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IAF Transformation Maturing with New Aircraft, More Squadrons


By Gulshan Luthra and Air Marshal Ashok Goel (Retd) Published: October 2012

New Delhi. Seven years ago in 2005, through an article in The Tribune, we had drawn attention to the depleting strength of combat squadrons of the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the imminent requirement for its transformation into a modern, 21st century force with cutting edge technologies in aircraft, systems, sensors and weapons.


IAF was then losing up to two squadrons every year, as most of its aircraft were old, difficult to service due to shortage of spares, and in any case of outdated Soviet vintage technologies.

It is IAF’s 80th Anniversary now, and looks like there have been Birthday Gifts one after another.

Much has happened since 2005. IAF is in final negotiations with the French Dassault for acquiring 126 (and possibly 63 more) Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft, 22 Boeing Apache AH-64D helicopters with Longbow radars and Stinger air-to-air Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, 10 Boeing C 17 Globemaster III strategic airlifters (possibly six more), more SU 30 MKIs air dominance fighters (272 ordered so far), and a host of other systems including six mid-air refuelers and three (plus two) Israeli Phalcon AWACS mounted on IL 76 platforms.

Tenders for Heavy Lift helicopters and more midair refuelers have also been opened. The proposal for the acquisition of Light Utility Helicopters, in which the Army is the lead buyer, is in final stage of consideration with the Ministry of Defence.

The current inventory of aircraft has also been modernised with upgraded systems, including the Mig 21 while an order to re-engine the Jaguar with a more powerful Honeywell power plant, and then to upgrade it with new weapons, in on the anvil.

Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne told India Strategic in an interview that “IAF’s transformation plan aims at acquiring multi-spectrum strategic capabilities…to operate effectively and decisively.”

Speed, Reach, and Precision are the keywords for IAF's Transformation.

42 Squadrons by 2027

The Air Chief confirmed that the Government had finally approved 42 combat squadrons for the IAF, and that “by 2020 and beyond, we are confident that our operational capabilities will provide us response options to handle any contingencies.”

In about 10 years, 75 per cent of IAF’s modernisation will be complete.

“The acquisition of Su-30 MKI, AWACS, Mid-air refuellars, Special Ops capable C-130J, New Generation Precision Guided Munitions, Sensor Fused Weapons, Harpoon Anti Ship missiles have greatly enhanced our all weather precision strike capability as well as enhanced our strategic reach. The future inductions viz., MMRCA, LCA, FGFA and C-17 aircraft will further enhance our capability response options.”

At present, IAF has 34 Squadrons, thanks to the increasing deployment of SU 30 MKIs, which are being built in India from “raw material stage.” There are 10 squadrons of this formidable aircraft, steadily replacing the phased out machines, and six more will be added in the coming years.

An IAF squadron generally has 18 aircraft, with two of them for training. An SU 30 MKI can comfortably fly for 10 hours. In fact, the Indian configuration has been adopted recently by the Russian Air Force also for its future requirements.

Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne’s Message to The IAF Family

The Indian Air Force today is in the midst of transforming into a potent multi-spectrum strategic force in keeping with India’s national aspirations.

In consonance with our Vision of ‘People First Mission Always’, I urge all the Air Warriors to seize the moment and embrace all the transformational challenges as unique opportunities for growth of the Service. While successful mission accomplishment is a forgone conclusion, we are mindful of the fact that the air warriors - who are our real force multipliers - need to be the centre of our focus. IAF is fully committed to ensure that the important human dimension of our transformation gets the top priority in all our actions.

I believe that the mission for the IAF is to become a modern and professional Air Force with multi-spectrum capabilities to safeguard our National interests and Objectives. I can assure our countrymen that the Indian Air Force will always remain ready to deliver with speed, precision, honour and pride in our mission.


“At present the IAF has 34 fighter squadrons against the sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons. The number of fighter squadrons is likely to remain at 34 squadrons during the 12th Plan period. The phasing out of certain legacy aircraft in beginning of 13th Plan period would be offset by raising of the new Su-30 Squadrons, therefore, the overall combat potential will continue to remain high.”

Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft, PMF

The Air Chief disclosed that IAF had opted to acquire 144 PMF (Perspective Multirole Fighters) – also known as the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft – from Russia, but most of these will be Made in India. All these will be single seaters, with the same configuration that the Russian Air Force will have but some onboard systems will be Indian, as is the case with the SU 30 MKIs.

Earlier, a figure of 200-plus of two-seater version for India was looked at. But to cut down on the development costs and time frame, IAF plans to begin their induction from 2020 onwards.

Discussions with Russia are on to sign the first R&D phase, and the first prototype is likely to be delivered to India in 2014 followed by two more in 2017 and 2019. The series production then “will only be ordered based on the final configuration and performance of the third ptorotype.”

Budget Support

IAF needs to spend more of its budget on acquisitions, thanks to the continuous requirement of technologically sophisticated aircraft and systems. In fact, both the Indian Navy and IAF have been on a rather fast track, and there has been sufficient financial support from the Government.

As for the IAF, Air Chief Marshal Brown observed that IAF had already spent around Rs 150,000 crores (approx. US$ 30 billion) in the last five years on replacing the outdated systems. This expenditure has been across the board, including in modernising the ground infrastructure.

He also said that there were periodic assessments of the security and strategic environment, and if required, IAF could always approach the Government “based on the prevalent situation at any time.”

Upgrades are important

Every air force in the world has a teeth to tail ratio of modern and legacy aircraft. For the IAF, the exercise has been tough as all modernisation programmes for the armed forces and the intelligence agencies were stopped by the political leadership in 1989 over the Bofors controversy.

As exemplified by Pakistan’s misadventure over Kargil in 1999, this decision proved expensive although the deployment of Bofors guns and IAF’s aircraft decimated the nearly 200 positions Pakistani soldiers had occupied on the Indian side of Himalayan heights.

IAF is giving due attention to the modernisation of its existing inventory.

“The drawdown in the number of Combat Squadrons is being addressed through upgradation of some of the existing aircraft like the Mirage-2000, Jaguar and MiG-29 and new acquisitions like additional Su-30 MKI, MMRCA, LCA (Light Combat Aircraft) and FGFA in the 12th (2012-2017) and 13th (2017-2022) Plan periods. We have embarked on a long term plan to enhance our operational capabilities, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Eventually we are seeking to build up our squadron strength to 42 by the 14th Plan period,” Air Chief Marshal Browne said.

Transport Aircraft

The Air Chief described the acquisition of 10 C 17 Globemaster III aircraft as important, pointing out that IAF had the sanction for six more of these strategic airlifters. But an order would be placed once the first few aircraft are received and their performance assessed.

Meanwhile, the existing fleet of Il 76 aircraft and AN 32 aircraft was being modernised for a life of another 10 to 15 years. These aircraft are “undergoing comprehensive upgrades.”

A contract with Russia for the Medium Transport Aircraft (MTA) of 15 to 20 ton capacity was signed in May 2012, and the Design Phase Contract is being finalised now.

IAF will induct 45 MTA from 2018 onwards.

VIP Aircraft and Helicopters

Air Chief Marshal Browne said that IAF expected the delivery of 12 VIP helicopters from Agusta Westland to commence from January 2013, and to be completed by 2015. The first helicopter should be in India in February.

Eight of these will be in VVIP configuration and the remaining four in standard.

He also disclosed that IAF is also processing a case for four more Embraers for VIP role in addition to the six already with its Communication Squadron.

The Squadron also has four Boeing 737 aircraft and Mi 8 helicopters.

Training of Pilots

The Air Chief said that pilots for the VIP helicopters as well as for C 17s were under training.

There were nearly 100 technicians for training also in the US for C 17s. That is a big programme, he observed, pointing out that simulators and in-country training is given due emphasis.

“IAF carries out training of all its pilots within our country. Short visits to training academies of other air forces by our trainees are undertaken as part of the exchange programmes. All the modern generation aircraft have complex systems on board which require extensive training on such systems.

“Simulators go a long way in ensuring that a pilot learns about these systems under simulation before he actually uses these systems onboard an aircraft thus saving precious training hours. Apart from the simulators being inducted with all the new aircraft which are being contracted for, the IAF has taken a conscious decision to include simulator training as part of the planned training curriculum from the time the pilots join as ab-initio trainees.”

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