Fighter upgradation

If the IAF philosophy is indeed one of capabilities and not just numbers there is a very valid underpinning to it in the series of upgradations that have been undertaken over the past decade and is still continuing. The accent has shifted from single capability flying machines to multi-role fighters capable of both air-to-air and air-to-ground attack roles in beyond-visual-range mode.

Even as the early versions of the MiG-21s are being decommissioned and readied for ornamental roles at the gates of selected IAF establishments around the country the upgradation of the MiG-29s, the hitherto redoubtable air superiority fighter will induce capabilities that just numbers cannot account for. On the face of it the decommissioning will reduce the numbers but it is on capabilities that the IAF is focused.    

Yes, there has been a depletion caused by frequent accidents and because the negotiations for the replacement of medium multirole combat aircraft are still underway but over the years by the simple expedient of shifting from dedicated role of aircraft to multirole ones, the IAF has made optimum use of the same platform to ensure that what was intended to be done with a force level of 44 squadrons can still be accomplished to a large extent by a 30 plus squadron fleet.

Nonetheless the nation has become acutely aware that the possibility of a two-front war is more likely now than ever before and it will need more numbers if it is to be able to retain an element of deterrence vis-à-vis Pakistan and China.

By including state-of-the-art avionics and sensors to vintage platforms the IAF has managed to close the generation gap to a very large extent between the vintage aircraft in its fleet to what is embodied in the latest types of fighter aircraft currently in the market or in the development stage.

The IAF fighter aircraft set to be upgraded for use over the next 25 years include the Jaguar (British) and MiG-27 (Russian) acquired in the 70s, Mirage-2000 (French) acquired in the 80s, the MiG-29s and even the more recently acquired Sukhoi-30 MKI, the Russian-built deep penetration strike aircraft.

Dependence for technology

In the process India is learning the very hard way the lessons of overdependence on foreign sources for such crucial components as aero-engines for military aircraft of any kind be it fighters, transport aircraft, helicopters or unmanned aerial vehicles. This applies equally to airborne radars as well.

The situation reveals the kind of pitfalls that the Defence Procurement Policy has, which is largely predicated on seeking transfer of technology which most original equipment manufacturers are unwilling to endorse for fear of losing out on long-term commercial value of their products on which they have spent millions of dollars in research and development.

A study conducted decades ago in India (when the Defence Research and Development  Organisation was in its nascent stage) it was found that for every military weapons platform India acquires from abroad it subsidises the foreign R& D  by as much as 10 per cent of cost of equipment. Given that India is now the largest importer of foreign weapons systems in the world with an estimated import of billions of dollars, India has spent enough to be able to set up a viable indigenous military industrial complex if defence planning is not derailed time and again by external and internal security factors.

The case of the upgradation of the Jaguar is symptomatic of the entire upgradation process of the many weapons platforms that India has in its inventory. Fortunately, good sense has prevailed and the decision to go for multirole capability instead of the plethora of dedicated role types will automatically reduce the number of types from a high of nine at one time to about five by 2020. The approval for the upgradation of the engine in the Jaguar, the original is considered to be insufficient for high altitude penetration of enemy airspace, elicited responses and a final list of two included Rolls-Royce offer of its Adour engine with a thrust of 32.5 kilonewton and Honeywell its F125IN engine with a thrust of 43.8 kilonewton was made out.

The Honeywell engine is lighter and would enable the Jaguar to carry an additional load of upto two tonnes. Rolls-Royce insisted that the commonality of components in the earlier Jaguar engine and the new one would make for better maintenance and aircraft availability.

However, later Rolls-Royce pulled out of the competition leaving India with the very familiar “single vendor situation”. The tender had to be cancelled. Instead of creating a political consensus within the country on the need for a swift decision on military acquisitions the Government has been resorting to scrapping “single vendor” tenders, thereby causing timeline overruns and cost escalation. Finally, after wasting a year, the IAF managed to get clearance from the Defence Acquisition Council to go ahead even in a single vendor situation and the contract was awarded to Honeywell.

The Jaguars in the IAF fleet will be re-engined by 2023-24 and will be made capable of weapons delivery of air-to-air indigenous missile Astra and the air-to-surface Brahmos. An autopilot is to be installed and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd has already tested out prototypes of the Darin –III radar. Other improvements include a glass cockpit and hands on throttle and controls (HOTAS).

The Mirage-2000 Vajra fighter upgrades will include a new RDY-3 radar capable of longer range and target acquisition clarity, glass cockpit and helmet-mounted sights for wide-angle heat-seeking missiles. Its beyond visual range passive seekers leave little room for early warning to the attacked aircraft of the approaching heat-seeking missile. A French missile is expected to be slaved to this system. The first of two Mirage-2000 to be upgraded by France in the Dassault workshop was test flown in last October. The remaining 49 will be further upgraded with indigenous avionics including an Identification Friend or Foe that Indian companies have perfected for making sure about the identity of approaching aircraft before launching any weapons.

Multirole capability

It is the upgradation of the MiG-29s that is expected to tremendously boost the multirole capability of the Indian Air Force. The ‘layering’ of several different types of capabilities per aircraft will in many ways become standardized by the conversion to multirole capability.

At the top of the layer is the Sukhoi-30 which is in the heavy category with its designed long-range and high endurance capability that sees it staying aloft for up to ten hours during each sortie.   

The Jaguar and the Mirage-2000 constitute the central layer that will now enhance their respective low penetration and deep strike capability with the ability to dogfight their way into and out of enemy territory without the mandatory designated combat escort by fighter aircraft to acquire and retain air superiority over enemy territory. This was intended to provide air cover to the DPSA aircraft to ensure that there is no interference in their mission objective.

The upgradation of the Sukhois themselves with the Phazatron Zhuk-ME radar, whose range has been increased 1.5 times, and an added terrain-following and ground target acquisition mode and a high-resolution synthetic aperture radar (SAR) will provide better cognition and target acquisition than is possible with conventional radar.

There is a general expectation that if the Tejas lives up to expectations it will form the first layer of multi-role capabilities that will take the IAF into the second half of the century where new acquisitions like the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft being developed jointly with Russia and the indigenous Advanced Medium Range Aircraft that HAL has promised to field will see a totally new configuration of the IAF fleet.