Military & Aerospace

Flexible Reach: Balancing the IAF’S Air Transport Fleet
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Issue Vol. 30.4 Oct-Dec 2015 | Date : 19 Mar , 2016

C-17 Globemaster

No country can be a true aerospace power without a defence aerospace industry and no country can have a powerful aerospace industry without involving the private sector. The Airbus-Tata C295 programme, therefore, must be seen as a vital first step towards the meaningful participation of the private sector in the country’s aerospace sector – a move that might ultimately create an Embraer of India apart from providing the long overdue and much-needed competition to the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited.

The IAF transport fleet must anticipate and plan for a variety of contingencies, in battle or during peacetime…

It is perhaps a sign of the times that the transport fleet of the Indian Air Force (IAF) is frequently in the news – and for the right reasons.

For instance, when a devastating earthquake struck Nepal on April 25, a mammoth Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) mission was launched by the IAF and the Indian Army. By the time Operation Maitri wound up on June 04, a total of 2,223 sorties had been flown towards the rescue or evacuation of about 11,200 stranded people and transportation or airdropping of about 1,700 tonnes of relief materials. Several types of IAF transport aircraft were involved including the giant Boeing C-17 Globemaster III, the Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules, the Ilyushin IL-76MD and the Antonov An-32, besides medium-lift helicopters such as the Mikoyan Mi-17 V5 and the Mi-17. The effort won praise for India’s responsiveness to the regional crises as well as for the speedy and efficient conduct of the operation by the country’s armed forces.

Earlier, in the first week of April, India responded to an urgent need to evacuate its nationals and a few others from conflict-hit Yemen. In a well-coordinated and widely appreciated operation lasting ten days, IAF C-17 aircraft flew 12 shuttles from Djibouti to Mumbai and Kochi ferrying 2,096 people to safety. And who would have predicted that the IAF might be called upon to deliver water to the thirsty population of distant Maldives? That’s what happened in December 2014, when the Maldivian capital Male was hit by an acute shortage of drinking water after its lone desalination plant caught fire. Soon after an SOS was received by New Delhi, two C-17 and three IL-76MD aircraft were pressed into service to fly 153 tonnes of water to Male. Their involvement continued till Indian Naval vessels could arrive with larger consignments.

C-130J Super Hercules

War and Peace

But what have such mercy missions, commendable though they might be, to do with the IAF’s war-fighting role? The widespread opinion is that HADR tasks are a notch or two below operational ones. However, as far as the transport fleet is concerned many aspects of disaster relief mirror live engagements. Although the IAF regularly conducts air exercises to assess its own capabilities and limitations, these are akin to laboratory tests. There is nothing like an abrupt and unforeseen emergency to pitilessly expose the shortcomings and highlight the aspects that need improvement. Besides, in this age of endless and indiscriminate media coverage, especially of large-scale disasters or natural calamities, it is important to win the battle of perception.

The country’s first Mountain Strike Corps will provide substantial ground offensive capabilities against China for the first time…

When the armed forces including the IAF respond speedily, efficiently and with professionalism to a distant crisis, it can be taken for granted that potential adversaries are taking note. Planners will refine their evaluation of India’s military capability, going beyond mere paper listings of strength and capacity. They will conclude that if civilian and military agencies can work together like a well-oiled machine during a remote peacetime emergency, they are likely to be as responsive and as efficient in a conflict situation. Thus successful HADR, hostage rescue and other such missions may serve as a psychological deterrent to rash adventurism. They will win the PR war and put the country ahead in mind games.

Conversely a botched, chaotic or ill-executed peacetime transportation mission would be viewed with almost as much satisfaction by not-so-friendly neighbours as an unsuccessful operation during war.

No doubt the IAF is well established for operations. But after the 1971 conflict (which now seems a distant memory) the service has not been to war except for the brief Kargil skirmish of 1999. However, the transport fleet has seen action, and more frequently than fighter elements. In October 1947, the IAF’s fledgling airlift fleet equipped mainly with Douglas DC-3 Dakotas rushed forces to the Kashmir valley and saved it from being overrun by invaders. In December 1971, the Fairchild C119G Packet played a crucial role in the airborne assault operations in Tangail, Bangladesh. The IL-76MD and An-32 aircraft were extensively used in the induction and support of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka from July 1987 to March 1990. And in November 1988, IL-76MD aircraft rapidly conveyed para-commandos of the Indian Army on an emergency mission to the Maldives in response to an urgent appeal by the government there for military intervention.

Airbus Military C295

Ageing Angst

In keeping with the country’s aspirations to expand its sphere of influence to the region extending from the Gulf of Aden to the Strait of Malacca, indeed the IAF transport fleet must anticipate and plan for a variety of contingencies, in war or during peacetime. For this, the fleet needs a balanced structure aircraft of various types, payload capacity and operational potential – all in adequate strength.

The IAF inducted around 110 twin-turboprop An-32s between 1984 and 1991 and the aircraft is still the backbone of the transport fleet…

From 1985 to 2005, the IAF had a young and responsive transport fleet that seemed reasonably balanced. But thereafter age began to catch up. The life of an aircraft is usually taken to be about 25 years, extendable to 40 years with a mid-life upgrade. But in due course every aircraft must be replaced. Fleet replacement is obviously an expensive and lengthy process that is best done continuously, as and when a particular type falls due, so that the entire fleet does not need replacement simultaneously. But unfortunately, the IAF’s transport fleet has been modernised practically en masse in waves. While the first wave was in the 1960s, the second and more recent one happened in the mid-1980s. It was marked by the induction of the prized four-engine IL-76MD jets and the twin-turboprop An-32 aircraft, both of which became key elements of the fleet.

However, around a decade ago, it became clear that the transport fleet was ageing rapidly and was proving inadequate for many of the tasks required of it. Accordingly, fresh inductions that may be characterised as the third wave commenced.

Strategic Shift

It was in 2008 that the process of strategic upgrade of the IAF transport fleet began with the signing of a $962 million contract with the US Government under its Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme to purchase six Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules tactical transport aircraft. The deal ended decades of India’s exclusive dependence on Russia for transport aircraft. The C-130J is a four-engine turboprop with a payload capacity of 19 tonnes or 92 fully equipped troops. It has the distinction of being the world’s most widely used military transport and has been in continuous production since 1957.

A pure strategic fleet cannot deliver in many situations that require tactical missions…

It must be noted that these aircraft, based at Hindon, are the C-130J-30 version and they can deploy Special Forces even in total darkness. Consequently, the IAF has earmarked them for the Special Operations role, not routine airlift. One C-130J was lost in an accident in March 2014. Another six, due for delivery starting 2017 under a $1.01 billion deal signed in December 2013, are planned to be located at Panagarh, West Bengal, from where they will conveniently serve the North East as well as island territories in the Bay of Bengal. Panagarh is also the location of the planned new 17 Corps of the Indian Army. The country’s first Mountain Strike Corps will provide substantial ground offensive capabilities against China for the first time, if it survives a review of its financial feasibility that is currently underway.

But the jewel in the crown of the transport fleet is Boeing’s C-17 Globemaster III heavy-lift aircraft. Ten of these very capable four-engine jets were purchased under a $4.1-billion deal signed in 2011. They too were acquired under the US Government’s FMS programme. Before the C-17, the largest aircraft in the IAF’s fleet was the four-engine IL-76MD jet inducted from 1985 onwards. However, over-utilisation and lack of spares blunted its capability and less than half the fleet is operational at any given time.

The C-17 is over 20 years old but it is still considered the world’s best strategic airlift aircraft. It has a massive 74.8-tonne payload capacity as against the 43-tonne payload of the IL-76MD. Both these aircraft take a higher payload than the Airbus A400M that entered service only in August 2013. Despite its size, a fully-loaded C-17 can take off from a 7,000-foot runway and land on a small, austere airstrip of just 3,000 feet length and 90 feet width. This ballerina-like performance is thanks to its four Pratt & Whitney F117-PW-100 engines, each rated at 40,440-pound thrust, coupled with an externally blown flap system that allows a steep, low-speed final approach and low landing speeds. With a cruise speed of 450 knots at 28,000 feet, the C-17 can fly 2,400 nautical miles without in-flight refuelling.

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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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2 thoughts on “Flexible Reach: Balancing the IAF’S Air Transport Fleet

  1. We can only say we have the strategic capability when we are capable of Para dropping 2 Airborne Battalion groups within a span of 24 hours anywhere in Asia, and across the middle east, with the rest of the Airborne Brigade being built up in the 2nd 24 hours. For that I am sure you understand the kind of equipment and that is required. There will also be a need to provide prophylactic cover to the Airborne stream to and fro as well as a command and control setup at both ends. Are we prepared and practiced for that. Actually we are from from that. That’s the kind of capability we need to build up, HADR is just in incidental issue and not a front runner task for the Air Force. The focus should be on Strategic and Tactical operations and we are not well prepared for that as of now.

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