IAF Growth and Indigenization Challenges

anil chopra, air power asia, indigenisation, IAF Growth

The serious show down with the Chinese in Ladakh has forced significant mobilisation of forces from both sides. Defence analyst are closely comparing the defence preparedness of the armies and air forces of the two sides across the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Under these circumstances there is a need to look at the state and growth plan of Indian Air Force (IAF), and also look at the indigenization challenges. As India awaits the induction of Rafale, it needs to be remembered that 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, when Dassault closed the Mirage 2000 production line after repeatedly checking with India. 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 on 29 July 2020. All the remaining aircraft will induct into IAF by 2022. Meanwhile the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) ‘Tejas’ has had a very delayed Design and Development (D&D) program and after nearly 20 years since aircraft’s first flight only around 20 aircraft have been delivered to the IAF. The second LCA squadron has just formed. Delayed acquisition of sufficient number of 4th plus generation fighters and slow induction of the LCA are the main cause of the depleted state that IAF fight fleet is in today. By 2022, IAF will at best have third LCA squadron, and two of Rafale will come in. Waiting to phase out are at least five squadrons. So the numbers could deplete further. 

IAF’s Dassault Miarge 2000 Picture Source: strifeblog.org

Air Threat Appreciation 

            Primacy of Aerospace as an instrument of waging war has now been well established. Chinese are investing heavily into aerospace research and development and 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, in 2018, 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.

Chinese J-20 Fighter. Picture Source: asiatimes.com

Current 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. With most approvals for LCA Mk 1A, the contract should be signed by Governmentof India (GoI) very soon. IAF’s dedicated strike aircraft fleet now has only the Jaguars, and these are being modernized further to DARIN III standard. Mikoyan MiG-29 and Mirage 2000 fleets are also being upgraded. All these fleets should upgrade by 2021. 21 additional upgraded MiG 29s are being procured. However these will take nearly three years to induct. 272 Su-30 MKI air-superiority fighters are on order and 260 have been delivered till date. 12 additional SU-30 MKI are being acquired, primarily to replace those that had crashed over the years or as War Wastage Reserve (WWR). Initially 40 SU 30 MKI aircraft will be upgraded. This would include the ability to carry 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.  All 36 Rafale aircraft will induct by 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 (now named F-21), F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, JAS 39 E/F Gripen NG, MiG-35 and SU-35. The Request For Proposal (RFP) is likely to be issued now only bt end 2020. Even if the process is hastened, the earliest these aircraft can induct is 2025. The Americans are reportedly independently pushing the case of Boeing F-15 EX. Meanwhile DRDO and HAL have begun work on the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). The progess is much slower than the very ambitious timelines they have been announcing. time to time, in the lasst one decade.

MiG 29 UPG. Picture Source: theweek.in

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. A fresh proposal has been mooted for also acquiring the HAMMER (Highly Agile Modular Munition Extended Range) as part of the Rafale weapons package. This modular AASM (Armement Air-Sol Modulaireweapon) system has a length of 3m and a weight of 330kg and has a range of over 60km at high altitudes and 15km at low altitudes. It has fire and forget capability and an extended stand-off capacity.

IAF’s Dassault Rafale Picture Source: livefistdefence.com

LCA Program

          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. FOC aircraft deliveries are about to begin. 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. The contract negotiations and price fixation stages and all clearance at MoD stage are over. The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) clearance is awaited before signing the contract. It is reported that the contract may physically be awarded by end of 2020. HAL can earlist deliver the aircraft three years after contract being awarded. LCA Mk1A can earliest be delivered by end 2023. The LCA Mk II, now also being called the Medium weight Fighter (MWF) with a canard controls, that is more likely to meeting all the IAF’s original Air Staff Requirements may 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 2028-30. 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 had set a target of 16 aircraft per year by 2020. This target is difficult to meet. HAL has indicated that they will be able to deliver 12-14 aircrfat this year. The rate at which IAF squadrons are depleting, the desired rate is closer to 20-24 per year. The indigenous content of the Tejas is 59.7% by value and 75.5% by number of line replaceable units. 

ADA-HAL LCA ‘Tejas”. Picture Source: Wikiprdia


            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.

AMCA Scale Model. Image Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Transport and Rotary Wing Fleets

The nearly 100 Antonov An-32 medium transport aircraft have undergone 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 has 12 Lockheed C-130J -30. there are sizeable number of Dornier 228 aircraft.

Boeing C-17 Globemaster III. Picture Source: deccanherald.com

HAL built light utility helicopters Chetak, Cheetal 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). 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. All the ordered 15 Boeing Chinook helicopters have already joined IAF starting mid 2019. Two squadrons of Mil Mi-25/35 attack helicopters operate in support of the Indian Army are being replaced by 22 AH-64E Apache. All 22 Apache are inducted. IAF is fairly well off in transport aircraft and helicopter assets.

Boeing AH-64E Apache. Picture source: business-standard.com

Force Multipliers

          Three AEW&C (IL-76 based platform) with EL/W-2090 Phalcon radar are in service. Two more are expected to be ordered shortly. IAF meanwhile inducted two DRDO Embraer ERJ-145 aircraft based AEW&C ‘Netra’. Initially, three 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. The contest appears to be between Airbus A-330 MRTT, IL-78 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 EL/W-2090 Phalcon AEW&C. Picture Source: Pinterest


          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. The IAI Harop (Harpy 2) is a loitering munition which is essentially an anti-radiation drone that can either operate fully autonomously, using its anti-radar homing system, or have a human-in-the-loop mode. The Harop was publicly unveiled to the world for the first time in India, in the lead-up to the Aero India 2009 show. In February 2019, the IAF decided to add another 54 Harop drones to its earlier fleet of around 110, and has renamed them as  P-4.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.

IAI Harop. Picture Source: defenceupdate.in

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.

Defence Budget. Image Source: idsa.in

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.

HAL Dynamics

          Notwithstanding the fact that HAL keeps hitting the slip-stream, and gets questioned by senior veterans, 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.   

HAL ALH Rudra. Picture Source: Pinterest

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 have still to succeed sufficiently; the weapons acquisitions process continued to be beset with delays; average time taken for clearing most schemes continues to be nearly twice the laid-down time-frame. Armed Forces often look at 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.

Tatas-Boeing facility at Hyderabad to make Apache Fuselage. Picture Source: livefistdefence.com

The Uphill Task Ahead

          Pakistan Air Force (PAF) has 20 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

Picture Credit: bangaloreaviation.com

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

37 thoughts on “IAF Growth and Indigenization Challenges

  1. As a lay person, I wonder if it is wise to lay bare our combat Air power for all and sundry to see!!🤔It would be wiser to send your views directly to the Air Authorities concerned .


  2. Only if we could overhaul our own institutions engaged in R&D with better minds and resources, we could save a significant portion of our defence budget.

    A well articulated article, thanks for writing.


  3. Good insights. I remember reading similar concerns after Feb 27 ’19. Have there been any steps taken in the past one year by the political and IAf leadership ?


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