The Indian Air Force (IAF) describes itself as a modern, technology-intensive force distinguished by its commitment to excellence and professionalism, and claims it is keeping pace with strategic demands while modernising in a phased manner.
On the surface those statements can be regarded as generally true, however modernization programmes for India’s fleets of fighters have had a checkered past, and continue to be fraught with political wrangling and the dichotomy of high aspirations hamstrung by questionable expertise in programme definition and execution. For example, the indigenously built Hindustan Aeronautics Limited Tejas Mk.1/A Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) has been in development for approximately thirty years, with only four aircraft currently delivered to the IAF. The most positive among us would find that design and development effort woefully lacking. Such is the state of that programme that some air power commentators have acidly suggested that 30 years of developing the aircraft has essentially yielded a 21st century MiG-21 fighter.
In effort to get a first-hand appreciation and understanding of the Indian Air Force and the status of its fleet of fighter aircraft, AMR repeatedly reached out to the Indian Air Force, and also to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), with no reply from either organisation. It is exceptionally troubling that the Indian Air Force’s very own public relations department could not muster a simple reply or speak about its own aircraft or programmes. It is equally troubling that after speaking with a HAL public relations manager who requested the author submit a query by e-mail, chose to take no further action.
A Hindustan Times article published in 2016 referenced a top Indian defence ministry source saying that the IAF was working towards the target of inducting approximately 400 warplanes by 2030 to buttress its depleting force levels which apparently set off “alarm bells” about the country’s ability to tackle a combined threat from the People’s Republic of China and Pakistan. According to the article, the IAF’s fighter squadrons have shrunk to 33 (comprising roughly 640 fighters) compared to a desirable strength of 42 squadrons.
According to a 2016 report entitled Indian Air Power: Challenges and Opportunities, written by Abhijit Iyer-Mitra and Angad Singh, published in the Defence Primer: India at 75 book, the authors contend that the IAF will only be close to a 40-plus squadron force a decade from now, with two major caveats/ First, nearly half the force will by then be either obsolete or obsolescent, and second, the entire projection hinges on a number of programmes that are at various stages of development today, and will need to run smoothly over the next ten or so years.
One of the biggest capability gaps that the IAF is facing stems from the large number of ageing Soviet-era fighters which it has in its inventory. So today, the IAF is in the process of a comprehensive modernisation plan with upgrades for its fighter fleet in order to enhance their operational capabilities. Of the available fleets, the MiG-21Bis/Bisons/M/MF and MiG-27ML are slowly being phased out, while the SEPECAT Jaguar-M/S, Dassault Mirage-2000H/TH and MiG-29B/UPG aircraft are all undergoing upgrades. The following will describe some of the latest happenings for the operational fleets.
The IAF currently operates nine squadrons of MiG-21 family aircraft. Broadly speaking, the MiG-21s function as interceptors, however they are able to function in the strike role by utilising free fall bombs and rockets. Of the nine squadrons, one can arguably say that six are ‘combat relevant’ as they comprise aircraft that were upgraded from the MiG-21Bis variant to the MiG-21 Bison standard. The remaining three squadrons are comprised of older MiG-21M/MF and MiG-21Bis units. Meanwhile, the IAF operates three squadrons of MiG-27ML fighters. These aircraft have been upgraded with semi-glass cockpits, and the ability to mount targeting pods and deliver precision-guided munitions. On paper these upgraded aircraft appear formidable however they face numerous maintenance and availability issues yielding poor sortie generation rates, and are largely regarded as aircraft that would operate in a permissive environment for ground attack.
Away from the MiG-27ML fleet, India was the first international customer of the MiG-29B/UPG. The IAF placed an order for more than 50 MiG-29B/UPGs in 1980 while the aircraft was still in its initial development phase. Since its induction into the IAF in 1985, the aircraft has undergone a series of modifications with the addition of new avionics, sub-systems, turbofans and radars. The IAF has three squadrons of MiG-29’s, each comprising approximately 20 aircraft. An upgrade programme has begun, however sources say that it is proceeding much slower than expected. The modernization is part of a $900 million contract to upgrade 63 aircraft. These upgrades are intended to bring the IAF MiG-29’s closer to the Russian Air Force MiG-29SMT variant. The first MiG-29UPG flight was conducted on 4 February 2011 with the first three MiG-29UPG upgraded fighters being delivered to India in December 2012; over two years behind schedule.
According to Angad Singh, an Indian aerospace and defence expert based in New Delhi: “The MiG-29UPG is similar to the MiG-21 Bison upgrade in that it is pulling as much 21st century capability as possible into the MiG-29. In fact, the Air Force is leveraging as much technology as it can from the Indian Navy MiG-29K fleet.” Mr. Singh continued that: “(A) lot of the new avionics and (components) come from the MiG-29K. It will give the MiG-29UPG capability for all the air-to-air missiles in the Indian inventory, and a lot better air-to-ground capability over the original MiG-29Bs, including a PGM (Precision Guided Munition) capability.” Unfortunately, this upgrade programme, which is being performed domestically, is suffering from considerable delays, and informed sources believe the delays are due to shortfalls in upgrade kit availability from Russia.
In 1978 the IAF procured a fleet of Jaguar-M/S aircraft. The order involved 40 Jaguars built in Europe, and 120 aircraft built under licence by HAL. The IAF has embarked upon Display Attack and Ranging Inertial Navigation-III (DARIN) upgrade for the Jaguar-S which is outfitting the aircraft with the Israel Aerospace Industries’ ELTA Systems Division EL/M-2052 X-band (8.5-10.68 gigahertz) Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, already equipping the IAF’s Jaguar-M squadron onto the remaining six IAF Jaguar-S squadrons. The remaining chapter in the Jaguar upgrade story revolves around the engine. Previous upgrades have cumulatively added weight to the aircraft without any increase in engine performance or thrust. The DARIN-III upgrade was originally supposed to include an engine upgrade, however that aspect has been de-linked. As recently as last year the IAF said it will re-engine the Jaguar fleet, with the front runner appearing to be the Honeywell F125IN turbofan. Rolls-Royce has also proposed an upgrade to the aircraft’s existing Adour engine.
The IAF’s other European fast jet is the Mirage-2000H/TH. It is the primary IAF aircraft that is tasked with the nuclear strike role. In July 2011, India approved an $3 billion upgrade to its entire Mirage 2000T/TH fleet which included the acquisition of over 400 MBDA MICA Active Radar Homing (ARH) and infrared guided Air-to-Air Missiles. The Mirage 2000T/TH upgrade was reportedly based on the French Air Force Mirage 2000-5 Mk.2 standard; the most advanced variant of the aircraft.
In March 2015, India received the first two upgraded Mirage 2000T/TH fighters from Dassault. The remainder of the IAF’s Mirage 2000T/TH fleet (47 aircraft) will be upgraded in India by HAL over the next five years, at a reported cost of around $1.9 billion. The upgraded jets are fitted with the Thales RDY-2 X-band radar, a helmet mounted display, new avionics, and the ability to fire new weapons including the MICA AAM. These upgraded jets will be designated the Mirage 2000I for the single-seat version and the Mirage 2000TI for the twin-seat version.
The IAF’s other leading frontline fighter is the Su-30MKI. Regarded by the IAF as an air superiority fighter, the total order for the aircraft is for 272 examples, with ten squadrons currently fielded, and up to four squadrons yet to be formed with new-build aircraft depending on the eventual squadron size. As the designation denotes, the aircraft is intended to reign supreme in the skies, however it also has an air-to-ground capability with air-to-ground ordnance delivery. Because of its size and payload capability, the IAF determined that customized Su-30MKI’s would be the best platform to integrate with the BrahMos Aerospace BrahMos-A air-to-ground satellite and ARH-guided supersonic cruise missile. Customised MKIs have a strengthened rebuilt centre fuselage section in order to carry the BrahMos-A on the centerline station. The first flight took place on 25th June 2016 at Nashik in western India, and subsequent flights have validated carriage and weapon separation trials. Testing with a live BrahMos-A missile is planned for sometime in 2017. It is still to be determined how many aircraft will receive the BrahMos-A upgrade, however prevailing thoughts lean towards a sub-fleet to the MKI fleet.
The SU-30MKI is also being used to test the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) indigenously designed Astra beyond-visual-range missile. The missile test program is behind schedule, although India’s DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation), which is leading the trials, hopes to complete the remaining tests before the end of the second quarter of 2017. The DRDO has also used the Su-30MKI to flight test the indigenously designed DRDO Smart Anti-Airfield Weapon (SAAW) over the Integrated Test Range in Odisha. This weapon will ultimately be fielded by the Su-30MKI and Jaguar fleets, and likely the Dassault Rafale-F3A/B, of which the IAF is acquiring 36, once it is inducted into the IAF.
Regarding indigenous platforms, The Tejas Mk.1/1A was designed by India’s Advanced Development Agency (ADA) and its design dates back to the 1980s as the aircraft was intended as an indigenous replacement for the MiG-21 family, yet it has encountered numerous problems and delays such that many in India’s air power community question the aircraft’s relevance. Nonetheless, the LCA has provided India with lessons learned on aircraft design, and that will surely help in the future.
The IAF has ordered 40 Tejas Mk.1 aircraft, with a further 100 Tejas Mk.1A aircraft being built for the IAF. The latter is HAL’s effort to leverage their expertise in aircraft modification and upgrades to equip the Tejas with an advanced AESA radar, and an electronic jamming pod. It will also incorporate weight reduction along with easier service maintainability which will serve to reduce downtime for each aircraft. The Tejas Mk. 1A variant will also have a mid-air refuelling probe to enhance its endurance and operational range. Meanwhile, the Tejas Mk.2 variant is an ADA-spearheaded effort to institute some configuration changes to the overall Tejas family design, and to integrate General Electric’s F414-GE-INS6 turboban: “The Tejas Mk.2 would be similar to the Saab JAS-39E/F Gripen fighter where you upgrade the engine and beef up the airframe around it, and you therefore end up with a more capable aircraft overall,” said Mr. Singh. Some question this approach as the ADA has had a checkered past through the Engineering and Manufacturing and Development (EMD) phase of the original Tejas Mk.1 design, and therefore the potential for delay is a distinct possibility.
Over the next few years, the IAF will induct more Su-30MKIs, Tejas Mk.1/1A and Rafale-F3A/B fighters. The first deliveries of the Rafale-F3A/B are expected in 2019. However, things are less clear regarding the joint Indo-Russian collaboration on the Sukhoi PAK-FA fifth-generation fighter. The IAF has recently completed a design review of the aircraft, and has found: “gaps in information in terms of the depth and transfer of technology…and a lack of visibility of total cost,” as stated by IAF chief of the air staff, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha. The Indian Government, through its ‘Make In India’, which is encouraging foreign companies to build their products in the country has invited proposals from Sweden, in the form of the JAS-39E/F and the United States, in the form of the Lockheed Martin F-16 Block-70/72 to transfer technology to the country in a competition aimed at acquiring approximately 100 single engine fighter aircraft which would be built in India. It is expected that this will be followed by a similar process to acquire approximately 100 dual engine fighter aircraft.
India is also pursuing an indigenous Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) design. Conceptual designs have been formulated, and the aircraft is expected to be broadly similar to Lockheed Martin’s F-35A/B/C Lightning-II fifth-generation fighter in terms of range and performance, and is expected to include design features such as internal weapons storage and S-shaped engine inlets. Sadly, if past IAF acquisition is any guide, the AMCA program is decades away if it comes to fruition, and that begs the question of whether it will be relevant by then.
Mr. Singh is critical of the Indian defence procurement process and has argued that: “because of the Indian system, we are inducting fourth- or 4.5-generation aircraft in the 2020s, which is entirely unacceptable. It will be great to say that we have these aircraft on paper, but there is a very real potential is that they will be hopelessly outclassed. We seem to keep buying aircraft on the back end of the operational curve, and that’s also a very real problem. What I would like to see is speed in decision making because the longer we dither, the greater the costs.”