Military & Aerospace

Modernisation of India's Military Aviation
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Issue Vol 26.1 Jan-Mar 2011 | Date : 06 Oct , 2014


Indian military aviation went through its first phase of modernisation during the mid sixties and the second phase was in the late seventies to early eighties. Today India’s military aviation is poised for modernisation on a scale unprecedented. On the occasion of the 78th Anniversary of the Indian Air Force (IAF), Air Chief Marshal PV Naik, Chief of the Air Staff, exhorted IAF personnel to be ready to confront challenges emanating from the “volcano like security environment in the neighbourhood”.

India’s strategic neighbourhood extends from the Malacca Strait to the Persian Gulf. To the North sits the Chinese dragon and to the South, extends the vast Indian Ocean Region (IOR). In the next 20 years as a dominant economic and military power, China will challenge India’s influence in the IOR.

…its (IAF) transport fleet is inadequate to meet strategic airlift requirements and the helicopter force is barely capable of achieving all its tasks.

Threat Perception

Independent India’s security concerns have mainly been driven by uneasy relationship with Pakistan. Post 1962, India’s relationship with China has been stable. However, she has made inroads into India’s immediate neighbours and there have been frequent incursions into Indian territory. A clash of interests between the two giants is therefore inevitable. In a worst case scenario India’s defence forces may have to fight a two front war for which they need to be suitably equipped. With all three protagonists possessing nuclear weapons, a conventional full-scale war is highly improbable but the growing China-Pak nexus will henceforth drive India’s military modernisation programmes.

Capability-Based Approach

India is a growing economic power with strategic aspirations and its military capabilities should therefore be in consonance with its status and adequate to counter all threats across the full spectrum of conflict. At the end of this decade Indian air power must emerge as a force capable of undertaking a wide range of tasks. These would include air strike in a conventional and nuclear environment, defence of airspace against intrusion, aerial cover to naval forces operating on high seas, strategic air mobility for ground forces, air support in the tactical battle area and logistical air support for the Army in peace and war. It must be capable of providing aerial surveillance of the EEZ and strategic sea lanes.

Military Airbus 330 MMRT

Air power offers the country a seamless resource to knit together the core competencies of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard into an over arching umbrella of strategic security. As per the Chief of the Air Staff, 50 per cent of the IAF’s equipment is either obsolete or obsolescent. This candid admission highlights the urgent need to induct modern aircraft and supporting assets to contain obsolescence to a manageable level.

Today the IAF is in transition. Its combat aircraft fleet is substabtially depleted, its transport fleet is inadequate to meet strategic airlift requirements and the helicopter force is barely capable of achieving all its tasks. The IAF needs more Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA) and airborne early warning systems to cover all contingencies. The basic trainer aircraft fleet is grounded and advanced training is severely hampered by the absence of a modern trainer aircraft in sufficient numbers. The airfield infrastructure needs to be modernised to operate new acquisitions.

The IAF acquired its first IL-78 FRA in 2003 but the present fleet of six is grossly inadequate to meet its operational requirements.

The present state of the hardware is a matter of concern both for the Government of India and the IAF. It is abundantly clear that air power resources of the IAF are not sufficient to meet its strategic objectives. The threat scenario for the next two decades and the current state of equipment demands that the IAF re-equip its force to replace all obsolete weapons systems reduce obsolescence factor to 20 per cent and to restore the combat fleet to its authorised strength of 39.5 squadrons.

In October 2009 the Defence Minister, Sri AK Antony acknowledged the growing asymmetry in military power between China and India. He was of the view that the IAF’s capabilities should be in keeping with India’s aspirations, international status and threat perceptions and said that the Government was taking steps to develop the IAF into an aerospace power which would have strategic reach to operate away from the Indian mainland while integrating the space based assets with air defence, surveillance, strike aircraft and weapons systems. This is a major doctrinal shift in the use of airpower by India.
In the last six decades after Independence, air power, be it of the IAF, or integral to the Indian Navy (IN)/ Army/Coast Guard, has always been employed as a tactical arm for the defence of the homeland, protection of the fleet and support of ground forces in war and peace. If air power is to be an element of strategic national policy it has to be capable of dominating the air space covering India’s strategic interests and the new assets must tailored to provide this capability.

Force Multipliers

The IAF’s reach has in the past been restricted to the radius of action of its land based force but this was of little consequence since all targets in Pakistan, the primary opponent, were within the reach of IAF’s strike aircraft. The Maldives expedition by IL-76, An-32 and Mirage 2000 in November 1988 demonstrated India’s strategic intentions for the first time, but brought to light the limitations by way of the absence of FRA. The IAF acquired its first IL-78 FRA in 2003 but the present fleet of six is grossly inadequate to meet its operational requirements. In 2007, the IAF had initiated Request for Proposal (RFP) for FRA to Lockheed Martin, Boeing, EADS and Ilyushin. The two companies to respond were Ilyushin and EADS.Ilyushin was the lowest bidder but the IAF preferred the EADS offer of Airbus 330 Multi Role Transport Tanker (MRTT), albeit far more expensive.

However the Finance Ministry declined to clear the proposal as in their view, price of the Airbus 330 was exorbitant and felt that the IAF ought to consider the Russian proposal since the IL78 was already operational in the IAF. The dichotomy of views, led to the cancellation in January 2010 of the $ 1.5 billion tender. Shortly thereafter, a fresh Request for Information was floated and this time Boeing indicated intentions to bid for the contract. Boeing is already in a battle with EADS for a 179-aircraft tender for the US Air Force and the outcome is likely to impact the Indian tender. Cancellation of the tanker contract has effectively put the IAF behind by at least six years in its efforts to induct additional force multipliers, indispensable for an air force with strategic compulsions.

Offensive air operations are best carried out under radar cover. However, land based radars of the IAF are incapable of providing cover to fighter aircraft flying over enemy territory or provide warning of intrusion by enemy aircraft early enough. Gulf War 1991 proved the effectiveness of the AWACS and the need to maintain continuous radar surveillance and airspace management of the battle area. The Indian DRDO and Embraer are jointly modifying the EMB-145 for the AEW role which is expected to be ready by 2012. Twenty such aircraft would be required to meet the requirements of the IAF and the IN. With the lifting of the sanctions on DRDO during President Obama’s visit, the development of the indigenous AEW & control aircraft should move ahead rapidly.


The IAF has received two of the three A-50 EI AWACS jointly produced by Russia and Israel but it is estimated that if the IAF is to build a strategic capability, at least 12 of these are required to maintain 24/7 vigil during operations.

Combat Fleet

In the next few years the fighter force will have to be built up by a combination of upgrades and new acquisitions. The MiG 21 fighter fleet is obsolete and needs to be replaced urgently. The MiG 23 fleet has been phased out and the long awaited LCA Tejas is yet to be inducted. The MiG 29’s are undergoing mid-life upgrade and will get an extension of total life. Price negotiations with Dassault for the upgrade of the Mirage 2000 fleet which would extend fleet life by 15 years, continues. The Jaguar fleet is to be re-engined and the avionics upgraded to enhance deep strike capability. The IAF has contracted for 280 Sukhoi 30 MKI which will help maintain air superiority. Avionics of the Su-30’s received earlier will be upgraded. Flight trials of the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) have been completed and there is hope that the contract will be signed by mid 2011.

The American F/A-18 E/F and F-16IN Super Viper, European Eurofighter Typhoon, Russian MiG-35, French Rafale and Swedish JAS 39 Gripen are the contenders in the race. The deal is expected to be worth $11 billion but the final selection could be influenced more by political compulsions than price. India and Russia are also to jointly develop the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft which is to be inducted by 2017. This timeframe may appear somewhat unrealistic. The mid-life upgrades of the existing fleet and procurement of new fighter aircraft in this decade will transform the IAF’s fighter fleet into a potent force giving it the capability to dominate the airspace in India’s area of interests.


Transport and Helicopter Fleet

After the 1971 war with Pakistan, the IAF’s airlift capabilities were geared to support operations on the Western front during wartime and in peacetime to carry out routine air maintenance. The IL-76 and An-32 fleets have done yeoman service but with a vision that encompasses intercontinental deployments and power projection overseas, the C-17 Globemaster III and the C-130 J class of aircraft became an absolute necessity. The IAF has acquired six C-130J Super Hercules and a further six aircraft are essential to have a full squadron complement. Ideally the IAF should have at least two squadrons of these aircraft.

Boeing is close to winning an order for ten C-17 Globemaster III and another six may be ordered later. Both these aircraft have inflight refueling capability allowing them inter-continental reach. India and Russia are to jointly develop a MultiRole Transport Aircraft (MTA) by 2017 but the track record of HAL belies this optimism. The An-32 fleet of over 100 aircraft is also being upgraded by the OEM to extend life to 40 years and to conform to ICAO standards. In the next ten years, the complete transport fleet of the IAF will be upgraded to give IAF the envisioned global reach.

The Mi-8, Mi-17, Chetak and Cheetah helicopters have been the work horses of the IAF providing logistics support to the Army in the mountainous terrain of the Northern and the North Eastern sectors. These helicopters are reaching the end of their life and the IAF needs replacements. The IAF has on order 80 Mi-17 1V and an order for 59 more is likely to follow. The Chetak fleet is being replaced by the HAL Advanced Light Helicopter. HAL built Light Combat Helicopter and the Light Utility Helicopter will also be available in a few years. The IAF also needs replacements for the Mi-26 heavy lift and Mi-35 attack helicopters. In response to an RFP for 15 heavy lift helicopters, Boeing offered the CH-47F Chinook and the trials have been completed. Field trials have also been conducted for the Boeing AH-64D Apache in response to RFP for 22 attack helicopters. With the induction of the new machines, the helicopter fleet will be equipped with new technologies of in-flight refueling, glass cockpits and night capability, essential to meet emerging requirements.

Indian Navy and ICG

In November 2010, the Indian Defence Minister called for increased Navy to Navy contact with the littoral states in the IOR, deployment of ships and aircraft for surveillance in this region, and monitoring of pirate infested waters. It has been reported that by 2022 the IN would have three aircraft carriers and close to 400 aircraft of different types. In the next 10 years the IN is to commission two new aircraft carriers, the INS Vikramaditya and the indigenous carrier being built at Cochin Shipyard. Few of the 45 MiG 29K, carrier based aircraft are already in country.

CH-47F Chinook

Discussions have been held with Lockheed Martin for the possible purchase of the F-35 aircraft for the third carrier. The naval version of the LCA will also be deployed on the carriers. The IN plans to procure 12 Boeing P-8I, 16 multirole helicopters, upgrade the sensors and avionics of the ageing Sea Kings and acquire UAV’s to enhance surveillance at sea. These measures are needed to counter the Chinese Navy in India’s maritime neighbourhood.

During the 33rd Anniversary celebrations of the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) it was revealed that the Government had approved the proposal of the service to acquire 42 aircraft. The ICG needs to add six Medium Range Maritime Reconnaissance to its fleet and the Russian Irkut Beriev Be-200 and the Bombardier Q-400 have been shortlisted. ICG will also be acquiring eight helicopters for Coastal Search and Rescue. The aviation wings of the IN and the ICG are responsible for maritime surveillance utilising resources of the IAF as well. The Boeing P-8I aircraft will cover the extended areas, the belt of 200- 500 kms will be covered by the medium range aircraft and areas near the coastline by the Dornier 228, helicopters and the UAV’s.

It is estimated that the modernisation of India’s military aviation in the next 15 years will entail an expenditure of $ 30 billion…

The 26/11 terrorist attack on Mumbai had revealed weaknesses in the coastal defences and the need for qualitative change. The IN and the ICG require additional land-based aircraft to extend their reach and reduce response time. The planned upgradation of IN and ICG aviation wings will give India the aircraft to support a blue water navy and ensure security of the coastal areas.

Army Aviation

Army Aviation became an independent arm in 1986 when the Air OP flights were transferred from the IAF to the Army. Army Aviation needs light helicopters for Reconnaissance, Surveillance and utility tasks. Suitable machines are required for attack and tactical airlift. The Army is also looking for a light fixed wing aircraft. A tender for 197 helicopters has been floated and it is projected that by 2020 the Indian Army will have a fleet of 500 helicopters and light fixed wing aircraft. The fleet will include HAL produced Light Combat Helicopter, Advanced Light Helicopter and the Light Utility Helicopter.

Search & Rescue

An effective Search and Rescue ( S&R) systems is a prime requirement and as the IAF, IN and the ICG expand their area of operations the S&R systems must keep pace. S&R syatems procured should be able to locate a crash site and rescue personnel soonest as delay enhances fatalities. Besides, an integrated civil and military aerial S&R system is essential, the failure to find Chief Minister, YSR Reddy’s crashed helicopter for 24 hours after the accident bears testimony to this deficiency.

Modernisation of aviation assets is usually inhibited by financial constraints and the general perception is that adequate funds have not been made available to the Armed Forces. Recently the Defence Expenditure Review Committee reported the shortcomings of the acquisition process which led to the three Services surrendering $ 8.5 billion in the period 2000-01 to 2007-08. Defence procurement has been plagued by delays and procedures need to be streamlined if new acquisitions are to be in place as planned.


It is an acknowledged fact that the Indian aerospace industry has not been able to fully meet the requirements of the armed forces. China on the other hand is self reliant to a great extent its imports reducing from $ 3.5 billion in 2005 to $ 0.6 billion in 2009. The Light Combat Aircraft should have been in squadron service years ago but is yet to go into full production. A basic trainer aircraft and Intermediate Jet Trainer are still not available to the IAF. While there may be reasons for the shortfall, the situation merits introspection and collaborative action at the highest levels in the IAF and DRDO if a measure of self sufficiency is to be achieved in the next two decades.

India has embarked on a very ambitious modernisation of the aviation assets of the three Services and the ICG and most of these new acquisitions should be operational by 2020. Concurrently, the IAF, IN and the ICG are improving infrastructure and support services at a number of airbases. It is no surprise that out of the 30 IAF airbases that will be upgraded in the first phase, sixteen are along the Sino-Indian border. The new aircraft and upgraded airbases are needed to protect India’s strategic interests and achieve airpower dominance in the IOR and over the Sub-Continent. It is estimated that the modernisation of India’s military aviation in the next 15 years will entail an expenditure of $ 30 billion and the new acquisitions will address security concerns till the year 2030 while providing India air power dominance, enhanced power projection, deep strike and strategic airlift capability.

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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 Commodore KB Menon

Fighter pilot, served as a flying instructor in Iraq and also as Defence Attache in Washington.

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