India is in the process of replacing its military heavy lift capability to be able to manage, with some credibility, the emerging two-front war situation all along its Himalayan borders from Jammu and Kashmir in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east.
The Indian Air Force has already acquired 12 C-17 Globemaster III and similar number of C-130J aircraft for Special Forces operations from the US, thereby augmenting exponentially the tonnage that can be delivered to the forward edge of battle on fixed-wing carriers.
Hitherto the ex-Soviet refurbished and modernized Ilyushin Il-76s were the mainstay of the resupply and maintenance of troops in their forward outposts. The last-mile delivery was either done by utility helicopters like the Cheetah and Chetak and Dhruv or by mules and manpack from parachute drop zones. The Ilyushins and Antonov An-32 are still in service and likely to remain for another decade. This is in indicator of how much medium-heavy lift capacity is available with the Indian Air Force.
The acquisition of American platforms after decades of dependence on ex-Soviet sources is the result of difficulties created for India by collapse of the Soviet Union and the dispersal of production centres among the Commonwealth of Independent States that replaced it. Spare parts were a problem and the pressure grew within India for diversification of sources of acquisition.
The US Foreign Military Sales counter appeared to be the most obvious option. It was exploited to acquire not just the C-17s and the C-130J Super Hercules but also the long-range maritime reconnaissance and strike aircraft the P-8I. It could be termed as ‘dependence by other means’ and carries its own intrusive inspections and other end-user disabilities that delayed the process of acquisition from American sources.
India managed to escape the stringent preconditions set by the Americans by deciding not to include certain American equipment like the Global Positioning System that were governed by such American restrictive regimes like the just now signed Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA),the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and the Basic Exchange Cooperation Agreement (BECA).
Successive Indian Governments (both the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance and the BJP led National Democratic Alliance) have been chary of signing these agreements in the past because of the intrusive and exclusive clauses. India managed to acquire the C-17, Super Hercules and P-8I only because it was able to negotiate the removal of the American GPS and other sensitive technologies and replacement by indigenously developed systems. This was particularly true of the GPS system which is part of India’s decision to have its own GPS comprising seven satellites and indigenously developed transponders that matches what the US and Russia (GLONAAS) have to offer. One other was the Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) in which the coding has to be particularly stringent to prevent access to unauthorized entities as it would compromise the ability to distinguish friend from foe.
The Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) has helped the nation wriggle out of a very demeaning situation. The Americans are known to be ruthless in the protection of their technology and are known to lock up access to high-end equipment even when supplying systems to their friends and allies. But there are other issues concerning the C-17 in particular that will require solutions within a few years. For one, the production line of this particular aircraft has shut down in America. Purchasers like India have had to buy the life-cycle requirement of spares at the very beginning of the transaction. Also, within the next twenty-five years India will have to make arrangements to replace the capabilities of the C-17s with something perhaps bigger and more amenable to use in the Himalayan region. This will have to be an indigenous effort. It lends itself to the concept of public-private partnership.
Even as the Indian Air Force is opening up new forward landing grounds there is need to improve the quality of strips from the gravel top that some freight transporters are able to negotiate to macadam and black top surfaces for protection of aircraft tyres and prevention of ingestion by the engine of foreign objects. The C-17 requires an airstrip nearly 2.5 km long. Its efficacy lies in being able to deliver a larger package of groceries and other essential commodities (petrol, oil, lubricants) at drop zones in close proximity to forward outposts. More importantly it is capable of delivering tanks and infantry combat vehicles to points deep inside the Tibetan plateau on the other side of the Himalayas. This is a quantum leap from the capabilities of the Super Hercules that is specific to Special Forces and the Il-76 that can deliver 48,000 kg of cargo using parachute extraction techniques without having to touch ground.
To deliver cargo, munitions and other essential commodities to forward outposts (or close enough before transfer to mules and manpacks) for onward delivery, it is the helicopter that is pressed into service. The current heavy load carrier helicopter with the Indian Air Force is the Russian Mi-26 helicopter which is described as being the largest and most powerful helicopter to have gone into production. The fleet is now down to just one platform. It was generally expected that the IAF would prefer the upgraded version to retain commonality of spare parts and operating procedures but it appears that the Sino-Russian deal to co-develop the helicopter and the exorbitant price quoted by the Russians scuttled it.
The Indians eventually opted for the American Chinook tandem rotor helicopters-a deal apparently sweetened by the inclusion of the supply of 145 ultralight (4000 kg) 155 mm howitzers in the Foreign Military Sales package. India ordered 15 Chinooks that are due to be delivered from 2017 onwards. While India may have got the ultralight howitzers that it sorely needed the concomitant (and perhaps deliberately linked) deal for the Chinooks is not really a win-win situation. The Mi-26 could take the 11,000 kg Bofors howitzer into its cavernous hold the Chinook can only take the 4,000 kg ultralight versions in an underslung mode. Being towed howitzers both the Bofors and the ultralights need a heavy duty trailor to pull the weapon to pre-prepared shoot sites in the shoot-and-scoot mode.
Much of the freight lifting work in the Himalayas is carried out by the medium lift Mi-17s in the IAF’s fleet . The high-altitude delivery of mail and medical evacuation is carried out by the twin Cheetah and Chetak light helicopters now supplemented by the indigenous Dhruv. With just one super heavy lift helicopter there is a huge gap in capability along Himalayas. One saving grace in waiting for the arrival of the Chinooks is that the chances are that they will still be around (refurbished and upgraded) well beyond 2050.