Transformation IAF$ 70 billion to be spent over the next 20 Years
By Gulshan Luthra and Air Marshal Ashok Goel (Retd)
Published : February 2008
New Delhi. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has initiated a major transformation process, requiring around US$ 70 billion over the next few years.
According to an India Strategic study, except for the newly acquired SU 30MKIs, IAF needs to replace and augment nearly 100 per cent of its fighter, transport and helicopter fleets for the simple reason that all of them are around 20 years old or more, and would need replacement even after their useful lives are extended by around 10 years or so with new onboard avionics and missiles as the airframes and engines remain the same.
Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal F H Major told India Strategic in an interview “that the process to transform the force had begun and that the next 10 years would be important in this regard” as there would be positive, all-round changes.
From aircraft to airbases with precision approach and surveillance radars, there would be visible changes by 2015, the Air Chief observed adding that the emphasis was on all-weather, round-the-clock operational capability.
He did not comment on the financial figure calculated by us but said that the IAF “plan is three-pronged – to preserve, upgrade and acquire” and that “adequate budgetary support is available for procurement of new aircraft.”
He also said that the direct acquisition of SU 30MKIs from Russia had been completed and their that their production was “proceeding satisfactorily” at the HAL facilities in India.
As a thumb rule, it takes about $ 1.5 billion to set up a fighter squadron, inclusive of 18 aircraft, systems and weapons with supporting equipment. Even if the combat squadron strength is maintained at 35 – if not the original sanctioned 45 – the cost comes to nearly $ 50 billion. Except that the SU 30 MKIs, of which the IAF is acquiring 230 aircraft, would be somewhat cheaper because the contracts were signed in the late 1990s.
The problem for the overall transformation has arisen because nearly all acquisitions for the armed forces and intelligence agencies were stopped by the then government in 1990, and the process to re-equip was triggered only after Pakistani troops occupied the Kargil heights, leading to the 1999 war.
The other factor was the rising number of air crashes, both because there were no Advanced Jet Trainers (AJTs) and also as some of the aircraft were getting old.
In an earlier study, we had considered a figure between $ 35 to 45 billion, but a revision is imperative and $ 70 billion looks more or less a realistic figure.
The Air Force now needs to replace as well as augment its aircraft and systems in line with modern technology. In war-fighting, there is no choice but to have an edge, and that too, a decisive edge.
About the ageing aircraft and their declining strength, the Air Chief said: “With regard to the hardware, it is our endeavour to make good all deficiencies, upgrade the existing equipment and procure state-of-the-art weapon systems.”
Logically, there should have been periodic replacement of equipment with all the forces, but that did not happen, and as for the IAF, except the SU 30 MKIs, its entire fleet has to undergo a transformation.
Apparently, the costs would keep rising if timely decisions are not taken. The country would have to pay dearly for any political or procedural bottlenecks.
IAF has already phased out nearly two-thirds of its 300 Mig 21 aircraft, as well as Mig 23-MF, (six) Mig 25 spy jets, Hunters, Canberras and some transporters over the last 10 years.
Of the 300-plus Mig 21s, which formed the mainstay fighting force of the IAF, about 125 are being retained and upgraded to the Mig 21Bis category. That is, the platform and engines are same but overhauled, and the onboard avionics and missiles are the latest.
The Air Chief said that the IAF had already completed the upgrade process for 100 Mig 21Bis, fitting them with Beyond the Visual Range (BVR) missiles, a new navigation-attack radar and other weapons “dramatically improving their capability.”
The pilot workload is lower and “its flight safety record has been very good.”
The mainstay role however has been taken over now by the SU 30MKI air dominance fighters, which can fly far and stay in the air for up to 8 hours. By any standard, these are formidable jets, capable of effectively countering any threat.
Notably, although now some aircraft are planned to be used for up to 40 years with periodic technological upgrades, the earlier aircraft were designed for a useful life of 20 years.
The SU 30MKI is designed for periodic technological insertions like all modern aircraft.
Air Chief Marshal Major said that the IAF “started upgrading its combat fleet a few years ago to enhance their operational capability” and that in addition to the SU 30MIs under procurement, “the planned induction of Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MRCAs), the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas and the 5th Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) – being developed with Russia – would arrest the declining combat squadrons strength.”
It may be noted that our study takes into account acquisition of 230 SU 30 MKIs, 126 MRCAs, new transport aircraft, new helicopters, AWACs, midair refuelers, pilot-less Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and possibly Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs), radars, Aerostats and secure satellite and other communications, contemporary electronic systems as well as a periodic cost escalation between .5 to 1 per cent per year.
The IAF also needs to update and upgrade its aircraft pens around the country, and work in that direction has also started. Most of the existing hangars at its airbases were designed for small aircraft like the Mig 21 but today’s SU 30MKIs, MRCA or FGFA would be bigger and it’s prudent to move assets from one place to another, particularly during operations.
The cost of an SU 30 MKI, fitted with some French and Israeli avionics, is not known but an MRCA should be anywhere between $ 40 to 50 million, depending upon the number of engines, fire control radars like AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array), Targeting pods and some sophisticated gadgetry.
Boeing, which has offered its twin-engine F 18 Super Hornet in the MRCA category as the replacement for the Mig 21, has set a price tag of $ 49.9 million.
Boeing’s President of Precision Engagement and Mobility Systems Chris Chadwick, who has been coordinating his company’s potential sales to India, told us that this price included the AESA radar and most of the equipment on board the Super Hornets supplied to the US Navy, which in fact, flies the world’s second-largest air force.
About the ongoing modernization, Air Chief Marshal Major said: “Of the available fleets, the Mig 21Bis, Mig 27 and Jaguar aircraft have already been upgraded. “Upgrades of the Mirage 2000 and Mig 29 aircraft is being processed.”
As for the transport and helicopter fleets, he said that the IAF had already signed an agreement for six Lockheed Martin C 130Js transport aircraft while 24 combat helicopters and 12 heavy lift helicopters would also be acquired. A plan to buy 80 Mi 17 helicopters from Russia to augment the fleet was already being pursued.
“The IAF is actively pursuing a comprehensive plan to upgrade its helicopter fleet, by upgrading older aircraft and inducting new ones,” he said adding that the existing “Mi 17s multi role helicopters and Mi 35 combat helicopters will be upgraded.”
The Air Chief also pointed out that the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) built by the public sector HAL was already operational and being continuously improved” and that “the armed version of the ALH has also flown while its attack version, the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH), is in the pipeline.”
HAL Chairman and Managing Director Ashok Baweja had told India Strategic earlier that HAL would also develop 60 hi-altitude helicopters for Siachin and Kargil type of heights in the Himalayas. This is likely to be a helicopter other than the LCH as this would have to be made from special materials capable of withstanding the extremes of cold.
Air Chief Marshal Major said: “A number of procurement schemes are being processed and we will, in future, have a mix of indigenous and imported aircraft to meet our operational requirements, which include heavy, medium-lift and utility helicopters.
“These helicopters will be inducted in a phased manner, during the next two five-year plans (ending 2017).
The Air Chief pointed out that the demands on the IAF transport fleet are growing due to the enhanced national and international commitments” and that “they will only increase in future.”
“Our fleet is set to expand to meet these enhanced tasks and a variety of procurement schemes are being progressed,” he said, adding that there are plans to enhance our air transportation capabilities in the Medium Transport Aircraft (MTA) category,” which will be produced in a joint venture with Russia.
Air Chief Marshal Major said that the IAF reviewed its operational strategy and philosophy constantly, “in step with the changes in the security scenario.”
“Concurrently, the equipment, weapons and systems are modernized, which in turn necessitates changes in the organization structure and training, and all these changes are incorporate in the IAF Doctrine.”