Military & Aerospace

IAF Fighter Fleet in Crisis
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Issue Vol. 33.1 Jan-Mar 2018 | Date : 10 Jul , 2018


Clearly evident in Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa’s statements was the fact that the threat from both China and Pakistan, including a possible two-front war is real. The emphasis was on the need to quickly reach the strength of 42 combat squadrons from this near all-time low of 33. The 15 years transform roughly to 2032 when, if all goes well, the IAF will have its authorised strength. A closer analysis will show that it will be possible only if all dreams come true and all plans move on centre-line. The ground reality is that the IAF is in a crisis situation on this count.

Since 2001, China’s arms exports have increased by 95 per cent, making it the world’s sixth most important arms exporter…

Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Indian Air Force (IAF), speaking at the Air Force Day Parade on October 08, 2017, said that the IAF was prepared to fight a war at short notice. He said that the IAF assets were not used during the military ‘surgical strikes’ but the IAF was capable of ‘full spectrum operations’. He warned Pakistan that India had the capability to “locate, fix and strike” targets across the border that are not only for tactical nuclear weapons, but also for “other targets across the border.” According to him, the IAF had the ability to fight a two-front war with China and Pakistan, though the possibility of such a war was low. “The IAF had 33 combat squadrons with 16 to 18 planes each and would take at least 15 years to deploy its authorised strength of 42 fighter squadrons; but its existing fleet was mission-ready”, he added. “We need 42 squadrons to carry out full spectrum operations, but it doesn’t mean we can’t fight a two-front war. There is a Plan B,” he said. The CAS said a batch of Rafale fighters from France and single-engine warplanes to be built in India will enhance the Air Force’s operational capabilities.

Clearly evident in these statements was the fact that the threat from both China and Pakistan, including a possible two-front war is real. The emphasis was on the need to quickly reach the strength of 42 combat squadrons from this near all-time low of 33. The 15 years transform roughly to 2032 when, if all goes well, the IAF will have its authorised strength. A closer analysis will show that it will be possible only if all dreams come true, and all plans move on centre-line. The ground reality is that the IAF is in a crisis situation on this count.

Changing Air Threat

Air and space power have attained primacy in the last few decades as a means of prosecuting war. Armies and navies across the world are keen to invest more in air power than in their organic systems. The world is engaged in developing counters to very agile and stealthy fighter aircraft with Beyond Visual Range (BVR) weapons and the ballistic and tactical missile threat. The September 2011 coordinated air attacks on the US by terrorists hijacking airliners and making suicide attacks against ground targets, added a new dimension to air threat. The proliferation of inexpensive Unmanned Air Systems (UAS) has added a cheap but potent weapon in the hands of many. The threat of an aerial attack launched from space today is also real. Fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles and space-based weapons are the main counters to all air threat. Tackling air threat is the greatest challenge to any nation.

Fighter Bomber, the Main Instrument

The fighter-bomber aircraft remains the main instrument for prosecuting air war and conversely also for air defence. In addition to creating air superiority for unhindered operations of surface forces, it has the capability to deliver lethal and accurate aerial weapons and expenditure on the fighter fleet consumes a major part of the defence budget. The main characteristics of fighter aircraft are agility, super cruise, stealth, multi-function Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars, network-centric systems, integrated glass cockpits, fibre-optics data-transmission, multi-spectral sensors, fused situational picture, helmet mounted sights, and Precision Guided Munitions (PGM). Fighters strive to have ‘first-look, first-shoot, first-kill’ ability. Modern fourth-plus generation fighters are the F-22, F-16 Bock 70, Rafale, Eurofighter, Gripen JAS 39 E/F and Russian Su-35. The just inducting or under development Fifth Generation fighters are American F-35, Russian Su-57 (Indian variant FGFA), Chinese J-20 and J-31. India’s indigenous AMCA will also be in this category. More and more of these roles are gradually being taken over by unmanned or optionally-manned aircraft.

India is the largest market and it is also an emerging power; no one would want India to become independent on this count.

Chinese Fighter Aircraft Programmes

The state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) has state-of-the-art aircraft manufacturing programmes in every department of military aviation – fighters, transport, attack and utility helicopters, AEW&C, UAVs and missiles. The J-31, twin-engine, mid-size fighter with AESA radar and stealth features first flew in October 2012. Like the F-35, the J-31 has two internal weapon bays that can each carry two medium range missiles. Stealth fighter J-20 made its public debut when two aircraft did a symbolic fly-past in the last Zhuhai Air Show on November 06, 2016. Some have likened the new fighter to Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor, a big step forward in Chinese combat capability and the drive to close the technology gap. The aircraft is expected to enter service by 2018. Growing domestic capability has enabled China to reduce its dependence on arms imports which fell by 58 percent since 2007. Since 2001, China’s arms exports have increased by 95 per cent, making it the world’s sixth most important arms exporter. The message is clear that China can offer aerospace equipment to other nations and has desire to surpass the United States.

PLAAF Aircraft Strength

The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is the largest Air Force in Asia and second largest in the world with 400,000 personnel and nearly 2,800 main stream aircraft including 750 state-of-the-art combat aircraft. Its current modern combat aircraft holdings include Su-30 MKK, Su-27, J-16, J-11 and J-10 fighters. They also operate 120 H-6 bombers and 14 AEW&C variants. China is reportedly working on a stealth bomber designated H-18. China spends $25 billion on defence R&D. China and Russia signed a contract for 24 Su-35 (with advanced IRBIS-E AESA radar) and deliveries will begin in 2018. At least a third of China’s budget of $154 billion goes to new acquisitions. The Chinese have also demonstrated a crude anti-satellite system.

Air Threat to India

At the strategic and tactical levels, China’s air power can now achieve a variety of effects. China wants to exploit the advantage of using its tactical/strategic missile force, which is easier to use for offensive than defend against. The PLAAF plans to move the forward edge of battle into enemy territory and it will use air offensive to keep the IAF head-down. Like the IAF, the PLAAF has switched to net-centric offensive air defence and greater reliance on integrated attack. China’s ambition is to build airpower like the USA for an asymmetric advantage. The PLAAF is targeting to be one of the world’s foremost air forces by 2020, made up of at least 1,000 ‘modern’ combat aircraft. Of greater concern is the offensive capability in terms of PGMs and the surface-to-surface missiles. The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) has 22 combat Squadrons with 400 combat aircraft. It is heavily dependent on China for all hardware and support. The F-16, JF-17 and FC-20 will finally be the main types of aircraft in its fleet. Pakistan has been in talks with China to acquire J-31 stealth fighter and with Russia for Sukhoi Su-35 air-superiority multi-role fighter. The PAF remains an air defence centric force with little offensive capability. But Pakistan has an evolving surface-to-surface missile force and India needs to cater for that.

IAF Fighter Aircraft Strength

The IAF’s current aircraft include five squadrons of older MiG-21 (Bis and Type 96) variants that may have to stretch till 2019. The five squadrons of MiG 21 Bison fleet will continue till 2025 with depleting numbers and lower availability of spares. The IAF’s dedicated strike aircraft fleet includes 139 Jaguars that are being upgraded. End December 2017, the MiG-27 aircraft was retired from service. Three squadrons of MiG-29 are being upgraded jointly with Russia. The 57 Dassault Mirage 2000 aircraft are upgraded to Mirage 2000-5 Mk 2 standards with modern avionics and new weapons. 314 Su-30 MKI air-superiority fighters are currently on order and 250 have been delivered till date.

The first squadron of LCA Mk I has got just five aircraft and will be fully formed only by end-2018. The IAF has ordered 40 LCA Mk I aircraft as on date, the Mk I does not meet the IAF’s Final Operational Configuration (FOC) specification requirements. An interim variant evolved by HAL is the LCA Mk 1A which will have the improved version of the Israeli EL/M-2052 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, and an electro-optic Electronic Warfare (EW) Suite. It will also incorporate weight reduction along with easier servicing and maintainability and have a mid-air refueling probe. The IAF has committed for 83 LCA Mk IA. This variant should start being inducted in 2020.


Fighter Aircraft Upgrade

The life extensions and upgrades of some of the fighter fleet have made a big difference to operational capability. The MiG-29 now has multi-role capability and increased internal and external fuel, aerial refueling probe, latest avionics including Zhuk-M radar and new air-to-air missiles. The Su-30 MKI has been upgraded with strategic weapons such as BrahMos cruise missiles and nuclear-capable Nirbhay missiles. Initially 40 aircraft are being modernised with AESA radar, more powerful onboard computers and a new Electronic Warfare (EW) suite. The Mirage-2000 upgrade comprised of the RDY-2 radar, new mission computers, glass cockpit, helmet-mounted sight, EW systems and the advanced MICA missiles. Aircraft life is also being increased by 20 years. Darin III standard on Sepecat Jaguars has recently been cleared. The upgrade incorporates a multi-mode radar, new avionics architecture including mission computer, engine and flight instrument system, solid-state digital video recording system, solid-state flight data recorder and additional functions in inertial global positioning system, better electric power source, an autopilot and a Radar Warning Receiver. It will have a near glass cockpit with two smart multi-function display and Head-Up Display. Life has been extended and will take the fleet to 2035. The decision on the more powerful Honeywell F125IN engines is still held in abeyance. All aircraft will be upgraded by early 2018.

Light Vs Heavy Fighters

There is a continued decision conflict about light versus heavy fighters. Light aircraft are relatively simple with only essential features, and lower cost. Light fighters generally feature high thrust-to-weight ratio, high maneuverability and high reliability. Intentional simplicity also allows buying larger numbers to outnumber the enemy in the air under combat conditions. Modern single engine light fighters include the F-16, JAS-39 Gripen and Tejas LCA. Larger fighters provide the opportunity for more technology, longer range radars and heavier weapons, but are more expensive and often unaffordable. The IAF has to maintain a balance to retain numbers.

The IAF’s New Single Engine Fighter

The IAF requires nearly 500 new aircraft by 2030 to compensate the phasing out and to make good the existing shortfalls. The IAF had plans to replace the fleet of ageing Russian MiG-21s and MiG-23/27s with LCA and Rafale. Delays in the LCA and a truncated Rafale deal have put the IAF back in a difficult situation. It is forced to go for a modern single-engine fighter. On January 03, 2017, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar announced plans for a competition to select a Strategic Partner to deliver 200 new single engine fighters to be Made-in-India. Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 70 and Saab Gripen JAS-39 E emerged as the possible contenders.

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A global tender is likely to be issued in early 2018, with an Indian private company nominated as the production agency. The final government-to-government deal could earliest be signed in 2021. This would mean eight squadrons plus reserves. Both contenders have publically denied full Transfer of Technology. SAAB in any case uses some foreign systems including the engine from the US. The IAF was preparing to issue a global tender, but such statements have come as a rude shock. Only a handful of aviation players have the main technologies in terms of radar, engines, stealth and EW systems. India is the largest market and it is also an emerging power; no one would want India to become independent on this count.

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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

Commanded a Mirage Squadron, two operational air bases and the IAF’s Flight Test Centre ASTE

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3 thoughts on “IAF Fighter Fleet in Crisis

  1. India continues to recycle its decade old RFIs with only analysis paralysis to show for it while diminishing its offensive capability depleting its armaments on land air and sea while drastically falling way behind its enemy to the north. The situation is not any better in the department of defence where a general malaise seems to have to set in post the appointment of nirmala sitharaman. The make in india effort is struggling to breathe while the drdo is being crushed under its own weight. It would be a safe bet to say that prospects for improvement look pretty grim for the next decade as well. Wake up call anyone?

  2. The bean counters in IAF and rest of India should stop counting beans. Planes are not the only part of India’s defense. At this stage of development India has other weapons/options to defend itself.
    India should nurture its talent and provide jobs and opportunities to its own people so that they can design and develop their own planes and armed drones.
    The next war is going to be fought with unmanned robots(planes, submarines, missiles, etc).

  3. Build more SU30’s, buy more Rafale’s and manufacutre Tejas on a war footing. That is all that is needed. The next war will be fought with missiles and planes will be very vulnerable. Best they can do it to fire without crossing the border so hardly matters how sophisticated they are beyond a certain point. And who came up with the magic number of 42 squadrons anyway ? Chinese air force is very large and with the advanced anti aircraft missiles which all sides have, this number means nothing. Planes are needed to supplement the missiles once we start running out of them during an intense war. Other than that, not much a plane can do that a missile can’t do much more cheaply and safely.

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