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OCTOBER 2014 ISSUE

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Force Magazine

Future Planning
A look at the IAF in 2024 and possible future aircraft options
 

By Atul Chandra

The Indian Air Force (IAF) in 2024 will have finally arrested the continued decline in its combat aircraft strength and attain a combat fighter aircraft fleet of 42 squadrons. For the first time, its fighter fleet will consist almost exclusively of twin engine fighters in the Rafale, Sukhoi-HAL Prospective Multirole Fighter (PMF), SU-30 MKI (upgraded), MiG-29 UPG and Jaguar strike fighter with the exception of upgraded Mirage 2000s, Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) and few numbers of the MiG-21 ‘Bison’. It would have to cater for retirement from service of its entire MiG-27 fleet (an estimated 80 aircraft) and MiG-21 fleet (approximately 150 aircraft), starting a few years from now.

The IAF currently operates nine squadrons of the venerable MiG-21, including six squadrons of upgraded MiG-21 Bisons. By 2024, however, the indigenous Tejas Mk II production line should be running at full steam so that it can churn out the replacements for the MiG-21 and MiG-27s that would have been retired by then. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) can realistically be expected to produce up to 12 Tejas Mk IIs per year.

The only question which remains about the IAF’s fighter fleet for the future, will be the replacement for its MiG-29 UPG, Jaguar strike fighter and upgraded Mirage 2000s. This is, of course, much further in the future around 2035 onwards. Ideally, the replacement for these types would be the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) to be developed by Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) and HAL. The entire effort from developing the required technologies to design, development, flight testing and induction into a service of a modern high performance twin engine fighter would be at least 15 years (realistically).

Hence, if work on developing such an aircraft begins in earnest next year, then it should enter squadron service by 2030. This should be possible to do for a combat fighter aircraft that offers nominally better performance than the Rafale does today or at least the SU-30 MKI. Realistically though, it must be questioned if sufficient resources will be available for the AMCA to be developed in time. The Tejas Mk II will take up a significant effort and allotting scarce design resources towards the AMCA in the required numbers could prove difficult.

Looking into the future then, in 2030, the IAF would have taken delivery of all 126 Rafales (and be looking at more), about 100 PMF/Sukhoi T-50 (out of 144 expected to be ordered), 272 SU-30 MKIs and a mix of upgraded Mirage 2000s Mig-29S and Jaguars not totalling more than 230.This would make for a combat aircraft fleet of 772 fighter and strike aircraft.

Attrition, of course, will also take place and for purposes of illustration estimate this to be approximately two per cent across the total fleet size for the Rafale and PMF over a 15 year period, under five per cent attrition for the SU-30 MKI and approximately eight per cent for the upgraded older fighter types (these percentages are for the purposes of representation only and are not based on accident rates of the IAF). Hence, by 2035, the IAF would have approximately 123 Rafales and 140 PMFs, the SU-30 MKI fleet would be around 260 plus and around 210 plus upgraded fighter aircraft (MiG-29, Mirage 2000 and Jaguar), for a total of 733. The IAF will also have at least 120 Tejas Mk I and Mk II fighters (40 and 80 respectively) by then.

A concern that has not been voiced out aloud till date is what will happen if the Tejas Mk II turns out to be a dud? The IAF will still require a light fighter and purchasing more numbers of either the SU-30 MKI, Rafale or PMF are unlikely to be the solution due to their expense and operating costs. The options for a replacement light fighter from the global market for the Tejas Mk II are limited. SAAB’s JAS-39E Gripen (due to enter service in 2018) could make for high capability replacement option, if the Tejas Mk II has performance shortfalls significant enough for the IAF to look at another type. At an estimated USD 50 million a copy, well equipped, the JAS-39E has also been designed to be exceptionally cost effective to operate, considering the high end capability on offer.

The IAF has reportedly shown interest in Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano, which is a highly capable platform and used for tactical training and also for counter insurgency and border patrol tasks. It carries a useful weapons load and has been cleared for over 130 weapon configurations
The IAF has reportedly shown interest in Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano, which is a highly capable platform and used for tactical training and also for counter insurgency and border patrol tasks. It carries a useful weapons load and has been cleared for over 130 weapon configurations

 
 
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