An Opportunity Squandered

Delays in taking decisions in the procurement of military hardware has adverse effect on the modernisation process of the Indian armed forces which in turn has implications for national security

Issue: 1 / 2018By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Illustration(s): By Anop Kamath

In the middle of 2016, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) under the Chairmanship of Manohar Parrikar, the then Minister of Defence, cleared the proposal put forward by the Indian Air Force (IAF) to purchase one C-17 Globemaster III strategic airlift aircraft. This will enhance the strength of the existing fleet of the C-17 with the IAF to 11. In June 2017, the US Department of State approved the potential sale of one C-17 to India for $366 million under the FMS programme. The approval covered supply of spare parts and product support as was the case with the contract for the initial 10 aircraft.


In June 2009, the IAF had put forward a proposal to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to procure ten C-17 Globemaster III heavy-lift aircraft along with associated equipment, from Boeing, the aerospace giant of the United States (US). This induction was planned as a part of the modernisation drive that the IAF had embarked upon to upgrade its strategic airlift capability as also to replace the ageing fleet of IL-76 strategic airlift aircraft acquired from the then Soviet Union in the mid 1980s. The government accorded approval to the proposal in June 2011. This procurement at the cost of $4.1 billion, was effected through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme of the US government thus obviating the need for a tendering process under the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) that is tedious and invariably long-drawn. Also, the contract had an in-built provision for a follow-on order for six more platforms. The first of the ten aircraft contracted for arrived in India on June 18, 2013 and the delivery of all ten was completed by early 2015. A new Squadron designated as 81 Skylords under Western Air Command of the IAF, was raised at Air Force Station, Hindon, to operate the newly inducted platforms.

The Platform

The C-17 Globemaster III is a four-engine large military transport aircraft with a payload capacity of 77.5 tonnes. It has a cruise speed of 0.74 Mach or 829 kmph, can climb to an altitude of 45,000 feet above mean sea level and has a range of over 10,000 km. This aircraft was developed for the United States Air Force (USAF) in the early 1990s by the then McDonnell Douglas and was designed to replace the ageing fleets of two other large size military transport aircraft in the USAF namely the C-141 Starlifter and the C-5 Galaxy. After the merger of the major competitor Boeing with McDonnell Douglas in 1997, the former took on the task of further development and manufacture of the C-17 which, apart from the USAF, was supplied to the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, NATO Heavy Airlift Wing, Kuwait and India. The last C-17 that was manufactured at the plant in Long Beach, California, rolled out in November 2015. In all the plant had manufactured over 250 C-17s.

For India, the aircraft provides global reach and is indeed a “game changer” as described by the former Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne. Since the arrival of the first aircraft in 2013, the IAF has been undertaking tasks globally related to disaster management and has also been participating in joint air exercises with other major air forces of the world. If the planned induction of 16 C-17 Globemaster III aircraft into the IAF had gone through successfully, India would have been one of the largest operators of this platform outside the US. Unfortunately, it was not to be so.

IAF’s Quest for More C-17s

In 2012, the IAF had finalised plans to buy six more C-17 Globemaster III aircraft during the 13th five year plan period 2017-22. However, on November 29, 2015, Boeing made public its intention to shut down the plant in California producing the C-17s after the last aircraft on the assembly line was rolled out. This decision was taken by Boeing primarily on account of lack of orders for the platform. At the time of closure of the plant in 2015, Boeing was left with 10 aircraft that were available for sale. Being aware of India’s intention to buy another six C-17 aircraft, the US aerospace major communicated its plans to discontinue production and advised the MoD to decide quickly and take appropriate follow up action without undue delay to process the case for procurement of six C-17 aircraft. Unfortunately, as has often been the case, the MoD failed to provide a timely response to the evolving situation leading to delayed decision-making. Meanwhile other customers picked up nine out of the ten platforms available leaving just one for the IAF. Qatar was the last nation to pick up four. For the IAF it was clearly a case of an opportunity lost.

The experience of the IAF with the project to enhance the size of the C-17 Globemaster III fleet, clearly highlights the need for speed in decision-making. Delays in taking decisions in the procurement of military hardware has adverse effect on the modernisation process of the Indian armed forces which in turn has implications for national security.