Indian Air Force (IAF) is today at an all time low in the number of fighter squadrons. Already down to 30 vis-a-vis the authorized 42, the numbers would go down further if some more squadrons are allowed to retire because of low availability of serviceable aircraft. As far back as 2001 IAF had apprised the government for need to acquire additional fighters. IAF at that stage was very happy to have the upgraded version of the Mirage 2000, an option that finally got foreclosed in 2006. The process to acquire 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) was finally initiated in 2007. French Dassault Rafale was the eventual winner after a fierce competition among the world’s top available fighters. 36 Rafale were contracted in 2016 and physically will now arrive only around August 2020, because of Covid 19. Meanwhile the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) ‘Tejas’ has had a very delayed Design and Development (D&D) program and after nearly 30 years only 11 aircraft have been delivered to the first squadron of the IAF. Delayed acquisition of sufficient number of 4th plus generation fighters and slow induction of the LCA are the main cause of the mess that IAF is in today. By 2022, at best two more squadrons of LCA, and two of Rafale will come in. Phase out will be of at least five squadrons. So the numbers will still continue to deplete.
Air Threat Appreciation
Primacy of Aerospace as an instrument of waging war has now been well established. Chinese are investing heavily into aircraft manufacture. They have two home-grown stealth fighters (J-20 and J-31), and one large transport aircraft (Y-20) already flying. They are also developing the H-20 stealth bomber and a host of attack helicopters and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). Pakistan has not only stepped up insurgency into Jammu and Kashmir, it openly boasts of collusive support from China in case of a war with India. India has thus to prepare for a possible two-front war. IAF had recently tested its operational plan 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 even in a single-front. 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.
Fighter Aircraft State
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 and committed for 83 LCA Mk 1A. IAF’s dedicated strike aircraft fleet includes Jaguars and MiG-27s, and both these types are being modernized. Mikoyan MiG-29 and Mirage 2000 fleets are also being upgraded. All these fleets should upgrade by 2021. 272 Su-30 MKI air-superiority fighters are on order and 250 have been delivered till date. Initially 40 aircraft will be upgraded to have the BrahMos cruise missiles and nuclear-capable Nirbhay missiles, get an 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 aircraft will start inducting in 2019 and all will be in by 2022. Responses for IAF’s Request for Information (RFI) for 114 4th-Generation-plus fighters were received in July 2018. The seven 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 have begun work on the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).
Rafale – the Weapon Platform
Rafale is a very potent weapons platform capable of simultaneously packaging air superiority, interdiction, reconnaissance, and airborne nuclear deterrent missions. The actively coupled canard wing allows high manoeuvrability. The aircraft is designed for reduced radar cross-section (RCS) and infra-red signature. The glass cockpit is designed around the principle of data fusion. A central computer prioritizes information to display to pilots for simpler command and control. Rafale features an advanced avionics suite. The aircraft’s RBE2 AA active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar has been fully tested operationally. It has a field of regard of 70° on either side of the aircraft axis, and extended range capabilities supporting low-observable target detection. Rafale makes extensive use of radar-absorbent materials (RAM). The SPECTRA integrated electronic warfare suite provides long-range detection, identification and accurate localization of infrared homing, radio-frequency and laser threats. The system incorporates radar warning receiver, laser-warning, Missile Approach Warning (MAW) for threat detection plus a phased array radar jammer and a decoy dispenser for threat countering. The Thales/SAGEM Optronique Secteur Frontal infra-red search and track (IRST) system uses a narrow field for tracking air targets at ranges up to 100 kilometers. A TV/IR sensor for target identification (40 km range) including laser rangefinder. Aircraft has a 30 mm cannon with 125 rounds. The 14 hard-points can carry 9,500 kg external loads. The air-to-air missiles include Magic II, MBDA MICA IR or EM, and MBDA Meteor. Meteor is an active radar guided, beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM). Meteor offers multi-shot capability against long range manoeuvring targets, jets, UAVs and cruise missiles in a heavy electronic countermeasures (ECM) environment with range well in excess of 150 kilometers.
Of the 40 LCA Mk I aircraft ordered by IAF, 20 are to be supplied in Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) and 20 in Final Operational Clearance (FOC) status. Even though HAL has been given clearance to produce FOC aircraft, the FOC may physically be cleared by end 2019. The LCA Mk II which is more likely to meet IAF’s ASQRs is still far away. Therefore it was decided to have an interim, operationally better version, Mk1A with an advanced AESA Radar, an EW suite, a mid-air refueling probe, incorporate weight reduction along with easier service maintainability. IAF had given a go ahead for 83 LCA Mk 1A in October 2015 itself. HAL has sought Rs 1,000 for D&D for Mk1A and same would be cleared soon. The HAL quote of Rs 463 crore per aircraft is considered excessive and is being discuss. LCA Mk1A will earliest be available around 2022. 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 aircraft may induct around 2030. In any case HAL will require around ten years to deliver 123 Mk1 variants. HAL currently has a single production line with a maximum capacity of 8 aircraft a year. Unfortunately HAL is unable to fully use even this line. MoD has set a target of 16 aircraft per year by 2020. This target is difficult to meet. The rate at which IAF squadrons are depleting, the desired rate is 24 per year. The indigenous content of the Tejas is 59.7% by value and 75.5% by number of line replaceable units.
The AMCA is a fifth generation aircraft being designed by Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and will be manufactured by HAL. It will be a twin-engine, stealth, all weather multirole fighter with super-cruise and advanced AESA radar. AMCA feasibility study and the preliminary design stage have been completed. The project awaits approval to begin D&D stage. It is meant to complement the SU-30 MKI, Rafale and Tejas in the IAF and MiG 29K in the Navy, and replace the Jaguar, MiG-27 and Mirage 2000 aircraft of the IAF. In October 2008, IAF had asked ADA to prepare a detailed project and in April 2010, issued the ASQR for the AMCA. ADA unveiled a 1: 8 scale model at Aero India 2013. The AMCA design will have shoulder-mounted diamond-shaped trapezoidal wings, and an all-moving Canard-Vertical V-tail with large fuselage mounted tail-wing. ADA is working on major technological issues like thrust vectoring, super-cruising engine, AESA radar and stealth. AMCA will initially fly with two GE-414 engines. Eventually it is planned to be powered by two GTRE, 90 kN thrust, K 9 or K10 engines which are successor to the troubled Kaveri engine. The first flight is likely around 2030 and aircraft induct after 2035.
Transport and Rotary Wing Fleets
The nearly 100 Antonov An-32 medium transport aircraft are still undergoing an avionics upgrade. EADS CASA C-295 twin-turboprop tactical military transport aircraft was shortlisted for 56 HS-748 Avro replacement. 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 very slowly. Based on the Dhruv platform, HAL is developing the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) and a Light Utility Helicopter (LUH). Ultimately over 400 helicopters will be required. 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. IAF also operates three heavy lift Mil Mi-26 helicopters. 11 of the ordered 15 Boeing Chinook helicopters have already joined IAF starting mid 2019. Remaining will join by mid 2020. Two squadrons of Mil Mi-25/35 attack helicopters operate in support of the Indian Army are being replaced by 22 AH-64E Apache. 15 have already arrived since mid 2019 as a replacement. IAF is fairly well off in transport aircraft and helicopter assets.
Three Beriev A-50 AEW&C platforms with EL/W-2090 Phalcon radar are in service. Two more 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 finally requires around 10 AEW&C 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. The last word though has still to be said. IAF has proposed that the DRDO AWACS should also double as a refueler. Such a variant of the Airbus A330 already exists.
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. The Pentagon and India’s ministry of defence are working to “tailor” the Predator B armed unmanned aerial vehicle for export to New Delhi for all three services. Meanwhile MoD had issued a global request for proposal (RFP) for procuring 95 mini-UAVs for IAF and Indian Navy.
Defence Budget 2020-21 – Funds for IAF
The 2020-21 MoD’s total allocations in defence budget is Rs 4,71,378 Crore (US$ 66.9 billion) of which, Rs. 3,23,053 crore ($45.8 billion) has been provided under the Defence Services Estimates (DSE), which deals with operating expenses and capital needs of the defence services. The Capital budget for new acquisitions is Rs 113734 Crore, (US$ 16.0 billion) is 29 percent shortfall from the requirement. IAF gets Rs 43,282 Crore (US$ 6.0 billion) in capital budget. 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. This year’s defence budget (less pensions) is mere 1.4 percent of the GDP. This needs to go up to 2.5 percent.
Slow Indigenization and ToT
A hand full of countries dominate the world aerospace manufacturing domain. All aerospace technologies are very high-end involving high manufacturing accuracies and big investments. Notwithstanding the optimism created by Make-in-India push, and India’s success in space programs, and huge military aviation demands, the defence production in aviation sector continues to be ‘work-in-very-slow-progress’. Early after independence, HAL, Aeronautical development Establishment (ADE), the National Aeronautical Laboratory (NAL) and many others were set up. The Defence Research & development Organization (DRDO) with 52 laboratories covering every facet of defence research came up. Yet we could not harness these strengths. Transfer of Technology (ToT) 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 become independent or a competitor. Technology can be acquired best by investing heavily in R&D, or through Joint Ventures. India must use its emerging economic muscle, coupled with falling defence markets elsewhere, to leverage technology transfer. Defence R&D spend has to increase manifold. The Rafale deal has created some openings for SMEs, and should reduce import content. Government has already indicated that it was willing to open 100% FDI in cases of full technology transfer. There are offset clauses in all new contracts, which need to be used for acquiring technologies.
Notwithstanding the after affects of hitting the Rafale slip-stream, HAL remains India’s only significant aircraft manufacturer. Before LCA, HF-24 ‘Marut’ was a great design but was only a partial success as it could never get a matching engine. The LCA program was for long a DRDO project, and HAL was brought in at a late stage. Other than the heart burns, it was a bad decision to lose considerable expertise of HAL at initial D&D stages. HAL is a great ‘license-production’ house. They have license produced and overhauled fixed and rotary wing aircraft of all classes, and license-produced aero engines. However investments in-house design and end products have been far and few. ALH has been a relatively successful project. Though for many critical systems including engine ALH remains dependent on foreign firms. HAL is one Defence Public Sector Undertaking (DPSU) which awaits early divestment. Only after that will the private sector corporate culture and accountability come in. Company must have the ability to hire the best talent and fire the laggards. It must also get released from the bureaucratic control of the Babus in Ministry of Defence (MoD). HAL has entered into many international collaborations. Serious technology transfer results are still to be visible. An unnecessary controversy has started about low cash reserves of HAL. HAL is a profit-making DPSU with 90 per cent government holding. The cost and pricing formulae is such that HAL will make profit every year.
Defence Procurement Policy 2016
The “Draft DPP-2018” is already under discussion. Existing DPP-2016 clearly spells the operational context, acquisition categories and plans under various ‘Buy’ or ‘Make’ categories, including the Fast-Track acquisition procedures. Concept of strategic-partnerships has been put in place. A balance has been set between expeditious procurement, quality and cost-effectiveness. Self-reliance in defence manufacturing is a cornerstone. The need to leverage indigenous manpower and engineering capability, and utilize and consolidate design and manufacturing infrastructure within the country is clear. DPP will ensure level-playing field while keeping self-reliance as the key aim. Yet on the ground there is still considerable foot-dragging. According to media reports, MoD has realized internally that the Make-in-India defence initiatives are still floundering; the weapons acquisitions process continued to be beset with huge delays; average time taken for most schemes was 52 months which was more than twice the laid-down time-frame; and average time taken to clear files was 120 weeks against stipulated 37 weeks laid down by the MoD in 2016. Armed Forces continue to view MoD’s Acquisition Wing “as an obstacle rather than a facilitator”. India still lacks some core technologies for aircraft, such as engine, radar, EW systems, advanced avionics, and armaments.
Private Aerospace Industry
India’s target is to reduce defence imports to initially 40 percent from current 70 percent. Big private industrial houses, like Tata, L&T, Mahindras, Adani, Bharat Forge, Reliance and others have come into defence manufacturing in a serious way. Private industry can raise funds, take quick decisions and ensure transparency. Among the more successful private sector large firms, Tata Advanced Systems (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 and currently assembles Hercules centre wing boxes and empennages. TASL also produces structures for the Pilatus PC-12NG. TASL is bidding to develop and build unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for the Indian Armed Forces along with Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) and “Urban Aeronautics”. Lockheed Martin plans to make F-16 wings in India with TASL. Reliance Aerostructures Ltd has set up a facility in Mihan SEZ near Nagpur. It is already manufacturing parts of Falcon 2000. Many smaller companies have significant orders for sub-systems. Capability exist, they need to be harnessed.
The Uphill Task Ahead
Pakistan Air Force (PAF) has 21 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 and the figure will soon go up to 1,000. PLAAF plans to stabilize at 80 fighter squadrons. IAF is deficient of authorized 42 squadrons by 12. 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 12 squadrons and buy additional 10 for new phase-outs, thus acquisition of 22 squadrons. That would cost close to US$ 110 billion (Rs 770,000 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. There will be need for replacements among other fleets also. 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 60,000 crore a year.
This article was earlier published in Geopolitics, and has since been updated and considerably reworked