Combat platforms

The Indian Air Force is, in the year 2014, in a state of gradual denudation of its fighter squadrons and rather laborious and painstaking negotiations for replacements for the to-be-decommissioned-by-2017 MiG-21 variants.

The MiGs have served the nation well for five decades even as they were falling out of the skies from age-related problems and a younger generation of pilots who made errors while operating this high-performance fighter. Negotiations for the selected replacement, the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) French Rafale for transfer of technology and significant offsets that will help the Indian military-industrial complex to acquire modern aviation technology and knowhow, require detailed agreements and memoranda of understanding to ensure that the purchase fulfills the Government of India's intent and purposes.

Even with new inductions like the Sukhoi-30 MKI of which seven squadrons have been acquired, the current strength of the combat squadrons is at 33.5 whereas the authorized strength is 39.5 squadrons.

Planned transformation

The shortfall is going to be more amplified when the nine squadrons of MiG-21 and the MiG-23 fleets are decommissioned in 2017. Hopes have been placed in the completion of negotiations for the 126 MMRCAs so that the first lot of the aircraft joins the IAF fleet even as the MiGs are being decommissioned.

Also, it is hoped that the IAF will soon get the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft Tejas which has received the Initial Operational Clearance but as of date has not been given the Final Operational Clearance. That will open the way for induction into Squadron service. Forty Tejas aircraft have been already ordered.

The Ministry of Defence had planned to raise the level of squadrons to 42 by the end of the decade (2020) so as to be able to fight a full-scale war on one front and a holding action on the other. To fight a credible two-front war the assessment is that the nation would require a 60 squadron Air Force against China and Pakistan fighting together.

As part of the planned transformation of the IAF, India has signed an agreement with Russia to jointly create a fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) that will be manufactured at Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. This aircraft will replace the 17.5 squadrons of third generation fighters that have reached obsolescence. They include the MiG-27, MiG-29, Jaguar and the Mirage 2000 that have all been with the IAF for about 25 years. However, with midlife upgradation which is underway they will serve the IAF till 2025 by which time the full complement of the FGFA would have joined squadron service.

Given that the major threats to Indian security have a trans-Himalayan character and the inadequate infrastructure requires an ability to transport large numbers of troops in both defence and attack, airlift will play an important part in the tactical and strategic conduct of war.

Airlift capability

The acquisition of first the C-130J for deployment of Special Forces in and around the tactical frame of battle improved India's ability to shift forces as and where required at short notice. The Indian Air Force initially purchased six of the aircraft in 2008 and in 2013 it exercised the option to buy six more through the Foreign Military Sales window. This facility has an inbuilt restriction known as the Communications Inter-operability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) by which the US reserves the right to check in situ whether any attempt is being made to steal the technology of the Global Positioning System installed in the aircraft. This gives pinpoint accuracy in flight and landings. The Government of India refused to sign this agreement and preferred to exclude this equipment from the aircraft's complement of instruments.

However, the IAF retrofitted similar equipment developed indigenously. (India is setting up its own satellite network and is in collaboration with Russia in its Glonass project, and is also using the GPS). Thus it retained sovereignty over the use of the C-130J without US intrusive inspections.

Another danger that India had to confront was the discovery of fake Chinese chips in a cockpit device in aircraft ordered by the Canadian Armed Forces which, if it had failed, would have endangered the aircraft and its passengers very adversely. In the Indian context given the fact that it would be flying over the Himalayas during operations a blackout would be disastrous. Such a failure can either be pre-timed or triggered by the enemy during operations. Something similar was done to the Iranian nuclear plant where imported pipes contained chips that would explode after the pipes have been installed. It worked perfectly and there was considerable damage to the Iranian project and consequent delays.

After the purchase of the Super Hercules, India acquired the C-17 Globemaster heavy lift transport aircraft. This aircraft is capable of carrying 102 paratroops or one Abrams tank, three Stryker armored personnel carriers or 10 Humvees. India has signed a contract for ten Globemasters.

However, there is one hitch. When the An-32 and Il -76 were being acquired the plan was to have the capability to lift a Parachute Brigade in about two lifts. This meant that about 3,200 personnel would require to be airlifted. If they are to be delivered on target in two lifts it means that there would have to be enough aircraft to do the job.

The Globemaster is capable of carrying 102 paratroopers per flight. It would require 31 Globemasters executing a single flight to do the job. India has ordered only ten. They will take three trips to deliver the 3,000 plus paratroopers on target. With travel to and fro and time for boarding and departing it would take about 10 hours or more depending on the distance to target. Such wide gaps in delivery can jeopardize the safety of the first group with disastrous consequences for the rest as well.    

However, to make things easier more and more helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) are being used for intelligence gathering. India has bought a large packet of UAVs for the Army, Navy and the Air Force. With regard to helicopters, after making the Chetak and Cheetah under license from a French firm India is well on its way to be able to fulfill internal requirements as well as produce for export.

Based on the indigenous Shakti engine HAL has produced the follow on for the Dhruv utility helicopter (to replace the Chetak and Cheetah) with an armed variant known as Rudra.

Other platforms that have been acquired in the recent past are the Ilyushin-76 airframe based airborne warning and command systems (AWACS) aircraft and an aerial refueller to improve the range of all types of flying machines using aviation turbine fuel for flight.  There are talks of installing a refueling probe on helicopters as well. The AWACS and the static aerostats have largely closed all gaps in radar coverage throughout the country.       

Were it not for the interminable delays in all acquisitions, one could have said that the IAF was going places in a hurry. Indian private sector companies have shown interest in nearly all the equipment that has been placed in the Buy (India) category. Many have long collaboration arrangement with foreign arms manufacturers although they do suffer qualms at the Indian insistence of transferring technology under India's 'Offsets' program.

The Government's decision to increase the foreign direct investment from 26 per cent to 49 per cent has been well-received though there are voices that have been raised for a full 100 per cent for FDI in the defence sector. Hopefully, one of the outcomes of the liberalization of the FDI scheme will be that projects will fructify faster and the armed forces will get what they need for the defence of the country well within the timeframe indicated in the contracts.