IAF Modernization – challenges ahead

Sub Title : The Indian Air Force needs to fast catch up on its modernisation. However, there are multifarious challenges

Issues Details : Vol 13 Issue 3 Jul/Aug 2019

Author : Air Marshal Anil Chopra, PVSM, AVSM, VM, VSM (Retd)

Page No. : 34

Category : Military Affairs

: July 31, 2019

The  Indian Air Force needs to  fast catch up on its modernisation. However, there are multifarious challenges – slow pace of upgrades, long drawn out procurement procedures and budgetary constraints. Thus, there is a need to iron out the creases and appropriately address all issues so that we are suitably poised for a two front war

Two recent events have brought public debate and focus back to IAF modernization. The Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) 24 aircraft riposte strike on 27 February 2019, after the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) Balakot strike where a MiG 21 Bison was pitted against a much more modern and better armed PAF F-16. Though one F-16 was reportedly shot in the skirmish, the IAF Bison was shot and the pilot Wg Cdr Abhinandan had ejected into Pakistan held territory. Questions were asked on delays in fighter acquisitions and upgrades. Also, in question was the missile inventory of the IAF. The second, the crash of an An-32 medium transport aircraft on 03 June 2019, in Arunachal Pradesh killing 13 onboard brought focus on this ageing workhorse of the transport fleet, and the very slow pace of the long delayed upgrade. The defence budgets have been going down in terms of percentage share of GDP and now stands at an all time low of 1.49 percent. The new Indian government has won a massive mandate and had fought the elections on a nationalist platform. The nation thus hopes to see a boost to the defence sector. Convergence of strategic interests between China and Pakistan and their rapidly modernizing air forces is of concern. The IAF has hit an all time low of 30 fighter squadrons vis-a-vis the government authorized 42. IAF is also slowly losing the clear combat edge that it had enjoyed over PAF in 1971 both in terms quality and numbers. Technology intensive air power requires faster replacement of assets due to quicker obsolescence. There is thus time to review the state of IAF and assess what more needs to be done for catching up on its modernization.

It is clear that IAF must win the air war for the Army and Navy to win the surface war. IAF operational plans tested in a two-front scenario, in exercise ‘Gagan Shakti’, is clearly a plan ‘B’ to fight with what it has, if forced into conflict. Numbers are clearly not adequate to fully execute an air campaign even against China alone. 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 Fleet -Depleting Assets

IAF is today at 30 fighter squadrons. It has been decided to not let this number go down further. 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, 16 in Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) have been delivered. Four more will be delivered by September 2019. Final Operational Clearance (FOC) is expected in October 2019. Meanwhile production go ahead for LCA Mk 1 FOC aircraft has been given. The target LCA production is 12 in 2019-20 and thereafter increase to 16 aircraft. IAF has already committed for 83 LCA Mk 1A. Design and Development (D&D) work has reportedly commenced. ‘Time Zero’ for LCA Mk1A will be September 2019 when the clock will actually start running. The first flight is targeted for January 2021 and first delivery in September 2022. 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 now be an aircraft with canards. It is already being called the Medium Weight Fighter (MWF). HAL will be assembling initial two pre-production aircraft which ADA has an ambitious plan to fly by end of 2023. It will have the more powerful General Electric F-414-GE-INS6 engine. The aircraft will require extensive flight testing. The Series Production aircraft are targeted by 2028. It will eventually replace the Mirage 2000. In the long term IAF plans to have 18  Squadrons of LCA.

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 the aircraft will have increased internal and external fuel, aerial refueling probe, new avionics including Zhuk-M radar, and new air-to-air missiles. 21 additional MiG 29 are being acquired. 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. Upgrades are moving slowly, but all these fleets should upgrade by 2021. 272 Su-30 MKI air-superiority fighters are on order and 250 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 late 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 technologies among others. The aircraft is still at initial design stage. IAF has positioned a Project Monitoring Team (PMT). AMCA requires development of many technologies and they have all to converge on the timeline. The first flight may take place around 2030 and aircraft induct around 2035 or later.

Transport and Helicopter Fleets – Upgrades and Replacement

Only around half of the 100 Antonov An-32 medium transport aircraft have been upgraded. The upgrade has got delayed because of troubled Ukraine-Russia relations. The upgrade includes a modern weather radar, new GPS, Glass cockpit displays, Ground Proximity Warning System (GPWS), and operational life extension from 25 to 40 years.  IAF has three squadrons of Dornier Do 228 light transport aircraft. 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. The aircraft can carry 9.25 tons load (71 troops) vis-a-vis 6.7 tons of An 32, and 5 tons of HS-748. 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. Because of disrupted spares lines, serviceability on An 32 fleet could be an issue in the long term. The AN-32 was meant to be gradually replaced by the Indo-Russian Multi-Role Transport Aircraft (MTA) project – a twinjet, high-wing, T-tail design. As per initial plan the IAF was to acquire 45 of these medium-range aircraft. The project failed to take off because of disagreements between the two sides.

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). 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 of them being held. IAF also operates three heavy lift Mil Mi-26 helicopters. Already ordered 15 Boeing Chinook helicopters were formally inducted at Chandigarh on 25 March 2019 with four aircraft. Two squadrons of Mil Mi-25/35 attack helicopters operate in support of the Indian Army. 22 AH-64E Apache will start inducting in July 2019 as a replacement. IAF is fairly well off in transport aircraft and helicopter assets. One issue bothering the transport and helicopter fleets has been the Electronic Locator Transmitter (ELT). In most accidents the same has not worked. These needs to be addressed.

Combat Enablers – Woefully Short

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 the 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 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 favour 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. A 100 more of which have now been ordered. SU 30 MKI is being modified to carry the SPICE. Precision bombs are the preferred weapons for strike.  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 a 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. India is in talks to acquire the National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System-II (NASAMS II) from USA, which will be used along with indigenous, Russian and Israeli systems for air defence of the National Capital Region (NCR) covering all threats from aircraft, missiles and drones.

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 net-centric operations. IAF is also gradually building cyber capability both for defensive and offensive operations. Signing of the 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. A Tri-service Defence Space Agency (DSA), headed by an IAF officer, and jointly operated by all the three services, the civilian Department of Space and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has been set up to utilize 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 meter 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 total budget share is Rs 68,949 crore, 23 percent of the total. IAF’s Capital outlay 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  1000 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. PLAAF plans to stabilize at 80 fighter squadrons. They have indigenous heavy transport Y-20, stealth bomber H-18 and AEW&C KJ-2000 programmes. They are building large number of helicopters and UAVs. IAF is deficient of authorized 42 squadrons by 12. Typically two squadrons cost around US$ 9 billion. By 2035 IAF will need to make good the deficient 12 squadrons and buy additional 9 for new phase-outs, thus acquisition of 21 squadrons is required. 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. Most analysts feel IAF requires 50 squadrons for a two-front war. Inter-theatre move of troops and heavy equipment will require more transport aircraft. HS-748 replacement is the first priority. 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.