Bhanu P. Srivastava, Chairman and Managing Director, Bharat Electronics Limited speaks with Manish Kumar Jha on a range of technologies in aerospace and defence. On the sidelines of Aero India 2022, he outlines some of the cutting-edge technologies, including integrated EW systems, submarine communications, C-4I, radar, tank electronics, electro-optics, lasers and naval systems. Srivastava stresses that the highest spending on R&D will drive the next-generation AI-based unmanned and air-defence systems at BEL.
Bharat Electronics: What are you showing at Aero India 2023?
We are showcasing all our new equipment in a broad spectrum of technologies in which we are working. We are working on radar technology, communication technology, and naval projects. We are also working on many artificial intelligence-related cases and products, and electro-optics projects besides systems. So, in all those areas, whatever we are, we have come up with new products and new technologies.
Electro-optics and lasers are some of the advanced areas where cutting-edge technology is shaping the new dimensions of warfare. How the BEL is addressing such futuristic technologies?
In electro-optics, there are two technologies– one is image intensification where you have small star lights and you intensify using image intensification tubes and another is thermal imaging, which uses that heat which is coming out of the object and then it converts into optics which you are able to see. So, in both these areas, we are making mini light present devices for our defence forces, and night vision goggles which can be used on weapons. It can be used on tanks. So, we are supplying all these products to defence forces.
We have also tied up with Elbit Systems for the night vision device which is used on the nose of the helicopter. It’s called a COMPASS. it gives a panoramic image of day and night. A pilot can navigate at night.
We have our plant and machinery and we are coming up with a new factory near Nimmaluru which will have a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility. We are the only company in India for manufacturing basic image intensifier tubes for companies which are making that night vision devices. So, we have our subsidiary company in clinical or electronic devices, which manufactures these image intensifier tubes, of course, with the TOTs arrangement with the Photonics of France.
Could you talk about the latest development in avionics and electronic warfare (EW) systems as these remain the flagship line of the BEL? It is important as IAF will have about 500 aircraft, including MRFA, AMCA and Tejas MK2.
All the avionics package for LCA Tejas is from the BEL. So, we are contributing to LCA. For MiG-29 Upgrade also, we have tied up with two foreign companies in giving the electronic warfare equipment to IAF. So, these are all airborne EW equipment.
We are also in a new field for land-based systems and ship-based systems which is being done by our Hyderabad unit. We have mostly tied up with the DLRL of DRDO. So, we have an electronic warfare system like Nari Shakti for the ship-based system, where we scan the communication segment and non-communication segment and we try to find out what type of signals are coming as we try to detect the enemy positions and communications. So, we have provided a total communication system both internal and external for INS Vikrant. We have also provided a shipboard data network– the SDN system– and the flight deck communication system which controls the landing and takeoff as the pilot communicates with the centralized radio communication channel. In the flight deck communication system, we tied up with Motorola.
What is the update on sonar and radar which are the core areas of your expertise?
All the frontline ships and submarines of various types have built sonar from us. In fact, very few ships may have imported one. Otherwise, most of the ships and submarines of the Indian navy have BEL sonars, of course, designed in collaboration with NPL. It was only the P-75 which is manufactured in collaboration with DCNS [Naval Group] which has its own. Otherwise, all other submarines including the strategic platforms have BEL’s communication systems and combat management systems (CMS) as well.
So, can the BEL provide such a system for the upcoming P-75 I submarine?
We are working with DRDO and even we had a discussion with Mazagon Dock (MDL) and other indigenous platform manufacturers about to what extent indigenous solutions can be given for P-75I.
What about the electronics for tanks which you have focused on in your display? Could you talk about gun upgrades and the elements?
Tank electronics have stabilizers and systems. Other electronic equipment includes the Commander Sight of battle tanks-T-90 for the Indian army. Our special unit in Chennai unit is dedicated to supporting tanks whether it is T-90 tanks or T-72 upgrades. Along, we have supplied all electronic equipment for Arjun MK1 or MK1A. We have upgraded the L-70 gun as we got the other from the army. We have replaced the old Russian systems with the latest mechanical systems and electronic systems.
While BEL’s AKASH air missile system has gone through many upgrades, could you also throw light on the next-generation air defence system which is underway?
In the air defence, we have got two parts– air defence sensors and integration of air defence. So, one is the missile system where you have a surveillance radar and a tracking radar for the aircraft coming from objects. Then, you take the corrective action with a firing missile or engagement and that is partly similar to many ground-based sensors which we are supplying like surveillance radars and various types of surveillance data to the armed forces.
But more on the advanced level, we are integrating all these sensors and giving real-time air situation pictures to the IAF. Another big project is called the integrated air command and control system (IACC). It is a state-of-the-art fully indigenous system. The whole application in software is done based upon the basic structure in 2005. Now, we are in phase five. So, there we are building it up a few nodes and our objective is to make all nodes fully operational within three years.
Technology is moving at a fast pace in aerospace especially, in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and machine learning. How are you incorporating such new-age technologies in your assembly line — systems and equipment?
You use robotics in assembly lines when you use massive-scale manufacturing. In defence, we don’t have that massive scale manufacturing where we use robots in our office. So, where the quantities are limited. So, we have the latest equipment which is used to manufacture critical assemblies and sub-assemblies.
For AI, we have dedicated so many groups which are working on various aspects of AI. we have developed two-three languages specifically Chinese language where any communication coming in the Chinese language is decoded. it’s real-time. So, it is a voice recognition system based on AI. We have also given integrated perimeter security systems to the IAF and naval air bases. So, we are installing that system which has got that this aspect of AI where you analyze the image. So, it keeps on learning which type of intrusions– whether it is a wild animal or a human being and human under camouflage. So, all these things are an intelligence-based system that can detect the intrusion and take corrective action.
Under BEL’s structure, we have three-tier R&D centres. We have a central research laboratory, which is working only on futuristic technologies. We have close to around 600 Scientists working and the product development and Innovation Center for the subsystems and modules. And then we have Development and Engineering groups, which develop the usable products
We spend more than 7% of our turnover on R&D. So, in the Indian context, it is the highest spending.
What is the BEL’s export target and how are you progressing towards achieving the export target?
Under the current geopolitics, we intend to export only to friendly countries. There are other considerations like the line of credit and strategic alignment. To promote export, we have opened regional offices in Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Oman and Nigeria. So, these are some of the countries where we see the opportunity. There are other countries also where opportunities are there. We’ll see how the business grows.
There are challenges as we lack the capability of sensors and semiconductors in India. How do you address that situation?
In the 80s and 90s, we lag behind in developing the ecosystem of semiconductor manufacturing did not develop in. Now, it is a costly affair and fab if you want to establish it requires a $15-20 billion of investment. So, the government has come up with a scheme where it is giving incentives to a company or group of the company for semiconductor manufacturing, which also includes the semiconductor design houses and packaging industry. We need wafer manufacturing, chip manufacturing, chip packaging, testing and supply.
Could you also give us an update on the financial performance and your order book?
Our focus is always on R&D as we are able to customize the product for the armed forces. And our strength helps us to customize the solutions to their requirements. The second strength is our long-term association and product support. Even as the technology gets obsolete, we upgrade its obsolescence. If is there a new development, we give an add-on solution. So, we don’t come to defence forces and say that is obsolete but provide solutions and upgrade; it saves huge cost as well. Many times, you see that we will get single tender, single vendor status, it is because BEL is offering value-added services right at the optimum cost with long-term support.