Air Marshal P.K. Barbora, the new Vice Chief of the Air Staff (VCAS), in a candid conversation with SP’s Editor-in-Chief Jayant Baranwal, elaborates on efforts to accelerate the acquisition of new aircraft and induction of latest technology
SP’s Aviation (SP’s): The media is abuzz with news of the Indian Air Force (IAF) undergoing metamorphic transformation. Could you elaborate?
Air Marshal P.K. Barbora (VCAS): The IAF today has a mix of aircraft from the vintage technologies of the 1950s to those that were available close to 2000. Logistically, it is a daunting task to maintain these aircraft because of the difficulties in the procurement of spares, especially for the vintage aircraft. It was decided about a decade ago that the IAF would have a mix of medium and high technology platforms with varying operational and load-carrying capabilities. With due support of the government, we have attempted to maintain ratios based on these paradigms in respect of our fighter fleets. There are also the transport and helicopter fleets which are also of vintage. For example, the Chetak and Cheetah fleets, which still form the backbone of the IAF, providing communication, air maintenance, casevac (casualty evacuation) and support in forward and high-altitude areas, are of practically outdated technology and we definitely need to replace these. In the regime of medium-lift helicopters, we have the Mi-8s and few Mi-17s. While there is a need to upgrade and retain these machines, we definitely need to enhance fleet size to meet with commitments of daily air maintenance. We have initiated an upgrade programme which includes incorporation of the latest avionics. We are also in the process of acquiring more of the Mi-17 class as also utility helicopters of different capabilities in fairly large numbers. Helicopters are used not only for air maintenance of troops deployed in forward locations and the requirements of the air force, but they are also committed to civil administration for various tasks, such as disaster management, search and rescue and election related duties. Apart from these, the IAF also requires helicopters with heavy-lift capability. In this class, we do have a few Mi-26s but they are approaching the end of their technical life. The government has accepted our request for the procurement of a certain number of new heavy-lift helicopters.
As far as the transport aircraft fleet is concerned, we have the An-32s as the backbone of our tactical airlifters with a payload of five tonnes, but these are getting old. With little choice but to continue with them in the foreseeable future, we have just signed a contract for upgrading a certain number with better avionics. With the upgrades completed, we hope to carry on for another two decades with the AN32 fleet. In the meanwhile, we are looking to procure the latest technology with foreign collaboration in the 10-tonne class. There is also a requirement for strategic heavy-lifters which, in my opinion, should be better than the existing IL-76s which have around 43 tonnes payload capability. I am looking at aircraft that can lift around 70 tonnes, with obviously better technologies in the areas of airframe, engine and avionics. These aircraft will not only be able to meet our internal requirements but also out-of-area contingencies if and when required.
In respect of force-multipliers, there is of course, a whole gamut of weapon systems starting from Unmanned Aerial Vehicles/Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UAVs/UCAVs), in-flight refuellers, Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), ground-based radars and so on. There is an ongoing requirement to induct these systems in adequate numbers to build up the requisite operational capability. We are also looking into exploitation of space very seriously for creating network-centric warfare capabilities in an integrated battle scenario. We are talking of data linking with AWACS and other systems so that sensor-to-shooter decision-making time is reduced to the barest minimum. We are going ahead with the support of the government so that technologically, we will be on a much higher plane by around 2020.
SP’s: What types of UAVs/UCAVs are we looking at?
VCAS: We define the parameters based on our specific requirements while looking at what is available worldwide. It is not necessary that we should induct a particular machine just because it was used effectively by some advanced countries. We prefer futuristic technologies with inherent capability for upgrade so that the system remains viable and relevant for a period of time.
We would like to look around the world to find an appropriate type of UAV/UCAV or join hands with our Defence Research and Development Organisation to develop a machine that would meet the IAF’s requirements.
SP’s: So have they been given any indication that they should go ahead with R&D?
VCAS: Yes, they have been. It is not like the subject has come up today, this is been going on for quite sometime and our views on it are well-known to them. I am sure they are working on it.
SP’s: Has the continuing depletion in the IAF’s combat aircraft squadron strength, which started a few years ago, been arrested? What steps are being taken to ensure that the deficiency is made up without delay?
VCAS: To answer the first part of your question, the answer is no. We have not been able to stop the declining number of squadrons. As I said earlier on, we have vintage aircraft of the 1950s technologies still flying. While these aircraft would reach the end of their lives in the near future, we cannot buy combat jets off-the-shelf in required numbers even if there is no dearth of money because the capacities of even highly productive plants are such that only a limited number of aircraft can be produced each year. These are some of the restrictions we have to perforce live with. However, I presume that in the next decade or so the depletion will stop as a result of the acquisitions that are underway. But while it is true that we are not able to check the depletions right now, we are inducting better platforms to offset partially, if not fully, the erosion in the combat potential of our air force. Today, the Sukhois (Su-30MKIs) which are replacing some of the MiG-21 or MiG-23 squadrons, have much greater operational capabilities than the aircraft they are replacing. Having said that, it would, however, be most desirable to not only restore the strength of the combat fleet to the authorised level of 39.5 squadrons but even to further build it up to 42 squadrons to cater for enhanced responsibilities in the future.
SP’s: What other steps are being taken or are likely to be taken to achieve the above?
VCAS: Well, as you are quite aware that we have commenced trials on the six types of aircraft that are in contention for the MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft) deal wherein 126 aircraft will be acquired by the IAF. I presume it would take us another year or so to finish flight evaluation and then, we will come to some conclusion as to which of the six types make the grade. But again, when we do sign the contract, it may take up to five years for the aircraft to be inducted. It is not just the aircraft, but also integration of equipment and weapons specific to our requirements that will inevitably take time. And, like I said earlier, no OEM is going to make high investments in the manufacturing process unless the contract is finalised. The modern class of military fighter aircraft cost over a $100 million (Rs 490 crore) or more a piece.
We also have the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) project which we hope fructifies soon. But even if that doesn’t happen and if we are falling or likely to fall below the minimum requirement, the government does allow as follow-on orders the purchase of additional aircraft that already are a part of the IAF inventory. So, if there is a requirement and the LCA is delayed or the MMRCA deal not finalised in the time frame required, then we may adopt that option. We have done this in the past ordering additional Su-30MKI and we may have to follow that route once again. However, it needs to be remembered that the MMRCA is in the medium weight and the LCA is in the light weight categories, while the Su-30 is in the heavy weight category and we want a judicious mix of medium, heavy and light jet fighters. We, therefore, cannot over tread the Su-30 route.
SP’s: How is the MMRCA programme progressing?
VCAS: On August 17, we began evaluating the first aircraft. Flight evaluation is to be carried out in three phases. In the first phase, the aircraft will be checked for hot weather operations over the deserts. In the second phase, for cold weather operations, the aircraft will move to Srinagar and Leh, where the density-altitude is high and temperatures are low. We will check out the avionics and the manoeuvring capability of the aircraft under normal conditions. The third phase will consist of evaluation of the complete range of weapon systems. Phases I and II will be conducted in India and the third at the company’s location. We have started off well, although a little bit late. I think we have got our ground work done very well, which will enable us to hopefully move at a decent pace.
SP’s: When would it be possible for the IAF to induct the selected aircraft into its inventory?
VCAS: Like I said, it would finally depend on when we strike the deal. While the IAF will give its professional opinion, final selection of the aircraft would obviously be made by the government based on various inputs/considerations, including strategic and geo-political reasons. Once the contract is awarded, it may take up to five years for the first squadron to become fully operational in the IAF.
SP’s: There are two distinct categories of aircraft amongst the six contenders in Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender—two in the single engine category and four in the twin engine category. Is there a possibility of acquiring a mix of the two?
VCAS: The IAF (Indian Air Force) would not like to have a mix of the two as the infrastructure requirements for production, operations and maintenance will double, pushing up costs enormously. Mixed types on the inventory complicate maintainability. It is, therefore, preferable to procure a single type.
SP’s: Can you give us an update on the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas programme? When is it likely to achieve Intermediate Operational Clearance/Final Operational Clearance (IOC/FOC) and what would be its entry profile for initial induction into the IAF?
VCAS: The LCA Tejas is a very ambitious programme but has constantly been afflicted with impediments in its development to reach the stage it is in today. I personally feel that the establishments under the DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) have fared quite well in bridging the technology gap even though it has taken us a long time and the route has been arduous. Hopefully, by 2011, the Tejas should have IOC. It needs to be understood that the Tejas is a high technology Third Generation aircraft and, unlike the basic trainers manufactured by HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited), obtaining IOC/FOC on the Tejas is a far more elaborate and complex exercise. It will, therefore, take time and, if all goes well and there is no further slippage, the aircraft should be operationally cleared fully by 2012-2013.
SP’s: How is the IAF tackling the problem of obsolescence in its ground-based air defence capability, especially in the regime of Surface-to-Air Missiles?
VCAS: Information on this subject is available in the public domain as a CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General) report was recently presented to the government. The existing systems that are approaching the end of their operational and technical life need to be replaced with modern and futuristic systems if the IAF is to keep pace with the advances in this field and the changing nature of threat. The process of acquisition of weapon systems is time consuming. To obviate the chances of any gaps developing that may lead to erosion in the air defence capability of the IAF we will have to adhere to deadlines for replacement of systems. Air defence of the nation is a task of the highest priority for the IAF. With approval of the government, we are already in the process of acquiring the required weapon systems. Orders have also been placed for the indigenous Akash missile systems which, based on operational experience, will be upgraded as we go along. Plans in this area are comprehensive and call for acquisition of short, medium, long and extended range air defence missile systems. We hope for timely induction of the required weapon systems to prevent degradation of air defence capability. Some of the systems are already in place and the remaining would be on the way soon.
SP’s: With the induction of the latest force-multiplier, the Phalcon-equipped Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) is the IAF contemplating doctrinal changes in the conduct of air operations? How is the IAF planning to exploit this highly potent war fighting tool?
VCAS: Concepts and doctrines for operational deployment of the AWACS have been evolving since the time we thought of inducting the system. It is not that we purchase a system today and start thinking tomorrow. The AWACS will be aloft with long range detection capability, data processing systems, data links and the communication systems such that the information is made available in real-time to the users. This will reduce the decision-making and sensor-to-shooter time to the barest minimum. The ground infrastructure is also coming up and will be integrated into one comprehensive whole system. Any new system would take a year or two to iron out the problems and be fully operational.
SP’s: How is the IAF preparing itself to take on the challenges of the prevailing security scenario in the country, including low intensity conflicts (LICO) and the threat of terrorist attacks?
VCAS: As of date, the IAF has been undertaking tasks related to LICO by way of rapid redeployment of troops, and reconnaissance. IAF aircraft have not so far been used in the offensive role. It is not that we are incapable, but such employment is not permitted under the existing policy on deployment of air power in the counter-insurgency role primarily to avoid collateral damage and loss of innocent lives. We have the capability to respond if called upon and if authorised at the appropriate level. The other point is that participation by the IAF in such operations will necessarily be part of a combined operation, including the sister services, para-military forces, intelligence agencies and the civil administration. The IAF can not be proactive and act suo motu.
SP’s: In the past, the IAF has conducted a number of air exercises with friendly international forces. Are there more such exercises in the offing? Is the IAF also planning similar exercises with China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force?
VCAS: Before we bite so much that we can’t chew, so far as international exercises are concerned, we have restricted ourselves to once a year within our country and every alternate year outside. We have gained extremely valuable experience through interaction with the air forces of developed nations and have had the opportunity to study their philosophy of operations, maintenance, logistic support, international issues dealing with air power and inter-operability which is of vital importance. Today, a threat is not necessarily confined to the neighbourhood alone. Examples are the 9/11 and 26/11 episodes wherein non-state actors unleashed havoc with impunity. The world is slowly becoming multi-polar but in the interest of humanity we must be able to cooperate with each other to jointly overwhelm an enemy which may not necessarily belong to any state or nation. Through such exercises we have moved forward and we plan to have many more exercises in the future. There is an exercise with the US Air Force planned in October involving special forces and transport aircraft from both sides The aim is to develop inter-operability and capability for speedy response using a variety of different platforms in a realistic scenario. This effort will extend over a long time to enable both sides to understand each other better. We have no language barrier and have had a number of such exchanges involving the army as well. With China, there has been exchange of visits by delegations and also a performance by the Surya Kirans. As and when we resolve some thorny issues and the government permits, we will participate in a joint exercise with them. These, undoubtedly, will be fruitful for both parties.
SP’s: Network-Centric Warfare is fast becoming the norm in the conduct of military operations, more importantly in air operations. What steps is the IAF taking to get this vital capability for its own and integrated joint operations?
VCAS: Network-centric operation is a vital aspect that needs to be and has been addressed by the IAF as well as by the other two services. There has been considerable progress in the exploitation of space-based capabilities with support from ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation). There are plans to have dedicated defence related satellites not only for imaging but data linking to minimise decision-making time, sensor-toshooter time as also enhance situational awareness. Networkcentric systems will cover not only the combat elements of the three services on the ground or in the air, but also the leadership at different levels and intelligence agencies. Achieving a high level of proficiency is a massive task and no country has achieved it in less than a decade. We are fortunate that today the technology is available within the country and we may be able to achieve this in comparatively lesser time than even some of the developed countries.
SP’s: What additional infrastructure is the IAF creating in north India and Arunachal Pradesh to beef up its operational capabilities?
VCAS: Areas in the Northeast have not been developed adequately in comparison to the rest of the country. Whilst the Indian Army has been deployed in full strength for a long time, involvement of the IAF has been limited largely to air maintenance. Now we are in the process of deploying the Su-30MKI which has the latest technology and with in-flight refueling capability, it can operate over large distances. For rapid deployment of the army in the Northeast, our capabilities are restricted to basically few airstrips or advanced landing grounds and helipads that we have up in the mountains. However, the government in the recent past has felt the need for not only air maintenance of our troops but also the welfare of the civil population there and improvement in their quality of life, as also boost tourism. To achieve these multiple aims, a massive programme for the upgrade of aviation infrastructure in the northeastern regions has been launched. I myself am heading one of the apex bodies to look after the development of groundbased air assets in the Northeast, and with a sanctioned budget already in place, we are working hard to meet the timelines.
SP’s: How is the indigenous production of the Su-30MKI progressing and in what time frame will the induction of the planned 230 aircraft be completed?
VCAS: Indigenous production of the Su-30MKI is progressing well. Our people have gained experience over the last decade and we have no problems there. As for the numbers and time frame, these keep changing. Initially, we thought of acquiring 150 but now it has gone up substantially to around 230. We are looking at an upgrade of the Su-30MKI commencing 2011 and hoping to complete by 2014-15. So it’s an ongoing process and we are quite comfortable with the Sukhoi programme.
SP’s: Are there plans to acquire more such aircraft from HAL to further enhance the IAF’s combat capabilities?
VCAS: If there is delay in other projects there might be a requirement to procure additional aircraft as a follow-up of the orders that have been already placed because we cannot afford to come down below a minimum level of operational capability. The government has always been supportive in this regard. We may order around 50 more aircraft over the next three years beyond 2015.
SP’s: ‘Jointness’ continues to be a major area of concern for the three services. What measures are being adopted to take it to the next level? Is there a case for establishing a fully functional 24x7 ‘Joint Operations Room’?
VCAS: I would not agree with your first statement as jointness has always been there. Earlier, we didn’t have structured jointness, but we always came together when the need arose and every war so far has been fought jointly. A conflict in the future is likely to be short and swift. In our context, we would not like to cross the nuclear threshold. Consequently, we have to jointly formulate a plan which we are doing. I have been fortunate to head two Air Force Commands. My affiliation was with four army commands—Western, Northern, Southern and South-Western—and our jointness was very good. We are doing everything together, including working out joint practices, training, concepts of operations, targeting and so on. Regarding Joint Operations Room, we have created one at the national level where not only we but the political leadership and senior bureaucracy will be present so that whatever decision is taken will be disseminated to all. This arrangement is best for resource management and best for concentration of power. The national command post is very much functional.
SP’s: During your tenure as the Air Officer Commandingin-Chief, Western Air Command (WAC), IAF, you had successfully achieved zero accident rate. What specific steps are you contemplating to improve flight safety in the IAF as a whole?
VCAS: First and foremost, I must have been lucky, because since Independence this is the first time that a year has passed without an accident. But luck alone cannot make one achieve this. It was due to the involvement of each and every one of us, right from the lowest rank to the C-in-C (Commander-in-Chief) who did his/her job in a professional manner. Human error related accidents, which form a major chunk in our air force, is one area in which we can achieve zero accident rate by enhancing awareness and sense of responsibility. Short cut in military aviation is far too risky. We have to create an environment wherein each and every individual concentrates on the job that he is doing rather than his mind being diverted to other issues which are not directly connected to his work. One performs better in a stable environment. Of course, talking to each other is very important and listening to anyone who has something to say leads to better efficiency. I think we achieved this in WAC to a very large extent. We are fortunate that we did not have any accident either due to human error or technical reasons. Hopefully, the message is going down as this is an ongoing process which will help bring down the accident rate of the IAF as a whole.