Compatibility to be hit as the services buy different kinds of software defined radio - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Thursday 4 February 2021

Compatibility to be hit as the services buy different kinds of software defined radio

Despite the appointment of a CDS to coordinate procurement, all three services are proceeding on different paths while buying “software defined radio

 By Ajai Shukla


Despite the appointment of a chief of defence staff (CDS) to coordinate procurement and interoperability between the army, navy and Indian Air Force (IAF), all three services are following different paths while buying their next-generation communication systems, known as “software defined radio” (SDR).


As a result, there will be a loss of communications efficiency when, say, an army signaller communicates with an air force pilot, defeating the very purpose of upgrading radio equipment. Even worse, the enemy could find it easy to intercept communications because of lowered security protocols.


The IAF, which is ahead of the army and navy in buying futuristic SDR equipment, has chosen to equip its fighter aircraft, several kinds of transport aircraft and helicopters and ground stations with SDR developed by Israeli firm, Rafael Advanced Defence Systems. 


SDR is an entirely different kind of radio communication, compared to current digital systems. The radio wave form is shaped by a secure software programme that makes it difficult to hack and intercept. SDR allows for secure voice, data and video transmission and has been described flippantly as “a highly secure WhatsApp”. In fact, it is far more sophisticated and secure.


In 2017, the IAF signed a contract worth over $100 million with Rafael, for 500 SDR sets that the Israeli firm has named the B-Net system. The next year, Rafael began integrating SDR sets into the IAF aircraft and grounds stations where they were intended to be deployed. 


Each different type of aircraft, base, radar and guided weapon needed to be integrated separately and tested and certified fit for use. That process is almost complete, says Eli Hefets, Rafael’s corporate regional director for India.


Thereafter, the manufacture of the IAF’s 500 SDR is to be carried out in Hyderabad, in a joint venture (JV) company called Astra Rafael Comsys (ARC). Indian electronics firm Astra Microwave owns a 51 per cent stake in ARC, while Rafael owns the remaining 49 per cent.


Hefets states that Rafael has already placed an order worth about $30 million on ARC, and that the JV is contractually bound to supply the IAF with SDR sets that were more than 80 per cent indigenous.


Meanwhile, the army has decided to procure SDR through the “Make-2” category of the Defence Procurement Procedure. This requires interested companies to develop equipment at their own cost and offer it to the MoD, which then conducts trials and chooses what it likes. It is understood that the army will soon issue an Expression of Interest (EoI), inviting firms to develop suitable SDR.


Hefets says the JV firm, ARC, intends to participate in the “Make 2” competition and so, the army could end up with interoperable B-Net SDR developed by Rafael. However, if some other vendor quotes lower, the army – the biggest user of portable, hand-held radio – could end up with non-compatible equipment.


Meanwhile, the navy has decided to buy SDR from Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL). Unlike aircraft, where space is critical and, unlike the army where weight is crucial because many users have to man-pack their radio sets; naval vessels have ample space and no weight constraints for their SDR equipment. BEL’s SDR equipment is both bulky and heavy, but meets the navy’s requirement, perhaps at a lesser cost.


  1. While this piece is welcome in that it shines the light on a very niche and important area, there is need to clarify certain things
    1. Due to their different operating environments and platforms, the three services will always have differing QRs and equipment. True of US, NATO, all advanced militaries
    2. That does not necessarily mean that the different SDRs cannot "talk" to each other. Following a common set of standards ensures that. If it is indeed the case that the SDRs cannot talk to each other the article should provide some evidence of the claim, as that is definitely a serious omission, if true.
    3. While the Navy's SDR may be bigger and heavier than the Israeli product, it was designed and developed in house. The "BEL product" was actually co-developed with DRDO, CDAC, CAIR and the Indian Navy. When talking about any modern system, guess who has an edge. The folks who own the source code.

    The MoD has actually got a pretty good plan in place - with a steering committee to oversee an SDR ecosystem formed in 2018. If lethargic babucracy does not hamper things, SDR can be a truly impressive Make in India story with zero foreign dependence.

  2. Wow ! this looks good vedor development by MoD now we have atleat two vendors ARC and BEL. This is good for compition and both will be major Made-in-India. If another vedor can still get its its shame for ARC and BEL.

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