Monday, March 27th, 2023 15:11:56

Preparedness Priorities for the Indian Air Force

By Air Marshal Anil Chopra
Updated: February 11, 2023 6:04 am

China’s belligerence on the Line of Control has extended from Ladakh to Tawang sector.  Meanwhile, India continues to focus on the preparedness and modernisation of its armed forces. China’s fast growing economy allowed it to invest much larger sums in defence R&D and capability. They still continue to pull ahead in capability. India faces the risk of possible two-front war. Indian economy is now rising. India can thus afford to spend more on defence.

China realised early that one who controls aerospace controls the planet. Airpower today is the dominant means of prosecuting war. It offers prompt multiple response options to the political leadership. Air and space give a vantage point for intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) allows global reach, is medium for long-distance high-speed weapon transit, and supports targeting. Also Space greatly supports all warfare on earth. Most countries have amalgamated air and space into one domain. Aerospace offers speed, range, accuracy, and lethality for achieving military effects. Air power and future of all warfare are intertwined. Air superiority, will still be a pre-requisite for all operations on the surface to succeed. Even armies and navies are wanting to spend more and more on air assets rather than tanks and submarines.

Current State of IAF

The Indian Air Force (IAF) is the fourth largest air force of the world. The primary mission is to secure Indian airspace and to conduct aerial warfare during armed conflict. It has to be prepared to fight on both fronts simultaneously. The IAF has nearly 30 fighter squadrons. Comprising of Rafale, Su 30MKI, MiG 21 Bison, MiG 29, Mirage 2000, Jaguar, and LCA.   IAF’s Rafale fighters armed with very long-range Meteor and MICA beyond visual range (BVR) air-to-air missiles are superior to most Chinese aircraft except maybe the J-20 fifth-generation aircraft. The Sukhoi Su-30MKI is the IAF primary air superiority fighter with the significant air-to-ground strike capability. The C-17, IL-76, C-130, and the upgraded An-32, give IAF significant cargo and troop lift capability. The heavy-lift Boeing Chinook, and the AH-64E Apache attack helicopters, have added to the already a significant fleet of Mi-17 series medium-lift helicopters, the ALH variants and smaller Chetak/Cheetah fleets. The indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCH) ‘Prachand’ has also started inducting and the Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) will induct soon. IAF is fairly well-off in its rotary wing assets. IAF airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft and Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA) is being enlarged through indigenous systems under development. Much larger numbers are required for a continental size country like India which has to cover from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

India has a well-integrated air defence radar cover. IAF continues to operate some of the legacy surface-to-air missile systems like the SAM-3 Pechora and SAM 8 OSA-AK. These have had upgrades. With the induction of a large number of indigenous Akash AD systems, and the newly received S-400 units, the ground-based AD coverage is potent. To cover the large Chinese border, more systems will need to be inducted. With induction of the MICA, Meteor, Astra, SCALP, Dhruvastra (Helina), BrahMos and Hammer, among others, IAF has a significant aerial weapons inventory. IAF has Israeli Heron and Searcher Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and Harpy and Harop Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV). Orders for American Predator MQ-9 Reaper drones are expected. India has accelerated the indigenous UAV and drone programs.

Strategic and Conventional Deterrence

Air power is inherently strategic in nature and simultaneously provides conventional deterrence. Air Campaigns can be executed simultaneously against different spread out target systems. Air can provide both kinetic and non-kinetic options with pin point accuracy. It can influence outcomes and actions of the surface forces. It can simultaneously produce physical as well as psychological effects. Strategic airlift allows global reach and long-range effects. IAF has repeatedly demonstrated it. IAF already dominates from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca, using long range aircraft supported by FRA and AEW&C. More of these are being acquired. IAF transformation is being driven from just being platform-based to being capability-based. Effects based, network centric operations are the new normal. Advantage of air power is ability to exploit swing-role capabilities. When you say Rafale is an Omni-role fighter, means it can perform many roles in a single mission. Air power supports ISR that is crucial for decision-superiority in net-centric warfare.

All countries are engaged in network-centric warfare. Cyber and electronic warfare is where action is. Securing own networks and denying the same to adversary will be important. Air and Space platforms will greatly support cyber and electronic warfare operations much deeper into the enemy territory. There are dedicated aircraft for this purpose. The future is unmanned. Artificial Intelligence supported autonomous systems will fly independently or in conjunction with each other in a swarm or with manned aircraft as a team (MUM-T). IAF is investing more in these systems.

Rapidly Growing PLAAF

China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF) has grown significantly with large fleet of fighter aircraft and advanced air defence systems. PLAAF currently has nearly 1,700 fighter/bomber aircraft, with over 800 of 4th generation plus.  PLAAF has a long-range strategic bomber fleet and holds more strategic assets such as AEW&C aircraft and combat drones compared with the IAF. PLAAF’s operational fighters include J-10B/C, J-11B, J-16, Su-30 and Su-35. PLAAF claims to have already inducted nearly 150 fifth-generation J-20 fighters. These numbers are planned to go up considerably. Also the second fifth-generation aircraft, the FC-31/J-31 program has received fresh impetus. PLAAF also has nearly 170 H-6 strategic bombers, with some variants able to carry up to six cruise missiles with 1500 km range. China has a large surface-attack missile force. China’s indigenous aircraft industry produces all types of aircraft and advanced helicopters. China also has a large UAV fleet of indigenous design.  PLA Navy (PLAN) has two operational aircraft carriers and nearly 600 aircraft. Two more carriers are under construction, and two further, larger ones, on drawings boards. China thus has significant air power.

Pakistan Air Force (PAF)

PAF has 20 combat squadrons with around 400 fighter aircraft. It has recently inducted the Chinese J-10 C, 25 of which had been ordered. The JF-17 Block III with AESA radar and long-range aerial missiles is being inducted. In the long term, PAF will have around 250 JF-17s, 75 F-16s and maybe a significant numbers of J-10C. They also have eight Saab 2000 Erieye and four Shaanxi ZDK-03 “Karakoram Eagle” AEW&C aircraft. The numbers are significant considering the size of the country. PAF has four Ilyushin Il-78MP strategic airlift transporter/flight refueller aircraft. PAF has a mid-sized transport aircraft and helicopter fleets. They have acquired significant number of Chinese UAVs and are setting up production-line for Chinese Wing Loong UAVs in Pakistan. The PAF is primarily air defence orientated. While PAF in itself does not pose any significant threat to India, it has been exercising closely with PLAAF and has advantage of equipment interoperability. It could also allow the PLAAF to use some of its airfields. IAF has to thus factor in a two-front confrontation.

Rebuilding IAF Numbers

The IAF needs to quickly build its fighter squadron numbers. The target is to get to 42 squadrons in next 15 years or so. The end state could be a significant fleet of Su-30 MKI, LCA variants, two or more Rafale squadrons, six squadrons of the new fighter, and four of Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). Effectively IAF may have to stretch the Mirage and MiG 29 fleets. These figures are achievable as long as timely decisions are taken, and there are no serious development delays in AMCA. IAF must also target to have 8 large and 10 smaller AEW&C, and at least 12 FRA aircraft by 2030. IAF requires additional UCAVs, including the indigenously developed DRDO’s TAPAS BH-201 and “Ghatak”. The 10 deficient fighter squadrons, and nearly 12 more to retire by 2035 will require significant funding. Capital budget may have to increase.

China Centric IAF Airbases

India’s military assets and infrastructure are now China border centric. While border roads and connectivity are being improved, IAF has upgraded its airfields and Advanced Landing Grounds (ALG) near China border. IAF now has many Su-30 MKI squadrons facing China. Also the new acquisitions like Rafale, C-130 J, Chinook and Apache helicopters have also been located in the eastern sector. The same is also applicable to air defence systems and weapons positioning.

Hindustan Aeronautics Projects

Over the years, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) has produced under license a large variety of fixed and rotary wing aircraft. ADA developed LCA ‘Tejas’, and HAL’s Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) are the two major indigenous programs. Larger and more capable variants of these are being built. HAL also overhauls and upgrades of many aircraft and engines. HAL also has several multimillion-dollar contracts from leading international aerospace firms such as Airbus, Boeing, and Honeywell to manufacture aircraft parts and engines. From IAF point of view, priority has to be to early completion of design and development of LCA Mk 1A, and mark up annual production initially to 16 aircraft. Tasks further down include developing the LCA Mk II and AMCA. HAL has been given the order for 70 HTT-40 basic trainer aircraft. HAL is also still working further on the long-delayed Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT). The midsized, 80-90 seat, Indian Regional Jet (IRJ) has still to take off. Similarly, the Saras small transport (20 seats) is still struggling.

Projects DRDO

Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has had its successful projects in the LCA, SU-30 MKI avionics, MiG-27 and Jaguar upgrades, UAVs, and EW suites of many aircraft. They are also making missiles and radar, and the indigenous AEW&C ‘Netra’. The AMCA is work in progress. DRDO also runs the Integrated Guided Missile Development Program, which includes the successful Akash air defence system and Astra air-to-air missiles, and Nirbhay missiles. BrahMos missile is through Indo-Russian joint venture evolved by DRDO. DRDO has plans for Long and medium-range SAMs. LRDE is making a host of radars like the INDRA, Rajendra fire control radar, the Central Acquisition Radar (CAR), and the LRTR 3D AESA with help of Elta of Israel, among others. It is also developing the Uttam AESA for LCA Mk II, and S-Band AESA array for the DRDO’s AEW&C. GTRE’s flagship program was the GTX Kaveri engine intended to power the LCA was abandoned in 2014. Meanwhile, a 52-kilonewton dry variant of the Kaveri engine is planned to be used in the DRDO UCAV. A new GTX-35VS Kaveri may power the LCA Mk2 and AMCA later.

Indigenisation “Atamnirbharta” the National Aim

The recent defence budget gave a significant boost to Make-in-India (Atamnirbharta). Indigenisation is being aggressively pushed at the highest levels. Ordinance Factories have been converted into DPSUs and being modernised. The target is to increase the share of all 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 percent from nearly 70 percent. Many systems and platforms are now banned for importing. The Defence Acquisition Procedure (DAP) and ‘Defence Production and Export Promotion Policy’ provide impetus to self-reliance in defence manufacturing. The target is a turnover of Rs. 1 lakh 75 thousand crore (US$ 25 billion), including an export of Rs. 35 thousand crore (US$ 5 billion) in the aerospace and defence goods and services by 2025.

Private Sector in Defence

India has a great industrial base and significant defence equipment demand to allow advantage of scale. If India can succeed in its missile, space and nuclear programs, it can do the same in defence production. BrahMos cruise missile are being made through a successful JV with Russia and has export orders. India has great success in ship-building both through public and private sector shipyards. For IAF, Tata Power is handling the modernization of airfield infrastructure. Tata Aerospace and Defence (Tata A&D) have been making the AH-64 Apache combat helicopter fuselage. They are also making aero-structures for Boeing’s CH-47 Chinook helicopters. All C-130Js delivered to customers around the world have major aero-structure components from India. Tata Advanced Systems (TASL) in Hyderabad, is the manufacturing base for global supply of cabin aero-structures for the Sikorsky S-92 helicopters. Lockheed Martin Aero-structures (TLMAL), a joint venture between TASL and Lockheed Martin, producing 24 C-130 empennages annually. Tata group is working with GE to manufacture CFM International LEAP engine components in India. Lockheed Martin selected TASL to produce F-16 wings in India. EADS unit Cassidian plans to make India a hub for a large number of defence products. GE has a huge India presence. There is also a large MRO market that can create an R&D base for engineering services. Adani-Elbit JV makes Hermes 450 and 900 UAVs in India.

Bangalore-based Centum Group, a defence electronics company provides defence solutions to French company Thales. Tata Power Strategic Engineering Division (SED) makes Akash Launchers for the IAF. Mahindra Group makes aero-components for several Airbus aircraft. Bharat Forge is a major player in the artillery and specialized vehicles segment. Dynamatic Technologies makes assemblies of vertical fins for Sukhoi 30 MKI fighters, and front fuselage for LCA. VEM technologies manufactures centre fuselage for LCA Tejas. Several small companies – such as Avasarala Technologies, DefSys, Ravilla, and Taneja Aerospace – have of late acquired advanced technological capabilities. An estimated 24,000 MSMEs are currently involved in defence supply chain, and there are nearly 460 private players have defence production licenses.

Critical Defence Technologies to Master

Game-changer technologies like cyber, electronic warfare, artificial intelligence, robotics, hypersonic, need to be mastered. Hypersonic flight and weapons will be difficult to defend against. There is a lot of action in Directed Energy Weapons. Lasers that can burn incoming missile electronics or dazzle electro-optical sensors. For India to become significant, it must also master aircraft engine, and AESA radar technologies. Sixth Generation fighter technologies are evolving. Stealth will remain a feature. Very long range weapons of around 400 kilometres range air-to-air missiles are already a reality.

Imperatives for IAF          

Some often suggest that since Rafale and Su-30 MKI can achieve much greater effects than the older MiG 21s, why IAF should continue to seek 42 squadrons. The argument is flawed. India’s adversaries are already having fifth generation fighters. They are not cutting down numbers. Type of aircraft and weapon platforms must be comparable to the adversary. IAF also urgently needs additional AEW&C and FRA. IAF needs additional UCAVs. Since India has to defend against a possible sizeable Chinese surface-to-surface missile (SSM) attack, more air defence SAM systems are required. It is important to have a larger ammunition and missiles stocking. SSMs and Cruise missiles inventories have to go up. Newer variants of BrahMos should be hastened. More needs to done on electronic and cyber warfare capability induction.

Way Ahead

India has threat from two-fronts has been acknowledged by the government. The backlog of modernisation of all three services needs to be made good. Obsolescence sets in much faster for aerial systems. The gap with China is continuing to increase. India needs to increase Capital budget allocations. IAF is well trained and operationally well exposed. IAF has clear advantage in terms of more and better located and equipped airfields than China. IAF can well match the PLAAF, but once the numbers increase, IAF will be much better placed. Time act is now.


By Air Marshal Anil Chopra
[The writer is Director-General, Center for Air Power Studies (CAPS)]

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