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Force Magazine
Guest Column - Force Magazine
Down, But Not Out
  IAF’s fighter fleet over the next two decades

AVM Manmohan Bahadur (retd) The Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) saga of the IAF is representative of the procurement problems facing the Services in general. A selection that was made public three years ago, literally to the day, is still breathing fire, or maybe just smoke now, due to the inordinate delay in contract finalisation.

As Aero India 2015 gets underway, the French must be waiting with bated breath for a favourable decision (making them send the Rafale again to the air show) while the Eurofighter people must be wishing for it to stall so that they can step-in. With this as the background, this article looks at the make-up of the IAF fighter fleet in the coming decades.

Has the MMRCA non-decision affected the potency of the fighter fleet? It would be a lie to say that it hasn’t but it would be even more wrong to say that the deterrence it projects to our adversaries has been reduced; the IAF is fighting fit to meet them head-on, and that is what all Indians should be rest assured of. But yes, aircraft are being phased out and need to be replaced in a timely manner.

The Standing Committee of Parliament on Defence (15th Lok Sabha) has made no secret of its displeasure in the re-equipping speed when it brought out that IAF strength is down to 34 squadrons and dwindling, as against a sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons. The defence minister has set the arm chair strategists working over time with his observation (not a statement) that the Rafale is costly at roughly double the cost of a Su-30, so why not buy more Sukhois? But the two are almost as different as chalk is from cheese.

IAF's Su-30MKI during take-off

The Su-30 is an air dominance fighter whose role is to stay a long time in the air, sanitise a large volume of airspace to help other less endowed aircraft to execute their missions and on its own strike deep in to the enemy territory. The Rafale is a medium range multirole aircraft, and being from a different design house, has different capabilities. It has a better radar (AESA), has a lower fuel consumption, carries more armament load (9.5 tonnes as against 8 tonnes of the Su-30), has greatly reduced maintenance requirements, is cheaper when life cycle costs are concerned and can fit into the existing blast pen on IAF airfields. The last mentioned quality is of great significance when one considers easy ground handling that is required during operations.

And to top it all, the Su-30 requires an aircrew of two, instead of one required to fly the Rafale; the training requirements would just double if the Sukhoi numbers are increased. And that would be a huge additional task for the IAF. One is however confident that the powers that be in the ministry of defence (MoD) would take all aspects into consideration and the IAF would go along with whatever decision is taken.

The MiG-29 is getting a new lease of life with an on-going upgrade that will take another five odd years to complete for the entire fleet. With additional fuel capacity, air to air refuelling capability, a full glass cockpit and modern avionics, the upgraded MiG-29 would be a truly potent machine for some time to come and add to the air defence punch of the IAF. For those unaware, the MiG-29 formation at this year’s Republic Day parade was led by an upgraded aircraft.

The Jaguar fleet continues to don the mantle for deep strike. The project proposal for re-engining the Jaguar with a more powerful Honeywell engine has been ‘under study’ by the MoD for at least three to four years now and needs to be expedited. The re-engining trials will themselves take two-three years and by the time the fleet modernisation starts in real earnest one can easily expect five years to elapse. Time is of essence, as the re-engined Jaguars would be an important cog in the IAF’s strike element. The Mirage 2000 upgrade is on track, and with a new radar, glass cockpit with helmet-mounted display system, upgraded avionics, a new electronic warfare suite and Mica air to air missiles (USD 1.3 billion for 500 missiles, as per one report) the Mirage will serve the IAF for another two decades or so.

The Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) being designed and developed in Russia is being looked forward to with a bit of unease, primarily due the delays and the reported unwillingness of the Russians to let Indian scientists be part of the development process as per the contract. The die has however been cast and one hopes that the project does not slip anymore — with the Chinese having already flown the J-20 stealth aircraft (with a projected squadron entry in 2017) and the J-31 meant for exports (Pakistan has evinced interest), it is imperative that the FGFA project is closely monitored.

The indigenous Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), whose model had been showcased in the last edition of Aero India, is an ambitious stealth fighter project of DRDO. One only hopes that decision-making in MoD gathers some speed and that DRDO does not flatter to deceive, as in the Light Combat Aircraft (Tejas) project (30 years for the first aircraft to achieve conditional Initial Operational Clearance (IOC)), putting at odds the IAF’s re-equipping plans vis-à-vis the security situation around the country.

India’s security concerns have aggravated due the counter insurgency threats that have been allowed to evolve in the past few decades. With the army being called into counter insurgency duties almost as a routine, offensive support to it is being talked about in audible whispers. While offensive strikes are a no-no against one’s own countrymen, intelligence gathering, surveillance and recce would certainly enhance the capability of troops engaged in such tasks. Potent UAVs, with good ISR payloads would be a must for such tasks, which could be termed as ‘benign’ battlefield air support.

However, for dedicated battlefields airstrikes against an external adversary, there is no dedicated aircraft available with the IAF other than the MiG-21 and MiG-27, who themselves are in the process of being phased out in a staggered manner. Hawk, the IAFs lead-in fighter trainer is being mentioned for this role and it would be interesting to see how the arguments progress. Which brings up the final but absolutely imperative issue of training.

The Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT) has been a bad dream for the IAF due the failure of the HAL project ‘Sitara’. The aircraft has had a long gestation period, and as has been the wont of HAL, too much was promised without a proper appreciation of R&D capabilities. As per the defence minister’s statement in Parliament, HAL ‘has not so far been able to resolve critical wing and airframe design & development issues related to stall and spin. In order to meet the emergent situation created due to inordinate delay in the IJT project, IAF has already initiated the process for extending the technical life of the Kiran aircraft. The IAF has also initiated action to look for alternate options for the IJT.” This is indeed bad news for the IAF and the indigenisation thrust of the government.

All in all, as Aero India 2015 kicks off, its inauguration by the Prime Minister is indicative of the importance that the government has placed on setting up a defence industrial base. The fact that the IAF’s fighter fleet is import dependent, strikes at the roots of the strategic autonomy that any proud nation would like to have. It is time that private entrepreneurship is made an equal partner to the defence public sector undertakings in the noble endeavour of the government.

(The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi)


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