The modernization of Indian Air Force requires billions of dollars of budgetary support, the lack of which restrains the government from taking swift decisions, which is resulting in diminished combat capabilities of force.
But lack of fund is not the sole reason. The policy paralysis in the MoD was also responsible till now, but Modi government has generated new hopes. The IAF has already chalked out grandiose plans for capacity enhancement and the need of the hour is to give them a heavy push so that the fourth largest Air Force of the world is able to catch up with the lost time.
The new assertive Indian government at the helm and a defence minister also holding the charge of the finance ministry, promises cohesion in decision making. The Modi Government seems to be on fast track mode. Hence the strategic observers are expecting some big ticket announcements in the near future.
The IAF requires MMRCA, Heavy Lift Helicopters, Attack Helicopters, Light Utility Helicopters, medium lift transport planes in large numbers. All these aviation platforms are awaiting final nod from the government. The MMRCA deal, in principle, has already gone in favor of the French Rafale and the government has given the green signal to the American Heavy Lift Chinooks and the Attack helicopters Apaches.
The government has decided to manufacture the Light Utility Helicopters in India with foreign collaboration. All these deals if executed in next few years will reinvigorate the Indian Air Force, but the rate of acquisition of new systems will not match the rate of obsolescence of the older platforms getting retired.
Hence, in view of the future requirements, the government would have to evolve a strategy and policy framework to allow and encourage the future systems and platforms to be made in India.
The squadron strength of the IAF has risen to 34 from a precarious level of 32 but will be on downward curve in the coming years. This will take probably a decade and half more to reach the sanctioned level of 42 squadrons, if the planned acquisitions are executed. The fifth generation fighter aircraft to be jointly developed with Russia had generated much excitement in Indian strategic circles, but its slow pace raises doubts on its early induction in Indian Air Force.
As far as LCA is concerned the LCA Mk-1 will have no great combat relevance for the IAF, which the IAF would be acquiring 40 in number, but the IAF would certainly like to wait for the LCA Mk-II, which will have GE-414 engines, 99 units of which have been tentatively ordered to HAL for US$ 800 million.
For the planned new acquisitions, the Indian Air Force cannot remain for ever dependent on foreign suppliers. However, even after the change of horse in the defence establishment, current state of affairs are not likely to encourage the companies, domestic or foreign to be able to manufacture their platforms and systems on Indian soil.
The level of technology that even Indian PSU’s like HAL possesses, not to speak of the private sector aviation companies, does not encourage one to think of immediate self sufficiency in air platforms and systems. Even the hike in FDI limit to 49 percent from 26 percent has not created enough buzz in the defence industry, though the Indian private sector would not like the hike to be raised beyond 51 percent, as this would allow the control of the joint venture companies to go to the foreign partner.
A national strategy would be needed to take Indian aerospace industry to a new level. This is needed in view of huge requirements in future for new fighter planes, new transport planes and various categories of helicopters. To meet this objective the Chairman of HAL Dr R K Tyagi has suggested the setting up of an Indian Aeronautics Commission under which the various organisations and institutes, currently functioning under different ministries, should be brought under one umbrella. According to Tyagi, this will ensure greater cohesion, synergy, understanding and speeding up of the decision making in aerospace related activities.
The Vice Chief of IAF Air Marshal R K Sharma recently stated during a seminar that IAF is a stakeholder in the vibrant and thriving aerospace sector and is committed to its growth. Sustained demand from the IAF and industry friendly policies are the two important drivers to make Indian aerospace industry a success story.
IAF would encourage the public private partnership, joint venture formation and better mechanisms to absorb technology. Under this framework, the IAF has sought the response from the Indian industry to manufacture planes including Avro, trainer aircraft, weapon systems, electronic warfare systems and rotor blades etc. According to the Vice Chief the coming together of the resourceful Defence Public Sector Undertakings, foreign OEMs and private industry would go a long way in creating a vibrant defence eco-system in the country. If this is made possible, it would certainly result in a competitive aerospace sector in India.
Thus all the stake holders like IAF, public and private industry seem to be coming round the view that the government must move fast towards a policy regime which would allow the aerospace industry to flourish in India and take the IAF to newer heights on the strength of domestic capabilities.
Maintenance, upgradation and acquisition are three most important aspects of keeping any force with sufficient muscle power. However the poor record of maintenance has cost heavily the IAF and at the same time the platforms and systems required to be constantly upgraded to maintain the level of contemporary technological capabilities. And the third most important aspect is the fresh acquisition.
The IAF has been given the governmental support in upgradation in recent times with the midlife update program of Mig-21 Bis, the Mig-27 and the Mig-29s. The Mirage-2000s has also been upgraded to modern combat level. The recently acquired Su-30MKIs are also in the process of upgradation as far as avionics are concerned, which will increase the fire power and accuracy of the systems.
The IAF hopes to complete the target of 230 Sukhoi-30 MKI by the end of next year. The Sukhoi-30MKIs would be the main workhorse of the IAF, on which it would base all its warfare strategies. Equipped with long range air to air missiles the Su-30s can see deep into enemy territory, beyond 300 kms, which would provide tremendous snooping and offensive capabilities to the IAF.
In recent years the threat envelope has expanded exponentially and accordingly the country needs to strategize the priorities of its armed forces. The air force of the future would be requiring not only manned long range multi-purpose fighters but also unmanned combat drones.
These drones must be able to evade radar signatures to be able to penetrate deep inside the enemy territory while selecting and attacking the targets. The future air forces would be requiring separate squadrons of the unmanned flying combat machines. Proliferation of unmanned attacking platforms will be posing huge challenge to Air Forces world over, especially for IAF, whose principal rival would be China, in view of unresolved border and territorial disputes.
The emerging air combat scene would be necessitating the deployment of multilayered and multi-tiered mix of weapon systems, which can survive the extremely disturbing electronic warfare environment.
As far as upgradation is concerned, the contract for Mig-29, which was signed in 2008 with RAC MIG of Russia, is on the verge of completion, probably by the middle of next year. The first three Mig-29s were upgraded in Russia and handed over to India, while the other three with Russian assistance has been upgraded by HAL, thus the rest 63 are being upgraded by HAL in India and in the last leg of upgradation.
This midlife update will have Phazatron Zhuk-M radar, beyond visual range combat capabilities and mid air refueling. This will enhance the service life of the aircraft by another two decades.
The Jaguars are also undergoing upgradation by HAL to DARIN-III standard and the first upgraded Jaguar has already been test flown in November 2012. The upgraded Jaguar have resulted in major operational improvement with regard to all weather air to ground, air to sea and air to air capabilities through incorporation of multimode radar. The Mirage-2000 fleet acquired in early eighties are also undergoing mid life update, for which US$2.4 billion upgrade agreement was signed in 2011.
The refueling and airborne surveillance air platforms are another major areas requiring upgradation as the force multipliers. The IAF’s move to acquire mid air refueling aircraft was initiated almost four years ago, but the government is yet to make any concrete move.
Six IL-78 refueling aircraft were acquired in early last decade and another demand for six has been operationalized but the deal was cancelled in last minute after the finance ministry under Mr Pranab Mukherjee objected to excess costs of the Airbus 330 MRTT compared to the Russian fleet of IL-78. The responsibility to acquire another squadron of reconnaissance plane has now been handed over to the Hindustan Aeronautics and Center for Airborne Studies. IAF is already operating three Russian-Israeli IL-76 based Phalcon radar and three Brazilian Embraer is in the final stage of integration at the CABS.