Modernisation of the Indian Air Force

Regional instability and sustained military posturing by its neighbours has mandated India for maintaining a combat-ready force for attaining unquestioned deterrence and to firmly maintain its regional supremacy. Even though the country boasts of having the third largest military force at its disposal, the combat effectiveness of the services has been a cause of concern for decades. The increasing hostilities across its operational horizon have now called for rapid modernisation of the military force.

India, which has an annual outlay of almost 1.5% of its GDP for defence expenditure, is expected to spend over USD 100 billion within the next decade to acquire the latest defence equipment for keeping its armed forces battle ready. A major chunk of this expenditure is concentrated towards modernising the Indian Air Force (IAF), which is the fourth largest air force in the world.

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 Indo-Pacific 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.

Through the course of past conflicts with its neighbours, the Air Force has proved to be centric to both of India’s war-making and sustaining capabilities. The Indian Air Force (IAF), with its 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, which are at the core of the Air Force’s power projection capabilities, promise to nullify a wide variety of threats both in the Air and on the surface.

Modernising the Fighter Fleet

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 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 32 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. 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 squadrons, which it says is required for effectively countering any two-front surge, will remain a distant dream.

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.

While the Air Force has floated successive modernisation programs to add teeth to its fighter fleet, success with these programs have not been forthcoming. Successive truncated annual outlays, limited success with indigenous programs and failed acquisition programs have left the fleet in a state of limbo.

The Air Force as part of its plans to reenergise its strike fleet has now resorted to a three pronged approach. Even as the Air Force hunts for acquiring at least 110 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), the IAF is also working towards upgrading its existing fleet of fighters, giving them a new lease of life.

A MiG – 29 UPG Aircraft; Courtesy – Mikoyan Corporation

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. With delays haunting these programs, IAF is now working with HAL to add traction to these programs. 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.

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. Dassault and Thales have already delivered two upgraded aircraft, HAL having delivered two additional aircraft is now working on delivering the rest of the aircraft by 2025.

IAF also wants to upgrade its Jaguar fighters, which currently is the only dedicated ‘close air support’ mission capable platform. 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 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 Force 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.

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.

The Air Force, after years of reluctance, is now ardently pursuing the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) program. Tejas, operationalized with the Air Force’s 45th Squadron, has been performing satisfactorily meeting a large part of IAF’s requirement. While Tejas performs brilliantly, outperforming IAF’s expectations and criticism, the rate of induction of these indigenous fighters remains to be a cause of major concern. 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 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, including the addition of AESA Radars.

Inidan Aerospace model - The Tejas; Source - Arnav Pai.
Inidan Aerospace model – The Tejas; Source – Arnav Pai.

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 (Serial Production) 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.

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.

The Tejas Mk-II and AMCA program, IAF’s first true stealth aircraft when inducted, roundup the Air Force’s plans to reenergise its fighter fleet.

Transport Fleet

Augmenting the lethal fighter fleet are hundreds of transport aircraft, which are crucial for the country not just during conflicts but also during peace-time. At a time when India braces to counter the lurking threat of a two-front war, the strategic and heavy lift capabilities promised by these aircraft are the need-of-the-hour for the country.

The transport fleet of the IAF, unlike the fighter fleet, is a thriving force and has its share of success stories. Tasked with the daunting task of maintaining and sustaining the supply lines for the forward deployed troops and humanitarian missions, these aircraft are a crucial part of the Air Force’s power projection capability.

Forming the backbone of the transport fleet are the Soviet-era Antonov An-32 aircraft, with over a hundred aircraft in service with the Air Force. The AN-32s are supplemented by the indigenously built Dornier and the aging HS-748 Avros.

Giving muscle to the fleet, however, are the larger Ilyushin IL-76, Boeing C-17 Globemaster and the Lockheed Martin manufactured C-130J Super Hercules aircraft. The Air Force currently has 14 IL-76s, 10 C-17s and 11 C-130Js in operation. While the IL-76 and C-17s are tasked with heavy lift missions, the C-130Js are tasked with strategic lift missions. The capability of these platforms to deliver troops and equipment across the battlefield at a short notice is a welcome addition to the country. As India’s hostilities with its neighbours spills over from the plains and deserts to the more men and resource demanding mountainous terrain along the Northern and Eastern frontiers, it is these platform which form the business end of strategic missions.

As part of its efforts to modernise the transport fleet, the IAF is pursuing plans to replace the aging Avros with Airbus manufactured C-295W aircraft. The Air Force is currently reviewing the joint bid submitted by Airbus and Tata to manufacture the aircraft in India. The dreaded single vendor situation has forced the INR 12,000 crore order, for 56 of the C-295W aircraft, into an abyss. These platforms are also planned to eventually replace the An-32s, thus making them one of the largest aircraft in IAF’s inventory. The MoD is learnt to be working vicariously to address the single-vendor situation and seeing through the deal, which the IAF has termed a key requirement for maintaining status-quo along the LoC and LAC. In a boost to the fleet, the Air Force will by early next year, receive an additional 5 C-130J and the world’s last C-17 aircraft from US.

Helicopter Fleet

While the transport aircraft provide capabilities to handle strategic and heavy-lift missions, another crucial element for keeping the force marching ahead is access to platforms, which provide last-mile connectivity to even the most remote posts. This capability, which is crucial along the mountains to move troops across inhospitable terrains at moment’s notice, is guaranteed by rotary platforms.

The helicopter fleet of the Air Force has been undergoing steady modernisation for the past decade. Tasked with target reconnaissance, acquisition, destruction, logistic support, Search and Rescue (SAR), Casualty Evacuation (CASEVAC) and Special Operation missions, these platforms are a crucial part of the battlefield.

Through its doctrines, the Air Force has classified the requirement for these platforms based on their roles. While the Light Utility choppers have been tasked with CASEVAC, SAR and SO missions, the medium and heavy-lift platforms are in charge of troop insertion and logistical supply missions.

For the LUH category, the IAF operates the Chetak helicopters, which are drastically being replaced by the ALH Dhruv. The medium-lift capability is provided by the Russian-origin Mi-17 V5 choppers, which are replacing the retired Mi-8 platforms. With India having contracted for over 190 of these platforms, the Mi-17s will overtime emerge as the mainstay platform of the fleet. To regain the heavy-lift capabilities provided by the mighty Mi-26s, the Air Force is working towards inducting at least 4 Boeing manufactured Chinook choppers.

LCH, HAL, Aviation Corps, Army Aviation Corps, Indian Army Aviation Corps
The Future Strike Platforms of the Indian Army Aviation Corps – LCH and ALH Rudra; Courtesy – Deb Rana.

Even as the turf war with the Army for armed helicopters rage on, the Air Force is cruising towards inducting the first batch of the Apache helicopters which are on order with Boeing. The Air Force has contracted for 22 of these helicopters besides an order for at least 10 indigenously designed and developed LCH (Light Combat Helicopter). These platforms will join the existing fleet of Mi-35 attack helicopters.

Trainers

As the saying goes ‘Practise makes men perfect’, the IAF stresses heavily on training activities to train and build capabilities for conflict scenarios during peace time. Training for air warriors forms a crucial part of IAF’s efforts to maintain India’s airspace. It is during this training period that freshly inducted cadets are groomed and trained to be a true lethal air warrior.

The force imparts flying practise to young cadets in three stages – basic, intermediate and advanced. While the basic stage involves cadets receiving their first flying lessons in turbo-prop aircraft, the intermediate stage involves cadets graduating to aircraft powered by jet engines. The advanced stage of the training, witnesses the pilots learning combat skills and tactical manoeuvers. This phased training prepares the young cadets to the challenges encountered by them as they enter service with full-fledged combat squadrons.

The reality on the ground, however, is in stark contrast to the set mandate. Unavailability of a reliable IJT (Intermediary Jet Trainer) has forced the Air Force to all together do away with the intermediary phase of the training. Young cadets are directly graduating from the Pilatus PC-7 trainer, a turboprop, to the much much more advanced jet-engine powered Hawk aircraft, which are being used as an advanced jet trainer by the Air Force.

The Air Force had banked on indigenous efforts to develop an IJT. The Sitara program, which was drafted by HAL to replace the aging HJT-16 Kiran IJTs, has all but crashed and burnt, leaving the Air Force with limited options. The Air Force having trimmed its training process, is now working towards implementing a two-stage program.

Pilatus Pc-7 Trainer Aircraft.

Force Multiplier

As India’s responsibilities drastically grows in the Indo-Pacific region, it is crucial that the force enhances its power and reach to meet these challenges. With a mandate to control the size of the fleet, the Air Force has resorted to acquiring platforms such as the Flight Refueler Aircraft (RFA), UAVs and AWACS, which promise to be true force multipliers.

The RFA or the Mid Air Refueller aircraft, as they are commonly called, are specialised aerial platforms carrying tonnes of aviation fuel which can be transferred to receiving aircraft mid-air through specialised systems. This practise of aerial refuelling aircraft will help to enhance the strike ranges of fighter aircraft. A fighter can take-off carrying maximum payload and with minimum fuel and then can be refuelled by a tanker mid-air, effectively enabling it to strike deep into enemy territory with its fullest capabilities. The Air Force had for years, stated that these aircraft are an exigent need, especially in the Eastern theatre to boost the strike range of its fighters. These refuelling systems remain at the epicentre of USAF’s (US Air Force) aerial campaign against terror in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.

For the acquisition of these aircraft, the Indian Air Force (IAF) issued a RFI in February, 2018. The RFI has received responses from Boeing, Airbus, Ilyushin and IAI. IAF’s hunt for these aircraft has met with limited success in the previous two occasions. While the first tender was scuttled mid-way after the finance ministry red flagged it citing high procurement costs, the second tender was also shelved in July 2016, after the finance department raised questions about the acquisition model followed by the IAF.

In both the tenders, Airbus’ A330-200 MRTT aircraft had outwitted Ilyushin IL– 78 aircraft in extensive field trials. Even though the Russian built IL-78 aircraft was offered for a much lower price, the Air Force had opted for the MRTT aircraft citing the much viable life cycle cost quoted by Airbus. This time, however, the addition of Boeing with it’s KC-46A Pegasus to the fray has all but curtailed Airbus’s lead in the tender.

The Air Force is also working on a case for the acquisition of at least two additional AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) from Israel. The Air Force has been working with Israel and Russia to secure the required aerial platform and technology. While Russia will provide the IL-76 platforms, Israeli will equip the aircraft with Phalcon radar systems. These aircraft will join the existing three Palcon AWACS in operation with the Air Force.

General Atomics manufactured Avenger Drone; Courtesy – GA.

Acquisition of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), both for combat and reconnaissance roles, is being actively pursued by the Air Force. While acquisition of Heron and Hermes UAVs continues, the IAF is now working with the Government to acquire UCAVs, such as the Avenger drone system from the USA.

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