Wednesday, February 8th, 2023 16:15:00

Modernisation of the Indian Air Force

By Air Marshal Anil Chopra
Updated: October 19, 2019 11:47 am

The IAF has slowly been losing the clear combat edge that it enjoyed over Pakistan in 1971 especially in terms of numbers. Technology intensive air power requires faster replacement of assets due to quicker obsolescence. If the IAF does not win the air war, then the Army and Navy cannot win the surface war. The IAF had recently tested its operational plans, in a two-front scenario, in the mother-of-all-exercises ‘Gagan Shakti’. If forced into a conflict, the IAF has a plan ‘B’ to fight with what it has, but numbers are clearly not adequate to fully execute an air campaign in a two-front war scenario. It is incumbent upon the nation to provide the IAF assets for the task it has been entrusted with. It is imperative that the IAF quickly rebuild the squadron strength, he summed up.


While addressing a seminar on ‘IAF Force Structure: 2035’ organised by the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS) in early September 2018, Indian Air Force (IAF) Chief, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, stated that the IAF had hit an all time low of 31 fighter squadrons vis-a-vis the government authorised 42. He mentioned that India was in one of the worst geo-political hotspots of the world with two nuclear neighbours, both of whom we have serious boundary issues with and have had wars as well. Both have formidable air assets and they could force India into a two-front war. He highlighted the convergence of strategic interests between China and Pakistan and their rapidly modernising air forces. The IAF has slowly been losing the clear combat edge that it enjoyed over Pakistan in 1971 especially in terms of numbers. Technology intensive air power requires faster replacement of assets due to quicker obsolescence. If the IAF does not win the air war, then the Army and Navy cannot win the surface war. The IAF had recently tested its operational plans, in a two-front scenario, in the mother-of-all-exercises ‘Gagan Shakti’. If forced into a conflict, the IAF has a plan ‘B’ to fight with what it has, but numbers are clearly not adequate to fully execute an air campaign in a two-front war scenario. It is incumbent upon the nation to provide the IAF assets for the task it has been entrusted with. It is imperative that the IAF quickly rebuild the squadron strength, he summed up.


Depleting Fighter Squadrons

Delay in Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas has forced the IAF to postpone the retirement of a few older MiG-21 variants. The five squadrons of MiG-21 Bison-fleet will continue till 2024, with depleting numbers and lower availability of spares. The IAF has ordered 40 LCA Mk1, 20 will be in Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) and 20 in Final Operational Clearance (FOC). The first squadron of LCA Mk I now has 11 aircraft and will be fully formed only by 2019. The FOC still has pending issues and the IAF may be forced to split it into FOC1 and FOC2 meaning accept initial few among second 20 in less than FOC state. The IAF has already committed for 83 LCA Mk1A. HAL is still working on this variant which will have improvements such as an advanced AESA Radar, an EW suite, a mid-air refueling probe, and will incorporate weight reduction along with easier service maintainability. AESA will be an improved version of the EL/M-2052 and is being developed jointly by Elta and HAL. There are issues related to the excessive cost per aircraft quoted by HAL. Indications are that the IAF will have to accept the higher cost.

Meanwhile, HAL has been seeking Rs 1,000 crore for D&D of LCA Mk1A and the same may be cleared from outside the IAF budget. The LCA Mk II meeting all the IAF original Air Staff Qualification Requirements (ASQR) will be ready earliest by 2025, and can induct only after 2030. It will have the more powerful General Electric F-4141-GE-INS6 engine. To accommodate the same, major airframe modifications including larger dimensions will be required. It will also mean extensive flight testing. Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa recently announced that the IAF has committed for 200 aircraft. The current single assembly-line with production rate of eight LCA per year is inadequate. Another one or two lines could increase production to 16/24 aircraft a year. The matter is under consideration with the government.

The IAF’s dedicated strike aircraft fleet includes five squadrons of Jaguars and two squadrons of MiG-27; both these types are under upgrade. Nearly half of the three squadrons of Mikoyan MiG-29 have been upgraded jointly with Russia, and now have increased internal and external fuel capacity, aerial refueling probe, new avionics including Zhuk-M radar, and new air-to-air missiles. The three squadrons of Dassault Mirage 2000 aircraft are being slowly upgraded to Mirage 2000-5 Mk 2 standards with modern avionics including RDY-2 radar, glass cockpit, helmet-mounted sight, EW systems, and advanced MICA missiles. Aircraft life has also been increased by 20 years. 272 Su-30 MKI air-superiority fighters are on order and 240 have been delivered till date. These aircraft will one day be upgraded to have the BrahMos cruise missiles and nuclear-capable Nirbhay missiles. Initially 40 aircraft will be modernised and will get Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, more powerful onboard computers and a new Electronic Warfare (EW) suite. The process has still to start. In view of depleting numbers, the IAF may be forced to acquire more SU-30 MKI.

36 Rafale that were contracted in 2016, will start arriving in 2019, and will all be in by 2022. The IAF also sent out a Request for Information (RFI) for 110 fourth generation-plus fighters early in the year. Responses for the same were received in July 2018. In contention are Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, F-16 Block 70 (In Feb 2019 Lockheed Martin offered F-21), F/A-18 E/F, JAS 39 Gripen NG, MiG-35 and SU-35. The IAF hopes to issue the RFP by March 2019. Even if the process is hastened, the earliest these aircraft can be inducted is 2025. Meanwhile, DRDO and HAL are working on the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) which is meant to be a fifth generation aircraft with stealth and super-cruise among others. The aircraft is still at the initial design stage. The first flight may take place only around 2030 and inducted around 2035 or even later.

Transports and Helicopters – Reasonable Capability

The IAF’s workhorse – over a hundred Antonov An-32 medium transport aircraft, are undergoing avionics upgrade. The IAF has three squadrons of Dornier Do 228 light transport aircraft. EADS’ CASA C-295 twin-turboprop tactical military transport aircraft has been selected to replace 56 Avros. 16 aircraft will bought in fly-away condition, and Tata Advanced Systems Ltd (TASL) and Airbus Defence and Space are to manufacture 40 in India. The contract has been at an advanced stage of finalisation for some time, but it seems that the project remains at relatively lower priority for funding. The IAF has 17 Ilyushin Il-76 (50-tonne load). Eleven, 70-tonne load Boeing C-17 Globemaster III aircraft, have been acquired. The IAF had initially inducted six Lockheed C-130J (one crashed later) for Special Operations including troop insertion. Six more were contracted later.

HAL-built Light Utility Helicopters Chetak and Cheetah are used for training, rescue, and light transport duties including in Siachen and other high-altitude areas. Part

of their role is currently being taken over by HAL Dhruv Helicopter. Dhruv also has a weaponised version, Rudra which has been waiting for the weapons contract for some years for further development. Based on the Dhruv platform, HAL is developing the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) and a Light Utility Helicopter (LUH). Meanwhile contract for the Russian Ka-226T LUH is expected to be signed soon. These will be built in India through a Kamov-HAL Joint-Venture. Nearly 240 medium-lift Mil Mi-8, Mi-17, Mi-17 1V, and Mi-17 V5 are the mainstay of the helicopter fleet. The IAF also operates three heavy-lift Mil Mi-26 helicopters. Already on order are 15 Boeing Chinook helicopters which will start replacing them in 2019. Two squadrons of Mil Mi-25/35 attack helicopters operate in support of the Indian Army. 22 AH-64E Apache will start inducting in 2019 as a replacement. The IAF is fairly well off in transport aircraft and helicopter assets.

Combat Enablers – Need For More

Three Beriev A-50 AEW&C platforms with EL/W-2090 Phalcon radar are in service. Two more will be ordered shortly. The IAF, meanwhile, has inducted one DRDO Embraer ERJ-145 aircraft-based AEW&C ‘Netra’. Initially, two aircraft have been developed. It has been decided to purchase up to six Airbus A330s for DRDO AWACS. The DRDO could take six to eight years for radar development. The IAF has, therefore, proposed that the DRDO AWACS should also double as a refueler. Such a variant is already on offer and would cost around 17 per cent more but it would be a force multiplier. The IAF requires around ten Embraer-sized AEW&C and five larger aircraft. The IAF has six Ilyushin-78 aerial refueling aircraft. Meanwhile, it has been looking to acquire six additional modern air-refuelers since 2006. The first two attempts were aborted due to issues related to Life Cycle Costs and processes. The IAF wants a two-engine aircraft with a two-man crew, effectively ruling out four-engine IL-78. The contest is effectively between Airbus A-330 MRTT and Boeing KC-46A, but the Russians are still pushing their case.


Unmanned Systems –Long Way to Go

The IAF’s fleet of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) is comprised of the Searcher II and the Heron, both manufactured by Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI). They are used for reconnaissance and surveillance. IAI Harpy is the anti-radar combat UAV, and DRDO Lakshya is used for aerial target practice. DRDO’s Rustom – II made its maiden flight recently. It is a Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE) UAV. Rustom – I is a tactical UAV with endurance of 12 hours. Rustom – H is a larger UAV with flight endurance of over 24 hours, higher range and service ceiling than Rustom – I. Rustom – II is a UCAV based on the Rustom-H model. Induction and operationalisation of these could still take some years.

DRDO’s AURA is planned to be a “self-defending high-speed reconnaissance UAV with weapon firing capability”. The AURA will cruise at medium altitude and will be capable of carrying two or more guided strike weapons with onboard sensors for targeting and weapon guidance. This is expected around 2028. India is looking at more sophisticated large footprint systems such as RQ-4 Global hawks. The MoD had issued a global Request For Proposal (RFP) for procuring 95 mini-unmanned UAVs for the IAF and Indian Navy. The IAF had sent out RFI to international suppliers for UCAV with low radar cross-section, long range, high service ceiling, and capability to carry Precision-Guided Weapons in an internal weapons bay. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has cleared the sale of 22 Guardian naval surveillance drones to India, but India is in favor of acquiring an armed drone which operates over both land and sea. Manufactured by General Atomics, the Predator-B has both land and naval versions and can be armed with air-to-land missiles, anti-ship missiles and laser guided bombs.

Missiles – Stabilising

The well-beyond their extended-life, S-125 Pechora and OSA-AK SAM-8 Surface-to-Air Missiles are being replaced by the indigenous Akash medium range system. Eight were initially ordered, and more are likely. The Surface-to-air PYthon and DERby (SPYDER) is an Israeli low-level, quick-reaction surface-to-air missile system covering short and medium range, capable of engaging aircraft, helicopters, Unmanned Air Vehicles, drones, and Precision-Guided Munitions. 18 SPYDER-MRs along with 750 Python-5 Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) and 750 Derby SAMs are being inducted in service. Barak 8 is an Indian-Israeli LR-SAM. LR SAMs will be inducted next. Both maritime and land-based versions of the system exist. Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL) is producing the missiles. DRDO, in a joint venture with Russia is developing the air-launched version of the BrahMos cruise missile. The DRDO has also developed the nuclear capable Nirbhay cruise missile with 1,100-km range. Indigenous Astra Beyond Visual Range (BVR) air-to-air missile firing has been demonstrated on Su-30 MKI. DRDO is likely to develop the Maitri Low Level Quick Reaction Missile (LLQRM) with MBDA. The big ticket, $5.43 billion (Rs 40,000 crore) Russian S-400 Triumf Air Defence missile system contract has been signed. The system will be a game-changer and can target even drones and missiles at long ranges, and aircraft up to 400 km plus.

Surveillance Cover

The entire Indian landmass and areas overlooking the borders and sea are covered by a network of high and medium powered radars as well as aerostats. Low-looking radars are used as gap fillers and for monitoring low-level threats. The DRDO has been successful in developing the INDRA series of radars, the Rajendra fire-control radar for the Akash missile system, the Central Acquisition Radar (CAR). The Long Range Tracking Radar (LRTR) has been developed with assistance from Elta of Israel. After the induction of 19 Israeli Elta 2284 Medium Powered Radars (MPR), IAF awaits DRDO’s ‘Anudhra’ MPR. The procurement of mountain radars is crucial for our Northern borders. The radar coverage can be said to be seamless. An Integrated Space Cell, which is jointly operated by all the three services of the Indian armed forces, the civilian Department of Space and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has been set up to utilise the country’s space-based assets more effectively for military purposes. India currently has remote sensing satellites in orbit, some with a spatial resolution of one metre or below which can be also used for military applications. There are a few dedicated satellites for military use.


Network-Centric and Cyber Warfare

With the secure encrypted Air Force Network (AFNET) operational in 2010, the IAF has greatly enhanced communications and data transfer for the air defence network. The Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS) rides on the AFNET. All aircraft of the IAF will soon have an indigenous secure Operational Data Link (ODL) which will allow data transfer to the IAACS system and vice-versa, thus completing all elements for the net-centric operations. The IAF will then move from net-enabled to net-centric capability. The IAF is also gradually building cyber capability both for defensive and offensive operations.

Funds for Modernisation

The 2018-2019 defence budget at Rs 279,305 crore ($39 billion) which is 1.57 per cent of the GDP, is too meagre to cover the backlog of modernisation. The IAF’s share is Rs 64,591 crore, which is 23 per cent of the total defence budget. Total Capital Budget for new acquisitions is Rs 93,982 crore, of which, the IAF’s outlay is Rs 33,770 crore. The bulk of this will be used for committed liabilities of earlier purchases such as Apache and Chinook helicopters, Rafale, LCA, and S-400. The IAF will need out of budget funds for some acquisitions.


Make in India Aviation Push

Despite the huge military aviation demands of the Indian Armed Forces, defence production in the aviation sector continues to move at snail’s pace, and is a ‘work-in-very-slow-progress’. DPP-2018 is likely to be issued shortly. Hopefully, it will bring clarity on ‘Strategic Partnership’. Aviation is the key sector for Make-in-India push. Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has around 5,000 scientists and 25,000 support staff. Yet DRDO’s pure research has not always resulted in end-products for the industry or the Armed Forces. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) continues to spend little on research and is content with being a license production house making aircraft from manufacturer supplied production drawings. Even for locally fabricated items, it often needs foreign raw materials and help. Meanwhile, there is a strong move to place an IAF Air Marshal as head of the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and fixed-wing aircraft and engine plants of HAL. Whether such a move will help only time will tell, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Both HAL and DRDO have to be galvanised.


Private Industry

Currently, India has the dubious reputation of being the largest importer of defence equipment. Defence imports not only take away large chunks of foreign exchange but also perennially put the nation at the mercy of foreign powers. Large private industrial houses, such as Reliance, Tatas, L&T, Mahindras, Bharat Forge and others have come into defence manufacturing in a serious way. India’s target is to increase share of manufacturing from the current level of 15 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to 25 per cent. India’s target is to reduce defence imports to initially 40 per cent. Private industry can raise funds, take quick decisions and ensure transparency. Some of the major private sector players exhibit great promise and need ‘hand-holding’ support.

Among the more successful private sector large firms, Tata Advanced Systems Ltd. (TASL) has a joint-venture with Sikorsky aircraft Corporation to manufacture S-92 helicopter in India for the domestic civil and military markets. The JV has since been expanded to other products. Another TASL joint-venture, with Lockheed Martin is producing aero-structures for the Lockheed C-130J Super Hercules in India. Currently, it is a 74:26 Joint Venture to assemble the Hercules centre wing boxes and empennages. Lockheed has offered to shift its entire F-16 production line to India. In any case they have announced that they will start building F-16 wings in India in three years time (in Feb 2019 Lockheed Martin offered F-21). TASL has also entered an agreement to produce structures for the Pilatus PC-12NG. TASL is bidding to develop and build UAS for the Indian armed forces along with Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) and Urban Aeronautics Ltd. Reliance Aerostructure Ltd. is setting up a facility in Mihan SEZ near Nagpur. In a tie-up with Dassault, it will make Falcon 2000 parts and other items for Rafale offsets. Defence and security company Saab and Indian infrastructure conglomerate Adani Group have announced a collaboration plan within aerospace and defence in India. Bharat Forge is significantly into heavy artillery guns. The Mahindra Group has for long been supplying light vehicles, trucks and armored vehicles to the Armed Forces. They are also manufacturing small aircraft. Many smaller companies have significant orders for sub-systems. Capability exists. It needs to be harnessed.


Transfer of Technology

Transfer of Technology clauses are the most difficult to negotiate in any contract and even more difficult to implement. Most countries see India as a great defence market and would never part with technologies that could allow emerging India to be a competitor. Technology can be acquired either by investing heavily in R&D, or through ‘Beg, Borrow or Steal’ approach. Pakistan managed missile and nuclear technologies through strategic give-and-take with China. Russia copied US aircraft designs and China reverse-engineered Russian and Western systems. A Joint Venture route would be the best bet for India. India must also use its economic muscle, coupled with falling defence markets elsewhere, to leverage this Transfer of Technology.


Our Not-So-Friendly Neighbourhood

A debt-ridden Pakistan has an ambition to increase the strength of the combat squadrons in the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) from 22 to 28 in a decade. The PAF has shown interest in Russian Su-35 air-superiority fighters and China’s J-31 stealth fighters. Fortunately, their equipment is gradually getting China-centric and lacks in some critical technologies. China’s PLAAF has around 1,700 fighters, of which 800 are modern fighters of Su-27, Su-30MKK, J-10, J-11 and J-16 class. They will soon induct Stealth J-20 and J-31, and the figure will go up to 1,000 plus modern fighters. The PLAAF plans to stabilise at 80 fighter squadrons of fourth plus generation. They have indigenous heavy transport Y-20, stealth bomber H-18 and AEW&C KJ-2000 programmes, and are building a large number of helicopters and UAVs.

The Prospect of A Two-Front War

The end of the Cold War by early 1990s, and the rise of China re-aligned the power centres. The geo-strategic Centre of Gravity has shifted from trans-Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific. China’s desire to dominate Asia and in turn, the world, has implications for India; India needs to prepare for a possible two-front war. The PLAAF is the second largest air force in the world with 330,000 personnel and nearly 1,700 combat aircraft, 800 of which are state-of-the-art. Its current modern combat aircraft holdings include 24 Su-35, 73 Su-30 MKK, 75 Su-27, 24 J-16, 205 J-11, and 250 J-10 fighters. In the last two decades, it has made great strides in developing its airpower capability. The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is the seventh largest Air Force in the world and the largest in the Islamic world with 450 combat and over 300 other support aircraft.

The China-Pak tie-up presents India with a potential two-front theatre in the event of war with either country. In case of a localised war across the LoC between India and Pakistan, China is likely to restrict its involvement to military supplies and diplomatic pressure. India is now a closer ally of the US, and the Americans and Russians will prevent China from entering into a full-scale war. On the other hand, if there were to be Sino-Indian war, say limited to Arunachal, known for misadventures, the Pakistan army may jump into the fray to avenge their repeated defeats. In such a scenario, India will have to balance its forces on both fronts. At its current strength, the IAF will find it difficult to take on both the PLAAF and PAF. The IAF requires at least 50 combat squadrons for a possible two-front war.


IAF – The Way Ahead

The IAF is deficient by 11 from the authorised 42 fighter squadrons. From the Rafale deal, it can be seen that typically two squadrons cost around $9.12 billion. The IAF targets to make good the numbers by 2035. Deficient 11 squadrons and additional nine that will phase-out by then would mean 20 squadrons. These could cost upwards of $100 billion. Where is that money? The desired end state in 2035 could be two squadrons of Mirage-2000, two Jaguars, fourteen Su -30 MKI, two Rafale, fourteen of LCA Mk I & II, two AMCA and six of the newly selected fighter, making a total of 42. For balance and partial air-superiority, the IAF will require at least 30 squadrons on the Western front. This will leave 12 squadrons for the Eastern borders which would be very inadequate against the PLAAF. Even in a defensive battle, the IAF will require 20 squadrons in the East. This would mean requirement of a total of 50 Squadrons. Inter-theatre move of troops and heavy equipment will require more transport aircraft. Inter-valley movement of Army equipment will require more heavy-lift helicopters. India will also require more aerial refuelers and AEW&C aircraft. To achieve all this, the defence budget has to be at least 2.5 per cent of GDP for the next two decades. Therefore, a realistic requirement for the IAF’s capital budget needs to be over Rs 60,000 crore a year.


By Air Marshal Anil Chopra

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