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May 12, 2015

For long haul, ‘Desi Air Force One’ on horizon


PM Narendra Modi will now get a plush, highly-secure, office high in the sky. Fitted with advanced self-protection suites to jam and beat hostile incoming missiles and encrypted satellite communication facilities, the new 'Desi Air Force One' is set to be cleared soon.

Sources on Monday said the defence acquisitions council, chaired by minister Manohar Parrikar, will take up acquisition of two Boeing 777-300 (extended range) aircraft for exclusive use by President Pranab Mukherjee and Modi for extra long-haul overseas flights.

The two 777-300 (ER) aircraft will be "bought" from Air India, which has a dozen such relatively new wide-bodied planes, and then specially configured for VVIP travel and retrofitted with the sophisticated self-protection suites by Boeing.They will replace the ageing Boeing 747 'Jumbo Jets' used for VVIP duties under 'Air India One' call sign after pulling them out from commercial duties as and when required. "These old aircraft do not have anti-missile defence systems, which the SPG holds is necessary. The decision was taken after a committee of secretaries from top ministries and aviation experts examined the matter," said a source.

It also gained urgency after Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine last year, just around the time Modi's 747-400 aircraft was using a nearby air corridor to return to New Delhi from Frankfurt. Last month, India was also forced to dispatch a stand-by aircraft to Berlin after the 747-400 being used by Modi developed engine problems during his three-nation tour.

The two modified 777-300 (ER) aircraft will be based with the Air HQ Communication Squadron at Palam, which is tasked with ferrying the President, PM and other VVIPs in and around the country. Though Air India may still collaborate with IAF in terms of pilots, engineers and cabin crew, the call sign of the PM's new 777-300 (ER) ride could well be 'Air Force One' like the US President's iconic 'flying Oval Office'.

The 777-300s will have robust defence systems including 'radar warning receivers', which basically sound an alert if a hostile radar 'paints' the aircraft before letting loose missiles, and 'missile-approach warning systems'. Advanced electronic counter-measures on board the aircraft will be able to jam enemy radars, along with defence systems geared to shoot metal chaff or flares to throw off-track radar-guided or heat-seeking missiles.

Incidentally, the IAF Communication Squadron has three Boeing Business Jets, with similar defence systems, which were inducted for VVIP travel in 2009 under a Rs 937 crore deal. But these 'mini Air Force Ones' have a limited range of 3,000 nautical miles. The CAG had slammed the deal since the aircraft cannot fly VVIPs non-stop to international locations like London due to their limited range. 
 TOI

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