The Indian Air Force (IAF) was established on 8th October 1932, a state of affairs that came about due to the passage of the ‘Indian Air Force Act’ by the then British colonial administration. The aim of this was that the fledgling IAF would act as an auxiliary to British Royal Air Force (RAF) units in India.
The first IAF squadron, No.1 Squadron was commissioned into service on 1st April 1933, having four Westland Wapiti biplanes and the first five Indian military pilots on strength. World War II was to stimulate the growth of the IAF, by 1945 the IAF had grown to a strength of nine squadrons, containing both combat and transport aircraft. In recognition of its excellent performance in operations against Japan, the force was renamed as the Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF) in 1945 by order of King George VI. Yet in 1947, with the partition of British India into India and Pakistan, the RIAF now found itself partitioned in turn, with its assets dived between the two new states.
Today the primary indigenous development effort is the HAL Tejas, a programme that still has to deliver a truly viable combat aircraft capability after many years of effort.
India retained the name of RIAF for its air force until it declared itself as a republic in 1950, leading the air force to opt for title of the Indian Air Force (IAF). Much of the equipment in service was of British origin from World War II and by this point was somewhat well used. This led India to invest in new combat aircraft, the first manifestation of which was the decision to order the De Havilland Vampire from Britain in 1950. Subsequently it was decided to produce the Vampire under license at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). The first HAL-built Vampire flew in 1952 with production continuing through to 1960. In total the IAF acquired over 300 Vampire FB-52 fighters and 62 Vampire T-55 trainers built in both Britain and India.
The next major IAF purchase saw them turn to France placing an order for 71 Dassault MD-45 Ouragan aircraft on 25th June 1953, with deliveries starting later that year. The Ouragan proved successful in India and the IAF acquired 33 more aircraft from French Air Force stocks in 1957. Indeed Britain and France would obtain major combat aircraft contracts from India throughout the 1950s. In parallel with this, indigenous aircraft production capabilities at HAL would be strengthened through license production programmes.
Direct purchases of combat aircraft favoured both France and Britain. In 1956 the IAF ordered 110 Dassault Mystère IVA fighters. Then in 1957 India ordered the English Electric Canberra bomber in the B(I)-8, PR-57 and T-54 versions with 80 aircraft purchased initially. Another 40 Canberra were acquired from the UK during the 1960s and 1970s. The IAF also selected the Hawker Hunter to meet its emerging fighter requirement in 1957, acquiring 160 Hunter F-56 aircraft initially, with another 53 acquired during the 1960s and 1970s.
British aircraft would also play a key role in the further development of the indigenous aircraft industry. In 1956 it was decided to acquire the Folland Gnat and produce it under license at HAL to meet a requirement for a lightweight and affordable fighter. HAL would produce more than 200 Gnat for the IAF. Later, in the 1970s, HAL would develop an improved version of the aircraft known as the Ajeet. Some 79 Ajeet were built by HAL, additionally ten Gnat airframes were converted to the Ajeet configuration.
India has become an important market for the US aerospace and defence industry, yet the US has not really made the breakthrough into major league contracts.
Local production of the Vampire and then the Gnat, led to the belief that India could design and build an indigenous high performance combat aircraft to meet a new IAF operational requirement developed in the mid-1950s. Eventually though it was decided to draft in some foreign expertise to assist and this saw Dr. Kurt Tank and a team of German engineers move into HAL. The end result was the HAL HF-24 Marut.
The Marut flew for the first time on 24th June 1961 and eventually 147 aircraft were built for the IAF, with the type entering service in 1967 and finally being retired in 1985. The Marut did not live up to the expectations of the IAF or HAL, but on the plus side it did deliver a respectable capability. The development of a viable high performance combat aircraft still remains a core goal for the Indian government and the national aerospace and defence industry.
Today the primary indigenous development effort is the HAL Tejas, a programme that still has to deliver a truly viable combat aircraft capability after many years of effort. Despite this the IAF has ordered the aircraft and the aircraft is now being prepared for service entry. The initial IAF order amounts to only 20 aircraft, with up to 200 required. The majority of Tejas for the IAF will feature a more powerful General Electric engine and other enhancements. Other indigenous future combat aircraft programmes exist in India, but, as we shall see, meeting future IAF needs appears to be mainly focussed on cooperative programmes and license production of foreign designs.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was a disaster for the Indian military as spares for its Soviet-supplied equipment became virtually impossible to obtain.
We have already described the important role that Britain and France played in meeting IAF needs in the 1950s. It is often forgotten that the US was also a supplier to the IAF in the 1950s, providing Fairchild C-119G transport aircraft for example. The US would then fade from the IAF picture until quite recently. The arrival of the first Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules in India in December 2010, one of six aircraft on order, demonstrated that US industry was now back in contention for IAF orders.
In addition to the six C-130J transports, the IAF has ordered ten Boeing C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft (with options on six more) and looks likely to order six more Hercules. On top of that the Boeing AH-64D Apache Block III appears on course to win the IAF attack helicopter requirement for 22 systems. It also worth noting that in 2008 Boeing won the Indian Navy Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) competition and was awarded a $2.1 billion contract for eight P-8I aircraft.
India has become an important market for the US aerospace and defence industry, yet the US has not really made the breakthrough into major league contracts. The failure of the US contenders from Boeing and Lockheed Martin to make the final round of the IAF Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) programme (to be discussed later in this article), demonstrates that the US still has far to go before it can be considered a top tier supplier to India.