Air Marshal Ashok Goel (Retd.)
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IAF: A peep into the future Modernisation must be stepped up, say Gulshan Luthra and Air Marshal Ashok Goel (retd)
IAF performed very well during the four-nation Red Flag exercise held in the US in August. Picture (Left) shows an IAF Su 30 taking off from the Nellis air force base. An F-18 pilot with advanced technology helmet-mounted cueing system (Right). The picture tube of this helmet is made in Germany by a company now owned by New Delhi-based Samtel.
THE Indian Air Force (IAF) needs everything: new aircraft, helicopters, sensors, precision engagement systems, weapons, electronic warfare platforms, AWACs, midair refueling, long-range night attack capability, secure connectivity, anti-missile capability, well-protected modern airbases, space assets, Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) and more.
Why so? Will it not involve too much expenditure? Of course, Yes. After all, it has to make up for several years of inaction after 1990, when the IAF as well as the Indian Army and Navy were not given even routine replacement and augmentation of their equipment.
The costs indeed are heavy. We had thought initially that it would be around US$ 35 billion, then $ 70 billion. We were wrong.
At the recent National Seminar of Aerospace Technologies (N-SAT) held by the India Strategic defence magazine, Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal F.H. Major, said that the Indian aerospace sector needed an investment of $ 100 billon in the coming years, pointing out also that IAF was already under a major transformation. The results, he added, would be visible within the next decade.
The Air Chief was merely stating the fact that the Indian Air Force is under an overall “transformation.” He did not indicate any timeline, but did say that the estimated expenditure did not cover only aircraft and systems, but developments like airbases, infrastructure, and so on.
He mentioned the approximate figures of financial implications while inviting the industry to invest in the aerospace sector, which also entailed an offsets element of 30 per cent – or a $ 30 billion opportunity – as mandated now by the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) of the Indian Defence Ministry.
He also assured that IAF took its responsibility of protecting the country seriously, and that nothing but the best would be acquired.
No Chief of Air Staff has ever given such an indication before. But the scale of IAF’s modernisation programme now has also never been matched in India’s history. IAF has never suffered the obsolescence of its systems as today.
Air Chief Major said: “IAF is in a very comprehensive modernisation programme. We are at various stages in the induction of a wide range of equipment which includes all types of aircraft, weapons, missiles, sensors, communications equipment etc. We are even upgrading our airfield infrastructure, laboratories and maintenance facilities.
“The scale is simply immense. We are looking for state-of-the-art equipment and we will not settle for the second best.”
It would be appropriate to recall here that the Indian armed forces as well as the intelligence organisations suffered badly due to the virtual ban by the political leadership in 1990 on all acquisitions in the light of the ill-fated Bofors acquisition programme. It was not easy for the system to restart, particularly as the ban had been imposed by the then Prime Minister himself.
The routine process of replacement and augmentation could be triggered again only by the 1999 Kargil War following Pakistan’s occupation of mountaintops on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC) in an attempt to cut off parts of Kashmir from India.
Much to its horror, the government of the day was told that the Army neither had munitions for its Bofors guns nor appropriate clothing for troops to fight in icy heights, the Navy had no protection for its ships against enemy missile attacks, and the Air Force had no helicopters to attack intruding Pakistani soldiers in mountaintops.
If we heard every now and then about the inadequacy of equipment with the Indian armed forces, the Kargil War was an eye opener.
The IAF has been wanting new aircraft to replace the bulk of its strength consisting of Soviet vintage assortment of Migs, the Army wants tanks and artillery guns, and the Navy new ships and anti-missile capability.
Technology is the key and common element in all the systems any of the three services acquire. As the armed forces did not buy much for long, the need of the hour also clearly implies that they buy the best and the latest to take advantage of their late start.
As for IAF, the Air Chief pointed out that the “drivers of aerospace power are markedly different from those” of the surface combatants. “The components of aerospace power are inherently dependent upon technology, and technology largely dictates performance and capability.”
He noted that an air force has to possess an advantage in terms of the quality of equipment, and a demonstrated superiority in tactics and training, saying that “accessibility to and availability of timely and appropriate technology is often the impediment.”
Most of the platforms made in the 1980s did not have modular concepts; this changed in the 1990s. In the 21st century, particularly for India, it makes sense to update and upgrade the equipment of its armed forces. But then, most of our equipment is of the 1970s Soviet vintage, and there is nothing much one can do than to strap on a little booster shot here and there.
The first requirement is to have platforms, in adequate numbers, with sophisticated onboard technology. Technology that can be pulled out like a chip or a computer bus, and replaced with a better module periodically.
By the very nature of its requirements, an air force is powered by hi-tech.
Aircraft have to fly, operate intrusive missions, evading hostile radars and fire, and come back safely after delivering results. If there is a war, and unfortunately possibilities always exist, only an air force can take the war to an enemy’s territory. It is an old principle that battles must be fought “not on my territory but on yours.”
Former Air Chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi, during whose tenure a couple of years ago the IAF finalised the parameters for acquiring 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (M-MRCA) to replace its mostly Mig 21 squadrons, elucidated this principle very well at the seminar. India is a peaceful country, unlikely ever to initiate a conflict. But, he pointed out, if forced into war, “only the IAF can be a delivery vehicle to inflict punishment on an aggressor where he is.”
Four years ago, in the columns of this esteemed newspaper, we had first disclosed that the number of IAF squadrons was falling down.
The government had decided in 1961 to give the IAF 65 combat squadrons, or 1150 fighter jets, keeping in mind the security scenario on the western and north-eastern borders. It was reduced to 45, but actually, their number never exceeded 39, or a little more than 700 aircraft.
More than 300 of these were Mig 21s, a majority of whom are already being phased out, and are due to be replaced gradually by the Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (M-MRCA), the process for acquiring 126-plus of whom is already under way.
As for the combat aircraft, IAF’s focus now is to rely on its growing fleet of powerful SU 30MKIs for long range air dominance, the MRCAs for routine patrols and engagement if needed around the borders, the upgraded Jaguars for deep strikes, and Mig 29s and Mirage 2000s to augment the air defence.
By 2016-17, according to Air Chief Major, IAF should also lay its hands on the futuristic Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) in collaboration with Russia.
As for the MRCAs, for whom six manufacturers have submitted proposals in response to tenders, their field trials are expected to begin by February or March, and the air force expects the first batch of 18 off the shelf supplies from the selected manufacturer by 2012-13.
The focus of IAF was well defined by Vice Chief of Air Staff Air Marshal P.V. Naik, who said that recent conflicts had demonstrated the necessity of network centric warfare capability, and cutting edge technologies in the fields of surveillance, targeting, avionics and weapon lethality.
He specified: Platforms that combine stealth, and situational awareness as a result of interacting with a broad array of networked systems.All-weather strike capability. Standoff attack capability with high degree of accuracy. Passive radar technology.Fire and Forget Beyond-the-Visual-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (BVRAAMS).Sensor technologies for long range BVRAAMS.Enhancing Electronic Warfare (EW) capability by extension of electromagnetic spectrum to optimal wavelengths, and warning of illumination by Infra Red (IR) Laser or Radar (by hostile elements).
Apparently, the future combat fleet of the IAF would be largely multi-role, with air dominance capability in accordance with India’s strategic requirements to secure its trade routes, say from the Strait of Malacca in the East to the Gulf of Aden in the West. And perhaps beyond.
India’s FGFA would be a piloted aircraft, but gradually, the air force would rely on steadily increasing induction of unmanned aircraft, technically designated Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, which are already being used for surveillance around the borders.
At a later date, say by around 2030, as their developments mature and they become affordable, their combat versions or Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) would be used, piloted remotely from distant grounds.
Classified video recordings have shown US drones sniping successfully at individual targets one by one in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq.
It’s our estimate that by 2050, at least one-fourth of the Indian Air Force would consist of UCAVs. A fair target though should be 50:50.
At the moment, the only high-powered combat aircraft with IAF are the Russian-built SU-30MKI. Besides being new, these are also the only ones with both long reach and precision engagement capability.
In fact, during the recent four-nation Red Flag exercise held in the US, the SU-30 MKI pilots distinguished themselves, despite the fact that they did not operate all their systems so as not to give away some of their secrets.
This was the first time ever that the IAF took part in such a large simulated war scenario with three other air forces, and with at least 80 aircraft at any time in the air day or night.
Interestingly, when, as part of the exercise, the US Air Force fiddled with its GPS constellation to mislead the participating aircraft, the Indian Sukhois were not affected as they automatically switched to the Russian Glonass system. The US, French and South Korean aircraft did not have this advantage.
Significantly, IAF already has a plan to build its own satellite constellation and use the GPS and Glonass as well. That is another key element of IAF’s modernisation in the future.
The acquisition of the SU 30MKIs was a fortunate decision, although there was some opposition even from former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda. Russia has delivered 60 of them as completely built units as contracted and production of another 170 has commenced in India with a production rate now exceeding 20 per year.
The IAF is upgrading its Mirage 2000 to Mirage 2005 standards, enhancing its performance above the original capability and to extend the aircraft’s life by another 20 years. Thales of France is negotiating with IAF in this regard.
The Mig 29 is similarly being upgraded with better target acquisition systems under a contract with Russia to integrate some western avionics also.
The IAF has inducted the BAE Systems-built advanced jet trainer Hawk to enable its pilots to convert to any fighter jet. But for the IAF to declare “Mission Accomplished,” political will is imperative to give it equipment and capability to reach and engage an aggressor on his territory.
The modernization process has begun; it needs to continue as scheduled by the Air Headquarters.
The writers are defence analysts.