SummaryFrance’s Dassault Aviation announced late last month that it had won a bid to supply India with 126 Rafale fighters over the next decade. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has recently taken a series of steps to upgrade and improve its capabilities. However, until it resolves a number of underlying issues, the IAF will continue to face significant limitations.
France’s Dassault Aviation announced Jan. 31 that India has selected its Rafale fighter in the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition. Assuming negotiations on the estimated $10.4 billion contract proceed smoothly, Dassault Aviation will supply India with 126 aircraft over a 10-year period. The final contract has yet to be signed. The first 18 aircraft will be bought directly from Dassault Aviation, while India’s state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) will assemble and produce the rest in Bangalore.
The MMRCA competition is the latest in a series of significant upgrades and improvements, particularly the purchase of advanced aircraft and improvement of the overall infrastructure of the force, intended to advance the capabilities of the IAF. However, the bulk of IAF aircraft today are outmoded, and overall the force structure is deteriorating. Even more worrisome is the status of IAF flight training, a problem that is compounded by maintenance issues and the constraints imposed by a large bureaucracy. While new aircraft are an important part of modernizing the IAF, there are underlying challenges that are equally important to a robust force.
Origin and Evolution of the IAF
The IAF was officially established Oct. 8, 1932. Since Indian independence in 1947, the IAF has participated in four wars against Pakistan and one against China. These conflicts and continued tensions with Pakistan and China have led the IAF to emphasise maintaining a large force structure capable of engaging in large-scale conventional wars against enemy air forces and ground formations. This entailed the continuous purchase of large numbers of fighters and interceptors as well as ground attack aircraft. Additionally, given the huge size of potential theatres of operation as well as often-mediocre transportation infrastructure, the IAF has stressed the maintenance of an effective logistical support capacity since the early 1950s. In practice, this has led to large purchases of aircraft that can be used for parts.
The IAF has five operational and two functional commands. Two of the operational commands are oriented toward Pakistan, two are primarily oriented toward China, and the fifth and most recent, Southern Command, was established in 1984 and focuses on conducting operations over the Indian Ocean, though such operations remain the principle domain of the Indian Navy Air Arm.
Since the 1960s, the IAF has increasingly relied on Soviet equipment and material. There were two large acquisition periods: From 1963 to 1971, MiG, Tupolev and Sukhoi aircraft were purchased, and Soviet MiG aircraft figured prominently in a 1978-1988 modernization program. The two significant exceptions were the introduction of British Jaguars in 1979 and French Mirage-2000s in 1985.
Aside from the purchase of Russian Su-30MKIs in 2002, the IAF has not made any additions to its fighter fleet since the 1980s. Indeed, many of the aircraft acquired during the 1978-1988 modernization program have either been retired or are falling into disrepair. Thus, the IAF is currently developing significant plans to modernize some aircraft types and replace others with newer and far more advanced warplanes.
Recent Modernization, Purchases and Upgrades
In addition to the MMRCA competition, the IAF has launched the “Super 30” program, which will see the upgrading of 40 Su-30MKI fighters with new radars, electronic warfare systems and BrahMos missiles. The IAF has also invested almost a billion dollars in modernizing its MiG-29s to the multi-role MiG-29UPG variant. Furthermore, the IAF finalised a deal in July 2010 to upgrade its French Mirage-2000 aircraft to the Mirage-2000-5 Mk2 variant, and in January 2012 it decided to purchase 490 MICA air-to-air missiles for the Mirages.
Beginning in 2020, the IAF plans to induct 250-300 PAK-FA stealth fifth-generation fighter aircraft, which are currently being jointly developed with Russia, but remain in a very preliminary stage of development. At a cost of around $35 billion dollars, the project is expected to be India’s most expensive defence project ever. With these future purchases, the IAF is expected to grow to 42 squadrons by 2022, about 10 more squadrons than are currently in the IAF. By comparison, Pakistan is believed to have fewer than 20 fixed-wing combat squadrons.
In addition to the modernization and improvement of its fixed-wing fighter fleet, the IAF is also seeking to improve its transport and aerial-refueling tanker force. As of February 2011, the IAF operated six IL-78MKI tankers, but with its growing number of squadrons and force projection needs, the IAF in 2010 initiated the Multi-Role Tanker Transport competition for an approximately $2 billion contract to provide the IAF with another six tankers. The IAF is also improving its transport fleet, with a $4.1 billion deal signed in June 2011 for 10 American C-17 Globemaster IIIs. The IAF had signed an approximately $1 billion deal for six C-130J transports in 2008, and it is currently seeking to purchase six more aircraft of the same type.
The IAF is also looking to double its force of Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft, which currently comprises three IL-76 Phalcons. Additionally, India has issued a number of requests for proposals involving AEW&C aircraft and eventually hopes to have 24 domestically built AEW&C planes.
The IAF’s Problems
Despite the extensive modernization program and overall purchases, the development of the IAF is limited by a number of acute problems. If not adequately addressed, these constraints will prohibit the IAF from taking full advantage of its new infrastructure and equipment.
A major problem of the IAF is the very high crash and accident rate within its fleet. The most recent incident occurred Jan. 31 when a Kiran MK II trainer exploded in flight. (The two pilots managed to eject beforehand). In 2011 alone, the Indian defence forces suffered at least a dozen aircraft crashes.
The high IAF crash rate is due to three main variables. The first is the age of many of the aircraft types flown. For instance, the MiG-21 first entered service with the IAF in 1964, and it is not only one of the most numerous jets operated in the IAF, but it also is expected to be in service for a few more years.
Poor industrial maintenance is also a problem. In November 2011, India’s first astronaut, Rakesh Sharma, who also has much experience as a test pilot with Hindustan Aeronautics, blamed faulty planning in public defence companies (known in India as public sector undertakings, or PSUs) for the high rate of crashes, indicating that “the PSUs have the infrastructure but they do not have the expertise.” Sharma said that he would send back fighter planes to the laboratories if he detected defective parts but that he soon found out that instead of doing research and development on these parts, the laboratories fitted them in other fighter planes.
The third variable in the high crash rate is the state of the IAF trainer fleet. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India said in 2008 that the IAF was facing an acute shortage of effective pilots after failing to impart quality training. The CAG blamed a lack of adequate state-of-the-art training aircraft in the IAF for the shortage. The bulk of the IAF trainer fleet is composed of indigenously made platforms by HAL. These aircraft have largely proved inadequate and have not met expectations. For instance, the HPT-32 Deepak fleet was grounded in 2009 due to recurrent engine failure that led to numerous crashes.
The lack of a capable training fleet has forced new IAF pilots to undergo their basic training on the HAL Kiran, which is powered by jet engines. By comparison, most Western pilots begin on a turboprop trainer then graduate to training in jets. Due to age and quality issues, even the more advanced Kiran fleet has proved inadequate. The IAF’s training academy in Hyderabad reportedly has less than 100 Kirans, which has forced the Surya Kiran and Sagar Pawan aerobatic teams to lend their aircraft for training purposes.
An even more serious development is that, due to the shortage of trainer aircraft, the IAF has cut down flying time for new pilots to one-third of the usual rate (25 flight hours of basic training instead of the usual 75). By comparison, the U.S. Air Force offers more than 100 flight hours of basic training to its cadets. The number of basic training hours had reportedly dwindled even lower over the past two years but has now been stabilised thanks to better management of resources. One of the ways the IAF has sought to maximise its training fleet is to train some of its pilots on MiG-21 trainer variants.
In the next few years there is the potential for a reversal of this trend. The IAF has sought to acquire a number of proven twin-seat Hawk AJTs, some 55 of which are already in service in the IAF, for use as trainers. These aircraft were ordered in March 2004, but bureaucratic issues have delayed their purchase and introduction. The IAF has also selected the Swiss PC-7 to be its next basic trainer, but it is anticipated that it will be at least three more years before the aircraft is delivered.
The IAF’s attempts to improve its capabilities by upgrading its existing aircraft and equipment and purchasing new aircraft may be moderately successful. However, the IAF continues to face significant underlying challenges.
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