Small Aircraft, Big Need

Tactical transport planes critical for regular maintenance of troops in remote areas

Smruti Deshpande

High altitude border areas with a history of disputes can turn into remote battlefields that are cut off from road and waterways. In such a scenario, aircraft provide an unmatched advantage because of their speed. Tactical aircraft, also known as transport aircraft, are used to support ground troops by carrying out missions such as close air support, reconnaissance and air defence. Due to India’s geography and the tensions that exist with the western and northern neighbours, adequate connectivity to all border points fares high on the forces’ minds.

First C295 for India completes its maiden flight
First C295 for India completes its maiden flight

Tactical aircraft come in handy for the forces where regular maintenance of troops is a must. For instance, in the case of the ongoing India-China dispute in Ladakh, which has entered its fourth year, the Indian Air Force’s transport aircraft have played a crucial role in flying to the forward areas and carrying out maintenance. The Indian aircraft involved in carrying out this task are the Ilyushin-76, Antonio-32 along with helicopters such as Chinook and Apache among others. The IAF also employed its MiG-29 multirole fighters for this purpose. The IAF’s current fleet of heavylift aircraft include the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III, Ilyushin IL-76 heavy transports, IL-78 mid-air refuelling tankers, Lockheed Martin C-130J, Antonov AN-32 and Avro.

In comparison with heavy-lift aircraft, medium-lift aircraft are smaller, more manoeuvrable and capable of operating from shorter runways. In the summers, as temperatures soar, heavy lift aircraft face challenges while carrying heavy loads because of reduced air density resulting in weight restrictions. Medium transport aircraft are typically more versatile and adaptable to various operational requirements. These aircraft generally also present comparatively lower operational costs. Medium transporters generally consume less fuel and have reduced maintenance and logistical needs. Medium transport aircraft often possess better tactical capabilities because of their smaller size and agility. They can manoeuvre more efficiently, fly at lower altitudes and offer improved short-field performance. These attributes make them suitable for tactical airlift missions, special operations and military deployments that require rapid insertion or extraction of personnel and equipment in challenging environments. These aircraft offer a balance between payload capacity and operational flexibility, making them well-suited for regional and interregional operations within a specific geographic area.

Apart from troop transportation, medium transport aircraft come in handy for transporting various types of cargo such as vehicles, weapons, ammunition, and other supplies. They play a crucial role in resupplying troops on the front lines or delivering humanitarian aid during disaster relief operations. If required, medium transport aircraft often serve as flying ambulances, equipped with medical facilities to evacuate wounded or critically ill personnel from remote or hostile areas to advanced medical facilities for treatment. Some medium transport aircraft can be modified to serve as aerial refuelling tankers. They can transfer fuel in-flight to other aircraft, extending their range and endurance. This capability is particularly important for maintaining air superiority and supporting long-range missions. Next, depending on whether they have these features, medium transporters are equipped with advanced sensors and surveillance systems to gather intelligence, monitor enemy activities and conduct reconnaissance missions. These aircraft can be utilised during different operations such as combat missions, humanitarian efforts, peacekeeping operations and disaster response in different theatres of operations because of the flexibility and versatility that they offer.

In cases where power projection becomes a necessity, air forces require to undertake airlift, which the medium transporter can.

The IAF currently has two workhorses in the light tactical aircraft category—the AN-32 and the Avro fleet with 5 to 7-tonne payload and 4-tonne payload respectively. The air force currently operates around 100 AN-23 aircraft, inducted from the erstwhile USSR. Over the years, these aircraft have undergone certain upgrades with the latest having undergone recently under a USD 400 million deal signed with Ukraine’s Antonov in 2009.

Similarly, the Avro fleet has been in service since the 1960s and its replacement—the C295 by Airbus —will be manufactured by a Tata-Airbus consortium in Vadodara. The defence ministry in September 2021 signed a Rs 22,000-crore contract with Airbus to buy 56 C295 aircraft, of which 16 aircraft will arrive in fly-away condition between September 2023 and August 2025. The first aircraft will be rolled out of the manufacturing facility in September 2026. The remaining 40 will be manufactured in India in six years, with eight aircraft expected per year. This is the first time that a private sector consortium will be undertaking the manufacturing of a military aircraft.

As a tactical aircraft, the C295 will allow troop transportation and logistical supplies from main airfields to forward operating airfields in India. The C295MW is a transport aircraft with 5 to 10-tonne capacity and a maximum speed of 480 kmph. It has a rear ramp door for quick reaction and para-dropping of troops and cargo. The aircraft comes with a cabin dimension of 12.7 metres. Airbus says the aircraft has the longest unobstructed cabin in its class which can accommodate 71 seats and that the C295 can carry more cargo than its competitors with direct off-loading through the rear ramp. The aircraft is capable of Short Take-Off and Landing (STOL) and can operate on short unprepared or semi-prepared airstrips. It can take off from short airstrips that are 2,200 feet long and can fly at a speed as low as 110 knots. The aircraft can carry out casualty or medical evacuation, perform special missions, disaster response and maritime patrol duties.

In another development, since the IAF is actively looking for medium-lift aircraft to induct into its fleet, the air force early this year, initiated a process to find a replacement for the AN-32. It issued a Request for Information (RFI) for the procurement of a Medium Transport Aircraft (MTA) with a carrying capacity of 18 to 30 tonnes on December 9 last year.

The earlier bid submission date of February 3 was reportedly extended till March 31. The RFI stated: “The overall time frame of production, delivery with stage wise breakup of the entire project post conclusion of contract is required to be submitted. It is envisaged to commence deliveries of platform within 36 months of the signing of the contract.” The contenders for the MTA are the Lockheed Martin’s C-130J Super Hercules or the C-130J-30, Embraer’s C-390 Millennium and the IL-276.

The search for a medium transport aircraft marks a revival of an earlier programme in which Indi, together with Russia, was going to co-develop and produce an MTA of 20 tonnes to replace the AN-32s as per a contract signed in 2012. But the programme could not come through. The termination of the project came after the two sides failed to find a middle ground. A joint venture, the Multi Role Transport Aircraft Ltd, was set up between India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) and Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) in order to develop a new multi-role transport aircraft, the UAC/HAL II-214, by 2019. Both the countries had reportedly earmarked USD 300 million each for the first phase. But the cooperation reached an impasse as the two sides failed to reach an agreement on the engine and design. A 2016 report in The Diplomat stated, “The Indian Air Force is not happy with the selection of the PD-14M turbofan engines and other technical decisions taken by Russian engineers. (Most importantly, India wants the MTA to operate in higher altitudes than the current technical configuration would allow). The Russian side also wants to increase the programme development budget, something that India vehemently opposes.”

According to news reports, the ministry of defence (MoD) in March this year, signed a contract for the procurement of six Dornier-228 aircraft for the IAF from the HAL at a cost of Rs 667 Crore. This was done to boost the air force’s capability in the Northeast and island territories.

The Dornier is a 19-seater, highly versatile multi-purpose light transporter. It has been developed specifically for utility and commuter transport, air-taxi operations, coast guard duties and maritime surveillance. It is a German-origin STOL, twin turboprop aircraft manufactured by the HAL and has been in the service with the IAF, Navy and the Coast Guard for over three decades.

The IAF initially used the aircraft for route transport role and communication duties. Subsequently, it has also been used to train transport pilots of the IAF. The latest addition of six aircraft will be procured with an upgraded fuel-efficient engine coupled with a five-bladed composite propeller.

Medium transporters can play a crucial role in the face of China’s aggression in Ladakh. While most roads across the LAC are good because of rapid infrastructure development, many areas on the India side remain inaccessible by road due to the terrain. As experts warn that the conflict could take a turn for the worse, more numbers of medium transporters will only make the troops’ life in forward areas easier, especially during winter months.

The requirement for the medium lift aircraft is, however, not limited to the air force alone. The Army, Navy, Coast Guard and the paramilitary forces have a requirement for them. In the latter case, the BSF is the lone force which operates aircraft, even extending support to other paramilitaries agencies under the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) whenever the need arises. In this case, the requirement for light and medium is well beyond the armed forces. While the Make in India policy is in full force with JVs being signed for producing aircraft within the country, additional aircraft procurement for the paramilitary forces should also be considered. The BSF has over the years operated the Avro, Super King and Cheetah helicopters after the Dakota was phased out.

While the BSF has no operational and administrative freedom in the operation of its air wing, it is required to take up administrative and peacetime operations on the directions of the MHA. The paramilitary forces operate alongside the armed forces in various theatres of operation in remote field areas. An earlier article in FORCE by R C Sharma argues that the BSF is required to carry out “transportation of operational stores and administrative essentials such as arms, ammunition, winter clothing, medicines, communication equipment, food and other logistic stores; providing air facilities to VIPs/VVIPs, officials of the MHA and other central/state ministers, foreign delegations, medical teams during natural disasters; aerial survey of areas devastated by natural disasters; evacuation of casualties; transportation of criminals and terrorists as per the instructions of the MHA; airlift advance security liaison teams whenever needed; airlift inquiry commissions, investigative teams and fact-finding bodies; border surveillance and maintenance of border outposts; and any other role given by the MHA.

As of today, the BSF air wing is rather small. As per Sharma, it is envisaged that it will soon come out of the DGCA ambit and operate under military norms. The current aircraft in the BSF inventory in the fixed wing category include the Avro and an Embraer jet. It is well-known that the paramilitary forces are responsible for internal security and border guarding duties. Providing the BSF with state-of-the-art infrastructure, including new aircraft to bolster its airwing operations, is a necessity.



Call us