In his first major media interaction in October 2021, just after taking over as the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari said, “The Indian Air Force (IAF) is focused on future warfare. There is a paradigm change in future warfare including the non-kinetic, non-lethal challenges. The IAF has its own strategy in place to have Directed Energy Weapons and unmanned wingmen, among other futuristic technologies. It is enhancing the offensive strike capability that has become even more potent with the induction of cutting edge weapons.” The CAS also said that with the upcoming induction of Tejas Mk1A and S-400, the IAF will be even stronger.
Meanwhile, the serious showdown with China in Ladakh continues. The showdown had brought about greater focus and discussion on the IAF’s growth and its challenges. The nationalistic fervour after the Rafale induction, successful tests of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) missiles and the heartening “moving-forward” news coming from the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) front also cheered the nation. As professionals, we must look at the ground reality dispassionately and debate the challenges as well as options.
The Current State of the IAF
The IAF is today at a low in the number of fighter squadrons. Already down to 31 fighter squadrons as against the authorised strength of 42, the numbers are likely to go down further when the MiG-21 Bison squadrons are phased out. Every MiG-21 crash in India becomes headline news. Other than India, there are very few operators of the MiG-21 today. Although the aircraft has had a weapons and avionics upgrade, the basic aircraft design remains of 1950s vintage. Similarly, India is the only operator of the SEPECAT Jaguar which will be in service for at least a decade more.
As far back as 2001, the IAF had apprised the government of the need to acquire additional fighters. The IAF, at that stage, was very happy to have the upgraded version of the Mirage 2000, an option that was finally 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 In which the Rafale from Dassault Aviation of France was the eventual winner after a fierce competition among the world’s top available fighters. Most of the 36 Rafale jets have arrived and are operational at Ambala and Hashimara. Meanwhile, the indigenous LCA ‘Tejas’ had delays in its Design and Development (D&D). Also, after nearly 20 years since the aircraft’s first flight, only around 30 aircraft have been delivered to the IAF so far to make two squadrons operational. Delayed acquisition of a sufficient number of fourth plus generation fighters and the slow induction of the LCA are the main cause of the depleted state that the IAF’s fighter fleet is in today. Waiting to be phased out are at least four squadrons; the numbers could deplete further. Effectively, the IAF today has two squadrons of Rafale, 12 of SU 30 MKI, three of Mirage 2000, three of MiG-29, four of MiG 21 Bison, two LCA squadrons and five of Jaguars. The MiG-21 Bison squadrons are in line to be phased out soon.
The Air Threat
China is 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 operational. They are also developing the H-20 stealth bomber and a host of attack helicopters and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has nearly 80 combat squadrons. They claim to have nearly 50 J-20s flying and target to have 200 by 2027. They have 24 Su-35, nearly 500 J-10s and a large number of Su-27 and Su-30 variants. China is right now sitting eyeball-to-eyeball along India’s borders in Ladakh and conflict is imminent. Pakistan continues to push terrorists into Jammu and Kashmir and openly boasts of collusive support from China in case of a war with India. Pakistan has nearly 20 combat squadrons and is fast inducting the JF-17 Block III. It has also placed an order for 25 Chinese J-10C aircraft which will come in fly-away condition. The Indian government and the three Services are officially acknowledging and factoring in possible two-front war scenarios. While the IAF has plan ‘B’ to fight with what it has, if and when forced into a conflict, the numbers are clearly inadequate to execute a full-fledged air campaign even on a single front! It is incumbent upon the nation to provide the IAF, assets for the task it has been entrusted with. It is imperative that the IAF quickly rebuild its strength of fighter squadrons to the authorised level of 42.
Unfolding Fighter Inductions
Delay in t the induction of the LCA has forced the IAF to extend the life of the MiG-21 Bison-fleet till 2024, despite its depleting numbers and lower availability of spares. The IAF’s order of 40 LCA Mk1 will be completed only by mid-2022. The IAF’s dedicated strike aircraft fleet now has only the Jaguars and these are being further upgraded to DARIN III standard. The fleet of MiG-29 and Mirage 2000 have also been upgraded and 21 additional upgraded MiG 29s are being procured. However, these will take nearly three years to induct. The IAF has also been scouting for and purchasing a few second-hand or phased-out Mirages to cater to future requirements of spare parts.
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 missile and nuclear-capable Nirbhay missile, get an Active Electronically Scanned array (AESA) radar, more powerful on-board computers and a new Electronic Warfare (EW) suite. The process is still evolving. All 36 Rafale aircraft will be inducted 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) has still to be issued. It appears that there is a lack of clarity or funds, to proceed further on this plan. Even if the process is hastened, the earliest these aircraft can be inducted is 2027. The United States is reportedly pushing the case of Boeing F-15 EX.
The LCA Mk 1A
Since the IAF’s original ASQR requirements may only be met by LCA Mk2, it was, therefore, decided to have an interim, operationally better, version called the Mk 1A. It would have an advanced AESA Radar, an EW suite, a mid-air refuelling probe and incorporate weight reduction along with easier service maintainability. The IAF had given a go ahead for 83 LCA Mk 1A in October 2015 itself for which the order was placed in February 2021 in a `48,000-crore contract. Also, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) contracted for 99 GE F404 engines to power the aircraft. The first Mk-1A aircraft will be delivered to the IAF by March 2024, with the rest slated to join its combat fleet by 2029.
LCA Mk 2
The LCA Mk 2 which is more likely to meet the IAF’s ASQRs, is still under development. The first flight of this aircraft is expected by late 2023. Presuming it does, the aircraft will require full scale flight testing and actual induction can at best be around 2028. The LCA Mk 2 would be an enlarged variant of Mk1 with the more powerful General Electric F-414-GE-INS6 engine with a Full Authority Digital Electronics Control (FADEC). Metal-cutting for the Tejas Mark 2 started in February 2021. The ‘roll out’ of the first prototype is scheduled for December 2022 with its first flight expected to be in 2023. A total of four prototypes are being planned initially. The IAF plans to induct 200 aircraft. The aircraft may begin induction around 2028-2030. In any case, HAL will require that much time to deliver 83 Mk1A variants.
The Tejas Mk-2 Medium Weight Fighter (MWF) would be 14.6m long with a wingspan of 8.5m compared with 13m and 8.2m respectively for the LCA and 14.36m and 9.13m for Mirage 2000. The aircraft will have a compound delta wing with close-coupled canards. The longer fuselage will allow for more internal and external fuel. The maximum weight of the aircraft would be 17.5 tonne as against Mk1’s 13.5 tonne. The weapon stations will increase from seven to eleven with increase in carrying capacity from 5.3 to 6.5 tonne. The Tejas Mark II will also feature an indigenous Integrated Life Support System – the On Board Oxygen Generation System (ILSS-OBOGS), a built-in integrated electro-optic electronic-warfare suite among other improvements to avionics. It will have an Infra-Red Search and Track (IRST) system and a Missile Approach Warning System (MAWS) and a modern AESA radar. It is said to be designed for swing role, with BVR and close-combat capability and precision strike. There is also a talk of developing a Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) aircraft for the Indian Navy. A few images of India’s future Twin-engine Medium Class Omni-Role Combat Aircraft (ORCA) fighter are also being circulated. Some of the visible features of ORCA are the canards, diverter-less supersonic inlet, conformal wing root tanks/containers and a larger number of hard-points. The official position on the TEDBF and ORCA is not clear.
The Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) completed Mk2 Critical Design Review (CDR) on November 15, 2021. Total 20 sub-systems for the aircraft were cleared by the IAF for production. From 62 percent in Tejas Mark 1A, the plan is to touch 70 percent mark in indigenisation for Mark 2. More foreign components are being replaced by locally developed ones. Also, the Mk 2 will imbibe some of the technologies being developed for Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). Private suppliers of Line Replaceable Units (LRUs) also increased from 344 during Tejas Mark 1A development to 410. HAL had already outsourced 25 percent of the work share to the private sector. Apart from some stealth, super-cruise is the key feature of Tejas Mark 2 that is being designed and developed to replace multiple strike fighters of the IAF such as the Jaguar, Dassault Mirage 2000 and Mikoyan MiG-29.
HAL currently has dedicated production lines with a maximum capacity of 12 aircraft a year. HAL has indicated that they will be able to deliver 12 to 14 aircraft in financial 2021-2022. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) had set a target of 16 aircraft per year. The rate at which IAF squadrons are depleting, the desired rate is closer to 20 to 24 per year. Even though the indigenous content of the Tejas is gradually increasing, major components such as engine and radar are still of foreign origin.
AMCA – India’s Fifth Generation Aircraft
The AMCA is the fifth generation fighter aircraft being developed by ADA for the IAF and the Indian Navy. It is expected to be produced by a public-private joint venture between the DRDO, HAL and an Indian private company. It will be a single-seat, twin-engine, stealth, all-weather, swing-role fighter aircraft. Two variants of the AMCA are planned. AMCA Mk 1 will be equipped with fifth generation technologies and Mk 2 will have the incremental sixth generation technology upgrades. The AMCA’s multi-role missions would include air superiority, ground-strike, Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) and Electronic Warfare (EW) missions. It would one day be a replacement for the Sukhoi Su-30MKI air superiority fighter, which currently forms the backbone of the IAF fighter fleet. Initially, it will complement the SU-30 MKI, Rafale and Tejas in the IAF and MiG 29K in the Navy.
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 such as thrust vectoring engine, an advanced AESA radar and low radar cross section and super-cruise capability. The AMCA will initially fly with two GE-414 engines. Eventually it is planned to be powered by two GTRE, 90 kN thrust, K9 or K10 engines which are successor to the troubled Kaveri engine.
A feasibility study on the AMCA and its preliminary design stage has been completed and the project entered the detailed design phase in February 2019. The first flight is expected to be by around 2025-2026 and serial production might begin by 2030. The IAF is planning for two squadrons of AMCA Mark 1 and five squadrons of Mark 2 variant. There is also plan for an LCA variant of the AMCA in future. Ongoing consultation happened in November 2021 between the IAF, HAL, DRDO, ADA, MoD and the Ministry of Finance as final design of AMCA prototype is getting ready for approval from Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) in early 2022.
Rafale – the Potent Weapon Platform
The Dassault Rafale aircraft is capable of simultaneously packaging air superiority, interdiction, reconnaissance and airborne nuclear deterrent missions. The actively coupled canard wing allows high manoeuverability. 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 prioritises information to display to pilots for simpler command and control. Rafale features an advanced avionics suite. The aircraft’s RBE2 AA 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. The Rafale makes extensive use of Radar Absorbent Materials (RAM). The SPECTRA integrated electronic warfare suite provides long-range detection, identification and accurate localisation 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 100km and a TV/IR sensor for target identification (40km range) including laser rangefinder. The aircraft has a 30mm cannon with 125 rounds. The 14 hard-points can carry 9,500kg 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) that offers multi-shot capability against long range manoeuvring targets, jets, UAVs and cruise missiles in a heavy Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) environment with range well in excess of 150km. The Highly Agile Modular Munition Extended Range (HAMMER) has also been acquired through a separate contract. This modular Armament Air-Sol Modulaire (AASM) weapon 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.
Operationally for a large air force, just 36 aircraft is too low a figure. The IAF has infrastructure in place for at least two more squadrons. Also considering India has made many one-time payments such as for India-specific modifications, that expenditure will get amortised and the cost of additional orders should be lesser. Nearly 240 Rafale aircraft have been built. The operators include French Air Force and Navy, India, Egypt, Qatar, Croatia, Greece and recently, the UAE has placed an order. Clearly the company’s order books are full. The IAF may have to take the appropriate call.
Transport and Helicopter Combat Assets
Nearly 100 Antonov An-32 medium transport aircraft have undergone avionics upgrade. EADS CASA C-295 twin-turboprop tactical military transport aircraft has been contracted to replace the 56 HS-748 Avro aircraft. 16 are being bought in fly-away condition and Tata Advanced Systems Ltd. (TASL) will produce the remaining in India. The IAF has 17 Ilyushin Il-76 (50-tonne load) and 11 Boeing C-17 Globemaster III (70 tonne-load) aircraft. The IAF has 12 Lockheed C-130J -30. There are a sizeable number of Dornier 228 aircraft. All these aircraft have operational role.
HAL built Light Utility Helicopters Chetak, Cheetah and Cheetal are used for light transport duties including in Siachen and other high-altitude areas. They are also used for training, and rescue. Part of their role is currently being taken over by HAL Dhruv Helicopter. Dhruv also has a weaponised version ‘Rudra’. Based on the Dhruv platform, HAL is developing the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) and a Light Utility Helicopter (LUH). The future of Russian Ka-226T LUH that had been selected to be made in India by a HAL-Kamov Joint Venture, is uncertain. There are reports that some ‘unbridgeable differences’ have been there despite over six years of negotiations. These relate to project cost, the quantum of technology Russia was willing to transfer and possible threat of US sanctions on exporting French helicopter engines to power the helicopter.
An initial order of 12 HAL LUH has been placed; six each for the IAF and the Indian Army. The first LUH will be delivered by August 2022. In the long run, 187 LUH are planned, 126 LUH for the Indian Army and 61 for the IAF. The IAF has already deployed two prototypes of the LCH. Three limited series production helicopters have been handed over. One LCH is with the Indian Army.
Mil Mi-17, Mi-17 1V, and Mi-17 V5 are the mainstay of the medium utility helicopter fleet with nearly 240. The IAF operates 15 Boeing Chinook heavy-lift helicopters and 22 AH-64E Apache attack helicopters. The IAF is fairly well off in transport aircraft and helicopter assets.
The Force Multipliers
Three AEW&C (IL-76 based platform) with EL/W-2090 Phalcon radar are in service. Two more are waiting to be ordered for nearly seven to eight years. The IAF, meanwhile, inducted two DRDO Embraer ERJ-145 aircraft-based AEW&C ‘Netra’. Initially, three aircraft have been developed. Meanwhile, the DRDO had proposed an upgraded Netra AEW&CS based on EADS CASA C-295 to the IAF as it already supports a static radar dome configuration. In September 2021, the Cabinet Committee on Security cleared a `11,000-crore project for six AEW&CS. The platform will be Airbus A321 that will be purchased from Air India and modified by the DRDO as per military standards. This project could take six to eight years or more. Considering India’s size and global ambitions, the IAF should have at least ten AEW&C aircraft. The IAF has six Ilyushin-78 Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA). Meanwhile, it has been in search for six additional FRA since 2006. The first two attempts got aborted due to issues related to Life Cycle Costs and processes. The contest appears to be between the Airbus A-330 MRTT, the IL-78 and the Boeing KC-46A.
The IAF’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) fleet consists 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 IAF is adding another 54 Harop drones to its earlier fleet of around 110 and has renamed them as P-4. DRDO’s Rustom II (TAPAS-BH-201), is a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) Combat UAV (UCAV), and under advanced testing. DRDO’s Autonomous Unmanned Research Aircraft (AURA) ‘Ghatak’ is planned to be a “self-defending high-speed reconnaissance UAV with weapon firing capability”. This is expected around 2028. India is looking at more sophisticated large footprint systems such as the RQ-4 Global hawks. The Pentagon had cleared the sale of 22 Guardian naval surveillance drones to India, but India has been in favour of acquiring an armed drone which operates over both land and sea. Meanwhile, the Indian Navy has inducted two General Atomics MQ-9 Guardian/Predator-B drones on lease. Finally, the three services are likely to get ten drones of this make each.
Atmanirbharta Picking Up Speed
A handful of countries dominate the world aerospace manufacturing domain. All aerospace technologies are very high-end involving high manufacturing accuracies and massive investments. For long, the ‘Make-in-India’ was a ‘work-in-very-slow-progress’. Despite India’s success in space programmes, software and automobile manufacturing and huge military aviation demands, defence production in the aviation sector has been lagging. Transfer of Technology (ToT) clause is 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 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. With defence manufacturing hubs and corridors coming up, the government is trying to push Atmanirbharta in a big way.
HAL and Private Industry Galvanisation
HAL remains India’s only significant aircraft manufacturer. It has license-produced and overhauled fixed and rotary wing aircraft of all classes and license-produced aero engines. However, investments in indigenous design and end products have been far and few. ALH variants have been a success story. Though for many critical systems including engine, the ALH remains dependent on foreign firms. The LCA, too, is coming of age. HAL is one Defence Public Sector Undertaking which awaits early divestment to bring in more modern corporate culture and release from the bureaucratic control. India’s target is to reduce defence imports to initially 40 percent from the current 70 percent. Big private industrial houses, such as Tata, L&T, Mahindra, Adani, Bharat Forge and others have come into defence manufacturing in a serious way. Private industry can raise funds, take quick decisions and ensure transparency. They need further encouragement and hand-holding by the government to promote indigenisation.
The Cost Mechanics
The 83 LCA Mk1A with support package are going to cost `48,000 crore. It means `550 crore per aircraft. 36 Rafale had cost `59,000 crore. It can be safely assumed that for any new MRCA class aircraft, the average package cost will be in excess of `1,000 crore per aircraft. India is short by 11 squadrons. Additional nine squadrons are due to retire. It would mean the need to acquire 20 squadrons or 360 aircraft. That would mean `360,000 crore at current prices. The IAF’s Capital Budget for 2021-2022 was `53,214 crore. In addition to new fighter aircraft, the IAF has to pay for many other systems that are already being inducted or are planned. These include S-400, C-295, ALH, LCH, LUH, radars, surface and aerial weapons, among others. The backlog in modernisation is so huge that out of budget funds may be required. With the economy being hit by Covid-19 and other national commitments, ‘Where will the money come from,’ is the question.
The Tall Task Ahead
At the current pace of acquisitions and indigenous development, the IAF can reach the authorised 42 squadrons earliest by 2038. If India were to succeed, the IAF’s end state should be two squadrons of Mirage-2000, two of Jaguars, 14 Su-30 MKI, two of Rafale, 14 of LCA Mk I & II, two AMCA and six of the newly selected fighter, making a total of 42. That would mean building an average of 18 LCA a year.
There will be need for replacements among other fleet also. To achieve all this, the defence budget, particularly the Capital Budget has to go up for next two decades. A realistic requirement for the IAF’s Capital Budget is over `60,000 crore a year. The thrust would have to be on indigenisation. LCA and AMCA must not only succeed, but also be hastened. The variables and anxieties will continue to hit the AMCA. Joint ventures or technology transfers are essential for the engine, AESA and EW systems. Also, we will require help to handle complex aerodynamic configuration and stealth of the AMCA. The time to act is now lest India be left behind in its global ambitions.