Air Marshal Ashok Goel (Retd.)
PVSM AVSM VM
11, Silver State, Pilibhit Byepass Road,
Bareilly-243005 (U.P.) INDIA
Mob: 9411900090, 09999722636
IAF: Transport Aircraft and Helicopters
New Delhi. Air Power is about reach. Reach of the fighter aircraft, but supported and sustained by a complex system of transport aircraft, helicopters, midair refuelers, AWACs, communication assets, ultramodern airbases, and certain other factors. Timely supplies of equipment and weapons, and overall logistics, constitute the backbone of combat jet operations.
Transport aircraft play a defining role as the mobility needed in the combat operations depends on them.
At the same time, helicopters also have an independent and highly significant role of their own; they reach where fixed aircraft cannot go.
To airlift troops, equipment, weapons, or to evacuate pilots from a combat zone, injured soldiers or stricken civilians, or to act as a gunship in combat or urban environment, the helicopter is the ideal flying machine.
Like its combat jets, the Indian Air Force (IAF) needs to augment its strength both in transport aircraft and helicopters.
Of course, steps are being taken now, and according to Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal F H Major, an RfP for 12 heavy lift helicopters to replace the old and outdated Mi 26 is around the corner, while another RfP for timely replacement of the IL 76 fleet with what he called Very Heavy Transport Aircraft (VHTAC) is being finalized.
One only hopes that there are no interests this time who oppose the modernization of the Indian Air Force as well as the Army and Navy. We need not be reminded of poor systems only when situations like the Kargil War, or as this time, the terror attack on Mumbai happen.
Replacement of worn out systems, and their augmentation in line with growing requirements is a periodic exercise, and the process must not be tempered with. There are aberrations indeed some times in the acquisition process, but as and when they happen, cases should be isolated and quarantined for investigation.
As for the existing fleet, we need to consider this: IAF inducted the AN 32 medium lift aircraft beginning 1984, and the heavy lift IL 76 aircraft beginning 1985 from the erstwhile Soviet Union. As per the manufacturers’, or suppliers’ specifications, both these aircraft have outlived their calendar lives in terms of the number of flying hours as well as the number of landing.
Right now, some extension is being given to both these aircraft with newer engines and avionics to make them useful for another 15 years beyond what is technically called the “Total Technical Life or TTL.”
It may be noted that while western manufacturers indicate the life of their aircraft by the number of flying hours, the Soviets/ Russians follow the number of landings to measure the life of an aircraft. But the way IAF has innovatively used transporter aircraft, on high altitudes, or even for bombing missions has surprised even the Russians.
Necessity is the Mother of Invention. With limited availability of systems and steadily rising demands in war and peace, Indians have played with sophisticated systems as no one else.
For instance, during the Chinese aggression, IAF modified the propeller-driven Fairchild Packet aircraft by adding a third engine on the top of its fuselage for its operations in the thin Himalayan air of North and North-eastern India. It used the Orpheus jet engine of its Gnat fighter aircraft.
The experiment was not very successful as the engine was heavy and virtually neutralized the advantage it generated. But the Americans, who had supplied the aircraft to India, caught on, improved upon the idea and installed better jet packs on their own and Indian aircraft.
During the Bangladesh crisis leading to the 1971 War, the Indian Army expected a major attack from Pakistan in the western sector. Sure enough, when the Pakistani Army deployed some 30,000 troops in an attempt to cut off Kashmir from the rest of India, IAF used its AN 12 aircraft to carpet-bomb their concentrations, and flattened the attack formations.
Aircraft of the 44 Squadron flew night missions in waves of six, unescorted, rolling out nine tonnes of fire from each aircraft. Night fighting capability was zero with both the countries in those days, and the Pakistani Air Force (PAF) was unable to intercept even a single AN 12.
Wg Cdr B V Vashisth inspired and led the waves virtually in every mission, setting an unprecedented record. He was awarded India’s second highest gallantry award, the Maha Vir Chakra (MVC) while the squadron won three Vir Chakras (VrCs).
The Soviets expressed amazement at the war fighting capability of their own aircraft. The magnificent machine, inducted in 1961, was phased out in 1993.
IAF has a record though of operating various machines well beyond their limitations, and in the most difficult and inhospitable terrains, whether it is combat or transport aircraft, or helicopters. Routine ferries to Siachen are an example.
To do innovations however, the armed forces must at least have contemporary systems. Strap-on booster shots cannot make up for numbers and the accelerating pace of technology.
Some so-called experts say that once the IAF inducts modern machines, the number of aircraft, both combat and transporters, can come down. That’s a strange argument. They forget that others are also going in for newer systems, and rather than simply matching developments around us, it is time to go in for capability-based acquisitions rather than threat-based systems.
As pointed out, we purchased our Mirage 2000 and Mig 29 aircraft in response to Pakistan’s acquisition of F 16 aircraft, Harpoon anti-shipping missiles, C³I computers and other systems from the US in 1982.
It takes our system long – around seven years to acquire an aircraft – and if every time we were to buy something in response, we would be nowhere.
India is a large country, with hostile neighbours and hostile elements in neighbouring countries. India also a large coast line, that requires constant patrolling and offensive measures against infiltration. The armed forces can fight, but the political system has to have the will to make sure that the Navy has the best ship, the Army the best gun, and the Air Force the best aircraft.
And well in time.
Armed forces play a decisive role in peacetime also. Besides deterrence emanating from their strength, they are the best and most organized means to alleviate suffering in any major natural disaster. But for the IAF, many Indians would die every year. This role need never be under-estimated.
It is worthwhile here to quote Deputy National Security Adviser Shekhar Dutt, who is also a former Defence Secretary. He told the National Seminar on Aerospace Technologies (N-SAT) held in September by the India Strategic defence magazine that India needs a “high-end capability air force” be it in combat jets, transport aircraft and helicopters, or advanced systems.
“The sheer expanse of our geography, which includes land borders with five countries and a 7,500+ km coastline along with our Exclusive Economic Zones, makes monitoring and protecting our soverign territory a significant challenge. It makes control of the airspace above our territory and maritime approaches especially crucial.”
Warning that “we are living in a volatile region” – and he mentioned this in September, well before the Pakistani terrorists attacked Mumbai – he observed: “ Our defence preparedness and, I daresay expeditionary capability, for undertaking operations to protect our strategic interests has to evolve accordingly. This aspect becomes important as water, energy and maritime resources will increasingly become issues of future conflicts.
“India needs an air force with a high-end capability that will ensure the confidence of victory. India also needs a strike capability that will allow India more scope to determine the pace and parameters of hostilities, impose major costs on an adversary contemplating hostile action against us, along with providing requisite support to Indian forces deployed anywhere.”
One only hopes that Mr Dutt’s observations are followed in letter in spirit, irrespective of who is in power today or tomorrow.
As for the aircraft, the IL 76 has served India well. It added a new dimension to air power in the Indian subcontinent and boosted the reach of the Indian Air Force. IAF deployed the aircraft within three to six months of their induction, and landed it at a short runway of 5500 feet in northern airfields while the manufacturers asked for a minimum runway length of 7500 feet.
During Operation Brasstacks in 1986-87, one IAF pilot conducted a record 28 missions in seven days on IL 76 to land BMPs for the army in tough mountainous terrain.
The first testing ground for India’s new strategic reach due to the transport aircraft was evident in Sri Lanka and Maldives operations. AN 32s provided unhindered support for the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), and later, on 3rd November 1988, the IL 76 and AN 32 aircraft were pressed into service to ferry troops to Maldives within hours of a request from President Moumoon Abdul Gayoom to tackle a coup attempt.
India had consulted world powers, and there was support from Washington, Moscow, London, and even Bahrain in the Gulf for the Indian mission.
Five IL 76 and 30 AN 32 transporters were used in the Maldives operation.
But it is time now to look for the replacement of these aircraft. If we make the choice now, the induction of the new machines could begin by 2015, by which time the security scenario would predictably be more complicated. In a realistic sense, we are already behind schedule in this regard.
Going by the Chief of Air Staff, India could be inducting bigger and better aircraft than the IL 76, in the 70+ tonne category.
On offer in this regard is the US-built C 17 Globemaster, which, according to its manufacturer Boeing, is being brought to the Aero India 2009 in February for display and flight demonstrations. The aircraft has a record of landing on a small 3000-foot runway, although it generally needs more than 7500 feet to take off with full load. It has however demonstrated that it can take off with a 40 tonne load in just around 1500 feet.
The IL 76 has a load factor of less than 50 tonnes, or just about the capacity of ferrying one tank.
IAF has already signed with the US Lockheed Martin to buy six Hercules C 130J special operations aircraft, which can land and take off fully loaded from grassy football ground size patches. There is an option for six more, and IAF is also coordinating acquisition of one additional C 130J, albeit with less capable avionics, for the Border Security Force (BSF).
BSF is also looking for two smaller C 27J Spartan aircraft from Italy’s Finmeccanica.
Similar aircraft are also needed by the Aviation Research Centre (ARC), the aviation wing of India’s external intelligence agency, RAW. Notably, it were the ARC aircraft which were used to ferry NSG commandos from New Delhi to Mumbai when the terrorists attacked there in October.
It is our personal observation that while aircraft could be acquired with funds from different organizations like BSF, their operations should be concentrated with the IAF or ARC. Experience has shown that it is difficult for the BSF, which comes under the Home Ministry, to employ pilots at commercial rates in accordance with civil aviation rules from the civil market.
IAF on the other hand trains its pilots and it is mandatory for them to serve in accordance with laid out rules.
Also, IAF needs transport aircraft in numbers. For a country the size of India, a dozen aircraft like the C 130J are not enough. And Transfer of Technology is worth under Offsets rules if the orders are sizeable. Maintenance is also easy then.
IAF is also buying 45 Indo-Russian Multi-role Transport Aircraft (MTA) through HAL but the plans for the development of this medium capacity aircraft are yet to be finalized. However, IAF has signed an agreement with Russia to buy 80 more Mi 17 helicopters in a follow-on order. These are time-tested machines.
But again, its plans to buy lighter helicopters to replace the old Chetak and Cheetahs are delayed along with those of the Indian Army.
The acquisition is now time-critical.
India cannot afford another surprise like Kargil or Mumbai. If the government can order the armed forces to fight, the leadership must also ensure that our officers and men have the cutting-edge capability.
Transporters, carrying men, fuel or electronic warfare systems, are the backbone of the combat pilot. (2050 words)
The writers are defence analysts.