Military & Aerospace

Turnaround of the IAF Fighter Fleet
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Issue Vol. 35.4 Oct-Dec 2020 | Date : 03 Feb , 2021

The Galwan showdown of June 2020, and the continuing stand-off between the world’s two powerful nations India and China has once again initiated public debate in India and brought the focus back to Indian Air Force’s (IAF) modernisation. Last year, during the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) 24 aircraft riposte to the IAF’s Balakot strike when a MiG-21 Bison was pitted against a more modern and better armed PAF F-16, the same questions had erupted. The Indian public at large was concerned about delay in fighter acquisitions and upgrades. The defence budget has been going down in terms of percentage share of GDP and now stands at an all time low of 1.41 percent. The current Indian government had won a massive mandate and had fought the elections on a nationalist platform. The nation thus hopes to see a boost to defence sector. Convergence of strategic interests between China and Pakistan, and their rapidly modernising air forces is cause for concern. The IAF has hit an all time low of 30 fighter squadrons vis-a-vis the government-authorised 42. It has been decided to not let this number go down further. The IAF is also slowly losing the clear combat edge that it had enjoyed over the PAF in 1971, both in terms of quality and numbers. Technology-intensive air power requires faster replacement of assets due to quicker obsolescence. The time has come to review the state of the IAF’s fighter assets and assess what more needs to be done for catching up on its modernisation.

It is clear that the IAF must win the air war for the Indian Army and the Indian Navy to win the surface war. The IAF’s operational plans tested in a two-front scenario, in exercise ‘Gagan Shakti’ in 2018, was clearly a plan ‘B’ to fight with what it has, if forced into a conflict. Numbers are clearly not adequate to fully execute an air campaign even against China alone. It is incumbent upon the nation to provide the IAF with assets for the task it has been entrusted and the fighters need to be at least of the same class as that of the adversary, if not better. It is imperative that the IAF quickly rebuild the strength of its fighter fleet to 42 squadrons.

India’s Struggle in Fighter Aircraft Building

HF-24 ‘Marut’ was the first attempt by India to build a fighter aircraft. An excellent airframe design under the leadership of German designer Kurt Tank, but it could not get a matching engine. Ironically, many years later the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas Mk 1 remains under-powered for its weight and operational specifications. Even the indigenous ‘Kaveri’ engine could not succeed and India is being forced to seek foreign help to retrieve it. India also needs help in airborne radars, and areas of stealth, and Electronic Warfare (EW) systems. For India to remain a significant player in aircraft manufacturing, the LCA has to succeed and it must establish the framework for the leap ahead to the indigenous Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), a fifth generation combat aircraft currently on the drawing board.

IAF’s Fighter Inductions and Upgrades

The first LCA Mk 1, IAF unit, No. 45 Squadron (Flying Daggers) was formed on 01 July 2016 with just two aircraft at Bengaluru. Later, it relocated to its home base at Sulur in Tamil Nadu. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has delivered all the 20 LCA Mk1 ordered in the Initial Operation Clearance (IOC) status. The second LCA squadron, Number 18 Squadron (Flying Bullets) was formed in May 2020. 36 Dassault Rafale began to arrive end July 2020 and the full complement of aircraft will be delivered by 2022. The IAF’s fleet of MiG-29, Mirage 2000 and Jaguars are undergoing avionics and weapons upgrade to make them closer to fourth-plus generation. The process is on and should be completed by 2021. The IAF will upgrade 40 Su-30 MKI with new AESA radar, onboard computers, a new electronic warfare suite and ability to carry BrahMos cruise missile. It may also integrate the nuclear-capable Nirbhay missile. Desperately short of fighters, the Government of India (GoI) has cleared the purchase of additional upgraded 21 MiG-29 aircraft from Russia. The airframes are ready and Russia has promised to deliver all 21 upgraded fighters within 18 months. 12 additional SU-30 MKI are being ordered basically to cover up for aircraft lost over the years and to cater for War Wastage Rate (WWR). The IAF has initiated the process of inducting 114 new medium multi-role fighters. Response to Request For Information (RFI) was received in July 2018. It is hoped that the already-delayed Request For Proposal (RFP) will be issued some time in 2020.

LCA – Too Little, Too Late

The LCA Tejas first flew in January 2001. Delay in the LCA has forced the IAF to postpone retirement of a few older MiG-21 variants. The MiG-21 Bison fleet will perhaps continue till 2024, with depleting numbers and lower availability of spares. The IAF had ordered 40 LCA Mk1, 20 each in IOC and Final Operational Clearance (FOC) configuration. All 20 IOC aircraft have just been delivered. The FOC configuration has been cleared. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) had set a production target of 16 aircraft per year by 2020. As per HAL Chairman R Madhavan, around 12 to 14 are expected in the 2020-2021 financial year. HAL has indicated production ramp up to 16 by mid-2021. The first LCA entered service in July 2016. By July 2020, (four years since induction) only 20 aircraft had been handed over. This means an average of five aircraft a year. This does not lend much optimism for production ramp up. Interestingly, in July 2018, Minister of State for Defence, Subhash Bhamre told the parliament that the indigenous content of the Tejas is 59.7 percent by value and 75.5 percent by number of line replaceable units.

The FOC requirements were integration Derby and Python BVR missiles and the GSh-23 gun; air-to-air refueling capability; the angle of attack increasing from 24 to 28 degrees; the braking system enhancement and the existing nose cone radome made of composites to be replaced by a quartz model so as to increase the current radar range of 50km to over 80km. The Cobham Quartz radome with higher permittivity increases the detection range of the multi-mode radar, tests have reportedly shown promising results. Meanwhile, in December 2016, the Indian Navy (IN) announced that the LCA was overweight for carrier operations and therefore, the IN would look for other alternatives. They could best induct a few for shore-based use. Yet ADA-HAL continued to develop the Naval LCA. The arrestor hook landing was first demonstrated on a shore-based runway. In January 2020, the naval LCA made a successful arrested landing on aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya.

LCA Mk 1A

In a report of May 2015, the LCA Mk 1 was criticised by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) for not meeting many of IAF’s critical requirements. In view of delays, in October 2015 itself, the IAF gave a go-ahead for an interim version called the LCA Mk 1A. The IAF needs 83 of these. LCA Mk1A aircraft will have a few advanced features which include AESA radar, additional electronic warfare suite, special data link packages, self-protection jammer, satellite navigation systems, improved flight controls, electrical and electronics system among others to increase the operational capability. The interim variant would have the improved version of the Israeli EL/M-2052 AESA radar and an electro-optic Electronic Warfare (EW) Suite developed by IAI subsidiary ELTA. It will also incorporate weight reduction along with easier servicing and maintainability and have a mid-air refueling probe. The Mk 1A was planned to start inducting in 2020, but HAL had sought additional funds and time for its D&D.

While the commercial negotiations for the LCA Mk 1A between the HAL and GoI have been completed, the actual contract may be signed by end of 2020. The 83 Tejas Mark 1A fighters will cost Rs 330 billion. A separate support package has brought the total cost of the deal to Rs 45,000 crore. The first Tejas Mark 1A is expected to be delivered before 2023, 36 months after signing the contract. Meanwhile, HAL has projected the LCA Mk 1A first flight in 2021-2022. However, to compensate for loss of time, HAL plans to use its under-utilised Nashik facility to further augment its production capacity. Ideally, the IAF should have started getting Mk1A the moment LCA Mk1 production gets completed by 2021, but at the current development rate, they may enter service by 2023. Would that mean forcing more LCA Mk1 on the IAF?

In 2017, the IAF had issued a Request For Proposal (RFP) stipulating that the Tejas Mark 1A must have the Meteor and ASRAAM. The Meteor missile with 180-km range is being inducted with the Rafale. The MBDA currently has a condition that the Meteor missile could be integrated only with European or Indian AESA radars. This complication would have to be resolved. The Mk 1A will one day have an indigenous AESA Radar jointly developed by BEL and Israel’s ELTA. The Design and Development has reportedly begun some time ago.

LCA Mk II

IAF chiefs have, on many occasions, announced a need of 200 LCA Mk II aircraft, taking the total requirement of LCA to over 300. LCA Mk II was originally planned to retain basic aircraft shape and incorporate the larger and more powerful 98 kN thrust GE F414 engine, which was more likely to meet the LCA originally agreed specifications. This would have meant significant change to the air inlets and also the aircraft dimensions and weight would have to increase. At the Aero India 2019, the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) unveiled a new model of the Tejas’s Mk II, and called it a Medium Weight Fighter (MWF). This aircraft was expected to fit into the IAF’s requirement for the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA). This enhanced version of LCA, the Tejas Mk-2 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. This would reduce drag in all angles of attack, it was announced. The longer fuselage will allow for more fuel behind the cockpit. The Mk II design also shows that it could carry more drop tanks. The maximum weight of the aircraft would be 17.5 tonne (compared to the Mk 1’s 13.5 tonne). Its external stores carrying capacity will increase from 5.3 to 6.5 tonne. It will be equipped with a higher thrust General Electric GE-F414-INS6 engine that features a Full Authority Digital Electronics Control (FADEC) system.

The Tejas Mark II will also feature an Indigenous Integrated Life Support System-Onboard 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. An increase in payload capacity to 6,500 kg and increased number of weapons stations from 7 to 11, will allow the MWF to carry more weapons. It is said to be designed for swing role, with BVR and close-combat capability and precision strike. Beyond the LCA programme, the AMCA can only move forward once the LCA Mk II design is frozen. The realistic first flight timeline would be around 2026. The aircraft may induct around 2032-2034. In any case, HAL will require at least seven to eight years to deliver the 123 Mk1 and Mk 1A aircraft.

Many around the world are comparing the LCA programme with the Sino-Pak JF-17 ‘Thunder’ project. The JF 17 did its first flight on 25 August 2003 and was cleared to enter service on March 12, 2007. It actually entered PAF service in February 2010. Today, nearly 120 aircraft are in service and the much more capable Block III variant under induction. The LCA Tejas Mk 1 did its first flight on 04 January 2001, was cleared for service in January 2015, and joined the IAF in July 2016. The FOC basic model variants are just about to be inducted. It is clear that being a joint venture helped the JF-17 develop faster. Aircraft production is nearly 20 aircraft a year. There are already two foreign customers flying the JF-17. The JF-17 has been in service for last ten years and serves in six squadrons at full operational capability, whereas the Tejas has only two squadrons after four years. Does India need to introspect on slow development?

ORCA – Off-Shoot of TEDBF

The Indian Navy eventually issued an RFI for 57 naval multi-role fighters. However, despite rejecting the Tejas initially for being overweight, the Navy restarted testing with the NP-2 (Naval Prototype 2) in August 2018, with the first mid-air refueling being held in September 2018. A two-seater naval variant of Tejas successfully completed its first arrested landing on September 13, 2019, at the Shore Based Test Facility (SBTF) in Goa. On January 11, 2020, the Naval LCA Tejas successfully carried out its first arrested landing on the aircraft-carrier INS Vikramaditya. On January 12, 2020, the Tejas performed its first ski-jump assisted take-off from the aircraft-carrier.

The experience gained in operating the Naval Prototype will help in proving input to the development of HAL proposed Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) aircraft. The TEDBF will be powered by two General Electric F414 engines, and will carry heavier payloads over longer range. A few images of India’s future Twin-engine Medium Class Omni-Role Combat Aircraft (ORCA) fighter are being circulated on social media. Some of the visible features are the canards, diverter-less supersonic inlet, conformal wing root tanks/containers, larger number of hard-points, and option for folding wingtips. It will weigh around 23 tonne. An ambitious timeline of first flight in 2026, and production start in 2030, are being spoken of.

DRDO-HAL AMCA

The AMCA is a fifth generation aircraft being designed by ADA and to be manufactured by HAL. It will be a twin-engine, all weather multi-role fighter. It will combine super-cruise, stealth, advanced AESA radar, super manoeuverability and advanced avionics. It is meant to replace the Jaguar and Mirage 2000 aircraft and complement the SU-30 MKI, Rafale and Tejas in the IAF and MiG 29K in the Indian Navy. On April 04, 2018, the then Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told the parliament that the feasibility study of the programme had already been completed and the programme has already been given the go-ahead by the IAF to initiate AMCA Technology Demonstration phase before launching the full-scale engineering development phase.

Earlier, in October 2008, the IAF had asked ADA to prepare a detailed project report for a next generation medium combat aircraft. In April 2010, the IAF issued the ASQR for the AMCA, which placed the aircraft in the 25-tonne class. The first flight test of the prototype aircraft was originally scheduled to take place by 2017. DRDO proposed to power the aircraft with two GTX Kaveri engines. In October 2010, the government released Rs 100 crore to prepare feasibility studies. Meanwhile, in November 2010, ADA sought Rs 9,000 crore to fund development which would include two technology demonstrators and seven prototypes. 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 a large fuselage mounted tail-wing. It will be equipped with a quadruple digital fly-by-optics control system using fibre optic cables. The reduced Radar Cross-Section (RCS) would be through airframe and engine inlet shaping and use of Radar-Absorbent Materials (RAM). The AMCA will have an internal weapons bay, but a non-stealthy version with external pylons is also planned.

Low-speed and supersonic wind tunnel testing and Radar Cross Section (RCS) testing was reportedly completed by 2014 and project definition phase by February 2014. The Engineering Technology & Manufacturing Development (ETMD) phase was started in January 2014, after HAL Tejas attained IOC and it was announced that the AMCA will have first flight by 2018. At Aero India 2015, ADA confirmed that work on major technological issues, thrust vectoring, super-cruising engine, AESA radar and stealth technology was going on full swing. Russia was to support for the development of Three-Dimensional Thrust Vectoring (TDTVC), AESA Radar and stealth technology. Saab, Boeing and Lockheed Martin also offered to help in key technologies. 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 successors to the troubled Kaveri engine. France has offered full access to the Snecma M88 engine and other key technologies, and United States offered full collaboration in the engine development with access to the GE F-414 and F-135.

AMCA CCS Clearance

Two technology demonstrators and four prototypes were scheduled to go under various types of testing, and analysis in 2019. The ground reality is that they are far from it. As of late 2019, the defence ministry was seeking approval from Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) to go ahead with the Prototype Development Phase. “The AMCA is intended to be a test case for fundamental Indian research in the unfamiliar field of cutting edge aviation technology and yet is poised to be anything but it,” says defence analyst Shiv Aroor of Live Fist. ADA had earlier announced the targeted first flight of AMCA by 2020, and production by 2025, but has now revised first flight to 2025.

AMCA Foreign Support

Unsure of indigenous capability, India has informed foreign vendors of MMRCA 2 programme that India’s quest for fighters would need commitments towards the AMCA. In anticipation, most vendors have set up joint ventures with Indian defence majors and set up research and manufacturing facilities. The IAF is ‘fully supporting’ the project, but hopes the timelines stated are realistic, otherwise it upsets its procurement cycles. In any case, the IAF’s 114 Make-in-India fighters will partly act as cushion for delays. Meanwhile, DRDO has been discussing with Indian defence companies including Tata, Mahindra Defence, Larsen & Toubro and many smaller specialised firms for work share for AMCA. Part of private Indian industry already does major fabrication work for defence majors such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Airbus, BAE Systems and others. Flight Global’s Stephen Trimble says, “AMCA is clearly India’s best option for preserving sovereignty and flexibility over the long-term, but it is the highest risk.” Technologically, the AMCA is a project that runs concurrent to India’s Ghatak stealth unmanned combat aircraft. Many laboratories are researching common technologies for both platforms, including shape, stealth, network-centricity, sensors and materials.

114 New Fighters

The first round of Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition, that began in 2004 with the issue of Request For Information (RFI), saw Dassault Rafale emerge as the winner. The requirement of the 126 had to be curtailed due to technical and contractual reasons, and finally, only 36 Rafale aircraft were bought off-the-shelf from France. The process for second attempt to acquire 114 aircraft got kicked off after the IAF released the RFI on April 08, 2018. The response to RFIs was received by July 2018. Six global companies responded. The contenders were the same six aircraft that were part of the earlier MMRCA competition. These were Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Block 70 (later named F-21), Boeing’s Advanced Super Hornet F/A-18E/F, Dassault Rafale, Swedish Saab Gripen JAS-39E/F, Russian MiG-35 and European Eurofighter.

A new participant, the Sukhoi Su-35, was added later. There are reports that Boeing is likely to offer the F-15 EX. It is not clear if that would be part of MRCA competition or a stand-alone offer through the US Department of Defense’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route. Only time will tell. The IAF has still to issue its Request for Proposal (RFP) which would become the basis of actual competition. Having initially wanted only a single-engine fighter with larger numbers, the selection for IAF has now become rather wide. The much heavier F-15EX could be at one edge of the spectrum and much lighter single-engine Lockheed Martin F-21 and Saab Gripen JAS 38 E/F on the other end. Also, it will be very difficult now for the IAF to shape its RFP with such a wide range of contenders.

Current Fighter Holdings and Target 2035

The IAF today has roughly five squadrons of MiG 21 Bison, five of Jaguars, three MiG 29 (UPG), three of Mirage 2000 (UPG), 12 of Su-30 MKI and two LCA, totaling 30 squadrons. The IAF is thus short of 12 fighter squadrons vis-a-vis the authorised 42. For some time now, there has been an ambitious plan to re-build the IAF to 42 squadrons by 2035. Even if the IAF were to stretch the Mirage 2000 and MiG-29 till then, there will be need to replace the ten squadrons of Bison and Jaguars. That would mean a need to induct 22 squadrons between now and 2035. From the current known induction plan, this could be possible with two Rafale squadrons, one additional SU-30 MKI and MiG 29 squadron. Six squadrons of the to-be-selected fighter aircraft; eight LCA squadrons; four AMCA.

The Cost Dynamics

The 83 LCA Mk1A, with support package, are going to cost Rs 45,000 crore. It means Rs 550 crore per aircraft. 36 Rafale had cost Rs 59,000 crore. It can be safely assumed that for any new MRCA class aircraft, the average package cost will be in excess of Rs 1,000 crore per aircraft. 22 squadrons would mean 400 aircraft. That would mean Rs 400,000 crore at current prices. The IAF’s Capital Budget for 2020-2021 was Rs 43,282 crore. In addition to fighter aircraft, the IAF has to pay for many other systems that are already being inducted or are planned. These include S-400, Chinook, Apache, ALH, LCH, Ka-226T, Avro replacement, radars, surface and aerial weapons, among many others. The backlog in modernisation is so huge that out-of-budget funds will be required. With the economy being hit by Covid-19 and other national commitments, where will the money come from – is the question?

Options Matrix India – The Way Ahead

The thrust is for ‘atmanirbharta’ or indigenisation. The LCA and AMCA are flagship programmes of Indian defence manufacturing. Aviation technologies are much more complex and expensive than building ships and tanks. The fact that India is still struggling to get FOC for aircraft production for the base LCA model indicates that there is a need for external help. 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, help will be required to handle complex aerodynamic configuration and stealth of the AMCA. Considering the slow progress in the LCA programme, it is going to be an uphill task. The indigenous fifth generation fighter would require more concerted energies and professional administrative attention. There is a need to accept reality and throw up one’s hands, then carry on ‘hit and trial’, as well as invite help lest we end up with serious delays and cost overruns.

While the Government of India pushes for ‘Made-in-India’ fighters, it has no choice to procure more fighters from abroad. The IAF always wanted a single-engine aircraft because it would be cheaper, easy to maintain and turn-around for a greater number of missions. The IAF already has several twin-engine aircraft in the SU-30 MKI, MiG-29, Jaguar and Rafale. India may choose a single-engine foreign aircraft. If India has to acquire a twin-engine aircraft, then why not buy more Rafale to reduce the logistics burden of too many types? The maritime version of Rafale can then be an option for the Indian Navy. China is pulling ahead with huge induction of funds in military aviation. Pakistan and China are also working in close coordination. It is critical to build up the fighter numbers. The time to act is now.

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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

Air Marshal Anil Chopra

Air Marshal Anil Chopra, commanded a Mirage Squadron, two operational air bases and the IAF’s Flight Test Centre ASTE

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