“If we lose the war in the air, we lose the war and we lose it quickly.” A look into the capabilities of India’s Air Force and the way forward.

Aerial warfare, since World War – I, has evolved drastically with technology and has steadily established itself as the much after sought combative arm for any modern military power. Over the years, air power, with its ability to project effective military power in an agile manner with largely minimised vulnerabilities, has predominantly dominated the other two environmental forms of combat – land and sea power.

For a country as vast as India, which is plagued by hostilities of two nuclear-armed neighbours and with a requirement to tend to the complex geo-political situations of the region, a resilient and robust military force, capable of showcasing its prowess across the region is a key requirement. With an ability to apply military prowess in the third dimension and beyond, the Air Force has emerged as the preferred power projector for India.

At the core of the Air Force’s power projection capabilities is its fighter fleet, which is effectively augmented by tens of squadrons of its transport aircraft. Through the course of past conflicts with its neighbours, the Air Force has proved to be centric to both of India’s warmaking and sustaining capabilities. The Indian Air Force (IAF), with these frontline assets, has for years maintained aerial superiority in the contested Indo-Pacific region.

Given the success of air power in these conflict situations, the Indian Government has steadily elevated the role of the Air Force. With a mandate to make the Air Force shun its preconceived role of a ‘close air support’ force and towards making it a true strategic military arm capable of striking at deeper strategic depths, the Government has been vigorously modernising the Air Force, since the onset of the millennium.

Much of the emphasis under the modernisation programs have been towards augmenting the strike capabilities of the Air Force’s primary combat arm – the fighter aircraft fleet. Armed with cutting-edge technology and deadly weapon systems, these aircraft promise to nullify a wide variety of threats both in the Air and on the surface.

LCA Tejas Firing Derby BVR; Courtesy - DPR.
LCA Tejas Firing Derby BVR; Courtesy – DPR.

Given the prevailing hostilities in the region, the IAF has a sanctioned minimum strength of 39.5 fighter squadrons. It is believed that both the secretive ‘Raksha Mantri’s Operational Directive’ and the Air Force’s operational doctrines, view this number as a bare minimum to effectively handle IAF’s primary missions of deterrence, punishment, protection and projection.

The ground situation, however, is in stark contrast to the desired capabilities. The Lok Sabha Standing Committee on Defence in its 2017-18 report has raised serious alarms about the Air Force’s dwindling capabilities. The report, which was tabled before the country’s lawmakers, has noted that the Air Force is operating with a mere 31 active squadrons. Even as the Air Force works towards a recourse, this number has further plummeted to an alarming 29 squadrons, meaning there exists a deficit of at least 10 fighter squadrons.

Further, of these 29 squadrons in service, at least 7 squadrons are composed of the Soviet-era MiG – 21 and MiG – 27 aircraft. These aircraft, which were once the mainstay fighters of the Air Force, are themselves nearly obsolete and are marked for rapid decommissioning by 2022.

This will mean that by the onset of the next decade, the Air Force will be left to defend India’s airspace with a mere 25 squadrons, if procurement programs do not see the light of day. Air Force’s dreams of fielding 42 to 45 squadrons, which it says is required for effectively countering any two-front surge by the Chinese and Pakistanis in a tango, will remain a distant dream. Senior Air Force officials, appearing before the Standing Committee, themselves admitted that it is undoubtedly challenging to fight a two-front war with the current resources that the Air Force holds.

Failure to arrest the plummeting squadron numbers any further, will mean that Air Force will drastically be bled off its traditional aerial superiority in the region. This threat holds true even as the Chinese and Pakistani Air Forces press-on with their modernisation program.

While the Pakistani Air Force has about 250 fighters mainly based around the J-10s and F-16s; PLAAF, the Chinese Air Force, has about 700+ fighters in service. PLAAF is now moving towards inducting their maiden fifth generation fighter – the J20s, which have been designed and developed indigenously. PLAAF has also inducted the J10s, Su-27 and the Su-30 MKKs en masse. This rate of rapid induction being followed by the hostile neighbours is only threatening India further.

A Ghost Haunting from Within.

While the Air Force has floated procurement programs consecutively, several of these are grappling to make progress. One key reason for this remains to be the successive truncated outlays for the Air Force. While IAF had projected a requirement for INR 66,000 crore under the capital head in FY 2018-19, the force was allocated a mere INR 35, 750.17 crore, meaning a deficit of INR 30, 248.83 crores exists for the current fiscal year. Startlingly, an average deficit of INR 13,942. 41 crore haunts the Air Force since 2012. These successive truncated outlays have meant that almost all of the procurement programs have lost steam, effectively leaving the Air Force high and dry.

A Jaguar DARIN - III Aircraft; Courtesy - HAL.
A Jaguar DARIN – III Aircraft; Courtesy – HAL.

Charting a trajectory towards Re-energising the Air Force

The Air Force in an effort to rebuild the depleted fighter force has been batting for procuring aircraft on a fast track basis. From the MMRCA tender to inducting the Light Combat Aircraft – Tejas, the IAF is betting big on this approach. However, the financial shortcomings have left these programs in a limbo.

Success with these programs for now only remaining a mirage for the Air Force, one solid recourse the Air Force can resort to is to upgrading its current fighter fleet such as the MiG-29s and Mirage – 2000s. These upgrades, which are relatively cost effective, promise to revolutionise the capabilities of the in-service aircraft. For instance, the MiG – 29 platform prior to its upgrade was solely assigned air superiority missions. However, since upgradation the aircraft has acquired swing-role capabilities. Even though upgrade programs for a large part of the fleet are already in place progress with them has not been forthcoming.

The Air Force contracted with Russia’s RAC MIG in 2007 for upgrading its fleet of MiG-29 air superiority fighters at a cost of US $964 million. Designated MiG – 29 UPG, these upgraded aircraft, will feature a Phazotron manufactured Zhuk-M multi-mode radar. This addition has enabled the aircraft to undertake swing-role missions. The upgrade, which gives the aircraft a service life of 40 years, has provided the aircraft with beyond visual range (BVR) and mid-air refuelling capabilities.

While the first three MiG – 29 UPGs, upgraded by the OEM in Russia, have joined the Air Force since Dec 2012, the rest of the 60+ aircraft being rolled out by the state-run manufacturer Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) have had a somewhat sluggish progress.

A MiG – 29 UPG Fighter of the Indian Air Force; Courtesy – Mikoyan Corporation.

The Mirage 2000 fighters, which were instrumental in sealing the Kargil episode in India’s favour, are being upgraded to Mirage 2000 – 5 standards under a $2.4 Billion program. French OEMs Dassault Aviation and Thales are working with HAL for equipping the aircraft with a new set of avionics and radar package besides enhanced mission computers, EW suites and targeting systems. As part of reducing the workload on pilots, the aircraft is being equipped with glass cockpit and helmet mounted systems. Dassault and Thales have already delivered two upgraded aircraft, with HAL working on the rest of the aircraft. The program, adding nearly 20 years of service life, is expected to be completed by 2025.

Another program the Air Force is pursuing is to upgrade its fleet of Jaguar fighters, which currently is the only dedicated ‘close air support’ mission capable platform. Working with HAL, the Air Force is aiming to upgrade the Jaguars to DARIN-III standards, where 60+ aircraft will be fitted with highly modified avionics package including open system architecture mission computer (OSAMC) system.

One of the most significant upgrade to the aircraft under the DARIN – III package will be the addition of the Elta manufactured EL/M – 2052 AESA radar. With this upgrade, the Jaguar DARIN – III standard aircraft has become the maiden fighter of the IAF to be equipped with an AESA radar.

While the Air Force has been successful in getting clearance for the avionics upgradation, it’s plans to up-gun the engines of the aircraft have been hanging in fire. The Air Force has time and again stressed the requirement to replace the current Rolls Royce engines with Honeywell manufactured F-125N engines, which produce a thrust of 43.8 Kilotons as compared to the current thrust of 32.5 KN. While the Air Fore has secured initial clearance from the MoD (Ministry of Defence) for procuring these engines, failure to secure financial clearances have left the program in an abyss.

The IAF is set receive its complete fleet of 272 Su-30s, its current mainstay fighters, on order with HAL by 2020. The state-run manufacturer, which has already delivered close to 240 fighters, is making a strong pitch with the IAF for the procurement of additional aircraft. While the Air Force has turned down this offer, it remains interested in upgrading the current fleet to the Super Sukhoi standards.

Estimated to cost well over $6 billion, the upgrade, if conceived, will witness the aircraft being equipped with a whole new array of avionics systems, including AESA radars, IRST system and advancement to the current cockpit. This upgrade program, which promises to evolve the aircraft to a near 5th generation fighter, has been under consideration for the past decade. While the IAF has already freezed its requirements, the Russian OEM is yet to reveal its offer.

It is crucial that the Government works in close consultation with the Air Force to reenergise these programs. State-run HAL, which is the primary agency in executing the upgrade programs, needs to up its game and stick to the laid down timeframes.

Indigenous Programs and Future Acquisition Programs.

By September, 2019, the Air Force would have received its maiden Rafale aircraft from Dassault Aviation as part of its order for 36 fighter aircraft in fly-away conditions. While the Rafale, which were procured under a €8 billion Government-to-Government deal, promise to be a force multiplier for the Air Force, they are coming in a far smaller number to influence the current dismal capabilities of the IAF. This deal will also punch a far larger hole in IAF’s already truncated financial purse. With financial constraints being a major concern, cost efficient procurement programs with admissible timeframe for induction ought to be a priority for the Air Force. With global acquisitions always carrying a heavy price tag, it is only the indigenous options that promise this comfort.

LCA Tejas sizzling the sky; Source – Arnav Pai.

Having realised this, the IAF since 1990s has actively been pursuing the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) programme being developed by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA). The resultant Tejas fighter aircraft has been a case of hit and miss for the Air Force. While the IAF inducted the maiden squadron of Tejas in July, 2016, after a developmental timeframe of almost one and a half decades since first flight, the rate of induction of these indigenous fighters is a cause of major concern.

The 45th Squadron, the maiden IAF squadron to be equipped with Tejas, was initially raised with only two aircraft. Since 2016, the squadron has received only about nine additional aircraft as against the promised first full lot of 16 aircraft. HAL, the lead manufacturer of the aircraft, which had throughout maintained that it would be capable of supplying up to 16 aircraft/year has failed to even produce 8 aircraft annually.

In an effort to salvage the program, the MoD has committed INR 1381.04 crores to ramp-up production capabilities from 8 aircraft/annum to 16/annum. With a second production line coming up and increased sourcing from private partners, HAL is confident of cutting down the production timeframe by almost five months, meaning the aircraft can be rolled off the line at a quickened pace.

The much awaited FOC (Final Operational Clearance) certification, which has been elusive to developmental agencies for years, is nearing realisation only now. This has meant that the next lot of aircraft, around 20 of which are to be manufactured in the FOC configuration, will only enter the initial stages of production later next year.

While the developmental agencies account this to the Air Force’s constant shifting of goalpost by the Air Force, the IAF agreeing to this, accounts its practises to the actively evolving threat nature in its operational horizon. Realisation of a fully matured indigenous combat aircraft is only possible when the user and the developmental agencies iron out their differences and work in unison. The Air Force, with the completion of the FOC certification by 2023, will have added 40 of these Mk-1 fighters, with an even mix of them in IOC and FOC standards.

The Air Force is also counting big on the under-development Mk-1A version of the fighter, which will effectively be a make do between the current Mk-1 and planned Mk-2 versions of Tejas. The Air Force has already placed an order for 83 of these fighters, which will feature just over a 100 advancements over its predecessor version.

With its ability to simultaneously track targets at a much faster pace compared to the multi mode radars, the AESA radars will give the aircraft a major capability fillip in air-to-air combat. Selection of an AESA radar from a global OEM is being processed under a tender that was released in December, 2016. Israel’s Elta, SAAB and Thales have offered their products.

HAL, which has the lead in the program, is slated to rollout the first of the Mk-1A fighters in 2020. Developmental teams involved with the program said “Most of the technology for the variant is being realised with the SP version of the fighter being developed under FOC configuration. With FOC certification in sight, it will mean that a major part of the developmental work would have been completed by 2019.” HAL promises to complete the whole order by 2026, an ambitious timeframe given the current issues plaguing the manufacturing cycle.

While the IAF is all set to add at least 123 Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) to its fleet, the force is also actively pursuing a case for procuring 110 medium multi role combat aircraft (MMRCA) from a global manufacturer. The RFI in July, 2018, has received responses from Saab, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, MiG and Dassault. The current tender is being viewed as a redux of the now dead MMRCA tender.

Being pursued under the SP (Strategic Partnership) Model, the tender will witness around 16 fighters being brought off-the-shelf and the rest 94 being manufactured in India. While the tender is a big push for the Government’s ‘Make in India’ initiative, for the Air Force it is yet another shot at its dreams of bridging the wide operational gap between its fleet of light and heavy fighter aircraft. The Air Force has since the conclusion of the Kargil operations batted for the inclusion of these MMRCA fighters, which promises lethal delivery capabilities in a cost efficient manner, according to IAF’s doctrines.

A Dassault Rafale Fighter Aircraft of the French Air Force; Courtesy – Dassault Aviation.

Even as the Rafale storm, which alleges several irregularities in the G-to-G deal, whirls around in the South Block’s power corridors, the IAF is working towards releasing the RFP for the tender in the near future. Senior Air Force officials have on record said that in an effort to reduce the procurement time cycle, the technical trials shall predominantly test only those systems which have been added after the technical trials as part of the prior MMRCA tender. In accordance with the RFI, the IAF will receive the first fighter under the program after almost 3 years from the date of contract conclusion.

Even as the MMRCA program evolves, the IAF is also keen on pacing up the development of the Tejas Mk-II and the AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft) fighter. The Mk-II version of Tejas, which is to be powered by a powerful GE F414 engine and is to feature a slew of developments, is being viewed as an all together new class of fighter aircraft. The AMCA is slated to be the first aircraft of the IAF to be equipped with true stealth technology.

Both of these fighters are being developed by ADA and are still on the design board. It is crucial that the Air Force, developmental agencies such as ADA and the manufacturers be it HAL or private partners, are inclusive of this developmental cycle right from the beginning and work in unison to repulse the problematic approach followed under the LCA programme.

As in the words of Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, a veteran of the World Wars, “If we lose the war in the air, we lose the war and we lose it quickly.” If the Government, working in lieu with the Air Force, doesn’t constitute adequate measures to check the dipping squadron numbers, the Air Force will be left toothless leaving a gapping in India’s quest for maintaining aerial supremacy in the Indo-Pacific region.