Capital procurements for the Indian Air Force are anchored on a long-term perspective plan based on the threats and the geopolitical environment
The air combat force levels and capability enhancement is a work in progress for the Indian Air Force (IAF) and will continue in 2018 also. It will assertively push for its acceptance with the final decision makers to meet the existent or perceived threats to the national security. The IAF’s capital procurements are anchored on a long-term perspective plan based on the threats and geopolitical environment. The weapon platforms capable today will be sub optimal in future wars and hence need to be continuously revisited both in numbers and capability. The IAF need to induct no fewer than 12 combat squadrons to meet its targeted strength by 2027-32 has been discussed at length in the media. It has also been argued that with the present combat aircraft capabilities being multi fold as compared to the legacy aircraft, the IAF needs to tone down its numerical numbers projection. With an assertive adversary in the northern borders and the western border always on the tenterhooks the numbers are as important as capability enhancement, if not more. What are the hopes of IAF from the country in the year 2018 which will allow it to meet its tasks in fulfilling the aspirations of the resurgent India in the years to come? To my mind IAF will look forward to concrete decisions on various projects/platforms by the politico-bureaucracy that will affect its war fighting potential.
As of now three Su-30MKI and two Dassault Rafale squadrons are already contracted, with two squadrons of Tejas MK.1 fighters to be built by HAL. This will add seven squadrons to the IAF. However, six squadrons of MiG-21Bison and the two MiG-27UPG will be phased out by 2025. If no new aircraft are ordered, it IAF would be left with 30 combat squadrons by 2025 resulting in an overall shortfall of 12 squadrons against its desired strength. One Jaguar squadron is also due to be phased out by 2027 resulting in a deficiency of 13 squadrons by 2027. Making up this shortfall by the year 2027 poses significant challenges. It had earlier planned to acquire an additional five squadrons of Rafale and undoubtedly would still like to do so if permitted. To compensate for this shortfall and to cater for future replacements for aircraft such as the Jaguar and eventually the MiG-29 and Mirage 2000, India has two active plans to bolster force levels. One of these involves the procurement of new single and twin-engine fighters, with the latter taking priority. The other involves the procurement of four squadrons of the Tejas Mk.1A variant.
HAL slow progress in establishing adequate production facilities for Tejas has not been able to meet the target of eight aircraft per year, much less an enhanced production target of 16 aircraft per year, despite establishing a second production line using the BAE Hawk production facility. Even in the IOC configuration, the Tejas Mk.1 offers considerable capability, however, the full capability is obtainable with the FOC version only. The Tejas, especially its Mk.1A variant, offers an opportunity for the IAF to close its squadron strength shortfall. Unlike the proposed single and twin-engine procurement projects, this is a viable, relatively low-cost, replacement for the MiG-21 available to the Indian Air Force. If HAL were to complete the FOC of the basic Mk.1 without further delays and shifting priorities, then there is a possibility of two Tejas Mk.1 and four Tejas Mk.1A squadrons being in service by 2025, filling the gap left by the retirement of the six MiG-21Bison squadrons. IAF would like to see HAL speed up work exponentially by focusing on integrating large assemblies that are built and supplied by private aerospace companies and managing the Outsourcing private defence firms to achieving HAL’s production targets. Greater accountability of ADA is important in achieving the FOC and should be aggressively questioned in the high-powered committee monitoring the Tejas project.
The selection of a new twin-engine fighter under a ‘Make in India’ initiative should be shelved. The selection of the Rafale should stand and, subject to the price and technology transfer package being satisfactory, the induction of additional Rafale aircraft beyond the existing 36 should be considered as a priority. A separate twin-engine project, unless there are severe problems with the Rafale, is a time-consuming luxury with little benefit to India.
The IAF will be interested that the Government of India through the Ministry of Defence (MoD) take steps towards initiating the procurement of a single-engine type through the Strategic Partnership route on a fast track basis. More than a year has passed since the project was announced by the then Defence Minister on January 3, 2017, without any tangible progress being made. The process has to be started and completed in a time-bound manner so that the IAF can reap the benefits of this programme. Despite the claims of various companies likely to be in the race of single-engine type, establishing production lines and delivering aircraft will invariably take some time and hence making quick availability of aircraft into the IAF inventory is unlikely. Distractors of the single engine type program have been bidding for the Tejas to fill in the void for the IAF. It needs to be clarified that the Tejas is at best a replacement of the Mig-21 in the op role even though it has enhanced capability. The single-engine type being sought is to replace the MiG-23-MF/-BN and MiG-27ML aircraft in service, while the Tejas has been earmarked to replace the MiG-21. Therefore, IAF will hope that there is visible traction during 2018 in the Strategic Partnership to make the single-engine type in India.
IAF has been finding it increasingly difficult to maintain the Avro fleet. Serviceability is low and technical snags are frequent. The aircraft are effectively obsolete. It was proposed to buy a replacement from the global market since HAL the only possibility was not considered feasible as an indigenous manufacturer due to its heavy commitment towards a large number of vital programmes. When the RFP was floated only one vendor emerged on October 22, 2014, with Airbus Defence & Space and Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL), offering the Airbus C295. According to the bid, Airbus, will supply 16 C295s in flyaway condition and TASL will manufacture/assemble the remaining 40 in India. This is stuck even as negotiations for the $1.8 billion purchase are in the final stages. With the defence programme between India and Russia to manufacture a new military transport aircraft for the Indian and Russian air forces having effectively been shelved this contract needs to be finally inked in the interest of IAF. If the Avro were replaced by the more versatile aircraft like the C295, it would surely be a valuable addition to the IAF’s. The Avro replacement project will enable the IAF to make a timely transition to a new and better transport aircraft. Once the An-32RE retires from service by 2030 a transport aircraft in the five to ten tonne class would be needed which can be filled by the CN295. More importantly, it is a vital first step towards the meaningful participation of the private sector in defence aerospace, a move that will immediately boost “Make in India”. It must be grabbed ASAP.
IAF has only three AWACS, with Israeli Phalcon radar systems mounted on Russian IL-76 heavy-lift aircraft. These were inducted in 2009-11 under a $1.1 billion deal inked in 2004. Indigenous AEW&C (Airborne Early-Warning and Control system) christened ‘Netra’ was also inducted in Feb 2017, about seven years behind schedule. The first Netra is undergoing operational test-runs at the Bhatinda airbase after initial operational clearance, while the second is awaiting final operational clearance. The third will be retained by the DRDO for R&D work.
The case for two more ‘follow-on’ Phalcon AWACS, in the tripartite deal with Russia and Israel, remains stuck due to steep hike in price of the surveillance platforms. The government is ready to pay only about $800 million for the two Phalcon AWACS, and not $1.3 billion demanded by the OEM. On the indigenous front, the two aircraft under the AWACS-India project will be ready only by 2024-25 at the earliest. Though the defence ministry approved the 5,113 crore project in March 2015, under which 360-degree coverage indigenous AESA (active electronically scanned array) radars are to be mounted on Airbus A330 wide-body jets, the contract is yet to be inked and It will take approx. 80 months to operationalise the two AWACS once the contract is inked. This induction of two Phalcon AWACs merits serious attention of the MoD since the indigenous programme is still to be born with its attended delays. With the two live borders in the west and north/east, three AWACs are woefully short of the requirement. IAF will hope that a final decision is taken in 2018 on these inductions.
Air-to Air-Refuelling Aircraft
The IAF operates six IL-78 planes bought in 2003-04 at 132 crore a piece to expand the strategic reach of its fighter jets. The desired serviceability of the IL-78 fleet should be 70 per cent but has been about 50 per cent during the last seven years. Simply put, barely half of the planes were available for missions at any given time.
The government is expected to float a new tender for six midair refuellers which will be the third one in the last 10 years, with the previous two failing to end up as contracts due to price complications. IAF’s mid-air refuelling capabilities will take a hit from 2018-19 onwards when IL-78 tankers go for overhaul, leaving the air force with little option as two attempts to buy new tankers have failed. The need to procure six mid-air refuellers to stay prepared to counter our adversary in the eastern sector and a mitigation plan for the overhaul of the IL-78 aircraft will be IAF’s testing times. Israel Aerospace Industries’ Bedek Aviation Group are expected to be new entrants in the tanker competition with their offering of used Boeing 767 converted to the tanker role at a much cheaper price tag. Building military strength doesn’t come cheap. Tankers are an essential requirement and the government needs to prioritise the purchase.
The combat platforms availability is an important metric which decides how the force projection and missions will be executed in any conflict. It is these numbers which have to be ensured by the maintainers and logisticians of the IAF. With the new inductions not keeping pace with the retiring fleet it is imperative that the combat effectiveness is sustained within the existing combat forces. The reported IAF average serviceability of its aircraft fleet is approximately 60 per cent. Having 40 per cent of IAF fleet on the ground is hard to accept. Even a 10 to 15 per cent improvement in serviceability will bring in approximately three squadron aircraft numbers for operations.
Su-30MKI fleet of approximately 270 ac is the largest fleet of the IAF. With 60 per cent serviceability, there are approximately 100 aircraft are therefore not available for operations. There is adequate manpower and skill to maintain these aircraft but the non-availability of spares and assemblies is the single factor adversely affecting the recovery of aircraft. HAL has negotiated a long-term spares agreement with the Russians in March 2017 for sustained supply of airframe and engine spares in its commitment to ensure the desired availability of this fleet. IAF will be looking forward to the successful implementation of the agreement and continuous supply of spares to its op units to achieve 75 per cent serviceability of the Su-30 fleet.
The Jaguar spares supply is drying out and HAL/IAF is struggling to sustain the 65 per cent serviceability of this important fleet. With the likely re-engining of Jaguar with the Honeywell F125IN engine, this fleet has to be sustained well after 2027. HAL/IAF has initiated steps to source spares from various third party global vendors. IAF will hope that these endeavours are aggressively pursued in 2018 to sustain the Jaguar fleet.
Spares Procurement in Revenue Budget
Are we being penny wise and pound foolish when it comes to spares procurement in the revenue budget. The major spares procurement cases are beyond the delegated powers of Air Headquaters and have to be progressed with the MoD. Long decision times to convert the cases to contracts needs to be seriously addressed by the officials as this is resulting into reduced numbers of available aircraft. The L1 mode of procurements needs to be questioned in view of single or limited vendors in military aviation. What is the serviceability loss versus the procurement gain in revenue spending needs a careful examination and faster conversion to contract is what IAF hopes for in 2018.
The IAF hopes for 2018 will be that a sense of urgency on the part of all the parties concerned to ensure that existing projects are closely monitored for their completion timelines and that new procurement endeavours are dealt with in an expeditious manner.