Military & Aerospace

Strength Lies in Numbers: Rebuilding the Combat Fleet of the IAF
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Issue Vol. 33.4 Oct-Dec 2018 | Date : 17 Nov , 2019

It is unclear just how many combat squadrons the IAF effectively has because some of the 31 remaining squadrons will be withdrawn from service over the next few years. They probably do not measure up to the yardstick of 16 aircraft per squadron plus two to four as reserves and hence may have limited operational value. The IAF needs at least 42 squadrons to face a potential collusive threat by China and Pakistan. Since the IAF is also trying to transform itself into a strategic force, capable of shouldering regional responsibilities, the requirement can only grow.

It is a truism that an Air Force needs fighter aircraft in adequate numbers to be combat ready. Indeed, apart from all-out war, the number and capability of its combat squadrons is the main indicator of its operational potential. It is, therefore, a matter of concern that the Indian Air Force (IAF), which prides itself on being the world’s fourth largest, is grossly deficient in fighters. Not only that, the size of its combat element is shrinking at an alarming rate.

It is unclear just how many combat squadrons the IAF effectively has because some of the 31 remaining squadrons will be withdrawn from service over the next few years. They probably do not measure up to the yardstick of 16 aircraft per squadron plus two to four as reserves and hence may have limited operational value. The IAF needs at least 42 squadrons to face a potential collusive threat by China and Pakistan. Since the IAF is also trying to transform itself into a strategic force, capable of shouldering regional responsibilities, the requirement can only grow.

The Russian aircraft will have all the problems that plague the Su-30MKI fleet…

A Monumental Task

The IAF requires a huge number, estimated to be around 400, new fighter aircraft (half the total sanctioned combat fleet) over the next six years to meet the current shortfall as well as to cover the anticipated deficit due to the phased retirement of 11 squadrons of obsolescent MiG-21 and MiG-27 aircraft. Decisions have been taken to acquire just 159 jets so far. These include 36 Dassault Rafale Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) that the IAF will receive between 2019 and 2022, 40 Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Tejas Mk 1 likely to be delivered by 2020-21 and 83 Tejas Mk 1A expected to enter production thereafter. That still leaves a yawning gap, which is likely to get wider when the fleet of Mirage 2000, MiG-29 and Jaguars fall due for replacement by 2030.

This grim situation has not happened overnight. Aircraft have a specified Total Technical Life (TTL) of about 25 years, extendable to perhaps 40 years with judicious mid-life upgrades. Since the acquisition process takes many years, replacements for each fleet need to be initiated well before the anticipated date of withdrawal from service. Two major factors are responsible for the IAF’s plight today – indecision on the MMRCA and inability of the indigenous industry to operationalise the HAL Tejas within the promised timeframe.

The MMRCA Muddle

It was as far back as in 2001 that the IAF first projected a requirement for 126 new Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) weighing around 15 tonnes, mainly to replace the obsolete MiG-21 FL. Following a rethink, Air Headquarters increased the weight limit of the proposed jet to 25 tonnes and it was renamed the Multi-the Medium Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA). The Request for Proposal (RFP) was finally issued in August 2007, and six global aerospace giants responded with their offerings. They included the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Martin F-16E Fighting Falcon, Mikoyan MiG-35 and Saab JAS 39 Gripen. The IAF commenced extensive operational and technical evaluation of the contenders and in April 2011, the two frontrunners were announced – Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale. Following financial evaluation of the competing bids, the Dassault Rafale was selected in January 2012 due to its lower cost.

Thereafter the project got bogged down mainly because of cost, Transfer of Technology (ToT) requirements and the 50 per cent offset clause, as required by India’s Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP). Dassault somewhat understandably refused to guarantee quality standard of the Rafale jets manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) under licence, while HAL, for its part, demanded 2.7 times the man-hours Dassault needed to produce each jet! These hurdles proved insurmountable and the plan to procure 126 MMRCA was officially withdrawn in July 2015, bringing the curtain down on eight years of effort. With the IAF’s operational status severely hit, the only saving grace was a deal signed in September 2016, for 36 Rafale jets for €7.87 billion (Rs 59,000 crore). This followed a surprise announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in April 2015, during his state visit to Paris, that he had ordered 36 “ready-to-fly” Rafale jets for the IAF. These jets are due to be delivered in batches starting September 2019.

While the MMRCA and Tejas will dominate much of the coming decade, the IAF’s next major worry is the need for a fifth generation stealth fighter jet…

In January 2017, the then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, announced another competition to select a Strategic Partner to build 200 new single-engine fighters under the government’s ‘Make in India’ initiative. The Lockheed Martin F-16V Block 70 and Saab JAS 39E Gripen emerged as the contenders. But that effort too collapsed, ostensibly because it was considered prudent to bring twin-engine jets into consideration. Finally, in April 2018, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) issued a Request for Information (RFI) to fighter aircraft manufacturers including the six companies that took part in the original MMRCA contest, asking for replies by July 06, 2018. This time the IAF wants 110 jets – 82 single-seat fighters and 28 twin-seat trainers. While 16 aircraft will be procured in fly-away condition, the selected foreign Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) needs to set up its production line with an Indian production agency under the Strategic Partner’s Policy to build the remaining jets. Underlining the strangeness of this project is the fact that the same six aircraft and possibly, the Sukhoi Su-35 are in contention again. And given the extensive evaluation previously, it is difficult to see a different result emerging. It is also likely that the overall cost will be considerably higher than before. If the result is again the Rafale, the IAF will heave a sigh of relief. If not, it will have to operate yet another type of combat aircraft, and face all the attendant logistics, maintenance and operational impacts of many variants.

The MoD and the IAF are keen to wrap up the deal within the next two years so the RFP is expected early next year. One way to shorten the convoluted process would be for the IAF to evaluate only the new core systems such as engine, avionics, radar and weapons that have changed after the previous technical trials. For instance, Saab is now offering the advanced Gripen E against the Gripen NG earlier. And in February, 2019 Lockheed Martin offered the F-21 aircraft for the 114 fighter-jet competition. American aircraft come with negligible ToT and numerous strings attached. The Typhoon is rather expensive and considering the 36 Rafale ordered from France, it makes no sense to switch to another European jet. The Russian aircraft will have all the problems that plague the Su-30MKI fleet. Whichever way one sees it, the Rafale is likely to emerge the winner again, with the Gripen E a close second.

Tejas Trauma

If the MMRCA story is one of flawed decisions, the HAL Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) is a saga of illusory promises of indigenisation, followed by the abject failure to deliver. The IAF’s operational preparedness has consequently been the sacrificial lamb. When the lone Tejas squadron – 45 Squadron IAF (Flying Daggers) – was commissioned on July 01, 2016, it was hoped that even though it had only two aircraft in Initial Operational Capability (IOC) configuration, the nightmare of the preceding decade was finally over and clear skies lay ahead. HAL would ramp up production and deliver 20 IOC Tejas and another 20 Final Operational Capability (FOC) Tejas expeditiously. However, by July 30, 2018, HAL had delivered just nine IOC Tejas. The Flying Daggers may only get their authorised complement of 19 IOC aircraft towards the end of 2019.

The Mirage 2000 will get new avionics and weapons and attain Mirage 2000-5 Mk 2 standards…

The production of 20 FOC Tejas jets can start only after FOC clearance by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) for which the original date was 2012, and the current target is December 2018. But this date is likely to slip significantly, given the amount of testing left. The FOC Tejas will be followed by the Mk 1A, of which the first flight is expected by 2020. This improved variant will address obsolescence and maintainability issues and will have the improved version of the Israeli EL/M-2052 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles, Air-to-Air Refuelling (AAR) capability, Electronic Warfare (EW) suite and advanced avionics. The IAF has decided to place an order for 83 Tejas Mk 1A jets, but production will only start after all 40 Mk 1 aircraft are delivered. HAL hopes to accelerate Tejas production to 16 jets per year following the creation of a second assembly line. With plenty of luck, the 123 Tejas Mk 1 and Mk 1A will complete delivery by 2025.

Tejas Mk 2 – More Turbulence Ahead

While Tejas Mk 1 is clearly short of the IAF’s needs, the Mk 1A meets many of them. Both variants will be powered by the General Electric F404-GE-IN20 engine, which produces maximum 84 kN thrust – well short of the requirement. Tejas Mk 2 seeks to bridge the gap. It is larger than the Mk 1 and its uprated F414-GE-INS6 engine, which generates maximum thrust of 98 kN, will give the fighter greater manoeuverability and enhanced performance. However, it will need new air-intakes and major redesign of the airframe. The first flight is planned in 2022-2023. The jet will also need extensive testing before being cleared for production. Going by the track record of the programme, it is likely to need at least five to seven years to achieve FOC status. Hence the first squadron may enter service only around 2028-2030. If the Mk 2 emerges in good shape, the IAF intends to replace three Mirage 2000, three MiG-29 and six Jaguar squadrons. Accordingly, it is finalising a proposal to order 201 Tejas Mk 2 fighters which would boost the total Tejas fleet to 18 squadrons or 324 aircraft.

A reason put forth for the delay in the Tejas programme is that the IAF has frequently changed its Air Staff Quality Requirements (ASQR). However, the MoD recently found that there have been no changes in the ASQR of Tejas Mk 1A since it was formalised in 2014. In fact, in the case of Tejas Mk 1, the IAF even gave 135 concessions on the ASQR to help HAL meet its timelines, but to no avail. The rising cost of the Tejas production also dispels the myth that indigenous fighters come cheap. According to current estimates, an IOC Tejas costs approximately Rs 268 crore per aircraft and an FOC Tejas just under Rs 300 crore per aircraft. The price of a Tejas Mark 1A is likely to be Rs 463 crore – more than the frontline Su-30MKI which costs about Rs 415 crore. The cost of a single Mk 2 may well exceed Rs 500 crore. In July 2018, the MoD formed a committee to look into the pricing of Tejas Mk 1A among other things.

The IAF numbers are also falling faster than the rate of accretion so the equation with China and Pakistan could get a lot worse before it improves…

The Fifth Generation

While the MMRCA and Tejas will dominate much of the coming decade, the IAF’s next major worry is the need for a fifth generation stealth fighter jet. After attempts lasting many years to progress the joint Indo-Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) project based on the Sukhoi Su-57, the IAF has decided to withdraw from the project for reasons that the aircraft would not be adequately stealthy, its engine is unsatisfactory and its cost is prohibitive. There was also major disagreement over how to split the technological development and production. While attempts are being made to resurrect the FGFA, these are unlikely to succeed because Russia has itself cancelled the serial production of the Su-57, thereby indirectly acknowledging it to be a failure.

All eyes are now on India’s indigenous Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) expected to make its first flight by 2032. Although DRDO has completed the feasibility study for this programme, given the bitter Tejas experience and lack of major necessary technologies, it may be rather ambitious. The design will apparently be sensibly limited to geometric stealth, where the shape is tailored to scatter radar waves and so minimise the radar cross-section, rather than material stealth where radar-absorbing materials need to be developed and produced. Initially, the AMCA will have two tried-and-tested General Electric F414 engines, with an indigenous power plant – if it is successfully developed – as a later option.

Preserve and Upgrade or Perish

The first resort of any prudent manager is to get as much as possible out of the existing assets and for many years, the IAF has been following the dictum “Preserve, Upgrade and Acquire”. Here the low serviceability of the IAF combat fleet is worrisome. Against international norms of 70-75 per cent, the serviceability of the Su-30MKI, the mainstay of the combat fleet, has often dropped below 50 per cent. The main reasons are unsatisfactory post-sales product support and inadequate supply of spares. However, during the IAF’s major Exercise ‘Gagan Shakti’ held in April 2018, to validate its concept of operations and war-waging capability, a serviceability of around 83 per cent was attained after concerted action with defence PSUs such as HAL and IAF Base Repair Depots.

The current candidate for the ‘preserve’ option is the five remaining squadrons of MiG-21 Bison. They are due to continue till 2024, with depleting numbers which can be kept respectable with better availability of spares. But the major beneficiary of preservation will be the six Jaguar squadrons which form the dedicated strike fleet of the IAF. India is the only country which still flies the Jaguar. The IAF is likely to obtain Jaguar airframes, engines and various spares from France, Oman, and the United Kingdom – all either free or for a token sum. By cannibalising the airframes, it would be possible to keep many Jaguars operational.

The scope for upgrades is immense. A longstanding problem with the Jaguar is its underpowered engines. Hence the MoD is reportedly finalising a direct deal for 200 F-125IN engines from US-based Honeywell International. While 160 engines will be integrated with 80 Jaguar fighters, the remaining 40 will be in reserve. The Jaguars are also being upgraded to DARIN III Standard by HAL – with new multi-mode radar, avionics and flight instruments, an autopilot, a Radar Warning Receiver and a near-glass cockpit. These modifications should see the fleet through to around 2035. Three MiG-29 and three Mirage 2000 squadrons are also in the process of being upgraded. The MiG-29 will become a true multi-role fighter with increased fuel carriage, aerial refuelling probe, latest avionics including the Zhuk-M radar and new air-to-air missiles. The Mirage 2000 will get new avionics and weapons and attain Mirage 2000-5 Mk 2 standards.

Even the more modern Su-30MKI of which delivery of the contracted 272 jets (approximately 13 squadrons), is likely to be completed by 2020-2021, will be upgraded to deliver new indigenous strategic weapons such as the BrahMos cruise missile and the nuclear-capable Nirbhay missile. Initially, 40 Su-30MKI aircraft are being modernised with AESA radar, more powerful onboard computers, an improved weapon control system and a new Electronic Warfare (EW) suite. It is likely that another 42 Su-30MKI aircraft will be procured to boost the total orders to 314.

Action – the Need of the Hour

For decades, the IAF enjoyed an edge in modern combat aircraft over its rivals – the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). That no longer holds good. The PLAAF is on the cusp of a transformative shift and aims to be one of the world’s foremost air forces by 2020, with over 1,000 modern combat jets. Its first stealth fighter, the Chengdu J-20A fifth-generation twinjet, entered service in September 2017. The Shenyang J-31, another fifth-generation fighter is expected in a year or two. They represent a major advance in Chinese combat potential. While the IAF strength may slip below 30 squadrons in the next few years, the PAF has 22 combat squadrons with 400 aircraft including the F-16, JF-17 and FC-20. It is keen to acquire the J-31 from China or the Su-35 from Russia. The IAF numbers are also falling faster than the rate of accretion so the equation with China and Pakistan could get a lot worse before it improves.

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National interest dictates that while striving to keep costs under control and domestic industry engaged, the IAF’s operational preparedness must not be jeopardised as it clearly is at present. Neither should political point scoring be permitted to throw a spanner in the works. Since the Tejas Mk 2 and AMCA projects are beset with some degree of uncertainty, the current MMRCA proposal needs to be concluded with the greatest possible urgency. Apart from the 16 Tejas per year that HAL hopes to start producing, private participation can ensure an increase at least for the Mk 1A and Mk 2 variants.

It must not be forgotten that when the 126-aircraft MMRCA proposal was cancelled in 2015-2016 and just 36 Rafale ordered, the IAF’s prospects of rebuilding its combat fleet were vastly better than they are today. At that time, the government intended that 200 light single-engine fighters would expeditiously be produced under ‘Make in India’. The Tejas seemed set to overcome its woes. And even the FGFA was expected to start production by 2024-25. However, these hopes were all belied and the IAF combat fleet is now in dire straits, brave statements from the top leadership notwithstanding.

The best solution would be to increase the Rafale numbers, either with a follow-on order of another 36 Rafale jets or by manufacturing 60 to 90 in India as a joint venture. This would also avoid the rather wasteful expenditure of customising two bases for Rafale, but operating only one squadron from each base against the ideal of three. Operationally too, it would make sense because the Rafale is still the most advanced and capable of the current contenders. With an assured serviceability of 75 per cent, another order would give the IAF a decent number of potent jets before other options under consideration can fructify.

The task of rebuilding the IAF combat fleet is complex, challenging, and exceedingly costly. It will take years of determined effort to reach the goal of 42 squadrons which was first set for 2027, but then pushed back to 2032, and is currently expected by 2040. The IAF doesn’t have the luxury of waiting indefinitely for talk of new combat aircraft to translate into action.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Gp Capt Joseph Noronha

Former MiG-21 Pilot and experienced IAF instructor before he turned to writing articles on aviation.

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