India — Indian Air Force in Transition

HAL Nasik is expect­ed to com­plete deliv­ery of the 272 Su-30M­KI on order by 2014. Mean­while, test flights on the T-50 are pro­gress­ing sat­is­fac­to­ri­ly in Rus­sia. How­ev­er, the twin-seat FGFA on which Indi­an and Russ­ian design­ers are work­ing joint­ly, will prac­ti­cal­ly be a new air­craft. The stip­u­lat­ed time frame of 2017 for the com­mence­ment of its induc­tion may only be ten­ta­tive as there may be imped­i­ments not uncom­mon in the devel­op­ment pro­grammes for new air­craft. There is also talk of the Aero­nau­ti­cal Devel­op­ment Agency (ADA) devel­op­ing a fifth gen­er­a­tion twin-engine Medi­um Com­bat Air­craft (MCA). But giv­en the track record of the Indi­an aero­space indus­try, devel­op­ment of the MCA in a respectable time frame may well be out­side the realm of pos­si­bil­i­ty. The IAF may do well to fac­tor this into their future plans.

Apart from the uncer­tain­ties of the indige­nous aero­space indus­try that could adverse­ly affect plans for trans­for­ma­tion of the com­bat fleet, a nag­ging prob­lem that con­tin­ues to linger is the inor­di­nate delay in the selec­tion of the ven­dor for the MMRCA. Ini­ti­at­ed by Air Head­quar­ters over a decade ago, the process con­tin­ues at an excru­ci­at­ing­ly tardy pace. Although Das­sault Rafael and the Eurofight­er Typhoon were short­list­ed in June this year after com­ple­tion of tech­ni­cal eval­u­a­tion, com­mer­cial bids are yet to be opened. There is also the com­plex prob­lem of “bench­mark­ing of price” yet to be tack­led. The Defence Pro­cure­ment Pro­ce­dure (DPP) was for­mu­lat­ed to be impar­tial, fair, total­ly trans­par­ent and ensure the best val­ue for mon­ey. How­ev­er, these attrib­ut­es have not been bal­anced against the imper­a­tives of nation­al secu­ri­ty. There is grow­ing con­cern in the IAF at the slum­ber­ous pace at which the case is being processed by the MoD while its com­bat poten­tial con­tin­ues to erode. If at all the MMRCA is final­ly a real­i­ty, on account of the inter­minable delay in pro­cure­ment, the air­craft might well be due for midlife upgrade or over­tak­en by obso­les­cence before induc­tion. Besides, the pos­si­bil­i­ty of the ten­der being can­celled can­not be ruled out at this stage, giv­en the dilem­ma of deci­sion mak­ing by the con­trol­ling bureau­cra­cy in the uncer­tain polit­i­cal cli­mate pre­vail­ing in the coun­try.

Air­lift capa­bil­i­ty

The sce­nario in respect of the strate­gic and tac­ti­cal air­lift capa­bil­i­ty is some­what reas­sur­ing. A US$ 4.1 bil­lion deal has been con­clud­ed with Boe­ing through the US Government’s For­eign Mil­i­tary Sales route for ten C17 Globe­mas­ter III, the most capa­ble strate­gic mil­i­tary trans­port air­craft in the world to replace the age­ing IL-76 fleet induct­ed in the mid eight­ies. Anoth­er sev­en are like­ly to fol­low in due course. HAL has also entered into a joint ven­ture with Unit­ed Air­craft Cor­po­ra­tion of Rus­sia to co-devel­op a Mul­ti-role Trans­port Air­craft of 20-tonne pay­load capac­i­ty as replace­ment for the 100 AN-32 air­craft induct­ed in the mid eight­ies. Being a com­plete­ly new plat­form, the stat­ed time frame of 2019 for induc­tion may be over opti­mistic. In the mean­time, the IAF will have to man­age with the AN-32 fleet cur­rent­ly under­go­ing midlife upgrade.

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Rotary wing

On the rotary wing front, pro­pos­al from the IAF for over 200 heli­copters to replace the age­ing fleet of Chee­tah and Chetak through imports and pro­duc­tion by HAL of a three-ton class machine, is pro­gress­ing at a snail’s pace. Action is also in hand to pro­cure 15 heavy-lift heli­copters to replace the defunct MI-26. Ten­ders have also been float­ed for the sec­ond time for the replace­ment of the obso­lete MI-35 Attack Heli­copters. In the mean­time, induc­tion of the 80 MI17 V5 heli­copters ordered ear­li­er, has begun in March 2011. These will aug­ment / replace the age­ing fleet of 150 MI8 / MI17 heli­copters on the inven­to­ry. HAL has been suc­cess­ful with the five-tonne medi­um capac­i­ty Advanced Light Heli­copter pro­gramme, the Dhruv, which are being induct­ed in large num­bers. HAL is also work­ing on the Light Com­bat Heli­copter that resem­bles the Ital­ian Man­gus­ta.

Force mul­ti­pli­ers

While the IAF is set on enhanc­ing com­bat force lev­els, it has simul­ta­ne­ous­ly focused on Force Mul­ti­pli­ers which include an order for three IL-76 based Air­borne Warn­ing and Con­trol Sys­tem (AWACS) with the Phal­con Radar with options for two more. Also on order are three Embraer 145 jets mount­ed with indige­nous­ly devel­oped Air­borne Ear­ly Warn­ing & Con­trol (AEW&C) sys­tems. The IAF needs a total of nine such air­craft. These should plug most of the gaps in low lev­el radar cov­er and strength­en Air Defence con­sid­er­ably. Air Defence cov­er will also be strength­ened through the deploy­ment of Aerostats. The IAF is seek­ing to dou­ble its fleet of six Flight Refu­elling Air­craft for which a ten­der has been float­ed for the sec­ond time. As in the case of all big tick­et pur­chas­es, this case too is mov­ing at an imper­cep­ti­ble pace.

A nag­ging prob­lem that con­tin­ues to linger is the inor­di­nate delay in the selec­tion of the ven­dor for the MMRCA. Ini­ti­at­ed by Air Head­quar­ters over a decade ago, the process con­tin­ues at an excru­ci­at­ing­ly tardy pace. Although Das­sault Rafael and the Eurofight­er Typhoon were short­list­ed in June this year after com­ple­tion of tech­ni­cal eval­u­a­tion, com­mer­cial bids are yet to be opened

The IAF began its for­ay in the regime of Unmanned Aer­i­al Sys­tems over a decade ago to boost recon­nais­sance and sur­veil­lance capa­bil­i­ties. Fol­low­ing an agree­ment with Israel in 1996, the IAF received the medi­um alti­tude Searcher II and sub­se­quent­ly the high alti­tude Heron. In 2009, Israel Aero­space Indus­tries (IAI) unveiled to the world for the first time the Harop Unmanned Com­bat Aer­i­al Vehi­cle in the run-up to Aero India 2009 inter­na­tion­al air show at Ben­galu­ru. Ten of these are to be induct­ed into the IAF. Mean­while the Aero­nau­ti­cal Devel­op­ment Estab­lish­ment has pro­duced the Nis­hant (equiv­a­lent of the Searcher I) and is cur­rent­ly devel­op­ing the Medi­um Alti­tude Long Endurance UAV (equiv­a­lent to Searcher II). The IAF is sched­uled to get its first ded­i­cat­ed com­mu­ni­ca­tions satel­lite by the end of 2012. This will sub­stan­tial­ly aug­ment ground-based Inte­grat­ed Com­mand and Con­trol Sys­tems and enhance its war-fight­ing capa­bil­i­ty through bet­ter net-cen­tric­i­ty.

The prob­lem with­in

Echo­ing the sen­ti­ments of his pre­de­ces­sor, Air Chief Mar­shal N A K Browne who assumed charge as the Chief of the Air Staff recent­ly stat­ed “The IAF is well poised on the path of trans­form­ing itself into a potent strate­gic force.” The state­ments ema­nat­ing from the top ech­e­lons of the lead­er­ship in the IAF undoubt­ed­ly reflect con­fi­dence and opti­mism about the future of the IAF. How­ev­er, the effort at the con­tem­plat­ed trans­for­ma­tion of the IAF into a mod­ern aero­space pow­er in a prac­ti­cal time frame, will face chal­lenges from the con­trol­ling politi­co-bureau­crat­ic sys­tems that are per­haps as daunt­ing as those from the ene­my.

HAL has entered into a joint ven­ture with Unit­ed Air­craft Cor­po­ra­tion of Rus­sia to pro­duce a cus­tomised twin-seat ver­sion of the Russ­ian T-50 PAK FA. Referred to as the Fifth Gen­er­a­tion Fight­er Air­craft (FGFA), the IAF is expect­ed to get around 250 (14 squadrons) with induc­tion begin­ning in 2017. This fleet will in due course replace the 17.5 squadrons of third gen­er­a­tion air­craft that have been in ser­vice with the IAF for over 25 years. These include the MiG-27, MiG-29, Jaguar and the Mirage 2000

About the Author:
Air Mar­shal B K Pandey PVSM, AVSM, VSM (retd)
The writer is for­mer AOC-in-C HQ Train­ing Com­mand, IAF, Ben­galu­ru and served for three years in a Diplo­mat­ic Assign­ment at the Indi­an Embassy dur­ing the years of tur­moil (1989–1992) in war-torn Afghanistan. He was respon­si­ble for set­ting up the only Eng­lish Medi­um School in Kab­ul at that point in time. He has also been Oper­a­tions Man­ag­er at ARC, an intel­li­gence organ­i­sa­tion.

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