Modernization of the Indian Air Force

Issues Details: 
Vol 13 Issue 1, Mar - Apr 2019
Page No.: 
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What would it take to make the IAF a formidable force capable of taking on the challenges of a two front war
Air Marshal Anil Chopra, PVSM, AVSM, VM, VSM (Retd)
Thursday, March 28, 2019

An articulation of the status of various types of assets held by the IAF, voids, current strengths and what would it take to make the  IAF a formidable force capable of taking  on the challenges of a two front war, head on

The Balakot air strikes and the air combat thereafter in which a MiG 21 Bison of Indian Air Force (IAF) had to engage a much more modern F-16 of Pakistan Air Force (PAF) has once again brought IAF modernization back into focus. IAF Chief, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, has said that IAF has hit an all time low of 31 fighter squadrons vis-a-vis the government authorized 42. He highlighted the convergence of strategic interests between China and Pakistan and their rapidly modernizing air forces. IAF on the other hand has been slowly losing the combat edge that it had enjoyed over Pakistan in 1971 both in terms quality and numbers. Technology intensive air power requires faster replacement of assets due to quicker obsolescence.

The geo-strategic Centre of Gravity has also shifted from trans-Atlantic to Indo-Pacific. China’s desire to dominate Asia and in turn the world has implications for India. This is more so because India has serious unresolved boundary disputes with both its neighbors China and Pakistan. Both neighbors not only have deployed nuclear weapons, but Pakistan has a clearly enunciated ‘first-use’ nuclear policy against India. China also helped Pakistan build military strength to be able to counter India including acquire technologies for its nuclear weapons and missile programme. China has strategic interests in using Pakistani territory to reach Middle-East and Africa for trade and geo-strategic positioning. It has invested in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor that connects Xinjiang region in West China to the China-built-and-operated Gwadar port near Gulf of Hormuz. Simultaneously China is investing in the Indian Ocean littoral countries to achieve a foot-hold and extend influence. Pakistan has not only stepped up the insurgency into Jammu and Kashmir, it openly boasts of collusive support from China in case of a war with India. India has to thus prepare for a possible two-front war. It is clear that IAF must win the air war for the Army and Navy to win the surface war. IAF had recently tested its operational plans, in a two-front scenario, in the mother-of-all-exercises 'Gagan Shakti'. While IAF has a plan 'B' to fight with what it has, if forced into conflict, but numbers are clearly not adequate to fully execute an air campaign in a two-front scenario. It is incumbent upon the nation to provide IAF assets for the task it has been entrusted. It is imperative that IAF quickly rebuilt the squadron strength, he summed up.

Status - Fighter Fleets

Delay in Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas has forced IAF to postpone retirement of a few older MiG-21 variants. The MiG 21 Bison-fleet will continue till 2024 with depleting numbers and lower availability of spares. 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 late 2019. IAF has already committed for 83 LCA Mk 1A. HAL has sought Rs 1,000 crore for the Design and Development (D&D) which would be allotted soon. Mk1A 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 which are being discussed. The LCA Mk II meeting all the IAF Air Staff Requirements will be ready earliest by 2025. It will have the more powerful General Electric F-414-GE-INS6 engine. To accommodate the same major airframe modifications including larger aircraft dimensions will be required. It will also mean extensive flight testing. IAF plans to induct 200 aircraft. The current single assembly-line with production rate of 8 LCA per year is inadequate. Another one or two lines would increase production to 16/24 aircraft a year.

IAF’s dedicated strike aircraft fleet includes Jaguars and MiG-27s, and both these types are being modernized. Mikoyan MiG-29 are also being upgraded and has increased internal and external fuel, aerial refueling probe, new avionics including Zhuk-M radar, and new air-to-air missiles. The Dassault Mirage 2000 aircraft are being upgraded to Mirage 2000-5 Mk 2 standards with modern avionics including RDY-2 radar, glass cockpit, helmet-mounted sight, EW systems, and the advanced MICA missiles. Aircraft life has also been increased by 20 years. All these fleets should upgrade by 2021. 272 Su-30 MKI air-superiority fighters are on order and 240 have been delivered till date. Aircraft will be upgraded to have the BrahMos cruise missiles and nuclear-capable Nirbhay missiles. Initially 40 aircraft will be modernized and will get active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, more powerful on-board computers and a new electronic warfare (EW) suite. The process has still to start.       

36 Rafale that were contracted in 2016 will be handed over in France in September 2019 and the squadron will physically form in India in 2020. All will be in by 2022. Responses for IAF's Request for Information (RFI) for 110 4th-Generation-plus fighters were received in July 2018. In contention are Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, F-16 Block 70, F/A-18 E/F, JAS 39 Gripen NG, MiG-35 and SU-35. The RFP is likely to be issued by mid 2019. Even if the process is hastened, the earliest these aircraft can induct 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 initial design stage. The first flight may take place around 2030 and aircraft induct around 2035 or later.

Transport and Helicopter Fleets

The nearly 100 Antonov An-32 medium transport aircraft are still undergoing an avionics upgrade. IAF has 3 squadrons of Dornier Do 228 light transport aircraft. EADS CASA C-295 twin-turboprop tactical military transport aircraft was shortlisted for replacement of 56 HS-748 Avro aircraft. No contract has been signed yet. 16 are to be bought in fly-away condition. Tata Advanced Systems Ltd (TASL) and Airbus Defence and Space are to make 40 of these in India. IAF has 17 Ilyushin Il-76 (50-ton load), and 11 Boeing C-17 Globemaster III (70 ton-load) aircraft. 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. But the weaponisation work is still proceeding slowly. Based on the Dhruv platform, HAL is developing the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) and a Light Utility Helicopter (LUH). Russian Ka-226T LUH has been selected to be made in India by a HAL-Kamov Joint-Venture. Contract has still to be signed. Mil Mi-17, Mi-17 1V, and Mi-17 V5 are the mainstay of medium utility helicopter fleet with nearly 240 held. IAF also operates three heavy lift Mil Mi-26 helicopters. Already ordered 15 Boeing Chinook helicopters 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. IAF is fairly well off in transport aircraft and helicopter assets.

Combat Enablers

Three Beriev A-50 AEW&C platforms with EL/W-2090 Phalcon radar are in service. Two are expected to be ordered shortly. IAF meanwhile 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. This project could take 6-8 years or more. IAF requires around 10 Embraer sized AEW&C and 5 larger aircraft. IAF has six Ilyushin-78 aerial refueling aircraft. Meanwhile IAF has been in a search for six additional modern air-refuelers since 2006. First two attempts got aborted due to issues related to Life Cycle Costs and processes. IAF wants a two-engine aircraft with two-man crew, effectively ruling out four-engine IL-78. The contest appears to be between Airbus A-330 MRTT and Boeing KC-46A. IAF has proposed that the DRDO AWACS should also double as a refueler. Such a variant of the Airbus A330 already exists.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

IAF’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) fleet comprises of Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) Searcher II and Heron and they are used for reconnaissance and surveillance. IAI Harpy is the anti-radar combat UAV, and DRDO Lakshya is used for aerial targeting 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-1. Rustom-II is a UCAV based on 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 on-board sensors for targeting and weapon guidance. This is expected around 2028. India is looking at more sophisticated large foot-print systems like RQ-4 Global hawks. 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 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, Predator-B has both land and naval versions and can be armed with air-to-land missiles, anti-ship missiles and laser guided bombs.

Air and Ground Based Weapons

The Mirage 2000 aircraft used the SPS guided SPICE 2000 glide bombs to hit targets in Balakot. Laser Guided Bombs are the preferred weapons for strike nowadays. Their inventory is required to be increased.  DRDO, in a joint venture with Russia is developing the air-launched version of the BrahMos cruise missile (300 km range) which has already been test fired. Newer variants with higher speed (Mach 6), better accuracy, longer range (600 km) and top attack variants are under development.  DRDO is also developing the nuclear capable Nirbhay cruise missile with 1100 km range. Indigenous Astra BVR (Beyond Visual Range) air-to-air missile firing has been demonstrated on Su-30 MKI. Mirage 2000 upgrade inducted the MICA missiles. Induction of Rafale will bring the MBDA Meteor BVR and SCALP-EG cruise missiles. The well-beyond their extended-life, S-125 Pechora and OSA-AK SAM-8 surface-to-air missiles are being replaced by indigenous Akash medium range system. Eight were initially ordered, and more are likely. The SPYDER (Surface-to-air PYthon and DERby) 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. Six SPYDER-MRs along with Python-5 surface to missiles (SAMs) and Derby SAMs are in service. IAF has also ordered the long range Barak 8 Indian-Israeli LR-SAM. DRDO is likely to develop the Maitri LLQRM (Low Level Quick Reaction Missile) with MBDA. Five units of Russian S-400 Triumf air defence missile system (400 km) have just been contracted.

Net-Centric Warfare

With the secure encrypted Air Force Network (AFNET) operational in 2010, 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. IAF is also gradually building cyber capability both for defensive and offensive operations. Signing of Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) with USA will allow India to procure encrypted communications for US origin aircraft like C-17 and C-130.

Radars and Satellites

The entire Indian land mass and areas overlooking the borders and sea are covered by a network of long and medium range radars. Low-looking radars are used as gap fillers and for monitoring low-level threats.  Indian 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), and the Long Range Tracking radar (LRTR) has been developed with assistance of Elta of Israel. After induction of 19 Israeli Elta 2284 Medium Powered Radars (MPR), IAF awaits DRDO’s ‘Anudhra’ MPR. 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 more effectively the country's space-based assets for military purposes. India currently has remote sensing satellites in orbit, some with a spatial resolution of 1 metre or below which can be also used for military applications. IAF now has a dedicated satellite GSAT-7A 'Angry Bird' which will boost the strategic communication and networking capabilities.

Defence Budget 2019-20 – Funds for IAF

The 2019-20 defence budget at Rs 3,01,866 crore ($42.7 billion) is 1.44 percent of the GDP. The Capital budget for new acquisitions is Rs 1,03,380 crore. IAF's budget share is Rs 68,949 crore, 23 percent of the total. IAF's Capital outlay out of this is Rs 39,347 crore. Bulk of this will be used for committed liabilities of earlier purchases such as Apache and Chinook helicopters, Rafale, LCA and S-400. IAF will need out of budget funds for some acquisitions.

IAF 2035 - Dream is an Impossibility

Pakistan Air Force (PAF) has 22 combat squadrons and are targeted to grow to 28. PAF is talking to Russians for Su-35 air-superiority fighters and China for J-31 stealth fighters. The Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has around 1700 fighters, of which  800 are modern fighters of Su-27, Su-30MKK, J-10, J-11, J-16 class. They will soon induct Stealth J-20 and J-31, and the figure will go up to 1,000. PLAAF plans to stabilize at 80 fighter squadrons. They have indigenous heavy transport Y-20, stealth bomber H-18 and AEW&C KJ-2000 programs. They are building large number of helicopters and UAVs. IAF is deficient of authorized 42 squadrons by 11. From the Rafale deal it can be seen that typically two squadrons cost around US$ 9.12 billion. By 2035 IAF will need to make good the deficient 11 squadrons and buy additional 9 for new phase-outs, thus acquisition of 20 squadrons. that would cost close to US$ 100 billion (Rs 700,000 crore). Where is that money? Is IAF's target to make good the 42 fighter squadrons by 2035, a pipe dream? If India were to succeed, IAF should have 2 squadrons of Mirage-2000, 2 Jaguars, 14 Su -30 MKI, 2 Rafale, 14 of LCA Mk I & II, 2 AMCA and 6 of the newly selected fighter, making a total of 42. That would mean building average of 18 LCA a year. In case of a two-front war, IAF will require at least 30 squadrons on the Western front. This will leave 12 squadrons for the east which would be very inadequate against PLAAF. Even in a defensive battle, 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, defence budget has to be at least 2.5 percent of GDP for next two decades. Realistic requirement for IAF’s Capital budget is over Rs 50,000 crore a year.


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