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Next Gen AWACS and LCA MK-II are the upcoming big challenges for DRDO

The task seems to be cut out for Tessy Thomas, who assumed office in Bengaluru on June 1 as the new Director General - Aero of the Defence Research & Development Organisation or DRDO.

The aero cluster handles some of the country’s premium military aviation programmes.

Six laboratories and an autonomous agency grouped under it develop military arsenal such as future fighters, pilot-less spy planes, electronic warfare systems, avionics and aero-engines. Before this, Dr. Thomas was the Director of the Advanced Systems Lab in Hyderabad. Many of them have been bogged down for years. Dr. Thomas, of the Agni IV missile fame that got her the nickname of ‘Agniputri’, would need to aggressively fire them up to completion.

The Armed Forces need these categories of products urgently.

They must be convinced against importing them and instead inducting these home-grown creations when they are ready, according to a former scientist of the organisation.

All but one of the aero labs are in Bengaluru. They are the autonomous Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), the Defence Avionics Research Establishment (DARE), the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE); the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), the Centre For Air Borne Systems (CABS), CEMILAC or the Centre for Military Airworthiness & Certification; and the Aerial Delivery Research and Development Establishment, Agra.

The LCA or the Light Combat Aircraft has got delayed on the way to the FOC or the final operational clearance. Loosely, the FOC is jargon for that final milestone tag that says the fighter is fully battle ready for the Indian Air Force - which has already inducted it.

In order to get the FOC, the LCA still needs to be fitted and tested with the crucial AESA radar, the electronic warfare suite and its capability to fire missiles in a war.

The LCA and its versions are designed by ADA which was created to develop modern fighter planes for the Air Force and the Navy. The planes are manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. ADA is also working on the ambitious upgraded and superior LCA Mark II and with clearances later, a bigger stealth fighter aircraft called the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft.

Another aero arm, the ADE (not to be confused with ADA), is perfecting the high-altitude unmanned air vehicle Rustom-2. Drones are meant for surveillance and the Forces need to import them in large numbers.

The ADE's sub-sonic cruise missile Nirbhay has passed only two of the five trials conducted on it. Will Dr. Thomas's expertise in missiles turn its fortunes?

The GTRE (Gas Turbine Research Establishment) did not succeed with the aspirational Kaveri aero engine even after two decades of development. DRDO officials still speak often of salvaging the costly programme and putting the Indian engine into a future fighter aircraft or drone.

Another essential item in the war arsenal is the development of future surveillance plane (Air-borne Early Warning and Control Systems AEW&CS). CABS has delivered the radar systems fitted on two imported Embraer planes. A larger AWACS programme on a large aircraft awaits clearance and would add to Dr. Thomas’s to-do list.

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