As India is already being described as regional power with strategic interests beyond its shores and having ambitious plans to upgrade its expeditionary capabilities, the Indian government has decided to equip the IAF with latest and most capable airlift capabilities. After the arrival of ten C-17 Globemaster aircraft, the government has cleared four more, while the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) of the Ministry of Defence has accepted the IAF proposal to import 16 Chinook heavy airlift helicopters.
The C-17s have already proved their worth during the recent effort to bring back Indian citizens in distress in the neighboring and distant countries. The C-17s proved handy in rescuing the earthquake affected millions of people in Nepal and thus exhibited to the world that India’s neighborhood can depend on Indian military capabilities during humanitarian crises. This is the soft power of Indian military, which has impressed the governments in the region and added prestige to the country.
The heavy lift aircraft extend the strategic reach of a country. Since India has emerged as an economic powerhouse the resultant competition poses huge challenges for India’s military to protect its national interests. Since India has over 4000 kms contentious boundary with China and borders with Pakistan remain hot round the year, the army and air force needs continuous supplies of rations and equipment for the troops deployed on the high mountains. This requires huge transport network and to achieve those aims, Indian Government in recent years have taken requisite measures. Since the bulk of large portion of Indian military transport is on the verge of the retirement, India needed immediate acquisitions.
However, India’s rival military powers are taking note of India’s evolving expeditionary capabilities. Its principal rival China, which had till now had only 16 IL-76 heavy lift Russian aircrafts will in future add to its fleet by indigenously producing the Y-20 heavy lift transporter of 66 ton capability. It has been reported that China had copied the designs of C-17 Globemaster. Though C-17 has 77 – 80 tonne capacity, Y-20 is smaller than C-17 but far bigger than the IL-76 which has only 40 tonne weight capability.
However, with indigenous design and production capacity, China will soon attain the status of the biggest heavy lift operator air force in the Asian region. On the other hand India is the largest operator of C-17s outside the US. The US Boeing made C-17 has been used by the US military for transporting military hardware, soldiers and rations to the forward locations to Iraq and Afghanistan. The C-17s can perform not only domestic airlift missions but also can make transcontinental forays. Presently they are being used for transporting military supplies to places like Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Leh- Ladakh for onward supplies to the hill tops can be done more efficiently by Chinooks when finally inducted.
Presently Indian Air Force is depending on the Russian IL-76 fleet of 17 aircrafts and during the last decade added six C-130 Super Hercules, with another six already on the order. The C-17s have already proved their worth during the Nepal earthquake and the Yemen crisis, thus exhibiting IAF abilities to mobilize resources within minimum possible time. The C-17s needs very small runway for take off and landing, considered vital during war. The IAF has already demonstrated its capability to land its Super Hercules on the China border at Daulat Beg Oldie and the C-17s can also land and take off from the Leh airport in Ladakh, considered the highest runway in the world. Daulat Beg Oldie air base is at the height of 16,614 feet. Indian defence ministry had then described this as significant capability demonstration and the IAF will now be able to be in a position to meet the requirements of the land forces. DBO has now been developed as world’s highest airfield, which is quiet near to Depsang valley, where Chinese Army had set up a contentious military camp in April 2013.
With completion of the fleet of C-17s Indian Air Force will now very soon get the 15 heavy lift Chinook helicopters. Till now IAF was operating the heaviest heavy lift Russian helicopter Mi-26, which has now outlived its life and the IAF urgently needs to replace them. Though the Russians were once again in the race to supply heavy lift helicopters to Indian with their improved version of Mi-26, India has decided to order the 15 Chinooks for now and a dozen may be ordered later. The Chinooks will vastly improve India’s ability to move its troops and equipment from one mountain post to other within minutes, which otherwise normally takes hours and days.
This new heavy lift capability will significantly add to the fire power of the Indian armed forces especially in the mountainous border region of Sino-Indian border, on which troop movements are heavily restricted to the vagaries of weather and tough terrain. The Chinooks are reported to be all weather aircraft and can fly day and night with equal ease. Till now the Mi-26s with the IAF were giving outstanding performance in the mountains of northern India. The CH-47F heavy lift helicopters will greatly add to IAF capacities of heavy lift and high altitude transportation needs for humanitarian and military purposes. With the acquisition of C-17s and Chinooks the dominance of Russian heavy lift aircrafts in Indian military will end very soon.
India also proposes to replace its AN-32 transport plane with the new Indo-Russia joint venture between HAL and the United Aircraft Corporation of Russia for producing the multi-role transport aircraft (MTA). The MTA will be in the category of 19 tonne weight carrying capacity, the Ministry of Defence must execute the agreement for jointly designing and producing this aircraft with the Russians. In fact this project has been hanging since last seven-eight years and the current government has also not taken any concrete move to start the execution of this contract. The MTA has huge possibilities in terms of expanding not only military aviation but also the civil aviation, which can have spinoff benefits from the MTA.
On the other hand, the Chinese Y-20s are likely to enter the PLAAF service by the end of 2017. Since it will have indigenous capability to produce them and designed with modifications locally, it has been designed to land at high altitude and low oxygen terrain of Tibet, where China would be utilizing them heavily in case of a conflict with India. Though heavy lift aircrafts are considered a white elephant because of its high cost of maintenance and operation, these are considered a must for a military power having ambitions of exercising its influence beyond its maritime area of interests.