By Atul Kumar
The Indian Air Force (IAF), the fourth largest in the world, presently operates an air fleet that integrates over 95 per cent of foreign-designed aircraft and weapon systems. Besides, it has been suffering from a massive aircraft shortage, including fixed-wing combat jets, trainers (both intermediate and basic), AEW aircraft, attack choppers, and utility helicopters for many years.
The 114 medium multi-role combat aircraft, 200 Ka-226T utility helicopters, two Israeli Phalcon AEW&C systems, NASAMS-II air-defence shield, five Raytheon ISTAR jets, 62 Airbus C-295 multi-mission transport aircraft, and Basic Trainer Aircraft are the major ones among these procurement deals.
After India signed up for the 36 Rafales in 2016, the first set of five Rafales have landed in Ambala and have been inducted into the service on Sep. 10 this year. This leaves a shortfall of another 90 aircraft from the original requirement of 126 combat jets under the now cancelled Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft 2007 tender. To plug this gap, India has sought information from global aircraft makers on what they can offer the IAF in case it buys 114 jets.
Offers have come from Lockheed Martin Corp. for its F-21, Boeing Co. for its F/A-18, Saab AB‘s Gripen, Russian Aircraft Corporation‘s MiG-35 and United Aircraft Corporation‘s Sukhoi Su-35, Airbus Defence’s Eurofighter Typhoon, and, as expected, the Rafale itself from the Dassault Aviation.
Interestingly, there are two offers from Russia and already Boeing Co. has indicated that it could offer the F-15EX to the IAF to meet this medium combat aircraft requirement. Lockheed Martin Corp. has promised fifth generation technologies on F-21 such as the AESA radar and a modern cockpit that are all now part of the F-22 and F-35 jets
The next step in this procurement for the 114-jet programme is an Expression of Interest to both the Indian Strategic Partner and the foreign Technology Partner. Those in the Indian industry keen on participating in the programme include the Tata Group, the Adani Group, and the Mahindra Group.
While Initial Operational Clearance and Final Operational Clearance variants of LCA Mk1 numbering 40 are already being inducted into the IAF, LCA Mk1A has been progressing at a full pace at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited’s (HAL’s) facility in Bengaluru.
The HAL will supply 83 LCA Mk1As, an advanced, better equipped, and powerful variant of Tejas to the IAF between 2023 and 2027. However, the final contract to supply these 83 state-of-the-art homegrown fighters is yet to be signed.
The LCA Mk1A will introduce technologies half a generation ahead including Elta‘s E/M 2052 digital AESA radar, better-advanced next-generation Within Visual Range and Beyond Visual Range missiles, a modern intelligent multi-functional display, hot-refuelling and ability to launch multiple modern light and heavy munitions and cruise missiles.
It will also feature a full-fledged indigenous Electronic Warfare suite in combination with an external self-protection jammer being developed jointly with Israel‘s Elisra Group to enhance survivability and low observability.
These capabilities could be expanded, as IAF also plans to integrate Rafael Advanced Defense System‘s long-range I-Derby ER on LCA ‘Tejas’. Besides, an indigenous AESA radar (Electronics and Radar Development Establishment‘s Uttam) on LCA could also enable European MBDA‘s Meteor BVR for Tejas fleet.
India has achieved greater and sufficient self-reliance in indigenous weapon systems. Conceived and designed by the DRDO, Astra BVRAAM is another significant addition to air force’s combat capabilities after LCA.
Fitted with an array of modern indigenous technologies such as active Ku-band RF seeker, inertial navigation, ECCM and influential solid rocket motor, the DRDO’s ultra-supersonic long-range Astra is an outstanding answer to AIM-120C BVRAAM equipped on Pakistan Air Force‘s F-16 fleet.
The Defence Research and Development Organisation‘s (DRDO’s) lightweight Smart Anti-Airfield Weapon (SAAW) is also ready to be deployed on the LCA as the primary air-to-ground weapon, while an indigenous next-generation anti-radiation missile (NG-ARM) is also being developed to amplify LCA’s ‘Wild Weasel‘ powers.
The SAAW is a specially designed standoff strike weapon with over 100 km range to destroy deep ground targets including enemy bunkers, weapons facilities, airfields, and military bases with a high degree of accuracy from three metre to seven metre.
In the air-defence segment, while indigenous Akash and MRSAM are already in service with IAF, another critical indigenous anti-air missile system named Ballistic Missile Defence System (BMDS) is now all set to safeguard major Indian cities and strategic installations from high-level hostile aerial threats, primarily nuclear-capable ballistic missiles of Pakistan and China.
The ultra-long-range Swordfish will be the main eye in the sky of Indian BMDS, while Electronics and Radar Development Establishment’s other radar systems including new-generation Medium Power Radar (MPR) ‘Arudhra’, Low Level Transportable Radar (LLTR) ‘Ashwini’ and 3D Low-Level Light Weight ‘Aslesha’ are meant to enhance IAF’s networking powers together with 24×7 watch of Indian air space.
Apart from combat planes, the IAF is also in the dire need of trainer aircraft as the current strength is now down to below 300 from a required 400 aircraft. Besides 120 Hawk Mk-132 advanced trainers, IAF inducted 75 Pilatus Aircraft PC-7 MkII BTA to balance its trainer fleet. It still requires over 100 training aircraft of this class, however.
To fill this gap, the air force has now decided to buy 106 modern, indigenous Hindustan Turbo Trainer HTT-40s for IAF at a cost of over Rs 7,600 crore ($1.01 billion). State-owned HAL has designed and developed the HTT-40, which is now in the advanced operational validation stage. Once the certification is done, HAL would supply the HTT-40s to the air force’s pilot training establishment.
Besides the basic flight training, indigenous HTT-40 will perform tasks involving aerobatic, instrument flying, close-formation flights, and navigation and night-flying. A light-attack version of HTT-40, armed with a close-combat gun and anti-tank munitions, could also be developed quickly for the close air support role.
With only five AEW&C aircraft in service, IAF has been dealing with another significant shortage of mission-critical systems. These are the actual force-multipliers during war.
To end the IAF dependence on foreign AWACS, DRDO has successfully developed and delivered India’s first ‘Eye in the Sky’ AEW&CS aircraft named ‘Netra‘. Suited with indigenously developed modern-age fully digital AESA antenna and other electronic sub-systems, Netra is capable of delivering 270-degree coverage with 400-km detention capabilities.
The DRDO has been offering enhanced Netra on Airbus C-295 aircraft. In addition, DRDO is also ready with the systems to build a more capable and larger 360-degree AWACS based on Airbus A-330 for the IAF.
After the success of Advanced Light Helicopter ‘Dhruv’, the latest bets are the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) and Light Utility Helicopter (LUH). The LCH has been deployed operationally in the Ladakh region in the military conflict that is raging with China since May this year.
Designed particularly for adverse high-altitude manoeuvres of the Indian Army and the IAF, both the LUH and the LCH would serve as force-multipliers for Indian defence forces in the high mountainous terrain.
The IOC has already been given to both the HAL-developed rotorcraft, and they are now gradually moving towards the FOC certification.
LCH, the first dedicated indigenous gunship, in concert with armed Rudra, will exceptionally bolster the firepower of IAF and the Indian Army along the Line of Actual Control. The IAF has called for nearly 65 of these combat machines, while total requirement for the IAF and the Indian Army estimated to be over 170 LCHs.
The LUH will replace the decades-old Chetak and Cheetal utility choppers and will supplement in-service ALH Dhruv. Besides utility duties, LUH would foster surveillance and reconnaissance, search and rescue, and special operations in the Himalayas.
As IAF is looking to acquire over 120 utility helicopters, around 60 LUHs will be supplied by HAL, and the rest will be Russian-origin Ka-226Ts that HAL will manufacture jointly with its Russian counterpart.