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Indian Air Force in the Market for a New SIGINT Aircraft

…when it will be delivered is anyone’s guess.


The IAF (Indian Air Force) first mooted its desire for a new SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) aircraft back in 2014. Since then the programme appears to have proceeded slowly and may, for all intents and purposes, now have been postponed. The acquisition of the aircraft is important for the air force’s SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defence) posture. As MON reported on 6 May, the IAF is moving ahead in its acquisition of a new anti-radiation missile in the guise of the NGARM (Next Generation Anti-Radiation Missile – story here).

In 2014, the Indian government announced a requirement for two so-called ‘special missions’ aircraft for SIGINT collection. This would form part of a nine-aircraft acquisition. The balance of seven aircraft were to be configured to support an array of other missions including target towing and Communications Jamming (COMJAM). The IAF already operates two Bombardier GLOBAL-5000 converted business jets thought to collect SIGINT on behalf of the country’s Research and Analysis Wing; India’s foreign intelligence service. Two additional Gulfstream-III reconnaissance aircraft operated by the IAF may also have SIGINT gathering capabilities.

A Request For Information (RfI) for the acquisition was subsequently published in July 2017. This reduced the number of aircraft to be acquired to seven: Five of the aircraft, the RfI stipulated, were to be configured for SIGINT collection and COMJAM, with two configured solely for the former. Performance-wise the RfI called for the aircraft to be capable of operating from airbases 3,000m above sea level, have two engines, a minimum range of 4,500km and a cruising speed of up to Mach 0.8. This would indicate the force leaning towards a business jet platform to satisfy the requirement.

Regarding mission systems the RfI called for the aircraft to cover a waveband of 30 megahertz/MHz to 40 gigahertz/GHz for ELINT collection. This will allow the aircraft to collect information and geo-locate the vast majority of ground-based and naval radars operated by India’s two strategic rivals; Pakistan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

The COMJAM requirement called for the continuous searching and monitoring of wavebands in a discreet fashion, direction finding, recording all emissions and the ability to continue collecting COMINT (Communications Intelligence) between COMJAM efforts. Other requirements called for the COMJAM system to be capable of introducing misleading or false information into an adversaries’ communications and analysing the reactions to the jamming.

Reports have spoken of the IAF’s desire for a cyber attack capability in the aircraft’s repertoire. The aircraft’s communications receivers will cover a 30MHz to 3GHz waveband and have programmable bandwidths. This will allow COMINT to be collected from conventional civil and military radio, wireless, cellular and satellite communications. Moreover, the aircraft should be able to collect this intelligence at a range of circa 400km across 360 degrees’ azimuth. One interesting element of the combined SIGINT and COMJAM capability is that it would allow the air force to jam and disrupt the communications links vital to the smooth running of an Integrated Air Defence System (IADS).

Reports stated that the IAF had originally hoped to issue a request for proposals for the new SIGINT aircraft by late 2018, with the delivery of the first aircraft to occur two years after contract signature. India has set a budget of $580 million (2019 value) for the acquisition. It remains unclear as to whether an RfP has now been issued: “The process has yet to gain momentum as probably other projects have been given higher priority,” Air Marshal (rtd.) Daljit Singh, a former IAF fighter pilot and highly respected electronic warfare expert, told MONCh.

Long term, this acquisition is not one that the IAF should postpone given the eventual service entry of the NGARM and the importance of the force being capable of winning and holding electromagnetic freedom of manoeuvre in future conflicts.

Dr Thomas Withington 


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