The Central Government has finished three years in office and consequently, reviews of its achievements and shortfalls are ongoing. For the Indian Air Force this period has been a very busy one due the intense focus on its dwindling squadron strength, the selection of an MMRCA and the fact that its transport and helicopter fleets were heavily tasked for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR), a task that they acquitted themselvesin very creditably. The past six months, however, have been relatively quiet after the hectic preceding three years— hectic, also because of heavy media coverage of the activities connected with the large scale and big ticket items that the IAF planned to buy. This article examines how the IAF’s operational capability presents itself to the nation in the present challenging security environment. Two additional reasons demand this analysis. One, because the CPEC blue print revealed in the Pakistan daily The Dawn shows that it could well become a ‘colony’ of China in the years to come, given the planned deep intrusive presence in Pakistani society and daily life. Thus, India would have a virtual Chinese existence on its western front too, aggravating the threat to it. Second, the Air Chief, in a personal letter to all his officers, has exhorted them to ready for ‘operations at short notice with our present holdings.’
The two acquisitions eagerly looked forwardto are the thirty six Rafale and one hundred and twenty three Tejas. These are needed, not only for the capability that would come in, but also to reverse the trend of reducing Squadron numbers due the approaching phase out of the MiG-21 and Mi-27 fleets.
As is well known, the IAF is inducting 20 Tejas Mk I with the Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) status, another 20 with the Final Operational Clearance and 83 Tejas Mk IA. It is the Mk IA that the IAF is really looking forward to as it would bring with it the four mandatory additions that the IAF has demanded of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA); the four are, air to air refuelling capability, an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, integration of a Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile and a modern Electronic Warfare (EW) suite. Of these, photographs are available of a fixed refuelling probe having been installed on the aircraft nose and last reports stated that ground tests are underway before flight tests begin. An Israeli Derby air to air BVR has been test fired on 12 May as part of the integration tests with the present mechanical radar in place; for sure, once the AESA radar gets installed this test would have to be repeated (as very many others too). What is known in the open domain is that the selection of the AESA radar and EW suite is ongoing— there would be many more steps before the selected equipments are test flown and thereafter contracted for, to equip series production aircraft. The necessity of compressing timelines cannot but be emphasised to make up numbers in the IAF inventory. For this, HAL would really have to buck its reputation of the past seven decades for delayed deliveries.
The Rafale would bring with it a capability that would be unmatched in the region by many orders of magnitude; this is applicable for PLAAF too, even when its J-20 stealth fighter enters service and becomes operational (by 2019 or so). The biggest advantage that the Rafale would bring is the fact that it has been tested in real life operational conditions in Libya, Mali, Iraq, Afghanistan and Central African Republic, something that almost every important piece of Chinese hardware lacks. The aircraft would boast of standoff air to ground capability with the SCALP missile and a BVR range par excellence with the Meteor missile.
The IAF has a contract with HAL to induct 272 of these heavy multi-role aircraft of which roughly 230 or so have entered service. The Sukhoi’s have suffered from low serviceability, with engine problems being particularly serious (69 engine related issues, including 35 failures, as per a statement of the Defence Minister in Parliament). However, the modifications introduced by the Russian manufacturer have ameliorated the situation a great deal— but much more needs to be done to ensure a flight line availability of 70 percent of the fleet in peace time. In parallel, the IAF has commenced a case for the upgrade of the Su-30, a step that needs to be pursued with focussed attention.
Mirage 2000 Upgrade: The $2.5 billion Mirage 2000 upgrade will make the three decades old aircraft a very modern machine, with a new radar and very potent weapons for air defence duties. The pilot would have a marked improvement in situational awareness, a new helmet mounted display and MICA BVR missiles. The first few IOC standard aircraft were received from France and brought up to FOC levels by HAL after incorporation of Indiaspecific requirements. The aircraft would be good for the next two decades at least and would be one of the lead aircraft in IAF’s plans to carry the war to the adversary.
MiG-29 Upgrade: The MiG-29 upgrade, signed in 2008 for USD 965million, has been way behind schedule with Russian equipment suppliers delaying the despatch of required kits. This is representative of the delays in the Russian system where, despite the contract having been signed, their supply has been lacking. This matter has been taken up at the highest level and hopefully things have started to move. The upgrade includes a new and more potent radar, increased range due conformal fuel tanks and many new avionics.
Jaguar Upgrade: Jaguars are being upgraded with the indigenous DARIN III system which affords the aircraft better navigation and weapon delivery.Since the aircraft has many more years ahead of it, a proposal to re-engine them has been in the works for many years, without any known forward movement; but the fact is that they would be vital elements of the IAF’s strike fleet for the next two decades.
The transport fleet of the IAF would be the envy of many developed nations. The ten C-17 aircraft at Air Force Station Hindan make it the second largest C-17 operator in the world; an eleventh aircraft has also been contracted for. The landing by a C-17 at the recently renovated Mechuka Advanced Landing Ground in Arunachal Pradesh, which has a runway of only 4200 feet, demonstrated the large numbers of men and material that can be airlifted directly, close to the Indo-China border. The lone C-130 squadron, also at Air Force Station Hindan, has five special operations aircraft in inventory while the contract for another one (to make up for the aircraft lost in an accident), has been signed. A new special operations squadron with six C-130s is coming up at Panagarh in the East, and will cater to the requirements for the China contingency.
IL-76 operations ex-Chandigarh are going great guns, and with all airframes concentrated at one base, the flight line availability is impressive. An-32s still form the backbone of tactical airlift, and with around 100 aircraft on strength, they are doing yeoman service for the Indian Army through air maintenance in the North and North East. The HS 748 Avro has outlived its life and will be replaced by the Airbus manufactured C-295; the contract with the Airbus Tata combine is pending and, once signed, could herald real transport aircraft manufacturing in India. It is hoped that the factory in India would not only cater for the fifty six airframes that the IAF needs but would also serve as an export hub for South East Asia and encourage R&D in the private sector as well.
Rotary Wing Fleet
Medium Lift Helicopters (MLH). Like the transport aircraft fleet, the Rotary Wing (RW) inventory is something that the IAF can be proud of. Since around 1970, when the Mi-8 first came in, the RW MLH fleet has been built around the Mi 8/17 versions. The newest acquisition has been the Mi 17 V5; after the initial 80 were procured to equip six additional Helicopter Units (HU), fifty nine more have come in to replace the Mi-8s in the IAF fleet. Additionally, fortyeight more V5s have been ordered due to enhanced requirement for internal security and HADR, the latter being an area which the government is laying special emphasis on. The V5s have come with the Bambi bucket for fire fighting and one would have seen that, in the recent past, these helicopters have been called out pretty regularly for this task. Equipped with Night Vision Goggles (NVG), their presence in the naxalite hit areas of Chattisgarh and Jharkand has resulted in the opening up of the night for support to the police forces on ground. Also, Army-Air Force night ops have received a tremendous boost due this capability.
The arrival of 22 Apache helicopters in 2018-19 is eagerly awaited as they will greatly supplement the aging Mi-25/35s presently in IAF inventory. If the next war comes, all experts say that it would be a short high intensity engagement; it is here that the Apaches would be vital for the ground war to be prosecuted on our terms. Part of the fleet would have the mast mounted millimetric wave radar that would revolutionise the transparency available on the battlefield. Used in conjunction with AWACS through data linking, the battlefield picture would be centrally available to other users too; the reverse would also be true, with information being passed digitally to Apaches proceeding to the area of operations. With their night flying and attack capability, the Apaches would bring in state of art war fighting wherewithal to the tactical battlefield.
Heavy Lift: Fifteen Chinook helicopters will enter IAF service around the same time frame as the Apaches, i.e., 2018-19.While a new HU is being raised in the East, the remaining would be placed in the Mi-26 equipped HU at Chandigarh. From media reports it appears that some Mi- 26 are being retained in Service, so this HU would have two different Flights. It is indeed heartening that the Mi-26 will still be flying in IAF colours since no rotary wing machine can replace its 20 tonne lift capability – 20 tonnes internal load or external on cargo hook!
Light Helicopters: The Russian Ka- 226 will replace the Chetak/Cheetah fleet through a government to government deal. While the initial few would be directly imported, most would be built through ToT by HAL. It was thought that the indigenous manufacture would go to a private player so as to incentivise the local industry, but that is beyond discussion now. Though the Ka-226 was tested at the dizzying heights of the Siachen Glacier, the Cheetal (a Cheetah with an ALH Dhruv engine) would still be required for many more years for air maintenance at 20,000 feet! The Dhruv has entered IAF service and, besides performing in the Sarang aerobatics team, it has been performing creditably now (after many years of intense maintenance problems).
There have been a large number of modern additions to the IAF’s air defence network. New radars, mostly indigenous, have been inducted and the Akash Surface to Air Missile (SAM) is fast becoming the mainstay of the network; additionally, the Medium Range SAM project with Israel has proven itself in trials and will start entering service. The Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS) is making fast progress and is the lynchpin of India’s air defence. In short, Bharat Electronics Limited and Bharat Dynamics Ltd have been instrumental in this ‘Indianisation’ of the country’s air defence and need to be emulated by other Public Sector Undertakings.
Indian air power would be the politician’s weapon of first choice in the next conflict due the capabilities that have built up by the IAF. For it to remain current, training would need to be a continuous process and keep up with the technological trends and rapid advancements taking place in weapon and armament systems. Government finance would always be scarce for the defence sector, as the economic agenda of the nation would always be the first priority in a democracy. The Government has assured the Services of all the funding to keep them current, and a step ahead of the adversaries. The ball is in the court of the uniformed Services to live up to the expectations.
Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur, VM, is a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi. He writes regularly in national newspapers and magazines. This article first appeared in the June 2017 issue of FORCE.