The growing inadequacies in the offensive and defensive assets of the IAF may undermine its capability to effectively shoulder its responsibilities
With the government in New Delhi completing a hundred days in office, hopes that the manifold problems facing the country can be speedily resolved have slightly dimmed. Realisation is dawning that despite the best intentions, complex issues such as the economy, will take time to address. Quick-fix solutions might end up creating even more serious complications. But security is another matter. This, after all, is a region where three nuclear-armed neighbours rub shoulders and where hostilities run deep. India’s armed forces desperately need decisions on various acquisition and modernisation proposals, some of them hanging fire for several years.
Of the three services, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is perhaps the worst hit. It will be in the forefront of any future military operations; but growing inadequacies in its offensive and defensive assets may undermine its capability to effectively shoulder its responsibilities. The IAF knows it must strictly prioritise its demands due to the fragile state of the economy. Even so, its much-delayed re-equipment plan will take tens of thousands of crores of rupees to implement.
Fast Depleting Force
In February 2014, the IAF informed the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence that it would be difficult for it to handle a “collusive threat from Pakistan and China” – a contingency it is supposed to be prepared for. As is well known, the current strength of IAF combat squadrons is just 34 against the presently authorised 39.5 slated to increase to 42 by 2022. The situation is likely to deteriorate further as obsolescent types are withdrawn from service and the number of operational squadrons might well plunge to 26 at some point. The root cause of this alarming prospect, as recognised by the Standing Committee, is poor planning by the Ministry of Defence, and the glacial pace of the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) deal.
Over the next few years, the IAF can count on about 49 Dassault Mirage 2000 multi-role fighters, 60 Mikoyan/RAC MiG-29 interceptors and approximately 120 Jaguar deep strike aircraft, built under licence by the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). All these are either being upgraded or planned for upgrade. It has inducted the bulk of 272 Sukhoi/HAL Su-30MKI air dominance fighters, which will be the major component of the force for many years to come. Although the IAF has about 80 MiG-27ML ground attack aircraft, they will be withdrawn from service by 2020, while 150 vintage MiG-21s, that are due to retire by 2017, will somehow be kept going till 2022. This huge number of 230 aircraft slated for drawdown over the next eight years can be only partly replaced by HAL Tejas Mk1 and Mk2 light combat aircraft (LCA), if made available in a respectable time frame. Thus, the stated goal of 42 combat squadrons by 2022 seems as elusive as ever.
The country’s northern border is most at risk because China is rapidly developing its overall military capability including a large fleet of fifth-generation combat aircraft. That is why the Rafale MMRCA deal, estimated to cost $25 billion over the next decade, is top of the IAF’s priority list.
Taking advantage of the unconscionably delayed deal, some analysts advocate scrapping the Rafale in favour of a “better” or “more economical” aircraft like the Eurofighter Typhoon or the Saab JAS 39 Gripen or even the Tejas. However, it may be recalled that the Rafale was selected from amongst six leading fighter jets following a stringent and unprecedented evaluation lasting over four years. Any decision now in favour of another aircraft would be purely arbitrary. The Tejas is woefully inadequate to fulfil the MMRCA’s role, since it has less than half the range and armament load of the Rafale. Although its first flight was in January 2001 it still hasn’t received final operational clearance (FOC). Given the Tejas Mk1’s track record of delays, more interruptions can be expected during the development of the enhanced Mk2. The IAF has already committed to ordering two squadrons of Tejas Mk1 and four squadrons of Tejas Mk2.
Of the 126 Rafales required, the first 18 are only expected 36 to 48 months after the contract is signed. The remaining 108, to be manufactured by HAL on transfer of technology terms, will take up to 11 years. Meanwhile, since the MMRCA will equip the IAF for about 40 years, each passing year only brings it closer to obsolescence.
Why is this vital deal held up? Since January 2012 when the Rafale was declared the winner, based on its performance and lowest commercial bid, negotiations with Dassault have been tortuously slow. Apart from haggling over costs, which have sharply escalated, the main sticking point apparently was HAL’s insistence on keeping a major part of the production work share for itself. Dassault was understandably hesitant to agree since HAL isn’t famous for meeting production timelines. The latest information emerging from the corridors of power is that negotiations “are progressing well” and a draft contract is ready. It is hoped that the contract will be signed by the end of the year.
Apart from the Rafale, hopes for the IAF’s long-term future rest squarely on the Sukhoi/HAL fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) or perspective multi-role fighter (PMF), of which it plans to order 144 aircraft. The $30 billion programme to develop and produce the PMF, earlier designated PAK-FA, is expected to be India’s most expensive ever. The aircraft is intended to match the US stealth fighter, the F-22 Raptor. However, earlier this year, some IAF officers reportedly found the prototype wanting in many respects – especially its stealth features and the all-important fire-control radar. Besides, the programme has been plagued by delay. Urgent decisions need to be taken on the pace and direction of this project lest the IAF be saddled with a dud.
The modernisation of the IAF’s air transport and helicopter fleets presents a brighter scene. The IAF’s ten Boeing C-17 Globemaster III strategic transport aircraft will be delivered by December. The IAF hopes that the government will order another six and this decision assumes considerable urgency since Boeing has already announced its intention to cease C-17 production by mid-2015. Further, Lockheed Martin will commence deliveries in 2017 against the order for six C-130J-30 special operations aircraft to add to the existing inventory of five. The IAF’s An-32 medium tactical transport aircraft upgrade project is making good progress. That leaves only the ageing twin-turboprop Hawker Siddeley/HAL HS 748M Avro light transport. The government recently re-issued an RFP for 56 aircraft worth an estimated $2 billion to replace the venerable Avros. A contract is expected to be awarded by 2015-16, the main contenders being the Airbus C-295 and Alenia Aermacchi C-27J tactical transports.
As for helicopters, 80 Mil Mi-17V5s have already arrived, adding to the existing 110 Mi-8/17s. The IAF is close to acquiring 22 cutting-edge Boeing AH-64E Apache attack helicopters and 15 Boeing CH-47F Chinook heavy-lift helicopters at an estimated cost of $2.5 billion, following approval by the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) at the end of August. Hopefully, both contracts will be signed this year. However, a proposal by the Indian Army dating back to 2003 to acquire 197 reconnaissance and surveillance helicopters (64 of these for the IAF) has finally been cancelled. A new tender will be issued with the aim of keeping the competition largely indigenous under the “Buy and Make (Indian)” category. The process needs to be expedited, as both the Army and the IAF continue to suffer operationally.
In the IAF’s training fleet there’s a sense of déjà vu. It took 20 years of toil with the government to induct the Hawk Mk132 Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT). Similarly, although the HAL-built HPT-32 basic trainer had to be prematurely grounded in July 2009, the replacement Pilatus PC-7 MkII began to arrive only in February 2013. The latest issue is the rapidly ageing fleet of HJT-16 Kiran MkI and MkII jets, which the IAF uses for intermediate jet training. Its planned replacement, HAL’s HJT-36 Sitara, was initially slated to enter service by 2007. However, the Sitara has faced a number of serious problems related to controllability and power plant over the years. The project has also been plagued by a number of accidents. It is understood that the Sitara would have to be redesigned which makes the time frame of its availability completely uncertain. Since the IAF’s need to replace the Kiran fleet is urgent, the only available option is to buy a suitable aircraft off-the-shelf from the global market. The IAF has already issued a global RFI, seeking inputs on jet trainers for intermediate stage training of fighter pilots as well as for counter-insurgency operations. This needs to be expeditiously pursued to its logical conclusion without succumbing to pressure by HAL.
The IAF currently has only three AWACS – Ilyushin IL-76 jets equipped with Israel Aerospace Industries’ (IAI) Phalcon radar and mission control systems and redesignated A-50EI. A case for procurement of another two is at an advanced stage and they should be received by 2016. A Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) programme to develop a basic airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) system aircraft, on the Embraer ERJ 145 platform, is already three years behind schedule. The IAF is also backing the indigenous development of another more capable AWACS. An RFP has been issued for an aircraft that can support an antenna dome of about 10 m diameter. This indicates the possibility of a large, long-endurance platform like the Airbus A330 or Boeing B-767. The programme was launched late last year and needs to be closely monitored to avoid delays.
Flight refuelling aircraft (FRA) are also vital, considering the growing area of responsibility of the IAF as it transforms into a strategic force. The IAF currently has six Ilyushin IL-78 FRAs. Last year, Airbus Military was selected to supply six A330 multi-role tanker transport (MRTT) to the IAF following a lengthy and thorough selection process. Contract negotiations are in progress, expected to culminate soon in a deal for six aircraft. Value of the contract is expected to be around $1.5 billion. The first aircraft should fly in about three years from the date the contract is concluded.
Spearheading National Power
The credibility of the nation’s military might rests heavily on the IAF because air power will be the spearhead of any future conflict. China’s growing military prowess leaves room neither for complacency nor for any delay in decision making. Pakistan too seems happy to keep the regional pot on the boil. The IAF needs to have 42 combat-ready squadrons for all contingencies. Yet the pace of its modernisation is less than satisfying.
The new government has promised to meet all the needs of the armed forces and ensure defence preparedness. However, if decisions are not taken soon, the season of hope could fast turn to a season of despair. At the end of August, Minister of Defence Arun Jaitley set a one-year deadline for the launch of the Indian Navy’s first Scorpene submarine. Similar deadlines need to be set for crucial IAF modernisation projects, so as to spur laid back officialdom.
It is a good sign that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reportedly agreed to meet the three service Chiefs every month. This will help the country’s top leadership sense the angst in the armed forces over slow-motion re-equipment that impersonal military memos cannot adequately convey. Swift decisions and speedy implementation, especially on the MMRCA contract, are the need of the hour. They cannot be delayed much longer.