On February 26, 2019 the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) called for an urgent press briefing, even as the nation was abuzz with rumors of India having targeted terror launch pads across the border. A large part of the country strongly believed that the Indian Army had pulled off a successful Surgical Strike 2.0. The Indian population, still reeling under the after effects of the dreaded Pulwama terror attack which had resulted in the death of 45 brave CRPF jawans in cold blood, cheered the Armed Forces’ retaliatory strikes.

At around 11:00 AM, the Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale took the floor to announce a successful preemptive strike targeting JeM’s biggest known terror camp – the Balakot training camp. As details of the strike trickled out over the course of the day, it became apparent that the country’s national security apparatus had in fact employed the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) fighter aircraft to target the terror camp, which was located tens of kilometers deep inside Pakistan in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (PoJK).

The Balakot air strike marked a new high in the Air Force’s history as its fighters had struck hostile targets across the border for the maiden time since the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. For the Air Force it was testimony to its years of efforts in honing the skills of its airmen. Only days before the strike, the Air Force had demonstrated its capabilities in neutralizing a wide array of targets through the course of Vayu Shakti – 2019. Last year, the Air Force during Exercise Gagan Shakti, a pan-India exercise, had flown almost 11,000 combat sorties deploying 1,100 air assets, all in a span of 13 days.

While the Air Force reeled under the success of the air strikes, even as the forward bases under the Western and South Western Air Command remained on a high operational alert with their fighter flying combat air patrol (CAP) missions day and night, on February 26, 2019 operators of the Ambala-based 601 signal unit detected a large package of Pakistani fighter aircraft flying due east towards India. Even as the workhorses of the Air Force, the Sukhoi Su-30 MKIs scrambled to intercept the ingressing aircraft, the Srinagar-based MiG-21 air superiority fighters of the 51st Squadron, which were already flying CAP missions, went supersonic to intercept the hostile aircraft. Somewhere over the Nowshera sector witnessing the hostile actions of the Pakistani fighters, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman and his wingmen valiantly engaged the JF-17 and F-16s, even as the far superior Su-30s flew into the battle. Chasing the far more capable true multirole F-16s, the MiG-21s went through a fierce dogfight and eventually engaging the Falcon with their R-73 short-range Air-to-Air missile. Eventually Wg Cdr Varthaman successfully shot down a F-16 Block-52 Falcon, thus becoming the maiden IAF pilot to have actually shot down a true 4th Generation fighter. However, in the ensuing aerial battle Wg Cdr Varthaman’s Mig-21 itself was pinned down by a stray AIM-120 AMRAAM missile.

Following his return to India after two days of captivity in Pakistan’s custody, the pandoras box to question the capabilities of the Air Force finally opened up. While Wg Cdr Varthaman proved the prowess of men behind the machines – the air warriors, the fact that he was flying an aircraft well over two decades past its service life, opened up the Air Force to a lot of criticism.

The fact that the Air Force’s immediate response to a grave provocation was structured around an aircraft well past its service life has to be noted with concern. This, however, has to be taken with a pinch of salt. It is not as if the Air Force has structured its strike force in the aforementioned pattern. The Air Force has however been forced into the dismal and worrying situation, forcing it to field retiring aircraft at the forward operational bases.

The fighter fleet of the Air Force plays a pivotal role in deceivesly applying the country’s air power. For decades, the fighter stream has been successfully fending off grave aerial threats  threatening India. India’s victory in the 1965 Indo-Pak war, again in the 1971 liberation war and during the Kargil episode, in large parts, can all be safely credited to the fighter fleet and its air warriors.

Considering the prevailing dynamics in play in the sub-continent, the Raksha Mantri’s Operational Directive, a secretive document that sets the tone for modernisation and upkeep of the Armed Forces, is believed to have authorised a fighter strength of at least 39.5 squadrons. The Air Force has itself set an agenda for operating 42 squadrons, which Vayu Bhawan advocates is a necessity to quell any two-front provocations from both China and Pakistan. 

The ground reality though is far from being satisfactory in any manner. In a report tabled before the Parliament, the Standing Committee on Defence, which has oversight over the Armed Forces and thus the Air Force, has noted that the Indian Air Force has a mere 32.5 fighter squadrons in operation. The lawmakers have severely lambasted the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for failing to arrest the dipping squadron numbers over  the decades. It has to be noted that ever since the report was tabled before the lawmakers, the Air Force has retired at least 3 additional squadrons and added aircraft worth an additional squadron, meaning the Air Force is currently operating with only 30.5 squadrons, marking an alarming deficit of 8.5 squadrons or 162 fighter aircraft.

More alarmingly, of these 30.5 squadrons in service, at least 6 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 26 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 Su-30 MKKs en masse. This rate of rapid induction being followed by the hostile neighbours is only threatening India further.

Successive dismal budgetary allocations, repeated failures with procurement and modernisation programs and inordinate delays with indigenous replacement programs have today effectively left the Air Force largely toothless.

For years, the primary concern for the Air Force has been the dipping annual outlay to handle its modernisation schemes. While the Air Force with an allocation of INR 41,347 crore in FY 2019-20 has yet again claimed the largest pie in the capital outlay, there still exists an alarming deficit of INR 34, 697.36 crore. The Force had for the corresponding period projected a need for INR 74,000 crore. In FY 2018-19, the force had been allocated INR 35,755 crore, meaning the force has received a marginal boost of close to INR 5,592 crore for handling its modernization programs, which is very unlikely to suffice the requirements of Air Force.

In FY 2019-20, the Air Force has been allocated INR 24, 807.19 crore for handling its requirement of fighter aircraft and helicopters. This, however, will not translate to newer orders, as the force has high amounts of committed liabilities. In the current Fiscal Year, the Air Force will have to make tranche payments for the French Rafael fighters, Apache and Chinook helicopters contracted with the USA, the indigenously built LCA Tejas and LCH platforms concluded in the previous years. It is worrying to note that the Air Force has been forced to shed about INR 5 crore in FY 2019-20 under this acquisition head in comparison to the previous budget (FY 2018-19), even as the fighter fleet grapples to flyout of the abyss it has been forced to crash into. [The Air Force for this head had been allocated INR 24,811.61 in FY 2018-19.]

Against the backdrop of truncated outlays and with little to no recourse, it is evident to the Air Force that any large scale procurement programs routed through the import routes would have very limited success. Thus to upgun its strike capabilities, the Air Force has adopted a three pronged approach to meet the deficits. While the Air Force will invest efforts to enhance the capabilities of its existing strike platforms through mid-life upgradations, the Air Force will also back indigenous programs and lastly will depend on imported solutions, which will be partly manufactured in India.

UPGRADATION OF EXISTING FLEET

Even though the Air Force has a well laid out mid-life modernisation program for each of its aircraft, progress with them have not been forthcoming. For instance, the mid-life upgradation program of both the Jaguar and Mirage-2000 fleet have progressed at a snail’s pace. The DARIN-III upgradation program at HAL has largely progressed limited pace. Under the DARIN-III program, the Jaguars, which will be the sole CAS aircraft for the country’s military force as the MiG-27s retire, will be equipped with state-of-the-art AESA radar, Electronic Warfare (EW) capabilities and advanced avionic systems.

The Air Force had 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 had secured initial clearance from the MoD (Ministry of Defence) for procuring these engines, it now seems all but certain that the Air Force will be forced to shun this program on grounds of increasing budgetary constraints.

The Mirage 2000 fighters, which were instrumental in sealing the Kargil episode in India’s favour and led the Balakot strikes, are being upgraded to Mirage 2000 – V 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. The Mirages as part of the upgradation will be armed with MICA medium Air-to-Air missiles, Thales RDY2 radar, which enables long-range engagement, HUD systems and advanced on-board mission computers. The program has, however, slipped into an abyss following the unfortunate and tragic crash of a HAL upgraded Mirage fighter in February, 2019. A CoI is underway to ascertain the reason for the crash.

The Air Force has got some respited with the upgradation of the MiG – 29 multi-role platform, which prior to its upgrade was solely assigned air superiority missions. However, since upgradation the aircraft has acquired swing-role 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.

The Air Force is also strongly pushing for the upgradation of the Su-30 MKI fighter under the ‘Super Sukhoi’ program. The Air Force, which currently operates 252 Su-30 MKIs and is expected to eventually induct a total of 272 of these aircraft, has been pitching for the upgrade of its workhorses since 2008. The first of the Su-30s delivered directly from Russia are due for their mid-life overhaul, wherein the entire aircraft will be stripped to bare bone structure and will then be reassembled and re-engined. It is during this daunting yet crucial period that HAL proposes to upgrade the Su-30s to 4.5 generation levels.

As part of the program, HAL and the OEM have pitched for a new PESA (Passive Electronically Scanned Array) radar and advanced EW capabilities. The aircraft besides receiving a more efficient powerplant, will also be integrated with new state-of-the-art indigenous weapon systems, providing it with beyond visual range air-to-air capabilities. The Air Chief confirmed that HAL and Russian partners have already submitted the technical proposals for the program.

BACKING FOR INDIGENOUS PROGRAMS

Having learnt its fair share of results from the inordinate delays that eclipsed the success of the indigenously designed and developed Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas fighter, the Air Force has now committed to provide unwavering support to any future indigenous programs. The LCA program itself has taken a giant leap forward with the LCA Tejas platform securing its much awaited Final Operational Clearance (FOC) certification in February, 2019 on the sidelines of Aero India – 2019.

The Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the principal manufacturing partner of the LCA program, is inching towards delivering all of the 16 Tejas aircraft in its Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) configuration Tejas by the year-end. What is pending with HAL is the delivery of 4 IOC standard trainers for the 45th Squadron, which became the maiden IAF squadron to operationalise the indigenous fighter. This, however, is expected to take considerable time as the final design for the trainers was freezed only recently. As far as the FOC standard aircraft are concerned, HAL has already began the production process at its two manufacturing lines situated in Bengaluru. The maiden FOC standard Tejas is expected to make its first flight by April, 2020.

While the Air Force has time and again confirmed its commitment to the program, it remains wary of the delivery timeframe for the aircraft. While HAL promises to deliver all of the 16 FOC standard aircraft by 2024, manufacturing close to 16 aircraft/year, the Air Force remains suspicious of HAL’s claims. While the state-run manufacturer has time and again promised to ramp up the production capabilities, it has come short of showing results on the ground, even after the Government invested 1381.04 crores to ramp up production from a dismal 8 aircraft/annum to 16 aircraft. HAL, however, draws a different picture and says that its years of efforts to energise the production activities is finally showing results, as the DPSU for the first time will manufacture 8 Tejas aircraft in a single financial year. The second production line, it says, is coming well on track and that it could eventually manufacture a full load of 8 aircraft/annum.

HAL remains confident that the new found synergy between the production lines, increased understanding and growing partnership with the private industry has spruced it up to handle the impending massive order for 83 Mk-1A Tejas aircraft. The Air Force which was initially highly receptive to the high pricing of the jet has finally come around the corner. The Air Force and HAL have confirmed that the pricing issues have all been ironed and that a formal contract worth close to INR 45,000 crore. It remains imperative that HAL delivers the Mk-1A along the expected delivery schedules.

The Mk-1A, which will be far more superior compared to the FOC-standard Mk-1 aircraft=, will be equipped with advanced AESA radar and EW suites. The aircraft, according to HAL, is expected to feature over a 100 advancements over its predecessor. These 83 aircraft will go on to replace the retiring MiG-21 Bison fighter deployed in Forward Operational Bases (FOB) along the borders. While the program has suffered an initial delay of 2 years, HAL feels that it can shorten the developmental time frame drastically as most of the technological advancements demanded by the Air Force are already being realised on the FOC-standard aircraft. The Mk-1A version is expected to have its maiden flight by 2022, with delivery slated to begin in 2023.

IAF is also closely working with ADA on the much more capable Mk-2 version of Tejas, which is now dubbed as the Medium Weight Fighter (MWF). The MWF, which is structured around the LCA platform, will be powered by the GE manufactured F-414-INS6 engines. With a newer powerful powerplant, the aircraft will also be stretched out, meaning it can carry much more armament and fuel, thus enhancing its operational range. ADA is projecting at least 40% enhanced range and an ability to carry 6.5 tonne weapon load, almost double of what the LCA platform can carry.

The Mk-2 MWF aircraft is expected to replace the Mirage – 2000, Jaguar and MiG-29 fighter. ADA has already began designing the aircraft in its laboratories and is expecting the Air Force to freeze its final staff requirements. While claims that the first flight could happen within 2022, that only remains an audacious claim as the Mk-2 is virtually an all together new aircraft and significant re-designing is required to realised the requirements. Optimally, the first flight can be expected only after 2024, with production beginning a couple of years later.

Another indigenous program the Air Force is betting big on is the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) program of ADA. Having dropped the prospectus of importing the T-50 or Su-57 5th generation stealth aircraft from Russia in favour of AMCA, the Air Force is counting on the success of the program to operationalise its maiden stealth aircraft. It is undoubtedly an uncomfortable wait for the IAF as PLAAF has already operationalized the J-20 stealth enabled aircraft.

The AMCA will be a stealth enabled twin-engine powered medium-category multi-role 5th generation fighter. To be initially equipped with the F-414-INS6 engine, the aircraft will eventually be refitted with a 110 kN engine, which will enable the aircraft to supercruise. ADA has already began the initial work on the platform and wind tunnel testing for aerodynamics on 1:1 scale model is expected to begin early next year.

For attaining stealth capabilities, ADA is following a two step procedure. While the geometrical design itself is expected to considerably reduce the Radar Cross Section (RCS) of the aircraft, the designer is also working on developing advanced radar absorbing materials (RAM). While ADA boasts of significant prowess in aerostructural designing, it will be a new ball game when it comes to developed the RAM coating. While Russia and China claim to have developed stealth fighters, the RCS of both their platforms is extremely high compared to US’ F-22 and F-35 aircraft. It remains doubtful if ADA could really master the development of RAM individually without any international support.

The first flight of the AMCA is expected to happen only by 2030 and production activities to begin sometime in 2035. ADA has rightly decided to engage the private sector right from the beginning of the program and issued several RFIs to bring aboard qualified companies as partners to the revolutionary program.

IMPORT THROUGH MAKE IN INDIA

Sometime after the Air Force selected the Sukhoi Su-30 MKIs as their workhorses in the early 90s, a section of the Vayu Bhawan raised concerns to this decision. Several senior officers felt that the Air Force should actively consider operating a mixed fleet of strike aircraft consisting of light, medium and heavy-weight category fighterts. While the Su-30 MKIs were undoubtedly an extremely powerful platform, the Air Force was always receptive to its operational costs. Moreover, the aircraft due to its sheer weight and size was somewhat less maneuverable and was a prime target for smaller intercepting enemy aircraft.

The Air Force thus began advocating for the induction of a medium-category multi-role fighter. IAF argued that this aircraft would effectively bridge the gap between the lighter Tejas and heavier Sukhoi fighter. These class of fighters also promised significant range and payload capabilities. As the Air Force officially began the search for these fighter in 2005, thus began the MMRCA saga in the history of the IAF.

A tender floated by the Air Force in 2007 for 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) witnessed six global aerospace companies flocking to India to offer their platforms. The erstwhile MMRCA tender, which was termed as the ‘mother of all defence deals’, witnessed a strong push when in January, 2012 the MoD shortlisted Dassault fielded Rafale as the L1 in the tender. What followed after that was a lengthy cost and workshare negotiation phase which unfortunately never saw the daylight. After years of failed negotiations, the NDA-II Government announced the scrapping of the MMRCA tender in 2015.

Giving berth to Air Force’s request for immediate requirement for mitigating the grave situation, the Government in April, 2015 entered into an Inter Governmental Agreement (IGA) with France for procuring 36 Rafale aircraft off-the-shelf under a $8 Bn deal. With the first of the Rafale expected to arrive in India only in May, 2020, the Air Force continued its pitch for these platforms. For the IAF, the 36 Rafale were coming too late in a way too smaller number.

After years of consultation with the Government and reworking its procurement process, the Air Force in April, 2018 resumed its hunt for these MMRCA platforms through a global RFI, which laid the broad contours for acquiring 114 such fighter aircraft from a global manufacturer. The tender, valued at well over $15 Bn, is being pursued under the Strategic Partnership (SP) model, giving a major boost to the Government’s ‘Make in India’ initiative. While the Air Force is set to procure the initial 18 fighters directly off-the-shelf from the selected manufacturer, the rest 96 aircraft are to be manufactured in India by a local partner (Strategic Partner).

Since the introduction of the RFI, all of the six global manufacturers who had contested in the erstwhile MMRCA tender have reentered the fray, making the current tender a redux of the prior MMRCA tender. While Dassault Aviation manufactured Rafale, Boeing’s F-18, Mikyon’s MiG-35 and Eurofighter’s Typhoon form the twin-engine pack, Lockheed Martin’s F-21 fighter and Saab’s Gripen – E have emerged as single-engine platforms on offer to the IAF.

Having termed the acquisition program a ‘priority area of concern’ the Air Force is pushing all out to energise the procurement program. The Vayu Bhawan having received the response to RFIs has initiated the process to secure the Acceptance of Necessity (AoN), which sets the initial tone for the procurement, from the MoD. The awarding of AoN will also pave the way for the release of the much awaited Expression of Interest (EoI).

The Air Force is also working on framing the prerequisite Air Staff Qualitative Requirements (ASQR) by the year-end. The issuance of the ASQR is a crucial stage in the tendering process as it will set the broad contours in regards to the aircraft’s required technical capabilities. With the ASQR in place, the Air Force will then proceed to examine the submitted bids against the set standards and may shortlist the aircraft meeting the desired capabilities. The Request For Proposal (RFP) is expected to be issued to these selected vendors by late next year.

In order to drastically cut down the procurement timeframe, the Air Force is also mooting plans to substantially reduce the technical trial phase of the acquisition program. In the prior MMRCA tender, it had taken the Government close to  a decade to just select the desired aircraft, let alone inking the contract with the OEMs.

With all the participating aircraft being a carryover from the erstwhile MMRCA tender, the Air Force is considering to use the technical data already generated from the extensive technical evaluations and trials conducted for the previous tender. The prior technical trials which lasted for almost 4 years have provided the Air Force with substantial repository of technical data.

The Government though is wary of the Air Force’s plans as their considerable abrasions in the move. For instance, the Gripen platform pitched for MMRCA 1.0 was the C/D version, while the current offer is for the newer E version. Saab termed the Gripen – E as altogether near new aircraft, which is powered by a more powerful engine and is equipped with state-of-the-art avionic systems such as an AESA radar and EW suites. The Rafale aircraft, which had outwitted every other platform in the first tender, has also been upgraded to the F3-R standard. Dassault is currently involved in the development of the F4 version. Boeing has decided to pitch in the Block-III version of the F-18 Super Hornet, which will feature considerable stealth capabilities along with a conformal fuel tank. Lockheed Martin has walked the extra mile and has nominated the F-21 fighter, which it terms as a new fighter designed by drawing technologies from the F-35 and F-22 platforms. It is still largely unknown as to how the Air Force will go about evaluating these platforms. Sources suggest that the Air Force may in fact settle down on testing only the enhancements that have been equipped aboard the platforms.

A level playing field and a transparent trial and evaluation process remains a key requirement. While the Air Force works on the contours about the technical capabilities, the MoD is burning the midnight lamp to roll out fighter acquisition specific implementation guidelines for the SP model. With legalities being probed into, sources indicate that life would be induced into the SP model by February, 2020.  It remains crucial that the Government works towards early conclusion of the contract. Even if the Government is successful of signing the contract by 2023-24, the first of the fighters will be joining the fleet only in 2025, with the final batch arriving as late as 2037.

While the MMRCA contract gains wings, the Air Force is also negotiating with Russia for procuring 21 mothballed MiG-29 aircraft. The soviet-era manufactured aircraft, which are currently stored in Russia, will be upgraded to the UPG standard following their procurement. The procurement of these aircraft will provide the Air Force with some much sought respite.

Besides the acquisition program, the Air Force is also working on drastically boosting the serviceability of the aircraft in service. For instance, the IAF has struggled hard to boost the rate of availability of the Su-30s, which were inducted almost 2 decades before. To date, the Air Force has only been successful in attaining a dismal number of 55%, meaning only 55 aircraft of 100 are available for operations, while the rest of them are down due to servicing or unavailability of spares. Even this number has been successful only after the Air Force’s years of struggles with the Russian OEM. The picture is far more bleaker with the MiG-29 and the other fleets. Only the Mirage and Tejas aircraft have satisfactory numbers.

The Air Force has also invested heavily in enhancing the combat capabilities of the existing fleet. The IAF has engaged both indigeous and global manufacturers to provide it with advanced BVR capabilities. The Air Force in a span of less than a year from now would have achieved Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile (BVRAAM) capabilities. The IAF will be operationalizing the Meteor and Astra systems by 2023.

Besides the fighters themselves, the Air Force is also actively scouting for procuring armed drones from global manufacturers. The IAF has engaged both the US-based General Atomics and Israel-based Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) for procuring Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV). While the Air Force is seeking to procure 30 Predator MQ-1 UCAV from US, plans are also underway to acquire at least 10 Heron TP-version armed drones from Israel. Parallely, the Air Force is also supporting DRDO with its development of Rustom UCAV. While the IAF is ready to procure a small number of these unmanned combat platforms, the Air Force is far from fully backing the program as the systems are yet to prove their capabilities in operating in a densely contested airspace.