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Preparedness Priorities for the Indian Air Force
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Air Marshal Anil Chopra | Date:25 Nov , 2022 1 Comment
Air Marshal Anil Chopra
Commanded a Mirage Squadron, two operational air bases and the IAF’s Flight Test Centre ASTE

The continuing India-China showdown in Ladakh once again brought to focus, the preparedness of Indian armed forces to take on the aggressive and mostly belligerent China. China’s fast growing economy has allowed it to invest in defence R&D and capability. The Communist Party dominated China aspires to be a world power. Indian economy is now rising faster than China. But it remains one of the most threatened nations in the world. It has two nuclear neighbours with both of whom India has serious territorial disputes and has had full-scale wars.

China realised early that one who controls aerospace controls the planet. Airpower today is the dominant means of prosecuting war. It offers prompt multiple response options to the political leadership. Air and space give a vantage point for intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), allows global connectivity, is medium for long-distance high-speed weapon transit, and supports targeting. Today, Space greatly supports all warfare on earth, and is thus militarised. Aerospace offers speed, range, accuracy, and lethality for achieving military effects. Air power and future of all warfare are intertwined. Air superiority, will still be a pre-requisite for all operations on the surface to succeed. Even armies and navies are wanting to spend more and more on air assets. 

Current State of IAF

The Indian Air Force (IAF) is the fourth largest air force of the world. The primary mission is to secure Indian airspace and to conduct aerial warfare during armed conflict. It has to be prepared to fight on both fronts simultaneously, a 30days war at intense rate, and 60 days at normal rate. The IAF has 31 fighter squadrons. These broadly include two of Rafale, 12 Su 30MKI, 4 MiG 21 Bison, three each of MiG 29 and Mirage 2000, 5 of Jaguar, and two of LCA.   IAF’s Rafale fighters armed with very long-range Meteor and MICA beyond visual range (BVR) air-to-air missiles, are superior to most Chinese aircraft. The Sukhoi Su-30MKI is the IAF primary air superiority fighter with the capability for significant air-to-ground strike capability. The 11 C-17, 12 C-130, 17 IL-76, and over 100 upgraded An-32, give IAF significant cargo and troop lift capability. The 15 Boeing Chinook heavy-lift and 22 Apache AH-64E attack helicopters, have added to the already a significant fleet of 240 Mi-17 series medium-lift helicopters and with nearly 100 ALH variants and smaller Chetak/Cheetah fleets, IAF is very well-off for rotary wing assets. IAF has only three large airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft and two indigenous DRDO developed AEW&C aircraft. Similarly IAF has only six IL-78 Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA). Both these fleets are inadequate for a continental size country like India which has also to cover the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

India has a well-covered and integrated air defence radar cover. IAF continues to operate some of the legacy surface-to-air missile systems like the SAM-3 Pechora and SAM 8 OSA-AK. With the induction of a large number of indigenous Akash AD systems, and the newly received S-400 units, the AD coverage is potent. To cover the large Chinese border, more systems will need to be inducted. With induction of the MICA, Meteor, Astra, SCALP, BrahMos and Hammer, among others, IAF has a significant aerial weapons inventory. IAF has Israeli Heron and Searcher Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and Harpy and Harop Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV). Orders for American Predator MQ-9 Reaper drones are expected. 

Strategic and Conventional Deterrence

Air power is inherently strategic in nature and simultaneously provides conventional deterrence. Air Campaigns can be executed simultaneously against different spread out target systems. It can provide both kinetic and non-kinetic options with pin point accuracy. It can influence outcomes and actions of the surface forces. It can simultaneously produce physical as well as psychological effects. Strategic airlift allows strategic reach and strategic effects. IAF has repeatedly demonstrated it. IAF already dominates from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca, using long range aircraft supported by FRA and AWACS. More of these are being acquired. IAF transformation is being driven from just being platform-based to being capability-based. Effects based, network centric operations are the new normal. Advantage of air power is ability to exploit swing-role capabilities. When you say Rafale is an Omni Role fighter, means it can do many roles in a single mission. Air power supports ISR that is crucial for decision-superiority in net-centric warfare.

All countries are engaged in network-centric warfare. Cyber and electronic warfare is where action is. Securing own networks and denying the same to adversary will be important. Air and Space platforms will greatly support cyber and electronic warfare operations much deeper into the enemy territory. There are dedicated aircraft for this purpose. The future is unmanned. Artificial Intelligence supported autonomous systems will fly independently or in conjunction with each other in a swarm or with manned aircraft as a team. IAF is investing more in these systems. 

Rapidly Growing PLAAF

China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF) has grown significantly with large fleet of fighter aircraft and advanced air defence systems. PLAAF currently has nearly 2,000 fighter/bomber aircraft, with over 600 of 4th generation plus.  PLAAF has a long-range strategic bomber fleet and holds more strategic assets such as AWACS aircraft and combat drones compared with the IAF.PLAAF’s operational fighters include J-10B/C, J-11B, J-16, and Su-30. PLAAF claims to have 50 fifth-generation J-20 fighters, and targets to have 200 of these by 2027. Also the FC-31/J-31 is under development. PLAAF also has nearly 120 H-6 strategic bombers, with some variants able to carry up to six cruise missiles with 1500 km range. China has a large surface-attack missile force. China’s indigenous aircraft industry produces all types of aircraft and advanced helicopters. China also has a large UAV fleet of indigenous design.  PLA Navy (PLAN) having two operational aircraft carriers and nearly 600 aircraft. Two more carriers are under construction and two further, larger ones, on drawings boards. China thus has significant air power. 

Pakistan Air Force (PAF)

PAF has 19 squadrons with around 400 fighter aircraft, but many are awaiting replacements. In the long term, PAF will have around 300 JF-17s, 75 F-16s and will soon receive 25 J-10 C from China. PAF has four Ilyushin Il-78MP Strategic Airlift Transporter/Aerial Refueller aircraft, eight Saab 2000 Erieye and four Shaanxi ZDK-03 “Karakoram Eagle” AEW&C aircraft. The numbers are significant considering the size of the country. PAF has a mid-sized transport aircraft and helicopter fleets. They have acquired significant number of Chinese UAVs and will soon set up production of Wing Loong UAVs in Pakistan. The PAF is primarily air defence orientated. While PAF in itself does not pose any significant threat to India, it has been exercising closely with PLAAF and has advantage of equipment interoperability. It could also allow the PLAAF to use some of its airfields. IAF has to thus factor in a two-front confrontation. 

Rebuilding IAF Numbers

IAF is likely to have around 37-38 fighter squadrons by 2030. The target is to get to 42 squadrons by 2038. The end state could be 14 squadrons of Su-30 MKI, two each of Mirage 2000 and MiG 29, 12 squadrons of LCA variants, two of Rafale, six of the new fighter, and four of Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). Effectively IAF may have to stretch the Mirage and MiG 29 fleets. These figures are achievable as long as timely decisions are taken, and there are no serious development delays in AMCA. IAF must also target to have 8 large and 10 smaller AWACS, at least 12 FRA aircraft by 2030. IAF requires additional UCAVs, including the indigenously developed DRDO’s TAPAS BH-201 and “Ghatak”. The 10 deficient fighter squadrons, and nearly 12 more to retire by 2035 will require significant funding. Capital budget would have to increase. 

China Centric IAF Airbases

India’s military assets and infrastructure are now China border centric. While border roads and connectivity are being improved, IAF has upgraded its airfields and Advanced Landing Grounds (ALG) near China border. IAF now has many Su-30 MKI squadrons facing China. Also the new acquisitions like Rafale, C-130 J, Chinook and Apache helicopters have also been located in the eastern sector. The same is also applicable to air defence systems and weapons positioning. 

Hindustan Aeronautics Projects

Over the years, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) has produced under license a large variety of fixed and rotary wing aircraft. ADA developed LCA ‘Tejas’, and HAL’s Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) are the two major indigenous programs. Larger and more capable variants of these are being built. HAL also overhauls and upgrades of many aircraft and engines. HAL also has several multimillion-dollar contracts from leading international aerospace firms such as Airbus, Boeing, and Honeywell to manufacture aircraft parts and engines. From IAF point of view, priority has to be to early completionof design and development of LCA Mk 1A, and mark up annual production initially to 16 aircraft. Tasks further down include developing the LCA Mk II and AMCA. HAL has been handed over an RFP for 70 HTT-40 basic trainer aircraft. HAL is also still working further on the long-delayed Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT). The midsized, 80-90 seat, Indian Regional Jet (IRJ) has still to take off. Similarly, the Saras small transport (20 seats) is still struggling. 

Projects DRDO

Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has had its successful projects in the LCA, SU-30 MKI avionics, MiG-27 and Jaguar upgrades, UAVs, and EW suites of many aircraft. They are also making missiles and radar, and the indigenous AEW&C ‘Netra’. The AMCA is work in progress. DRDO also runs the Integrated Guided Missile Development Program, which includes the successful Akash air defence system and Astra air-to-air missiles, and Nirbhay missiles. BrahMos missile is through Indo-Russian joint venture evolved by DRDO. DRDO has plans for Long and medium-range SAMs. LRDE is making a host of radars like the INDRA, Rajendra fire control radar, the Central Acquisition Radar (CAR), and the LRTR 3D AESA with help of Elta of Israel, among others. It is also developing the Uttam AESA for LCA Mk II, and S-Band AESA array for the DRDO’s AEW&C. GTRE’s flagship program was the GTX Kaveri engine intended to power the LCA was abandoned in 2014. Meanwhile, a 52-kilonewton dry variant of the Kaveri engine is planned to be used in the DRDO UCAV. A new GTX-35VS Kaveri may power the LCA Mk2 and AMCA later. A Kaveri derivative is planned to power India’s UCAV.

Indigenisation “Atamnirbharta” the National Aim

The recent defence budget gave a significant boost to Make-in-India (Atamnirbharta). Indigenisation is being aggressively pushed at the highest levels. Ordinance Factories have been converted into DPSUs and more are being privatised. The target is to increase the share of all manufacturing from the current level of 15 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to 25 per cent. India’s target is to reduce defence imports to initially 40 percent from nearly 70 percent. Many systems and platforms are now banned for importing. The Defence Acquisition Procedure (DAP) 2020 and ‘Defence Production and Export Promotion Policy 2020’ provides impetus to self-reliance in defence manufacturing. The target is a turnover of Rs. 1 lakh 75 thousand crore (US$ 25 billion), including an export of Rs. 35 thousand crore (US$ 5 billion) in the aerospace and defence goods and services by 2025. 

Private Sector in Defence

India has a great industrial base and significant defence equipment demand to allow advantage of scale. If India can succeed in its missile, space and nuclear programs, it can do the same in defence production. BrahMos cruise missile are being made through a successful JV with Russia and has export orders. India has great success in ship-building both through public and private sector shipyards. For IAF, Tata Power is handling the modernization of airfield infrastructure. Tata Aerospace and Defence (Tata A&D) have been making the AH-64 Apache combat helicopter fuselage. They are also making aero-structures for Boeing’s CH-47 Chinook helicopters. All C-130Js delivered to customers around the world have major aero-structure components from India. Tata Advanced Systems (TASL) in Hyderabad, is the manufacturing base for global supply of cabin aero-structures for the Sikorsky S-92 helicopters. Lockheed Martin Aero-structures (TLMAL), a joint venture between TASL and Lockheed Martin, producing 24 C-130 empennages annually. Tata group is working with GE to manufacture CFM International LEAP engine components in India. Lockheed Martin selected TASL to produce F-16 wings in India. EADS unit Cassidian plans to make India a hub for a large number of defence products. GE has a huge India presence. There is also a large MRO market that can create an R&D base for engineering services. Adani-Elbit JV makes Hermes 450 and 900 UAVs in India.

Bangalore-based Centum Group, a defence electronics company provides defence solutions to French company Thales. Tata Power Strategic Engineering Division (SED) makes Akash Launchers for the IAF. Mahindra Group makes aero-components for several Airbus aircraft. Bharat Forge is a major player in the artillery and specialized vehicles segment. Several small companies – such as Dynamatic Technologies, Avasarala Technologies, DefSys, Ravilla, and Taneja Aerospace – have of late acquired advanced technological capabilities. Dynamatic Technologies makes assemblies of vertical fins for Sukhoi 30 MKI fighters. An estimated 24,000 MSMEs are currently involved in defence supply chain, and there are nearly 460 private players have defence production licenses. Critical Defence

Technologies to Master

Game-changer technologies like cyber, electronic warfare, artificial intelligence, robotics, hypersonic, need to be mastered. Hypersonic flight and weapons will be difficult to defend against. There is a lot of action in Directed Energy Weapons. Lasers that can burn incoming missile electronics or dazzle electro-optical sensors. For India to become significant, it must also master aircraft engine, and AESA radar technologies. Sixth Generation fighter technologies are evolving. Stealth will remain a feature. Very long range weapons of around 400 kilometres range air-to-air missiles are already a reality. 

Imperatives for IAF        

Some often suggest that since Rafale and Su-30 MKI can achieve much greater effects than the older MiG 21s, why IAF should continue to seek 42 squadrons. The argument is flawed. India’s adversaries are already having fifth generation fighters. They are not cutting down numbers. Type of aircraft and weapon platforms must be comparable to the adversary. IAF also urgently needs additional AEW&C and FRA. IAF needs additional UCAVs. Since India has to defend against a possible sizeable Chinese surface-to-surface missile (SSM) attack, more air defence SAM systems are required. It is important to have a larger ammunition and missiles stocking. SSMs and Cruise missiles inventories have to go up. Newer variants of BrahMos should be hastened. More needs to done on electronic and cyber warfare capability induction. 

Way Ahead

India has threat from two-fronts has been acknowledged by the government. The backlog of modernisation of all three services needs to be made good. Obsolescence sets in much faster for aerial systems. The gap with China is continuing to increase. India needs to increase Capital budget allocations. IAF is well trained and operationally well exposed. IAF has clear advantage in terms of more and better located and equipped airfields than China. IAF can well match the PLAAF, but once the numbers increase, IAF will be much better placed. Time act is now.

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