Plans have been firmed up to shut down the Aviation Research Centre (ARC), India’s premier imaging-intelligence organisation, highly-placed government sources have told The Indian Express.
The plans, backed by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, envisage that the ARC’s aircraft and electronics assets will be divided between the National Technical Research Organisation and the Indian Air Force.
The organisational restructuring is primarily meant to enhance intelligence-gathering on China’s military capacities in the Tibet plateau, by integrating satellite-based data gathered by the NTRO with aircraft-based imaging conducted by the ARC.
NTRO’s imaging capacities, sources said, would be significantly enhanced by the acquisition of ARC electronic suites which are equipped with cloud-penetrating radar, something the satellites it now operates do not possess.
Flying from bases at Charbatia in Orissa, Sarsawa in Uttar Pradesh, Tinsukia in Assam and Palam in Delhi, the ARC operates a fleet equipped with Russian IL-76s, AN-32s, General Dynamics Gulfstream IIIs and Global 5000 jets. It is also equipped with Russian-manufactured Mi-17 and Indian-made Alouette II and III helicopters. The organisation is largely staffed by officers on deputation from the armed forces.
There is little public domain data on the ARC’s technical capacities, but the organisation is believed to have access to state-of-the-art equipment provided by the United States, the result of an intelligence cooperation agreement that dates back to the 1962 war with China.
Beginning with the loan of a Helio Twin Courier turboprop from the United States that year, the organisation played a key role in a secret partnership to monitor China’s nuclear tests at Lop Nor.
Intelligence professionals are divided on the development, with some arguing that shutting down ARC could undermine the Research and Analysis Wing’s coverage of Chinese military infrastructure and capacities.
The ARC’s chief currently reports to the RAW chief who wields ex-officio responsibility over it as Director, Security, in the Cabinet Secretariat.
“The way things stand,” said former ARC chief Amitabh Mathur, “RAW is able to seamlessly have its needs met by the ARC. I’m not sure the NTRO, which is not directly accountable to the consumers of its intelligence, will be quite as responsive.”
ARC insiders also claim handing over its air assets will also leave the élite Special Frontier Force — a special force also reporting to the RAW chief, in his capacity as Director, Security — without air assets under its direct control.
Following the Kargil war, the Army had argued for control of the ARC’s air assets, arguing that it failed to provide adequate warning on the build-up of Pakistani troops across the Line of Control. However, the ARC, as well as RAW, argued that they had indeed provided warnings, the significance of which was misread by military commanders.
The K Subrahmanyam committee report into the Kargil war asserted that “no intelligence failures had been attributed on account of functioning of RAW and ARC. However, certain equipment inadequacies were highlighted such as satellite imagery and UAVs”.
Post-Kargil reforms later led to the formation of the NTRO, along the lines of the United States’ National Security Agency, to serve as a hub for technological innovation and ensure expensive electronic assets could be shared by various intelligence organisations.
In 2012, though, the Naresh Chandra committee on national security reforms had recommended that the ARC be formally merged with RAW — a recommendation that emerged from complaints that the NTRO was not meeting its needs.
Early this year, the government had appointed RAW veteran Alok Joshi to head the NTRO, addressing complaints from the intelligence services that its technologist-dominated leadership was unresponsive to their needs.
The shutdown of the ARC is intended, government sources said, to be part of a broader package of reforms intended to make the NTRO more accountable to the end-users of its intelligence.