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INDIAN COMBAT FLEET: A MIXED BAGGAGE

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 The fast-depleting and obsolete air combat fleet of the Indian Air Force has been a matter of concern and requires urgent replacement and new inductions. Programmes with regards to induction of fighter aircrafts have been taken by India; however, these are not only witnessing huge delays but also would be a mixed baggage...

India celebrated the Air Force Day 2016 on 8th of October, marking the 84th anniversary of the Indian Air Force. Addressing a press conference on this occasion, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha delineated the incapacitating deficiencies in combat aircraft and also the preoccupation with procedure for the IAF's current aircraft shortfalls, just 34 fighter squadrons instead of the sanctioned 45. The Air Chief Marshal's statement has definitely raised relevant concerns regarding state of Indian Air Force's combat fleet as well as its readiness. As the Air Force is trying to keep its operational fleet airworthy and fighting fit by way of upgrading the current ones, the fast depleting numbers that too with the fighter squadrons running out of combat-worthy fighters are beginning to get worrisome.

Present Inventory

The Indian Air Force's (IAF) all-stealth fleet is divided into Light, Medium and Heavy categories with the present inventory consisting of over 720+ combat aircrafts. The current inventory of combat aerial platforms of the Air Force is as given in Table.

            Over 10 squadrons are equipped with ageing and virtually obsolete MiG-21 and MiG-27 (on extended life) which have reached the end of their life cycle and will gradually retiring between 2015-2024.

            Over the next 20 years, the Air Force will need at least 250-300 fighters besides the Tejas, as the aging fleets are phased out. Indigenous and co-development programmes with regards to Fighter Aircrafts have been taken by India however; every programme is seen to be facing delay debarring the recent purchase of Rafale jets, rather the first purchase after Sukhoi aircrafts from Russia in late 90s. Moreover, once inducted the inventory would consist of variety of aircrafts, thereby, would cause logistical and maintenance problem.

            The combat aircraft programmes undertaken by India are being discussed below.

Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas

India undertook the indigenous development and manufacturing of a fourth generation fighter Tejas LCA. Sanctioned in 1983, the programme has been riddled with delays right from the sanction. The induction schedule has been revised several times from the initial 1995 to 2003, 2005, 2008, 2010, 2012 and now 2016 (for MK-I) & 2018 (for the Mk-II), by than 35 years would have elapsed.

            The aircraft is designed and developed by Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) with HAL as the principal partner. The LCA programme was sanctioned with project cost of Rs 560 Crores and the project budget has since been increased to Rs 10397 Crores and project is not yet completed. The cost of one standard LCA could touch about $29 Million (Rs 160 Crores); however, the cost is likely to rationalize with increase in demand. The projected requirement for IAF is 200 single-seat fighters LCA Mk-I and 20 twin-seat trainers while the IN expects to operate 40 single-seat fighters LCA Mk-I.   As of now, Tejas has received Initial Operation Clearance (IOC-I) & IOC-II and has been handed over the first series production to the IAF.

            Tejas Mk-II has been sanctioned in 2009 at a cost of Rs 2400 Crores and will have some 25-30 percent commonality in parts with the Mk1 and these parts are already in production. As of now, the ADA has completed the first preliminary design review of the LCA Tejas Mk-II and the first prototype is expected by 2017. The aircraft is scheduled for flight trials by 2018, but this deadline is likely to be postponed to 2020-21 and the induction by 2022-23. The IAF is committed to procuring an initial 83 Tejas Mk-IIs and IN 46 Naval Tejas Mk-II.

            Projections depict that in future a total number of 294 Tejas Mk I and Mk II aircraft may be ordered to equip 14 squadrons to replace the MiG-21 and MiG-27 fleets.

Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft Programme

Conceived in 2008 and being spearheaded by DRDO's Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), along with large number of DRDO and CSIR labs, IITs, IISc and private industries, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) formerly known as the Medium Combat Aircraft (MCA), is basically an extension of the LCA project and is a fifth generation aircraft with a longer range. AMCA is intended to replace Jaguar and Dassault Mirage 2000 which are assigned role of multi-role aircraft with mainly fighter bomber role. It will fill the role along with the attack aircraft role as it is also going to replace Mikoyan MiG-27 and Mikoyan MiG-23.

            The AMCA is being designed as an affordable Medium Fighter, an F-35 Analog, between the light-weight category LCA and the heavier Sukhoi-30MKI and the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) being co-developed by India and Russia. Three technologies on AMCA that are not there on LCA includes: stealth; thrust vectoring engines; and supercruise (the capability to fly at supersonic speeds without engine afterburners).Two of these three capabilities - thrust vectoring and supercruise - depend upon high-performance engines, and the DRDO is likely to will import the AMCA's engine.

            As of now, the AMCA program has crossed the first milestone with all feasibility projects and basic design work/configuration of AMCA getting completed. The IAF, DRDO and ADA are now getting set to seek the Cabinet Committee on Security's approval for the initial design and development phase for AMCA. ADA will start building first Technological Demonstrator (TD) aircraft from late 2019 which will be ready for first flight in 2023-24 and will enter production post-2025. By 2035, nearly 200 aircraft are planned to be produced by HAL.

Rafale Aircraft Deal

The Indian Government on 23rd Sep 2016 has signed an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) with France for the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets at a cost of €7.87 Billion (around $8.8 Billion), the first fighter aircraft deal since the purchase of Sukhoi aircrafts from Russia in the late 90's. Rafale will occupy the mid-level force structure with the expectation that an advanced indigenous descendant of the Tejas or the fifth generation fighter that India is jointly developing with Russia will form the top of the line component.The aircraft will be customised as per the requirements of the IAF which include Helmet Mounted Displays, radar warning receiver, infrared search and track among others.

            The deal includes the aircrafts in fly-away condition along with helmet mounted displays, radar warning receiver, infrared search, weapons, simulators, spares, maintenance, and performance based logistics support for five years. The weapons package includes MBDA manufactured Meteor radar guided Beyond Visual Range (BVR), an air-to-air missile with a beyond-visual-range over 100 km, and Storm Shadow (known as Système de CroisièreAutonome à Longue Portée  EmploiGénéral or SCALP in the French military), a long range air to ground cruise missile with a range of over 560 km.

            The Dassault manufactured Rafale is a twin-engine, multi-role fighter aircraft that can be deployed for air dominance, ground support, aerial reconnaissance, and nuclear delivery. It is capable of carrying out combat missions: air defence, interception, ground support, in-depth strikes, reconnaissance, anti-ship strikes and nuclear deterrence. Rafale is almost the perfect medium multi-role combat aircraft, not only because of its nuclear-strike variant but because it was generally seen as “low-maintenance” and possessed many similarities with the Mirage aircraft that the IAF already operated.

            The basic cost of the aircraft is about €91 million say about Rs 680 Crores and little over Rs 1600 Crores per aircraft for the whole deal. A complete transfer of technology, including the Thales RBE2-AA radar and software source code, spare parts, maintenance, training, and a guarantee of 75 percent operational availability for the first five years takes the price of the package up from a base price of $3.8 billion for just the Rafales to the final number. The break up of Euro 7.87 billion contract is as under:-

  • Euro 3.42 Billion for production contracts worth billion with OEM like Dassault Aviation, Thales Group, Snecma and Sagem.
  • Euro 1.7 Billion IAF-specific platforms fittings with customer-supplied non-French hardware,
  • Euro 1.8 Billion for various types of simulators for operational flight conversion, ground maintenance; part-task training tools for the employment of a variety of precision-guided munitions (PGM); and mission planning-and-replay systems.
  • Euro 353 Million for performance-based logistics package
  • Euro 710 Million for armaments package by MBDA.

The IAF will also get free training packages for nine personnel (three pilots and six ground crew personnel, estimated to be worth Euro 100 Million. An initial 15 per cent of the contract value is to be paid as advance, while another 25 percent will be paid by end 2017, with 55 percent to be paid in progressive tranches once aircraft deliveries begin and the final 5 percent being paid upon completion of the delivery. The deliveries are slated to begin after 36 months and to be completed in 67 months. France will also provide logistics and ground support and ensure that there is 75 percent i.e. 27 aircraft are operationally available at any time against Su-30 fleet which has an operational availability between 55-60 percent. There is no option clause.

New RFI for Multi-Role Combat Aircraft

Apart from the purchase of 36 Rafale aircrafts, the IAF needs a medium, multi-role fighter single-engine fighters to replace the single-engine MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighters to set up a production facility in India. The Rafale, a medium-heavy, twin-engine fighter, is considered too expensive for operational tasks that a single-engine fighter can easily manage. A  restricted RFI for a single-engine light MRCA was released on October 8, 2016 through Indian embassies in Washington, Moscow and Stockholm, to fighter jet manufacturers to confirm whether they would partner an Indian company in building a medium, single-engine fighter, with significant transfer of technology to the Indian entity. That same RFI was also issued to ADA which is most likely to offer the Tejas Mk-2. If a foreign design is selected, that will be the end of the Tejas MRCA's R&D programme, except makes use of the existing Tejas Mk-1 airframe design. ADA has failed to design a functional & effective weapons platform of fourth generation; what's the guarantee that a fifth generation AMCA can be design and developed as a result no R&D funding has been released so far for AMCA.

            Boeing, Eurofighter, RAC MiG, Sukhoi and Dassault are likely to respond to the latest RFI, but they do not have a state-of-the-art, medium, single-engine fighter except Saab's Gripen E, and Lockheed Martin's latest F-16 Block 70. Both Saab and Lockheed Martin are already pitching for building their fighters in India.

  • Saab has offered assistance to the indigenous Tejas Mark IA Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) development programme to Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) with better combat radar, more lethal weapons, dedicated electronic warfare capability and better maintainability. Beside an offer on assistance in next-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).
  • Lockheed Martin has offered, to shift its F-16 production line to India and an advanced version of the F-16, designated the Block 70.This may not be of interest to India as Pakistan has a significantly advanced version of the F-16 Block 50/52. US have a chance in case it offer India the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a state-of-the-art fifth-generation fighter.

The decision will basically depend upon who provides the best transfer of technology; and, of course, the price tag. This will not be just licensed manufacture. It will be proper transfer of technology. Also, India will become a hub for manufacturing, as well as Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) for other air forces in the region.

Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA)

In October 2007, India and Russia signed a formal Inter-Governmental Agreement on co-developing and manufacturing of the fifth-generation fighter aircraft based on Russia's PAK FA with taking into due consideration of Indian requirements, with the aim to induct the futuristic stealth fighter by 2016-17. Russia's Sukhoi and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) were appointed as the prime contractors for the project. It is a derivative project from the Prospective Airborne Complex of Frontline Aviation/PAK FA (T-50 is the prototype) being developed for the Russian Air Force. Under the programme, two separate prototypes will be developed, one by Russia and a separate one by India. The Indian version will be a two-seater for pilot and Co-Pilot/Weapon Systems Operator (WSO).

            India's work share was to amount to about 30 percent of the overall design effort. This will centre on composite components and high-end electronics like the mission computer, the avionics, cockpit displays and the electronic warfare systems, avionics and software packages for the FGFA. Additionally, India will have to redesign the single-seat PAK-FA into the two-seater fighter that the IAF prefers.

            Unfortunately, the Indo-Russian program got plagued by delays, cost overrun, and work share besides the IAF came out with some different observations and amendments against the PAK-FA to meet its specifications and reluctance of Russia in sharing of critical design information with India. So far, PAK FA T-50 prototypes are currently undergoing extensive testing in Russia. Three more prototypes are expected to be delivered by the end of this year.

            The estimated total cost of the project in 2007, when the first announcement was made, amounted to $12 Billion, which is to be covered through equal investment by India & Russia with the expected induction of the fighters by 2016-17. Nonetheless, the delays and cost-overruns have pushed the induction dates towards 2019-2020 first and as per latest updates the induction would only be possible by 2024 now. The first prototype is expected to be delivered by 2018-19. The Russian Air Force on the other hand is expected to receive its first batch of PAK FA T-50 fifth generation fighter jets by early 2017. Russia is expected to build 250 FGFAs, while India has downgraded its initial purchasing size from 214 to 144 planes (166 single seaters and 48 twin-seaters) at an estimated total cost of $30 Billion owing to time and cost overruns. However, this number may rise later on with the depleting squadrons and also with China initiating with the development of the J-20 and J-31 fifth generation fighters.

Mixed Bag of Inventory: An Upcoming Problem

The IAF has ambitious plans to transform itself into one of the most modern air forces over the next decade and has begun with the process of acquiring different type of aircrafts to strengthen its combat arm. However, taking the above procurements into consideration, IAF is likely to have a mix of fighter aircraft like the Sukhoi Su 30, the medium-weight category like Rafale and the AMCA and second line of medium multi role fighter aircrafts and of course the light-weight category Tejas, which the Defence Service will be inducting in large numbers in the next 10 years. The inventory thus, would be a mixed bag, which reflects the poor planning that has plagued the Indian Air Force for decades. Such a large inventory of different kinds of aircraft for any Air Force will not only pose logistical problem but also there would be problem with regards to their maintenance and spare parts. It also reflects that the Indian Air Force was never allowed to strategise and acquire aircraft on a long-term perspective plan. As and when an aircraft became available, it managed to purchase them in bits and pieces. There is a need to rationalize further procurements. The decision in recently procured Rafael case also seems appears to be ill-timed and undoubtedly ill-calculated and reflects poorly on India's defence acquisition process as it's subjective and not going to benefit in long term if India goes for second line of fighter aircrafts through 'Make in India' route.

 

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