|By Air Marshal VK ‘Jimmy’ Bhatia (Retd)|
SOON AFTER joining the India Strategic team in January 2013, this writer had carried out a detailed analysis of the modernisation requirements of the Indian Air Force and the air arms of its sister services on the eve of the 9th Edition of the Aero India in February 2013. Even though some big ticket contracts had been signed by then, they were just the tip of the proverbial ‘iceberg’, as the armed forces’ appetite for acquiring greater air and space power capabilities lay unabated. It was then stated that ‘Party had just begun’ in the Indian Military Aviation market, which led by the IAF, needed to spend huge sums of money to acquire the necessary operational capabilities. It was visualised; the IAF alone would need in excess of $100 billion in the coming decades to fill the existing voids and improve its force levels to the desired levels.
In 2015, on the eve of the 10th Edition of Aero India show, a review was carried out recording the progress in the previous two years. Now, as the 11th Edition of Aero India stands ready to unveil at Yelahanka, Bangalore February 14, it would perhaps be in order to evaluate the progress made in the intervening period and see which way the wind is blowing with regard to various modernisation programmes to augment India’s military aerospace power. Broadly, it can be said that the last two years once again have been a mix bag of ‘hits and misses’ for the Indian armed forces in their quest for modernising/augmenting their respective aerospace capabilities with IAF – the supreme user of aerospace power among the three Services – being affected the most. So, how has it fared in the last two years?
IAF: FIGHTER FORCE
The biggest concern of the IAF is on how to rebuild its hugely depleted fighter force. The last decade or so had witnessed IAF losing a quarter of its combat fighter squadrons’ strength from 39 ½ to a distressing figure of 29 due to the retirement of obsolete and unsustainable aircraft such as the older versions of MiG-21 and MiG-23 aircraft. The retirement also included that of the sole tri-sonic MiG-25 squadron which however, was used only in the strategic/tactical reconnaissance role. Fortunately, the IAF had an ongoing Su-30 programme which it used, as far as possible, to try and stem the downslide in its combat squadrons’ strength. With the total order standing at 272 Su-30 MKIs, worth approximately $20 billion (Rs 1,20,000 crore now), the IAF plans to ultimately equip 13-14 squadrons when the delivery is complete. The IAF has already received 230+ Su-30 MKIs and reequipped 11-12 squadrons with the twin-engined heavy fighter, which are being license-produced by HAL at its Nasik facility at the rate of 15-20 aircraft per annum. The programme is likely to be completed by 2018.
IAF claims that its combat squadron strength has stabilised at 34 fighter squadrons. The problem however is that the IAF’s retirement rate of obsolete aircraft far outstrips its intake rate of new aircraft. The time has also come for its upgraded MiG-21 Bis (Bison variant) to also start retiring which will soon be followed by MiG-27 aircraft as well. In the process, the IAF stands to lose 12-13 squadrons in the coming decade which presently man these variants. IAF has to not only make sure that its jet fighter combat strength does not reduce any further but also make efforts to bring it up to the earmarked level of 42 squadrons by the time it hits its centennial year in 2032 i.e., 15 years from now. Simple mathematics would indicate that to operate 42 combat squadrons, the IAF would need approximately 900 jet fighters to man its combat squadron fleets as well as have spares to cater to the needs of maintenance and strike-off wastages. However, by 2032, without fresh inductions the IAF would hypothetically be left with approximately 500 aircraft only comprising various fleets such as Su-30 MKIs and upgraded MiG-29s, Mirage 2000s and Jaguars which, other than the Su-30 MKIs would themselves be heading towards obsolescence. In other words, the IAF would need infusion of around 400 new jet fighters during the period under discussion. The outgoing Air Chief Arup Raha in his last press briefing had accepted this figure while at the same time hoping the government would provide enough resources to at least get 250 new medium fighters for the IAF.
How is the IAF going about rebuilding its fighter force levels to the desired levels?
First, the indigenous LCA (Tejas) programme. As is well known, The LCA, in the making for more than three decades, has continued to be plagued by inordinate delays. While the first series-production model was handed over to the IAF on January 17, 2015, the first squadron (No. 45) was formed only in mid 2016, that too with just two Mk I aircraft. The squadron, based in Bangalore is being slowly built up with notably, three of its aircraft having debuted over Rajpath during the January 26 Republic Day celebrations. But, the pace of induction remains slow with the aircraft still slowly crawling towards achieving FOC (Full Operational Capability). 40 of these aircraft are on order. What the IAF was actually looking for is the Mk II version of the LCA which will be powered by the bigger GE F414-GE-INS6, a 100 kN class turbofan engine which will allow the aircraft to achieve its designed operational envelope. However, frustrated with the tardy progress, the IAF has accepted HAL’s offer of LCA MK IA that would have the same GE 404 engine but will have major operational capabilities such as an AESA radar, mid-air refueling, better EW suites and more lethal weapons. The IAF has gone ahead by placing an order of 83 aircraft to ultimately raise about six squadrons with Tejas variants. In the meantime, fate of LCA Mk II hangs in the air with the Indian Navy having rejected the LCA in favour of acquiring twin-engine carrier capable fighters.
The MMRCA programme, originally tendered in 2007, that went through unprecedented twists and turns finally saw light of the day in its highly truncated form with the signing of the Rafale deal last September for 36 aircraft –a fraction of the originally planned 126 – for an overall cost of $8.5 billion. However, the IAF would barely be able to equip two squadrons with these aircraft when the aircraft start arriving in 2019-20. Notably, this is an outright purchase with no plans for its further manufacture in India. The IAF may be hoping that it would be able to get at least one more squadron of these MMRCAs at a later date to meet its minimum operational requirements, but, the process would have to be gone through anew with fresh negotiations. However, should that happen, the Indian Navy – having opted for a twin-engine fighter – may feel inclined to join in the fray to acquire the naval version of the Rafale. It pegs its requirements at up to 57 aircraft to equip a three aircraft carrier force with INS Vikrant (to be commissioned by 2020) and INS Vishaal to follow later, in addition to the lone INS Vikramaditya presently available. IAF’s plans to acquire 5th generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) with HAL jointly producing these with Russia based on their the latter’s under development Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA platform have also gone through major ups and downs over the years since 2007. The original deal (with some corrections) involved Russia procuring 250 and India 144 aircraft at a cost of around $30 billion by 2022. However, Russia announced in late 2015 that it would only induct around a dozen of PAK-FA fighter aircraft, and procure additional Sukhoi Su-35 aircraft instead. As a result, India threatened to abandon the project in its entirety. Russia in turn made a number of concessions including an offer to cut down its financial contribution from $6 to $3.7 billion for three PAK- FA T-50 prototypes and substantial technology transfers. Despite the agreeing on a work-share plan in 2016, problems with the FGFA/PMF project nevertheless are likely to remain with the latest reports suggesting whittling down the numbers to just 65 by the IAF.
In the meantime, HAL is also pursuing its own AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft) for which it is scouting for engine sources with Rolls-Royce as one of the contenders. But, the programme still stays at the conceptual level. With all the uncertainties discussed above, it should be clear by now that the IAF is not on a strong wicket as far as its fighter acquisition programmes are concerned and that there is a dire need to immediately inject fresh programmes to build up its jet fighter combat force.
This is where three major warplane makers have stepped in to not only offer their individual products but also to manufacture them on Indian soil to give a huge boost to ‘Make in India’ programme launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. These are Boeing and Lockheed Martin from the US with their offer of F-18A E/F Super Hornet and F-16 IN Super Viper, respectively and the Swedish Saab offering the latest Gripen NG next-gen fighters; with all of them are ready to move in – lock, stock and barrel – to set up the necessary/move assembly lines to India as soon as the go ahead is given by the Indian Government and deals signed.
The selected entity once set up would not only produce fighters to meet the huge demand (200+) of the IAF with an overall price tag of $20-30 billion but would also be available for exports from India as a true ‘Made in India’ product.
To give a mid-life boost to its current fleets of Mirage 2000, MiG-29 and Jaguar aircraft, the IAF has gone in for ambitious upgrade programmes that are under way, with the combined costs totaling more than $4 billion. Dassault, Thales and MBDA are all involved for the Mirage 2000 upgrade programme worth $2.4 billion that will elevate the fleet’s capabilities to match that of Mirage 2000-5. Similarly, MiG-29s are being upgraded to UPG standards and the Jaguars to DARIN-III standards. Jaguars may also receive new engines in due course but the negotiations are moving slowly with Honeywell having emerged as the single vendor with its offer of the more powerful F-125 IN engines.
While its fighter acquisition programmes have been fraught with delays and uncertainties, where the IAF has almost scored a ‘Bulls Eye’ is with regard to its transport platforms, acquired largely from the US via the FMS (Foreign Military Sales) route. Deliveries of the initial orders for six ‘Special Operations’ C-130Js and 10 C-17 Globemaster III heavy-lift aircraft were completed ahead of schedule. This has added phenomenally to the IAF’s strategic/tactical airlift capabilities. Unfortunately, the IAF lost one C-130J in a bizarre accident during a training mission. The IAF has not only placed a repeat order for six more C-130Js to be based at Panagarh in the east but it is also making good its loss by acquiring an additional C-130J aircraft. Both these types located at IAF’s Hindon base near Delhi are maintaining high levels of serviceability states because of unmatched logistic support programmes. The C-17 equipped No. 81 ‘Skylords’ squadron has been networked with global GISP (Globemaster III Integrated Sustainment Programme).
The three decade old fleet of 104 An-32s is undergoing a major upgrade programme to enable fleet sustainment for another decade or so. In the meantime, IAF has also embarked on its Avro replacement wherein 56 Avros will be replaced by a 5 to10-tonne payload class of aircraft to be jointly produced by a foreign OEM/Indian private sector company. Even though this programme had landed up in a single-vendor situation, it was allowed to go through under the special provisions of the DPP to give a much needed boost to India’s private defence sector. The DAC (Defence Acquisition Council) approved Airbus/Tata joint venture with their proposal to produce C-295 transport planes in India could be utilised at a later date to meet other requirements of the IAF and other paramilitary forces of the country including, possibly, in the civil aviation field. It is hoped the deal will be signed in the coming months for the acquisition process to begin. Separately, HAL had established a $600 million Indo-Russian JV to co-develop a 15 to 20-tonne payload capacity, twin turbofan, medium multi-role transport aircraft (MTA). Initial plans were to produce 205 aircraft of which 45 would have come to the IAF, with the remaining going to the Russian Air Force and for exports. However, being a much bigger aircraft, this would have been an overkill for the An-32, it was to replace. As per the latest reports, India has shelved its participation in JV with Russia going alone to produce Il-214. It would perhaps be ideal to replace the An-32s with the C-295 as and when the need arises, giving a big boost to the economic viability ofthe Airbus/Tata JV.
On the rotary wing front too, the IAF has managed to score a number of hits. Its attack and heavy-lift helicopter deals for 22 Apache AH-64E Longbow ($1.4 billion) and 15 Chinook CH-47 ($1.0 billion) helicopters, respectively via the US FMS route have been signed with the deliveries likely beginning in 2019.
The Russian Mi-17 V5 programme has also been completed with a total order of 137 (80+57) units having been delivered, greatly enhancing IAF’s medium-lift rotary wing capability. Possibly, addtional orders for more such machines will take place to cater to the needs of various security agencies in India. The IAF is also acquiring a large number of different variants of the indigenous ALH Dhruv helicopter. While reportedly it has already received 66 ALHs, the order may swell to 130 in the coming decade. It has also 16 armed version Rudras of which seven have been received. The IAF has also on order 65 LCHs (Light Combat Helicopters), under development at HAL.
All the above bodes well. But its LUH (Light Utility Helicopter) requirement combined with that of the Army has
run into rough weather with MoD terminating the plans to import 197 helicopters in August 2014, even though trials between the Eurocopter AS550 Fennec and Kamov Ka-226 ‘Sergei’ had been completed. The new plan calls for about 400 helicopters for the combined use by the services to be license-built under the ‘Buy and Make (Indian) category.
This would be achieved by a combination of HAL’s under development LUH programme and setting up facilities to produce in India the Kamov Ka-226T under a HAL JV with Russian Helicopters. However, the deal needs to be expedited for the project to move forward to hasten fructification of the project.
In the meantime, crescendo against the continuing use of Chetak/Cheetah helicopters which entered service almost half-a-century ago continues to rise with a group of Indian Army Officers’ wives demanding the AAC (Army Aviation Corps) stop using its Chetak/Cheetah helicopters due to their high accident rate
The period under review witnessed not only full operationalisation of the complex Phalcon AWACS systems three of which had been inducted by the IAF, but also spurred the IAF to place an order for two more systems. In addition, two Embraer E145 platforms out of three with the indigenous AEW&C development by DRDO have been delivered to the IAF for testing. More such platforms may be acquired after the success of the programme is established.
To augment its mid-air refueling capability, IAF had reselected Airbus A330 MRTT (Multi-Role Tanker Transport) citing lower life-cycle costs and therefore a preferred option over the earlier IL-78 Russian tankers. This programme has suddenly been scrapped, and Airbus head in India, Pierre de Bausset, has expressed disappointment. He told newsmen recently that no reasons were given to them and that he was not sure if Airbus would contest again for this estimated $1.55 billion programme. Boeing which has developed its new 767 aircraft-based tanker, has meanwhile, stepped in to offer the aircraft to IAF.
IAF has already acquired the Israeli Searcher and Heron UAVs for the conduct of ISR and TA (Target Acquisition) missions. What it needs now is the UCAV capability, to hit targets with remote controlled weapons, and discussions are reportedly on with the US General Atomics for armed Predators.
Basic flying training took a leap forward with the induction of Pilatus PC-7 MK II into IAF’s flying training institutions and is now well established with the IAF having received all 75 aircraft of the initial order. Impressed with the aircraft’s performance and reliability, IAF wanted to meet its total requirement of 181 BTAs (Basic Trainer Aircraft) through import and license-production and had strongly recommended the foreclosure of the HTT-40 programme. However, DAC headed by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar ruled that while 38 additional PC-7 MK II would be acquired from Pilatus using the option clause, the remaining 68 would be provided by HAL after developing the HTT-40 whose prototype recently took to the skies for the first time.
For advanced jet training, all 105 Hawk 132 AJTs have been produced and handed over to the IAF. Similarly, the Indian Navy is also in the process of receiving its order of 17 aircraft. An additional order of 20 Hawks for the IAF’s Surya Kiran Aerobatic Team will also be undertaken by HAL.
However, while the BTA and AJT programmes have progressed well, it’s the more than 15 year old IJT-36 programme that is not making much of a headway with major aerodynamic issues still being experienced in its development. This may force the IAF into amending its training by amalgamating the Stage II training into basic and advanced stages by increasing the flying syllabi at both ends. This process has actually started to take shape with the progressive retirement of the older Kiran intermediate trainers.
Overall, Air Defence has been a weak area due to the cancellation of indigenous programmes such as the ‘Trishul’ programme and delayed joint ventures such as the Maitri SR-SAM with MBDA. The IAF has now opted for the indigenous Akash SAM systems eight squadrons of which are being inducted into service, while the Israeli-built SPYDER systems are also finding their way into the IAF. Also, DRDO’s joint project with Israel to develop the MR-SAM is progressing satisfactorily. India is also going ahead to procure for the IAF S-400M all-purpose SAM systems from Russia in a deal which could be in excess of $5 billion. On the VSHORADS front, three contenders namely the Swedish Saab (RBS-70 NG), French MBDA (Mistral 2) and the Russian improved Igla-S (SA-24) are in the fray to cater to the combined needs of the services in a $5.2billion programme.
To conclude, it is clear that the last two years, once again, have proved to be a mixed bag of hits and misses for the IAF in its relentless pursuit to transform itself into a modern and formidable force with full-spectrum capabilities. Its biggest concerns relate to building up its depleted combat squadrons’ force levels to the authorised 42 squadrons as early as possible. For this to happen, much would depend upon how the various acquisition plans – through indigenous effort, outright export or through ‘Make in India’ projects – work out. Time, as is evident, will be of great essence. Moreover, the Government will have to adopt a pragmatic and realistic approach towards India’s security challenges and provide sufficient resources for the required capability accretion. IAF alone would need close to $10 billion a year during the foreseeable future to achieve its modernisation plans.