigenous surveillance equipment would also be an added advantage for current and future projects to develop aerostats systems indigenously, besides having spin-offs in other allied areas, officers said.

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