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.
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.
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.
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.
The IAF inducted around 110 twin-turboprop An-32s between 1984 and 1991 and the aircraft is still the backbone of the transport fleet. However, since the remaining 104 planes are reaching the end of their operational life, a $400-million agreement to upgrade them to An-32RE standard was signed in 2009. Apart from increasing their life to 40 years, the project includes advanced avionics, cockpit modification and noise and vibration reduction plus enhancement of payload capacity from 6.7 to 7.5 tonnes. While the first 35 aircraft out of 40 were upgraded in Ukraine, the last five are stranded due to the conflict in that country. They are already a year overdue and there’s no knowing when the situation might be resolved. While this is a matter of some unease, of far greater concern is the resultant setback in the upgrade of the balance 64 aircraft. This was to be undertaken at the IAF’s No 1 Base Repair Depot at Kanpur by 2017-2018 but lack of adequate technical support from Ukraine and shortage of spares puts a question mark on the project. Unless upgraded, these An-32s cannot be preserved and kept flying much longer, which would create a major gap in the IAF’s tactical transport fleet.
The Indo-Russian MTA has been under consideration since 2007…
On the other hand, the long-pending proposal to replace the 5.1-tonne payload capacity HS 748M twin-turboprop by a modern tactical transport aircraft is finally seeing clear skies. From the early 1960s onwards, these aircraft were licence-produced in India by state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), with the last aircraft being manufactured in 1988. About 56 planes remain in IAF service, employed primarily for troop transport, communication, load-lift tasks and training. Their replacement was delayed more than once, but was finally cleared by the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) on May 13. The DAC approved the joint bid of Tata Advanced Systems (TASL) and Airbus Defence & Space to supply 56 C295 aircraft to replace the Avro fleet. The programme requires that the first 16 aircraft be bought off-the-shelf while the remaining 40 must be produced in India with indigenous content increasing from 30 per cent to 60 per cent. An obligation to provide lifetime product support and maintenance is part of the proposed deal. However, the contract is yet to be inked.
The Airbus Defence & Space C295 is a twin-turboprop tactical transport aircraft manufactured in Spain. It is a rear-ramp plane that can carry 71 troops or a payload of 9,250 kg. It has a maximum take-off weight of 23,200 kg, cruise speed of 480 km/h, and range of 1,300 km with full payload. The IAF is slated to receive the improved C295W version with winglets and more powerful engines. Significantly, this is the first time that HAL will not be involved in the production of a military aircraft for the nation.
If the MTA project experiences further prolonged delays, or fails to fructify, and the remaining An-32s cannot be upgraded, a serious gap in the IAF’s tactical transport capability is likely to emerge…
Apart from a handful of VIP transport planes, the only other aircraft currently in the IAF’s transport fleet is the Dornier Do-228. About 40 of these twin-turboprop light utility aircraft remain in service and HAL has been awarded a further contract to supply 14 Do-228s to the IAF. The Dorniers are useful for training and communication duties and should remain in service beyond 2030.
Where does that leave the IAF’s air transport fleet? A key characteristic of air power is flexibility. The transport fleet should be able to offer a wide range of options – strategic as well as tactical, during all-out war as well as in peacetime. Being the natural first choice for Out-Of-area Contingency (OOAC) operations, especially when speed is of the essence, the fleet needs to be well-equipped with long-range strategic airlift aircraft.
However, a pure strategic fleet cannot deliver in many situations that require tactical missions. While regional reach is important, so too is the ability to efficiently execute the routine and unglamorous day-to-day transport tasks that are intrinsic to any air force, and that account for the bulk of its flying effort. While the total airlift capability of the IAF needs to be high, as must be the total strength of aircraft, the medium and light tactical transport segment cannot be neglected. Otherwise large and costly aircraft will inevitably be deployed to ferry smaller loads more suited to tactical transporters. All this makes it imperative to balance the IAF’s transport fleet.
For starters, although the IAF now seems adequately equipped on the strategic front, the same comfortable situation may not obtain once the remaining IL-76MD aircraft are withdrawn from service. Further, the IL-76MD was acquired at a time when the IAF was a mainly defensive tactical force, whereas now the service is on the path of strategic transformation and regional reach. This requires enhanced capability in all respects.
…in the total transport fleet of over 220 aircraft, these are just 15 high-end planes.
The IAF is extremely pleased with the performance of its ten C-17s and has expressed its desire to induct more. However, time is fast running out for a government decision because Boeing’s C-17 production line has already closed and only five aircraft remain unsold or uncommitted – perhaps not for long. It would be ideal to purchase the last five C-17s without delay. Fifteen C-17s and 11 C-130J aircraft would give the IAF sufficient heavy-lift capability at least till mid-century.
The euphoria over the induction of the C-17 and the C-130J also cannot hide the fact that the state of the tactical echelons of the fleet is unsatisfactory. After all, in the total transport fleet of over 220 aircraft, these are just 15 high-end planes. Adding six more C-130Js that are being acquired and the still flyable eight or ten IL-76MDs makes barely 30 aircraft. That still leaves a huge number of ageing medium and light tactical aircraft to preserve or upgrade and finally to replace. The situation would be somewhat brighter with the arrival of the new C295s.
Even if all the An-32s are successfully upgraded (and that prospect is currently in some doubt) they will only last till about 2030 after which they must be retired. The plan is to replace them with a new twinjet – the Multirole Transport Aircraft (MTA). The Indo-Russian MTA has been under consideration since 2007. In September 2010, HAL signed a joint venture agreement with United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) of Russia to develop this new high wing, rear loading, tactical transport aircraft, a derivative of the Iluyshin IL-214. With its 15 to 20-tonne payload, the MTA would be capable of mainly tactical roles and limited strategic ones. The IAF intends to order 45 MTA initially and since the payload capacity will be more than twice that of the An-32s and a diminishing number of An-32s would still be in service, this number should suffice for the next few years. Once the An-32s are retired, some more MTA are likely to be ordered.
The MTA proposal does not appear to be proceeding smoothly…
However, the MTA proposal does not appear to be proceeding smoothly. It is mired in haggling over HAL’s work share, engine power, and other aspects. Unconfirmed reports indicate that agreement has at last been reached to power the MTA with two Russian Aviadvigatel PS-90 high-bypass commercial turbofan engines. If HAL can also quickly reach an agreement with the IAF on the commencement of the crucial 24-month detailed design phase, the aircraft’s first flight can take place in about four years from the start of this phase.
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. It will also provide the long overdue and the much-needed competition to the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited.
If the MTA project experiences further prolonged delays, or fails to fructify, and the remaining An-32s cannot be upgraded, a serious gap in the IAF’s tactical transport capability is likely to emerge over the next five to ten years. Therefore, clear timelines need to be laid down for various phases and if they are not met the MTA must be reconsidered. Within a few years, substantial numbers of new Airbus C295 aircraft should be in IAF service with the contracted balance under production. And the Airbus-Tata combine would be only too glad to receive a follow-up order.