Indian Air Force’s aircraft acquisitions attract worldwide attention mainly due to the order size and the costs involved. It is thus quite natural that its acquisition plans would be discussed threadbare with many articles and analyses, some being very critical of the final choice. The same has happened after the announcement of the purchase of a limited number of Rafale fighters and the more recent induction of LCA, Tejas.
The future induction plans of the IAF are at a crucial stage where its fleet strength is fast dwindling and the replacements are either not matching up to its expectations or are proving very expensive.
Numerous articles have been published some for and others against these moves. Most of the discussions however, focused mainly on the platform per se, its generation, costs and at times fleetingly touching on the capabilities.
The IAF currently faces a dilemma of sorts. The aircraft of its choice, the Rafale, is turning out to be excessively costly, while the indigenously developed LCA is not measuring up to its expectations in terms of the status, performance, time delays and limitations. The future induction plans of the IAF are at a crucial stage where its fleet strength is fast dwindling and the replacements are either not matching up to its expectations or are proving very expensive.
Many answers have been suggested. But somehow the discussions have focused on a limited number of issues. Many important or crucial issues have not been highlighted. The aspects which seem to have been overlooked and which merit consideration need to be brought on to the table. Only then can a holistic view be taken.
To start with, it is quite natural that any new fighter being inducted tends to be compared with the top of the line aircraft currently in use. The comparison normally tends to boil down to fighters of the much hyped, air superiority role. The parameters discussed are the airborne radar and the BVR missile combination, turn rate and the thrust-weight ratios of fighters like to F-22 or the Rafale or Su-30. But is this really necessary?
OAS operations can be undertaken quite effectively by aircraft such as the LCA with an appropriate weapon load and delivery system. So may be we need to look at the LCA as a complement to the higher end aircraft…
While it is always desirable to have top of the line multirole aircraft on the inventory to bring in added flexibility, such an option would be prohibitively expensive. Flexibility, the much touted characteristic of air power need not be stretched to an extent where all aircraft require to be multirole. Among the many missions undertaken by the Air Force, Offensive Air Support or operations in direct support of surface forces forms a major part of the air campaign. In the Western sector in the 1971 war, the effort for OAS was nearly 49% and it was as much as 55% during the Iraq war.
It is normally observed that OAS effort is needed from day one and as the balance in the air battle tilts or becomes positive, some assets used for air defence/ counter air missions tend to get reallocated to the OAS role.
So broadly speaking one may look at a structure of air assets as a suitable mix of dedicated high performance air defence/ air superiority fighters to be used primarily in that role, which may initially be supplemented by a limited number of aircraft that can be employed both in the air superiority and deep strike/OAS roles. Complementing these assets would be a fairly large fleet (25 to 30%) primarily suited to the OAS missions of CAS & battlefield interdiction.
For OAS one does not require the same capabilities as that of a multi-role top of the line fighter such as Su-30 or Rafale. OAS operations can be undertaken quite effectively by aircraft such as the LCA with an appropriate weapon load and delivery system. So may be we need to look at the LCA as a complement to the higher end aircraft in the inventory, ideally suited for OAS missions. Its performance then may not appear inadequate, as long as the emphasis of its future development is steered towards making it a formidable ground attack platform, even as efforts continue to enhance its air to air capability.
Any induction plan should ensure that the number of aircraft types should slowly be brought down as some of the older aircraft currently in use get phased out.
This category of aircraft would be needed in large numbers as the current lot employed in the OAS role such as MiG 23, 27 and Bison complete their Total Technical Life and are phased out. There is a need thus to view LCA in its proper role rather than being critical about the lack of a good Airborne radar coupled to a BVR missile or its poor sustained turn rate.
While discussing the appropriateness of new inductions one needs to remember that the Indian Air Force is quite unique, in that it has a very large variety of fighter aircraft in its inventory. These include the Bison, Mig series 23, 27 and 29, Jaguar, Mirage 2000, Su-30, the latest addition: the LCA Tejas and possibly the Rafale as and when there is a convergence on the price issue. The number of different aircraft types is indeed very high by any stretch of imagination. Besides such a variety being a logistics and maintenance nightmare, so many different types of aircraft would also prove expensive from other points of view such as training; both flying as also technical. In this era of cost cutting, maintaining such a large variety of frontline fighters is inadvisable to say the least. Quite obviously finding a solution to this nightmare should dominate any plans on future induction.
Any induction plan should ensure that the number of aircraft types should slowly be brought down as some of the older aircraft currently in use get phased out. The plan should be such that the types of aircraft are limited at best to three or four. This would require that the selected aircraft should be such that they complement each other in terms of role and can be inducted in large numbers, possibly manufactured locally. A well thought out long term plan or strategy needs to be evolved in this regard, otherwise the IAF would continue along the old route of an unmanageably diverse fleet of fighters.
The history of aircraft development worldwide is littered with examples of attempts to develop aircraft suitable for all sorts of roles that resulted in high costs with limited returns in terms of value.
While discussing the negotiations covering the Rafale aircraft and the recent equipping of 45 Sqn with the LCA, the focus has been largely on the platform: the costs, the generational comparisons and the induction time frames. Somehow the capabilities that these aircraft would add have not been discussed in detail at all. We all know that platforms by themselves are mere flying machines. Their efficacy lies in the manner in which they add and complement the existing capabilities in the air war or in support of surface operations. This should really be the sole criterion that justifies their induction. In the ultimate analysis, it is the capabilities that matter not the platform, its age or so called generation.
When new inductions are discussed it would help if the focus is on capabilities rather than other aspects. The LCA for example has yet to be fully cleared for the planned weapons suite. Only when the full weapon load becomes operational can its contribution to the IAF’s fighting capability be meaningful. In this regard it would help if its primary role is clarified so that the development effort gets steered towards that end instead of trying to make it into a multirole fighter, not really adept at any of the roles. The history of aircraft development worldwide is littered with examples of attempts to develop aircraft suitable for all sorts of roles that resulted in high costs with limited returns in terms of value.
Similarly, a lot has been written about the Rafale. But there is a need to clearly identify the additional capabilities as compared to the Su-30 MKI that this aircraft would add. Alternatively, can the capabilities that the new aircraft brings be created on the Su-30 MKI through retro-modification?
And last but not the least, is the cost factor. Like the saying goes, we can discuss and argue endlessly, but the final decision is taken by the Finance fellow. Precise information on costs is hard to come by and even when costs are quoted, it is not clear what all is included in the estimates. From the information openly available, it is estimated that a production LCA is expected to cost around $ 38 million. Its development costs are estimated at $ 2.7 billion.
A large number of aircraft would be needed to replace those likely to be phased out in the coming decade. Numbers do matter and costs would be the ultimate arbiter in the case of IAF.
However, when LCA is considered it would not be appropriate to amortize the development expenses since these are sunk costs. Whether India decides to induct the LCA or any other aircraft for that matter, the LCA development costs are not recoverable. The comparative cost of the LCA’s for discussions should thus be limited to the production expenses only. At $ 38 m or so it is certainly the cheapest option.
The Rafale option appears to be the costliest with others such as the Grippen ($83m) or the F/A-18 ($75m) being comparable to the costs of the Su-30 being produced by HAL. Even as we consider various aspects related to aircraft procurement for the Indian Air Force, the costs will have to be borne in mind. A large number of aircraft would be needed to replace those likely to be phased out in the coming decade. Numbers do matter and costs would be the ultimate arbiter in the case of IAF.
In view of the above factors, it would be advisable for discussions to focus on the fighter fleet structure to bring down the variety of aircraft, steer the development effort of LCA towards the appropriate role and consider the costs in the right perspective. It would not be out of place to mention that the IAF has adequate experience, knowledge and skills to take on projects for capability enhancement of newly inducted aircraft. It has done so in the past and assuming primacy in such projects may help it to focus development on the areas of concern.
It is about time that discussions focus on aspects that would make the fighter fleet lean and mean and ideally suited to the environment in which it may be required to operate. This is necessary if IAF is to play a pivotal role in future wars or conflicts.
AVM Tiwary Arun Kumar, Indian Air Force In Wars, Lancer Publishers, Atlanta, 2013, Table 32:Flying Effort Breakdown.
Cordesman Anthony H& Wagner Abraham R, Lessons of Modern Wars, Vol 4, Chapter Seven: Offensive Air Power,1994 Page 483.
The costs of aircraft have been taken from Ashley J. Tellis, Troubles, They Come In Battalions, The Manifold Travails Of The Indian Air Force, Carnegie Endowment For International Peace.