IAF set to begin process to buy bird-detection radars — for the 4th time in 10 years

Amid a recent spate of bird-hit incidents, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is set to start — for the fourth time in 10 years — the process of procuring bird-detection radars or avian radars by floating a Request for Information (RFI), highly placed sources in the IAF told ThePrint.

“We will have to restart the process of procuring the avian radars, but they will definitely be procured. Initially, we had few choices among the vendors. But now, there will be more choices with many indigenous players in the market,” a senior IAF officer, who did not wish to be named, told ThePrint.

The earlier tenders for bird-detection radars had drawn the interest of only three or four vendors.

The IAF has not released official figures for bird-hits, but the seriousness of the problem was acknowledged when Air Chief Marshal Rakesh Bhadauria said at a press conference Friday that the force was taking several steps to reduce such incidents.

It is estimated that bird-hits contribute to 10 per cent of all fighter jet accidents. Ambala, one of the most sensitive IAF bases, has seen five to six bird-hit incidents annually over a period of 10 years. Most of these incidents lead to irreversible damage to the engines of a fighter aircraft, which are worth crores of rupees.

The IAF currently relies on zone guns and firecrackers to scare away birds from the flight path.

Past tenders led to nothing

The initial RFI stage of the process is followed later by a Request for Proposal (RFP). The first RFI for avian radars was floated in 2010, but the RFP had been withdrawn by 2011.

A second RFI followed, and the RFP process, which began in 2012, went on until 2015, with four companies in the fray — M/s OIS-AT, M/s Robin Radar Systems, M/s Data Patterns (India) Pvt Ltd, and M/s Axiscades Aerospace And Technologies Pvt Ltd. The plan at this stage was to procure 45 avian radar systems for Rs 250 crore — 39 for the IAF and six for the Navy.

However, this RFP was withdrawn too, and a fresh RFI was floated in 2016 with a new requirement for 3D coverage being introduced. There had been no progress since then.

IAF sources said the process got stuck at the scaling stage — where a service assesses why it needs a particular kind of equipment, how much of it, and at what cost. The scaling process is omitted if an urgent procurement has to be made.

“It (scaling process) depends on how badly the service needs that equipment,” an IAF officer explained, indicating that avian radars were low on the service’s priority list, and adding that they are yet to be made compulsory even at civilian airports.

However, Axiscades, which claimed to be the lowest bidder in the second RFP, had gone to the Delhi High Court, alleging that this requirement for 3D coverage was introduced only to benefit OIS-AT, owned by arms dealer Sanjay Bhandari. Bhandari, now a fugitive, stands charged for money laundering and for violating the Official Secrets Act (OSA), and his firm has been banned by the defence ministry.

Axiscades, which is said to be linked to BJP MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar, told the court that the defence ministry withdrew the RFP in 2015 in a non-transparent manner, and introduced the new clause to disadvantage it and favour OIS. However, the petition was dismissed by the high court, and later by the Supreme Court as well.

During the hearings on the matter in the Delhi High Court, the defence ministry had said the first RFP had been withdrawn.

In the Delhi High Court, the defence ministry had justified its decision to withdraw both the RFPs, citing instances of non-compliance on the part of various vendors.

Meanwhile, IAF sources said the 3D coverage requirement was only added after adequate study.

“The specification was included based on study. Any service would always like to go with the latest technology. It was a coincidence that another bidder had said it had the technology,” a senior officer said.

Why avian radars are needed

Former IAF officers elaborated on the necessity of avian radars for the service.

Air Vice Marshal Shankar Mani (retd) told ThePrint that bird-detection radars could play a critical role in creating a situational awareness about presence of birds, and act as a decision-support system for undertaking base operations and training requirements.

“The IAF undertakes several low-level tactical training missions above its bases, and armament training over air-to-ground ranges. A good bird-detection radar will be of immense help and a good aid in terms of taking a decision over launching or recovering an aircraft and determining possible window by providing real-time feedback to the team on hot spots and seasonal patterns, particularly in bird-infested areas,” Mani said.

“However, educating the local masses about environment cleanliness and limiting rapid habitation and industrial grow around operational airfields is an important task at hand for the district and municipal administration to obviate bird strike accidents.”

Meanwhile, Wing Commander Pankaj Gupta (retd) added that while it is not possible to get rid of birds, any information about them is vital to a pilot while in the cockpit of an aircraft.

“It is important because out of the several thousands of hours of flying by the IAF per day, pilots might be evading several bird hits. Nobody keeps a record of that. It could be an important device to warn a pilot in advance so that he or she exercises caution through alternate ways, so that a resource to fight a war is not lost,” Gupta said.

Wg Cdr A.R. Giri (retd) concurred. “Bird detection radars are the need of the hour for any air force. These radars would significantly reduce bird strikes and save the exchequer a considerable amount of revenue in the form of saved equipment and life.”

He added: “But air forces around the world have a challenging task to deal with avian encroachment in flying airspace. The need is to identify the conflict areas and chalk out a coexistence plan.”

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