IAF should up its depleted fighter squadron strength for better security
AVM Manmohan Bahadur (retd)
As the Indian Air Force (IAF) celebrates its 86th anniversary on 8 October 2018, the challenges for it are encompassed by one statement from its Chief, Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa. Speaking at a widely attended seminar, ‘IAF Force Structure: 2035’, organised by the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS) in New Delhi on September 12, he said, “Even when we do have 42 Squadrons, we will be below the combined numbers of two of our regional adversaries.”
Earlier in his talk, he had stated that India faced a grave threat and that, “…its neighbours are not sitting idle.” This laid out the imperative requirement on part of the government to pay special attention to the requirements of the IAF since air power would pay a pivotal role in any future conflict. This article would be a stock-taking of the IAF’s strength and challenges — at present, and in a time frame of the next 15 years or so. It is good to start with the strong points, the positives, as it were.
Fixed Wing Airlift Capability
The fixed-wing airlift capability of the IAF is the best in a region extending from Africa to the furthermost point in the East, leaving aside the US; it is better than that of China too. With 10 C-17 Globemaster airlifters (and the 11th coming soon), 15 odd IL-76 and almost a hundred An-32, the IAF can be truly called a regional airlift provider, come any Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) requirement or mass movement of our diaspora spread out in the area.
Hopefully, the 56 vintage Avro aircraft would be replaced by the versatile and much more capable C-295 which, for reasons of commonality and logistics efficiency, should be ideal candidates for moving in for the An-32 when they start phasing out in the coming decades. The addition of C-295, with their short-field performance, higher payload carrying capability (vis-a-vis An-32) and rear ramp for loading, would greatly add to the versatility of the transport fleet.
The air maintenance requirements of the Indian Army will not go away in a hurry. The arrival of the C-17 has revolutionised the carriage of stores and personnel as well as winter stocking in the Leh-Ladakh region. An added advantage has been the capability of the C-17 to carry back an increased number of army personnel going on leave, especially during the summer months; this has been a big morale-boosting step for our jawans who soldier-on in the harsh climes of Siachen and the northern areas.
Rotary Wing Lift Capability
The present heli-lift capability of the IAF, like its fixed-wing counterpart, is also the best in the region, including being better than China’s in the high-altitude Tibet area. The 250+ strong Mi-17 fleet of various versions, especially the latest Mi-17V5, is the mainstay of the rotary-wing capability; 24 more machines are being bought to raise new helicopter units, a figure reduced from the earlier demand of 48 due to lack of funds; it can be surmised that the remaining 24 would also be procured at a later date.
This additional requirement of 48 helicopters has come about due to the myriad tasks that have come the IAF’s way for conduct of national elections, state polls (like in the Northeast and Naxal prone areas), the frequently occurring natural disasters and the unfortunate law and order problems that require induction of police forces to interiors. The trusted war horses, Chetaks and Cheetahs, have shown their worth (besides the Mi-17 fleet too) in urban and mountain HADR, as was seen so vividly during floods in Uttarakhand, Srinagar, Chennai and recently in Kerala; this fleet will continue for a decade at least!
The ALH Dhruv fleet, after initial maintenance and logistic supply issues, has stabilised and seen increased use in these operations. This modern helicopter, with extremely good high-altitude operations capability, will be the mainstay for the upper light-weight category.
The heavy lift segment still comprises the venerable Mi-26, which will be augmented by the induction of 15 brand new Chinooks between 2019 and 2022. This would give a much-needed boost to the strategically important task of building roads in the border areas, especially in the central sector of Uttarakhand and the Northeast borders facing China. The aircrew is already in the US for training.
The fast depleting attack helicopter fleet will get a boost with the arrival of 22 AH-64E Apaches, almost in the same time-frame as the Chinooks. This lethal addition will bring with it a modern nav-attack package and the mast-mounted sight that houses millimetric wave radar that will revolutionise targeting of battlefield targets. Once interlinked with the Operational Data Link (ODL) network that is coming up, the Apache will be able to upload and receive radar pictures of the battlefield as part of the IAF’s Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS).
Now to the challenges, which are very many, and need quick redressal.
The draw-down in the fighter fleet is well known and the IAF Chief admitted in the CAPS seminar mentioned earlier that squadron strength had reduced to a dangerously low figure of 31. The arrival of 36 Rafales is being eagerly looked-forward-to by the IAF for it will not only increase numbers but would bring in a platform of immense op potential and capability that both adversaries do not possess.
Manufacturers of seven aircraft — Rafale, Eurofighter, Gripen, MiG-35, Su-35, F-16 and F-18 have responded to the Request for Information (RFI) for the 114 multi-role fighter programme and the Request for Proposals (RFP) would be issued soon by the IAF. This would, literally, be a re-run of the famous (and now cancelled) MMRCA project in the beginning of this decade in which the Rafale and Eurofighter had been shortlisted. How this one pans out, would be interesting to see, but the fact remains that these numbers are a critical necessity to make up the numbers, especially since Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has failed in giving the required number of Tejas fighters, as promised.
The IAF has placed its bets on the Tejas in a very big way. Orders have been placed for 20 machines each in the Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) and Final Operational Clearance (FOC) configuration while the RFP for 83 more in the MkI will be floated soon; the MkI, incidentally, has yet to fly with all the requirements that the IAF has projected. The HAL, however, has disappointed big time as of now; in the past seven odd years, only nine aircraft have been delivered to No 45 Squadron that is equipped with this type. The deputy chief, who looks after procurements, said in the CAPS seminar that the IAF has placed its money with HAL for it to boost the annual production rate to initially eight and then to 16. When will this materialise? Well, one can only hope that a ‘miracle’ of sorts happens, as HAL’s track record does not inspire too much confidence. It was also announced by the deputy chief that the IAF has put all its weight behind Tejas MkII, which will be a totally different class of aircraft, of which 12 squadrons would be procured. The Tejas MkII is still on the drawing board, and one hopes that HAL turns a leaf and lives up to the expectations of the IAF — and indeed of the country.
The fifth generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) represents the next induction that the IAF is aiming for. To be designed by building on the experience gained in the Tejas programme, the AMCA is supposed to have a very high degree of participation of the DPSUs, private industry and academia. An exposition on the AMCA was given by the Project Director of AMCA, Dr A.K. Ghosh, at the ‘13th International Conference on Energising Indian Aerospace Industry’ held by CAPS and CII in New Delhi. What came out was that ambition is big, considering the number of agencies involved; while Indian scientists have made progress in fly-by-wire technology, autopilot systems and on other avionic systems, there would still be many critical items like the engine, ejection seat, advanced radar et al that would still have to be imported. Two technology demonstrators will be the vanguards of the project and are supposed to fly by 2032. One keeps one’s fingers crossed!
Another challenge facing the IAF is the requirement to urgently augment its fleet of combat enablers – AWACS, Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA) and UAVs.
The plan to induct two additional IL-78 Phalcon AWACS has been in the works for almost a decade. The presently held three AWACS are grossly inadequate for a two-front scenario as it would be being just practical to assume that at any given time only two would be on the flight line, with the third undergoing maintenance. Proposal for the additional two has been stymied due non-availability of funds. Even the two AEW&C Embraers inducted recently are only in the IOC configuration; one more Embraer based AEW&C is due from Defence Research and Defence Organisation (DRDO). The indigenous AWACS (India) project on an Airbus-330 airframe is also in limbo due to lack of financial support. The programme is supposed to follow the Embraer path, with the radome installation and flight clearance being done by Airbus while the radar and other electronics, based on R&D done for the AEW&C Embraer project, would be fitted by DRDO.
The FRA saga has been one of the so many other projects that have not fructified due to a funds crunch. The six Il-78 refuellers have been doing a marvellous job but are grossly inadequate for the task at hand. This low availability will become even more critical as the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is growing in importance and would require long-range reconnaissance and strike capability for the IAF and Indian Navy (refuelling of Naval aircraft is also part of the IAF’s mandate). Twice before, once in 2010 and the second time in 2015 or so, the Airbus330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) was selected in a fly-off with the Il-78; however, both times, the contracts were not supported by the ministry of finance due ‘high’ costs. Another bid is being made now, but the unit costs can only get steeper and not cheaper by any yardstick. The requirement of additional FRAs is an op necessity that can be neglected at our own peril.
Air Defence Systems
One positive story to come out of the DRDO has been the success of the Akash surface to air missile system. For once, the R&D behemoth of the country has produced a product that has been wholeheartedly accepted by the Services. Akash would be the backbone of the ground-based air defence system — the army too is buying it and one hopes that the quality control is maintained by the production agencies. But the main AD system being looked-forward-to is the S-400 from Russia. The contract negotiations are in the final stages and one hopes that American objections due to the CAATSA legislation do not restrict India’s buy. The short-range coverage is being given by Israeli Spyder systems as well the digitised Pechora that is still soldiering along!
No war can be won in the future without an effective air cover protecting the assets in the hinterland and troops on the battlefield. While the ground-based air defence is looking up and the IAF is sitting pretty with its very potent airlift and heli-lift fleet, it is vital that the drawdown in the fighter squadron strength is arrested quickly and the numbers built up back to 42 Squadrons.
The government of the day would always have the proverbial guns versus butter dilemma — but it should be remembered that the country’s economic progress rests on a strong hard power foundation. The offensive strike arm of the IAF cannot be allowed to wither, and even as one sees some changes being brought-in in the procurement timelines, one can only hope that the momentum builds up further to reduce import dependency.
(The writer is additional director general, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi)