An IDC Analysis


New Delhi, 07 October 2001

The Indian Air Force celebrates Air Force Day on 8 October as usual with an impressive fly past, at a time when the region is charged with military tension. USA and its allies are at war with terrorism and this war will be long and diffused. India is talking tough with Pakistan and the Armed Forces on both sides are on the alert. The IAF has understandably cancelled its International Review and firepower demonstration. The emphasis has rightly shifted to operational readiness.

This year the Tehelka scandal and many swift changes being implemented by a part time Defence Minister via the still to be clarified CDS scheme, have witnessed some disagreements among the top brass on the control of the nuclear and strategic missile forces. The turbulence affects the IAF the most, and will settle only when issues are clarified on ground. In the process the IAF could lose control of some of its assets. Hence a survey of India’s Air Force is considered timely.

Fighter Interceptor Status

The strength of the IAF is 110,000 personnel and a current budget of US$ 3.2 billion dollars. The fighter fleet comprises of 38 combat squadrons. These include:

(a)     Two squadrons of Mirage 2000H with RDM multimode radars from Dassault of France. Ten more are in the pipeline.

(b)     One squadron of SU 30, the Russian supplied planes which are to be upgraded to MK I.

(c)     19 aging squadrons of MiG 21 BIS/MF/FL with the I/J band Jaybird radars and the Tumansky R-25-30 engines.

(d)     Four squadrons of MiG 23 MF/BN with the I /J band High Lark radars.

(e)     Five squadrons of swing wing MiG 27ML which have been upgraded with western electronics by HAL.

(f)       Four squadrons of MiG 29A/B with OI-93 radars and infrared trackers, laser range finder and helmet mounted sights.

(g)     Five squadrons of Sepecat/HAL Jaguars with the Rolls Royce/Turbomeca Adour engines, which have seen many modifications including over wing firing pods for the Magic Matra and Russian missiles.

There is hardly any medium sized Air Force in the world, which has a fighter interceptor air fleet of so many diverse planes and even though the prefix MiG exists before each of them, their roles, engines, flying characteristics and technologies vary. The IAF also has half a squadron of MIG 25 high-level reconnaissance planes.

Hence the technological and training challenges before the Indian Air Force have been many, but the IAF has weathered the times well, both in peace and in war. The Achilles heel of the IAF has been the unacceptable accident rate of over 20 planes per year with many fatalities, especially of the aging main backbone MIG 21 fighters. Whilst the accident problem is attributed to poor transition from the Kiran to the unforgiving supersonic MiG 21 fighters and bird hits, it was to be partly addressed by the acquisition of 66 Hawk-115 advanced jet trainer (AJT) aircraft from BAE. This 15-year old demand seems to have again fallen back. There is also a pilot shortage.

A total of 123 MiG-21 bis are being upgraded in India in the next two years by HAL at Nasik and two will fly on IAF’s birthday with the old Hunters now used for target towing. The upgraded MiG 21s will be able to fire the medium range R-73RDM (AA-11 Archer 40 km) and beyond visual range R-77EW-AE (AA-12 Adder 100 km). For the future the IAF will induct 50 SU 30s from IAPO in Russia and HAL will build 140 in India. The DRDO LCA seems far away and some say may become a pipe dream.

The Helicopter Fleet

The Indian Air Force has a modest but versatile helicopter fleet of over twenty squadrons of MI 8s (being phased out), MI 17s, MI-26 Transporters and MI 35 Hind Attack versions which have two Isotov TV3-117 engines, twin barreled Gsh 30mm high velocity cannons and two UV-20-76 pods for rockets or anti tank missiles. These attack gun ships were employed in Sierra Leone last year with success. The Air Force has ordered 40 upgraded MI 17s and some have arrived and these have upgraded engines, rocket and gun pods and can fire chaff/flare dispensers from under their booms called ASO 21. Two squadrons will be employed in the Siachen area. The IAF has handed over the majority of its Cheetah Aerospatiale/HAL SA-315B Lamas and some Alouette III (Chetaks) to the Army Aviation Corps. It is all set to induct the ALH with the Turbomeca engine in the next few years in numbers. Then IAF will be self sufficient for the next decade except for a modern attack helicopter and AEW/AWACS capability, which is being attended to. The Navy has taken a march by ordering KA-31 AEW helicopters, and recent developments may see Pakistan getting US Gunships in numbers. The balance is likely to tip.

The Transport Fleet

The IAF transport fleet is critically dependant on the aging HAL built AVRO 748s and some 100 AN 32s and the large long range IL-76s. The IAF was extremely fortunate that the Russian’s designed the AN-32 aircraft for the IAF specifically for their high altitude needs and the IAF has fitted cockpit recorders and new radars. These have proved very reliable and planes to land at the heights of Thoise in Siachen and Leh, though three crashed initially on arrival and three later, two near Delhi. This workhorse has served the IAF well and is also used for para dropping. Augmented by the long-range fuel guzzling IL-76 the IAF is in a satisfactory position but will have to contemplate for its future requirements. The acquisition of 6 VIP 50-seater jets for the Transport and Communications Squadron at Palam is pending. as the demands for VIP travel by IAF planes has increased and is also misused.

The IAF is looking to acquiring IL-78 mid air refuellers which the Air Chief witnessed at Kubinka air base near Moscow and the Phalcon AEW Synthetic Aperture Radar System from Israel, which has inputs from Lockheed Martin to be fitted on the IL-76 in Russia. This may now be possible, as US sanctions have been lifted.

The IAF has also solved its lubricants problems and AVI-OIL a Government joint venture with NYCO SA of France has come of age but the IAF’s spares problems and upgradation of radar and communications will continue to pose challenges.

Jointness in the Armed Forces

Finally one must address the issue of jointness between the Services, which in today’s context has become a necessity and seems a shortcoming in the Indian Armed Forces. Air Chief Marshal A Y Tipnis has rightly advocated greater control of India’s space power, since the present structures on airspace and air defence between the Army and Air Force are hazy. The basic principle governing the use of air power is its indivisibility. The dictum of treating air power as one entity can never be forgotten. If the air assets are centrally controlled, they can be concentrated in peace and war, and deployed at the right time to destroy the enemy’s war potential.

The shock action of air power can only be realized through coordinated and centralized control. Separation of command and control between different agencies may lead to splitting of forces into ineffectual penny packets. This is the crux of the Air Chief’s thrust. There has been no debate on command and control of air assets, nuclear forces and defence, but a new template is on the cards and that will be the IAF’s and the nation’s challenge.

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