It is not only the fighter fleet, but also the other fleets in the Indian Air Force (IAF) that need attention of the policy makers and the leadership of the IAF
The IAF is struggling with its procurement plans. In the wake of the deal for 36 Rafale jets, the latest to be signed, the NDA government is facing rough times amid charges of corruption and crony capitalism. While the indigenous light combat aircraft (LCA) Tejas, is struggling to get Final Operational Clearance (FOC) and is inching towards it, the strength of the fleet of fighter aircraft in the IAF has shrunk to 31 squadrons.
Facing a barrage of questions on the Rafale and Tejas, Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa, Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), in his annual press conference, said that with the induction of 36 Rafale jets and LCA Mk1A, the IAF would be able to arrest the depleting strength of the combat fleet. India is expecting the Rafale delivery to begin in the later part of 2019 and ending up by April 2022. The CAS said that the IAF has a plan for induction of 231 LCA Tejas which will include four squadrons of LCA Tejas Mk1A and six squadrons of LCA MkII. The LCA Tejas is being manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). The IAF is expecting delivery of the Mk1A to begin around 2021/22. The development of the LCA MkII is in progress.
One of the major causes of the depleting strength, apart from the inability to induct new fighter aircraft from foreign sources, is the delay in delivery by the Hindustan Aeonautics Limited (HAL). “There has been a delay in delivery against contracts already awarded to HAL. There is a three-year delay in delivery of Sukhoi Su-30 MKI, six years delay in Jaguar upgrade, fiveyear delay in production of LCA and a two-year delay in the upgrade of Mirage 2000,” the CAS said.
The IAF has been making efforts to replace its vintage Russian MiGs. The process began in August 2007 when the IAF issued an RFP for 126 medium multirole combat aircraft (MMRCA) which drew enthusiastic participation from some of the world’s leading manufacturers of combat aircraft and was called ‘mother of all deals’. After Rafale was declared as the preferred platform, the tender for 126 MMRCA fell through as Dassault Aviation did not agree with the offered terms.
One of the major causes of the depleting strength, apart from the inability to induct new fighter aircraft from foreign sources, is the delay in delivery by HAL
In 2016, the IAF initiated a process to acquire around 100 single-engine combat aircraft which saw response from Swedish Saab offering the Gripen E and American Lockheed Martin offering F-16 block 70. This was again shelved and a fresh RFI was floated early this year for 114 aircraft to which response has been received from seven vendors, six of whom particip[ated in the MMRCA tender. The RFP is expected to be issued in the near future.
The IAF is expected to do limited trials since most of the contender aircraft are the ones which participated in the MMRCA tender. This may expedite selection and early procurement. However, one cannot be sure that things will go as per plan as the tendering process has just begun. Even in the best case scenario, one cannot expect the first aircraft to fly in before 2024.
The IAF is losing its fleet strength rapidly, but it has not been able to acquire replacement aircraft, except for the Russian Su-30 MKI which has been joining its fleet regularly. Had it not been for the Su-30 MKI, the IAF would have lost its fleet strength as well as superior strike capability vis-à-vis its adversaries. In the last two decades, instead of acquiring new combat aircraft, thanks to the cumbersome acquisition process and budgetary shortages, the IAF has been forced to upgrade its legacy aircraft including the Jaguar fleet.
The situation is not grim only for the fighter fleet, but is the same for the transportation wing – both in respect of fixed and rotary wing aircraft.
LIGHT HELICOPTER FLEET
The ageing fleets of Chetak and Cheetah helicopters were to be replaced by 197 light helicopters purchased from international vendors. Of these, 64 were to come to the IAF. The RFP was first floated in 2008 and again in 2009. Eurocopter AS 550 C3 Fennec and Russian Kamov Ka-226 were the final contenders. However, the tender was cancelled and replaced by a government-to-government deal with Russia signed at the end of 2015 for 200 Ka-226T helicopters to be manufactured in India by HAL. The Shareholders Agreement for the establishment of a Joint Venture to manufacture the Ka-226T helicopters in India was also signed in 2016. The project will be executed through a joint venture (JV) between HAL and Russian Helicopters. The JV agreement is expected to be signed sometime this year. Out of 200 helicopters, the first 40 will come from Russia, the second lot of 60 will be assembled in India and the remaining 100 will be manufactured in India.
Early in 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for a new helicopter manufacturing facility for HAL in Tumakaru, located 70 km North-West of Bengaluru in Karnataka as a step in HAL’s expansion of its helicopter production capability. The final hurdle of giving the order is expected to be signed during the upcoming visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to India to hold summit talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
REPLACEMENT FOR THE AVRO
While talking about the Avro replacement, the CAS said that the IAF is expected to sign the contract by the end of this financial year. It has been seven years since the IAF started looking for an aircraft to replace its fleet of 56 vintage medium-lift, turboprop transport aircraft procured initially from the United Kingdom and then built under license in India. In 2012, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) accorded Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) to the replacement programme through ‘Buy & Make’ route.
“IAF should sign the contract for Avro replacement by the end of this financial year.” —Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa
Out of the 56 new aircraft to be acquired, 16 will be received in flyaway condition and 40 will be assembled in India by an Indian Production Agency (IPA) from the private sector. The Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) is to select the IPA. In 2013, RFP for the project was issued to eight foreign OEMs. In response to the RFP, only Airbus, in association with the Tata Group, submitted a techno-commercial bid offering its C295 medium-lift transport aircraft and an Independent Committee was constituted to look into various issues related to the single vendor situation.
The project was nearly shelved when the defence public sector opposed the project being given to the private sector. It was revived by the NDA Government in 2014 and in 2015, the MoD cleared the 12,000 crore project. After exhaustive user trials carried during the next two years, the contract negotiation committee began interaction with the OEM in 2017.
FLIGHT REFUELLING AIRCRAFT (FRA)
The IAF is awaiting additional air-to-air refuelling aircraft. At present, six Russian IL-78 inducted in 2003-04 fulfils the IAFs mid-air refuelling requirements. The first attempt to acquire another six tanker aircraft was made in 2006. The last two attempts failed due to certain reservations related to the cost of the aircraft. The Airbus A330 MRTT, IL-78 and Boeing KC-46A Pegasus are the main contenders for the requirement. In January this year, the IAF restarted its project for purchase of six mid-air refuelling aircraft. After two similar attempts, the third RFI was released for the $2 billion deal.
Coming to the delay in the upgrade programme of the Anglo-French fleet of the Sepecat Jaguar deep penetration strike aircraft, this is one of its primary strike aircraft in the combat fleet. Out of the fleet of 140 aircraft acquired initially, currently around 125 remain in service. Inducted into the IAF some four decades back, it has undergone multiple upgrades in its avionics and weapons, keeping it relevant in its role. However, the most important component of the aircraft, its engine, is yet to undergo upgradation.
The Jaguar fleet has completed more than 30 years of service with the IAF. It has no specified airframe calendar life and is only based on Fatigue Index. Based on the individual aircraft operational exploitation, it is believed that it has an approximate residual airframe life of 15 to 20 years. Modernisation will add another 20 years to the operational life of the aircraft. The decision to replace the engines must be made immediately. Any further delay in purchasing the engines will be detrimental to the operational capability of the IAF.
FIFTH-GENERATION FIGHTER AIRCRAFT (FGFA)
At a time when the world is moving towards fifth-generation fighter aircraft, India is still primarily focused on aircraft of 4++ generation. However, the IAF did move towards it through an Indo-Russian collaboration to develop such a platform for which an agreement was signed during the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2007. It was estimated that the project would need an investment of around $6 billion with equal work share. The project was likely to take 10 years.
In December 2010, HAL and Russian companies Rosoboronexport and Sukhoi, signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the preliminary design work for the aircraft. India was required to invest $295 million in the programme. The preliminary design work phase was ready by 2013. Things have not moved beyond this. In December 2014, it was for the first time that the IAF apprised the MoD about the inadequacies in the proposed FGFA on account of which it did not consider the platform suitable for induction. India has pulled out of the project.
In the meanwhile, Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) has started work on the development of Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) which will be manufactured by HAL. The expected timeline for the stealth aircraft will be beyond 2030. This aircraft is expected to replace the Su-30 fighters.
IAF is also waiting for six Airborne Warning & Control System (AWACS) aircraft based on the Airbus A330 aircraft. The six aircraft will be divided into batches of two and four. The platform will carry indigenously developed 360-degree coverage active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. The IAF has projected a requirement for this platform to double as an aerial tanker as well. The whole programme is expected to cost around $2.5 billion.