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“AI Will Improve Our Operational Efficiency Many Times More”

In an exclusive interview, Air Marshal Ashutosh Dixit, Deputy Chief of the Air Staff speaks with Manish Kumar Jha for SP’s Aviation, on the IAF’s capabilityroadmap and the thrust on the next-generation technology adoption

Issue: 04-2024Photo(s): By Indian Air Force, SP Guide Pubns, FlyingDaggers45Squadron / Wikipedia

With combat flying experience on fighter, trainer and transport aircraft and having commanded a frontline fighter base in the Western sector, as well as a premier fighter training base, Air Marshal Dixit is well placed to lead the critical and complex capability plan of the IAF. During the comprehensive interaction, Air Marshal Dixit outlines the plans for the frontline combat jet programme and the acquisition of advanced UAVs among others. Excerpts:

Manish Kumar Jha (Jha): Do you see LCA Tejas as the front-line combat jet?

Air Marshal Ashutosh Dixit (Dixit): The IAF concluded Vayu Shakti. We demonstrated Tejas where LCA Tejas performed an air-to-ground attack and immediately after that air to air. So, this is the concept of a front-line fighter jet that can do any mission at any time. So, we have built a capability which is for the front-line fighter aircraft. And, we are very happy as again Mk1A flew recently. They will fly the first flight and then this year we are going to make the squadron.

Jha: So, when you say it’s a front line, would you also talk about the combat capability - the weapon part of how Tejas is going to be a lethal combat jet?

Dixit: There are 3-4 types of categories of weapons. One is the beyond visual range (BVR). We have our own ASTRA which we will be firing from LCA in April. Then we have air to ground and weapons of different types. We have some 10 different types of weapons that Tejas can fire. There are normal bombs and up to 1,000 pounds of bombs. It can also fire Laser-guided bombs and it can also fire long-range special weapons. So, I think we have got a full envelope of weapons available.

Jha: How do you define MK1? While Mk2 is in the pipeline for the future and in the making, what does it mean?

Dixit: Mark 1—IOC & FOC—now, we have built the basic. From there, we graduated to LCA Mk1A. So, in Mark 1A, we introduced 4 major changes which are our learning curve. We incorporated the Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar (AESA). Then we have got integral EW suite. The most important thing which we have done, which is not visible, is that we have enhanced the maintainability of the platform. It is by one order of magnitude that we have improved it. While you cannot see it from outside because from outside the aircraft looks the same it is the inside of the aircraft which has been laid out neatly and the accessibility of the components and how they are being changed.

Jha: So, is it about the increased life cycle of the aircraft and also the reduced cost of Maintenance?

Dixit: Suppose I take 1 hour to prepare an earlier version, I will take only 15 minutes to repair this version. So, I can do a greater number of sorties/missions and it’s very easy to maintain and ready for operation.

Jha: How do you increase that efficiency?

Dixit: Yes, that is how we have done. So, a fighter aircraft from the inside is very compact. It is like everything is sitting almost on top of each other so that we have sorted it out. We have cleaned up the internals. We have also modernised some LRUs as they have become slightly smaller. Like this, we have made a major effort to improve maintenance. These are the major changes in LCA Mk1A. We could do this because we learned it along the way in making Mark 1.

Now, we have to install new weapons. Also, Astra is fired successfully. From here, we are going from MK1 to MK2. Now, we are going to implement 3-4 major technological changes. Firstly, the size of the aircraft will be bigger. So, first is the weaponcarrying capacity and it will take more load. It will go further. It will be able to remain in the air for a longer period. Then we are putting canards to improve the manoeuvrability of the aircraft. In fact, LCA Mk1A is also quite manoeuvrable. Most of the modern fighters have canards.

Jha: Is Tejas Mk2 also about multi-role combat jets?

Dixit: Tejas is designed to be very agile agility and that is why we want to put canards. We are building a mechanism to improve the pilot interface. In the cockpit, we are putting a side stick so that in front, we can put one big slot. So, a lot of space is available for displaying information because now you see, the information is increasing. The amount of information which is coming in poses challenges as to how you can process the whole decision-making while analysing such a vast amount of digital data in the combat zone. Now, it will be easier for the pilot.


But the major achievement which we want to do is the sensor fusion. So, we are getting information from radar, from EW Suite and some other aircraft. Earlier, all such information was delivered to the pilot separately and a pilot had to look into the pilot grid. The information is so vast and it comes so rapidly that it becomes a major challenge for the pilot to handle it. So, it is done by a method called Sensor Fusion. This technology [Sensor Fusion], we want to put in the next version of LCA.

Jha: Based on such tech-advancement can a pilot in the cockpit decide on his own based on the data rather than from the ground station?

Dixit: Decision-making will be much faster and the quality of the decision will be much better. Earlier you used to look at five different places, now, he will only look at one or two places and he will be able to make a decision, whether I have to shoot this target or which is the best way to enter the enemy’s territory.

Jha: The combat jet has many defined roles, as fighter jets will perform in certain combat requirements. Is it about aerospace superiority or a multi-role fighter jet? How would you like to define it in such a context?

Dixit: Nowadays, such definitions and roles have become fuzzy—as they are multi-dimensional. So, what we call it is swing role capability. Earlier, if you remember, it was called a fighter aircraft or an attack aircraft. Like an F-16 or F-18, later it was called F/A-18. Today, we combine all possible roles of a fighter aircraft. Aircraft capabilities have increased radically. Earlier, a pilot was also a limiting factor. He had to prepare for so many roles, but now because of this AI and this Sensor Fusion integration, a pilot can also perform multiple roles. It’s a kind of a force-enhancer.

“We are embarking on another very prestigious product project--IMRH. For IMRH, we will have our indigenous engine under the JV between Safran and HAL. And it is being designed and it will be manufactured in India.”

So, all the roles for a fighter aircraft are possible whether it is an armrecce, an area denial, or an air defence ground attack.

Jha: In the combat zone, can LCA Tejas go on their own rather than in the support formation?

Dixit: Yes, absolutely. Of course, there will be support from AWACS as they are supporting other jets. We go in a formation of similar aircraft.

Jha: Since Mark 1A is still in progress, is the talk of Tejas Mk2 still too early because there have to be various elements which include design, engine parts and a lot of things, and frame-wise, it’s bigger and requires a new approach?

Dixit: So now you have to look at it from a different way as to how many aircraft is HAL able to produce. So, this year, they can produce 16 aircraft. Next year, it will be 24 so 24 aircraft. We have ordered 83. We have again ordered 97 and we will order more. So, by 2031-32, they will complete this function.


So, when in 2032, they finish the production of Mark 1A, we should be commencing the production of Mk2. So, within 8 years, we have to develop the aircraft and produce it.

In fact, for LCA Mk2, we have already completed CDR and metal cutting is about to start next quarter. I think within one and a half to 2 years, we will be able to progress significantly. Then we have to do testing which is the most important. So, we are on time. The cut-off point is the delivery of Mk1A.

Jha: What about stealth technology for Tejas 2?

Dixit: Stealth is for AMCA.

Jha: Could you please tell us how is AMCA unfolding? Where do you put AMCA in your capability plan?

Dixit: AMCA is indeed a futuristic aircraft. We have completed the CDR. We know the technologies which we need to develop. Now the approval has also been granted.

Jha: There is a global trend as we see international collaboration for the next generation of fighter jets which is being adopted by many advanced countries like the UK, the US, Japan, Korea, and others. Is it about the flow of the technology that India should adopt or should we go on developing on our strength? How do you think we should be able to produce next-gen aircraft, keeping the scale of the cost and technology?

Dixit: India has a unique place in the world and our need is different. We need indigenous capability and technology is required. We have our problems and our threat perception. We will continue to go along this path.

Jha: While this has been addressed by the Indian Air Force recently, there’s a genuine understanding of the fact that since Russia is already busy supplying its operational requirements, is the IAF facing any challenges in terms of spare parts and upgradation—for example, Su-30 MKI?

Dixit: We are already embarking on an upgrade of the project. For Sukhoi, we have been able to do 60-75 per cent of the indigenisation. When the project is over successfully, we should be close to 90 per cent of localisation.

“I think the renewed focus on unmanned aerial systems is there. Need our own sensors, we will be able to do air vehicle. Sensors are the key part.”

And simultaneously, not only the aircraft, we are trying to address the engine - upgrade on our own. We are trying to design Special Metals as Special Alloys. Then we will reach 95 per cent of indigenisation for Su-30 MKI. So, I think, we will be in a very good position next five to seven years. However, right now, we have to wait that long and we have to take interim measures that we are taking.

Jha: In your capability plan, next comes the unmanned aerial systems. How do you prioritise it and what’s the plan for having an advanced level MALE and HALE category of UAVs? And, how much time will it take to have such a capability?

Dixit: I think the renewed focus is there. Need our own sensors, we will be able to do air vehicle. The air vehicle is the airframe. Sensors are the Key part. So, even if the air vehicle is there, the sensor has to be able to look deep into the required territory and listen also.

Jha: DRDO’s Tapas has been progressing, however, it has been taken off the mission mode. What is required here?

Dixit: We have to do indigenous production and we are on it. However, we will be able to overcome some shortcomings and some design deficiencies to improve upon. We are users. In the end, I will be able to see how it can serve my needs or my operational requirements.

So, I cannot comment on design or something. Endurance is being worked out.


We are open to such development, exploring the market and encouraging the Private sector also to take part in this kind of project. I hope we will be doing something within the next six months. We will go to the government and ask for approval then.

Jha: Could you talk about the progress on indigenous helicopters?

Dixit: We have supported ALH since the beginning. We inducted ALH Mark1 in the IAF. We are displaying and flying it all over the world. Sarang is ALH Mk1. Recently it performed very well in Singapore. Then we inducted Mark 3 in good numbers and the armed version — Mark 4 Rudra which we also inducted.

As we see Mark 4 is shaping up correctly, we further improved it; instead of making it side by side, we made it tandem. So that it will become a proper combat helicopter. We have been constantly guiding HAL in the endeavour. We have already been inducted in Jodhpur. We are going to give more orders for a very large number— one of the largest for the indigenous platforms. Further, we will soon induct LUH where the Army is the lead service. LCH is the only helicopter in the world which can take off from 6,000 ft and fire weapons at such altitude. We held hands with HAL throughout.

Now we are embarking on another very prestigious product project—Indian Multirole Helicopter (IMRH). This is the replacement for the Mi-17 series. They will be there with us for about 10 to 12 more years after that we will start phasing out. We are in deep discussions with the HAL on IMRH. We are supporting them. For IMRH, we will have our indigenous engine under the JV between Safran and HAL. And it is being designed and it will be manufactured in India.

Jha: Will we be able to possibly export in the future because we’ll have full control and IPs over this?

Dixit: Yes, that is the plan. Because there are very few in the world who are making helicopters of this variety. It will be required in a large part. With HAL, this is another major project we are embarking on.

Jha: Along, C295 has been progressing. Does it fulfil all the criteria for military logistics?

Dixit: It is a project for the Avro replacement. It fulfils all the criteria of the Avro replacement which is in the class of 5-7 tonnes. Now we will be looking at capabilities for some 20-25 tonnes.

Jha: What does the AI hub do in the Indian Air Force? How will you drive it? Is it about industry collaboration? It is about just bringing technology from outside or just because you know, having your qualitative requirements being set?

Dixit: AI is a very vast field so we are doing at multiple levels. What we have done for our day-to-day running and how we operate day to day, we have set up an AI Centre of Excellence. We have done a lot of brainstorming over a large number of cases. For example, what is my training status and what is my maintenance status? What is my Log sheet status? So, can AI guide me?

AI helps to focus on which area to continuously improve my operational potential. There are so many other things in the Air Force which are happening. This also requires training on the model, feeding the past data and doing some kind of test, so we are doing that.


How do we look at AI? For each person, if the output is increased by 10 per cent, because of the use of AI then as a whole, the Air Force will become 10 per cent better with existing resources. So, this is a day-to-day work. Then AI is getting into the war-fighting domain. During peace time we keep collecting information on adversaries or from all possible sources. That is the analysis and intent generation.

Second, it is also about using weapons. Aircraft, helicopters, and missiles. So, we are working like LCA Mark 2 and AMCA which will have major support to pilot through AI and that project is also launched. It covers maintenance and production. AI will improve our operational efficiency many times more.

Jha: Since so many developments are taking place and then you also require funds for that. I’m talking about the major fighter jet indigenous programmes which also include the MRFA programme. Should we continue with MRFA with the two major programmes TEJAS and AMCA?

Dixit: We should continue with MRFA. See for any major project, the money gets distributed over the years. So, we plan to do fund management in such a manner that these requirements can do so.

Jha: Would you go for MRFA for numbers as we need to address depleting squadron strength or because of the superior technology?

Dixit: Technologies are slightly better than what we are going to have for LCA Mk2 or somewhere close to that but we need numbers also. So, we need technology but we need the numbers also. Both are equally important.

Manish Kumar Jha is a Consulting & Contributing Defence Editor for SP’s Aviation, SP’s Land Forces and SP’s Naval Forces and a security expert. He writes on national security, military technology, strategic affairs & policies.