The Indian government is all set to clear paperwork in the coming months to acquire a U.S. ISTAR (Intelligence Surveillance Targeting and Reconnaissance) battlefield and ground surveillance aircraft platform, the first step towards a larger joint project that will see India’s Defence Research & Development Organisation develop sensor technologies for an additional four aircraft. A model of proposed Indian ISTAR jet was displayed for the first time at the Aero India 2021 show earlier this month, which Livefist can confirm is a signal that things are on track after a troubled journey thus far.
The first official literature on the Indian ISTAR describes it as ‘cutting edge technologies for the nation in support of precision strike’. That the speeding up of the program has happened in the aftermath of the Balakot air strikes by India on Pakistan is no coincidence. Tomorrow marks two years since the military operation that saw Indian Air Force jets, supported by Indian airborne surveillance assets, striking terrorist targets deep in on Pakistani soil. Laboratory literature on the Indian ISTAR program goes on to say, ‘ISTAR is a MULTI INT Solution capable of exploiting image, SIGINT and track info from sensors and provide actionable intelligence for tactical and strategic advantage.’
In 2019, a Livefist newsbreak had revealed that efforts to acquire ISTAR aircraft had been bedeviled by a DRDO-Indian Air Force turf war over testing. Since then, the Indian and US governments have managed to bring things back from the brink. You can read Livefist’s detailed report with the background here. Sources familiar with the Indian ISTAR program confirm that paperwork to support the Indian MoD’s procurement clearance is under creation and will be moved by the middle of this year. The Indian Air Force is said to have expressed urgency in the program, and has provided full backing to the indigenous ISTAR as a priority future asset.
In the mean time, work on the Indian ISTAR’s radar, electronic intelligence, communication intelligence and other sensors has already begun at the DRDO’s Centre for Airborne Systems (CABS), with two years of work already in. The team that developed the Netra AEW&C airborne system in service with the Indian Air Force has now been split into two expanded teams — one focused on the ISTAR program, and the other working on the Netra Mk.2, a program where the existing Netra radar system will be integrated with pre-owned Air India A320 passenger jets. Livefist has detailed that latter program here.
Described by the DRDO as a ‘system of systems’, the ISTAR comprises airborne and dround segments based on a ‘high altitude, high endurance, transport jet’ sporting very high resolution imagery from long range SAR and EO/IR, ground moving target detection of slow moving objects, the ability to track mobile ground targets, map natural disasters, area monitor vessels, monitor activities near border and littoral areas. It also states that the ‘multi intelligence system’ uses AI/ML/DL to infer actionable Intelligence IMINT and SIGINT information to form a common operating picture (COP).
A formal decision hasn’t been taken yet, the Indian ISTAR — like the U.S. aircraft to be procured under the Defence Technology & Trade Initiative (DTTI) — will be based on the Bombardier Global Express business jet platform. A separate procurement of four jets will commence as the program matures in the next two years. Much of the work done on the Netra Mk.1 AEW&C program will expectedly flow into the DRDO’s ISTAR, though a large number of Indian private start-up companies have been enlisted to contribute to the indigenous software architecture will be proprietary to Indian battlefield and ground surveillance needs.
Apart from airborne intelligence aircraft operated by India’s Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), the Indian Air Force currently operates three Phalcon AWACS (with two more to be contracted) and two DRDO-Embraer Netra AEW&C jet. A third of the type is being used by the DRDO as a sensor testbed. The DRDO was earlier also developing an AWACS system based on the Airbus A330 widebody jet platform, though that has, at the very least, been pushed down the priority ladder, if not shelved for now. On the other hand, with priority backing, and transactional muscle provided by the India-US relationship, the ISTAR program is expected to move smoothly forward.