737 SIGINT Aircraft
Airborne SIGINT system is an electronic surveillance system capable of collecting information about enemy radar systems as well as about their communication systems. Air HQ projected an immediate operational requirement of three such systems with state of the art technology in June 1987 for replacing its existing HS-748 based systems which had become outdated to match the changed threat scenario. Two of these systems were proposed to be installed on Boeing 737 aircraft for airborne use while the third was meant for reserve and training. Because of limited requirement and long gestation period of indigenous development, Air Force suggested their import, at the then total cost of Rs 30 crore for all three systems so that these were available for installation on the aircraft latest by March 1990.
Indecisiveness in the Ministry delayed sanction of indigenous development of SIGINT by two and a half years. The Ministry, however, opted for indigenous development on the ground that Defence Research and Development Organisation had expertise in the field and accorded "go-ahead" sanction in October 1989 for indigenous development of the system by Defence Electronics Research Laboratory, Hyderabad with BEL (Bharat Electronics Limited), Hyderabad and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. The unintegrated system was to be demonstrated by April 1991 and the first airborne system, duly integrated on aircraft, was to be delivered by October 1992. The Ministry thus, delayed sanction of indigenous development by two and a half years.
The development project overshot the schedule time by 17 months. The conclusion of contract with BEL for supply of this system took another 10 month. The development of the system suffered from delays. A joint team of Air Force, BEL and Defence Electronics Development Establishment evaluated the system during July-September 1992, after a delay of more than 17 months from the originally scheduled date. While the proposal was under process in the Ministry for approval of CCPA (Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs) for acquisition of the three systems from BEL, two Boeing 737 aircraft were procured from Indian Airlines in July 1993 at Rs 16.50 crore. Approval of the CCPA was obtained only in May 1994, after a delay of 20 months from the successful trial. Thereafter, it took 10 months to conclude the contract with BEL, who was assigned the task of manufacture, for supply of three airborne systems in March 1995.
The installation of the system was delayed due to late positioning of the aircraft. According to the time schedule indicated in CCPA paper, the first system was to be made operational in 1995-96, the second in 1996-97 and the third in 199798, BEL was also to carry out necessary structural modification of two Boeing 737 aircraft and install the system onboard through Hindustan Aeronautics Limited as sub-contractor, Rs100 crore was payable to BEL for the supply and services rendered, of which Rs 90 crore with a foreign exchange content of Rs 52.40 crore was for supply of the systems. However, Air HQ delayed positioning of the aircraft, although these had been purchased way back in July 1993. One aircraft was positioned in July 1995 and another in January 1998. The aircraft were unauthorisedly diverted to VIP squadron which already consisted of two Boeing 737, seven Avros and six helicopters. The Ministry attributed the delay in positioning of aircraft to non-availability of hanger space at Aircraft and System Testing Establishment. The Ministry ought to have provided additional hanger space for such an important project. Besides, purchase of the aircraft five years in advance without checking on the availability of hanger was not justified.
While the critical defence requirement suffered, both the aircraft were diverted to VIP squadron. Thus, while a critical defence requirement suffered, the Ministry used the aircraft purchased for installing the system for providing air-transport to those, who were not even entitled for their use. Misuse of the aircraft of the VIP squadron was brought out in paragraph No.2 of the Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, Union Government, Defence Services (Air Force and Navy) for the year ended 31 March 1997, No. 8 of 1998.
The Ministry accepted that there were delays in development of the system. It added in October 1998 that it did affect the operational efficiency of the Air Force. They also added that some delays are inevitable in development projects of this magnitude and that unforeseen administrative/technical problems came up during the process of development.
The Ministry's stand underscores lack of seriousness towards controllable lapses and shortcomings leading to compromise in acquisition of vital defence systems/ equipment. While some delays in development due to factors beyond control would be understandable, the Ministry's position on inevitability of delays on administrative grounds at different stages brought out above and their silence on unauthorised diversion of aircraft purchased for installing the SIGINT system are not acceptable.
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