A traditional approach to a ground attack mission would be to gather Military intelligence, getting to know the target type, it’s the vicinity to civilians, how well it is defended, surveillance & reconnaissance followed by target acquisition and identification of the location of a target in sufficient detail to engage effectively & then finally attacking the target with lethal weapons.
As one might wonder this is a process that has a lot of nodes that have to operate in perfect synchronisation & timing, as if performing an orchestra on stage, in order to bring about a successful mission. This whole process has different man-machine interfaces & different teams who have to coordinate effectively. While the Military is all about teaming & coordination, a slight glitch can be detrimental to the efficiency of the mission, but not in today’s date. What if there is a platform that can somehow combine all the tasks, from gathering intelligence to surveillance, reconnaissance & even target acquisition for the attacking aircraft. That would not only save a lot of effort by streamlining the process but also would drastically increase efficiency.
This is where an ISTAR aircraft comes in. To begin with, ISTAR stands for (Intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance). It is actually a practice in military sciences that links several battlefield functions together to assist a combat force in employing its sensors and managing the information they gather. An ISTAR aircraft, flying near the target, has these sensors required for gathering intelligence (more on it later), surveillance & target acquisition. The information is then passed to intelligence personnel sitting inside the aircraft for analysis, and then to the commander and his staff for the formulation of battle plans. This real-time understanding of the ground target, enemy dispositions and intents vastly improve the commander’s situational awareness and consequently their decision making. The commander can be inside the ISTAR aircraft or sitting in a Command post on the ground safely watching everything (via Satellite communications) that the ISTAR aircraft captures. This is a massive upgrade of legacy systems as the real-time imagery of the target is available to the battlefield commander to take the decision.
In a significant turn of moves, the Indian Air Force is going to acquire two ISTAR aircraft & in future DRDO will supply an additional four. The first two aircraft will be supplied from Bombardier & the sensors on them will be integrated by Raytheon. This will lead to a manifold increase in intelligence gathering capabilities for the Air Force.
The ISTAR platform will have an AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) based radar with Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) & Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar (ISAR) for accurate ground mapping & Ground Moving Target Indicator (GMTI) to identify moving targets like vehicles. The images generated by Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) are highly accurate & are trusted more as satellite mapping cannot capture minute & small details on the ground, but SAR can. It’ll also have a long-range day/night TV camera with Infrared imaging capabilities to actually “see” the target from a significant distance. Furthermore, the Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) & Communications Intelligence (COMINT) features will be incorporated which will enable the team onboard to listen to enemy communications.
Since the past two years, DRDO’s Centre for Airborne Systems (CABS) is already working on the indigenous radars & sensors for the second batch of four ISTAR aircraft that would be integrated locally.
There would be an analysis team sitting inside the aircraft which analyses the data acquired by the sensors in real time & would relay the information to the battlefield command centre. The Mission commander can also fly in the same aircraft & work with the team to take better & more informed decisions.
In missions like the Balakot strike where it is required to cross the LOC, fly inside the enemy territory & come back in a short span of time, pilots of the attacking aircraft have a very short window to identify & acquire the target. An ISTAR aircraft in this kind of scenario would come in handy as we would have sufficient intelligence about the target & it’s location beforehand.
Apart from it’s military uses, an ISTAR aircraft is an asset to the nation. It can be used for disaster relief missions as well as search & rescue where it can easily detect & identify an object in a large area of search. It can be counted as one of the most valuable aircraft in the inventory. AWACS platforms like Phalcon & Netra keep an eye on the sky for enemy fighters & ISTAR aircraft does the same for ground targets.
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