Indian Air Force Day –– A Retrospect

(An IDC Report & Analysis)


New Delhi, 12 October 2004

The Indian Air Force (IAF) celebrated its 72nd Anniversary on Friday 08 Oct. As usual a smart parade and pageantry was held at Palam, New Delhi where the best of its wares were on show and a breathtaking display of airmanship and fly past were conducted. Stunning aerobatics by the latest showpiece in the sky, Dhruv, the indigenous Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH), slated for high pitched export and air manoeuvres by Surya Kiran, the veteran trainers that will soon be replaced by Hawks were the highlights.

This year’s Air Force Day also marked two significant milestones –– 50 years of the first Indian officer, the late Subroto Mukherjee, taking charge as Air Chief and the birth centenary of JRD Tata –– the father of aviation in India. The next day, the Air Chief, ACM S Krishnaswamy left for Chile where efforts were being made to export the indigenously developed and HAL built ALH. If successful, it would signify the coming of age of the Indian Aerospace industry in a big way. Last month, at USI in a lecture Prof Roddam Narsimha, a leading light in aviation research and development, had emphasized that at least 200 of these helicopters need to be sold to ensure the success of its development and production and make it a commercial success. We sincerely hope the country’s efforts in this venture will be rewarded. No nation aspiring to be a major military and economic power can do without a basic indigenous capability for building modern aircraft, ships and tanks.

With near certainty of the US finally selling the much sought after F-16s to Pakistan, the IAF’s ageing fighter fleet assumes an urgent need for acquiring over 300 combat aircraft (at a cost of $20 billion), just to replace the numbers that have to be phased out. The present strength has depleted with each passing year because of the phasing out of the old MiG-21s and Mig-23s. The current strength stands at 29 Squadrons as compared to the sanctioned strength of 39. If 2 or 3 squadrons are phased out every year, and replacements are made available, the IAF could peg its strength at 30 squadrons over the next 10 years. This will be just 8 more than what the Pakistan air-force has and will deny IAF air superiority. Pakistan is also negotiating with Sweden, France and Arab countries and has got 50 Mirage jets with 150 spare engines and kits, albeit of older 5D and F1 versions, from Libya. According to the military balance published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, India has approx 700 combat aircraft, nearly 600 of which are of Soviet/Russian origin. Of these about 300 are MiG-21s, 78 MiG-23s, 135 MiG-27s, 63 MiG-29s and 7 MiG-25s.

This process of modernisation/replacement, was started in 1994 when purchase of Su-30s was contracted by the Narsimha Rao government. They arrived during the United Front era and 45 of them are now operational. India will produce another 150 Su-30s beginning next year. Besides, 28 Jaguars are also under production in India, while orders for 10 more Mirage-2000s have been placed. The Mirages should join the IAF shortly. The gap between phasing out the older aircraft and acquiring newer ones would have been much higher but for these acquisitions and the decision to upgrade 125 MiG-21(Bis) jets to extend their life up to 2017. Although there is talk of further acquiring up to 125 multi-role fighter aircraft, the requirement for which seems to have been accepted by the Government with the project now in the process of clearance, only the successful fructification of the indigenous LCA (Tejas) programme will truly give muscle to Indian airpower.

Listing out the important achievements notched up by the force in the past one year, Air Chief Marshal Krishnaswamy said that the country's nuclear arsenal delivery arm, the Strategic Forces Command, was "fully operational" at various locations. His comments assume significance with the army raising more missile groups to be armed with 700km shorter range Agni-I and 2000 km medium range Agni-II surface to surface missiles. The induction of the IL-78 tankers will be completed by the end of this year. ”Four of them are already flying, while the fifth will be joining in a short time and the sixth will be inducted by the end of this year,’’ he pointed out, adding, “Our Mid-Air Refuelling Tanker Force (MARS) reached operational status in a record time. The fighter aircraft plugged in for refuelling in the air with the tankers 5,000 times in the past one year without any difficulty”. Each of these IL-78 costs around Rs 130 crore. Efforts are also being made to convert SU-30s into frontline mid-air refuellers. This Russian-designed multi-role fighter aircraft has so far been seen in its traditional combat role. They’ll, however, be very soon used for a different purpose by assuming the role of a tanker to refuel other combat planes in mid-air in what has been christened as a “buddy refuelling system”. IAF has become the sixth air force in the world to induct air tankers like the IL-78s to enhance the operational and endurance capabilities of its frontline fighters like the Su-30MKIs, Jaguars and Mirage-2000s.

The IAF’s officer strength has reached 11,300 and the short-service commission for male officers has been stopped, indicating that there is at the moment no shortfall in the strength of male officers. The number of women officers is going to be doubled from 5 to 10% soon, and a landmark has been achieved in having the first lady Air Marshal –– Padmavathy Bandopadhyay who became the DGAFMS on 30 Sep this year. The Service is also examining ways and means of reducing manpower by introducing multi-disciplinary training to its personnel.

The IAF is going in for more and more overseas deployment of its fighter aircraft to gauge operational tactics of other air forces. After a multi-lateral exercise in the US (Alaska), a large IAF contingent comprising six multi-role Mirage-2000 fighters, an IL-78 air-to-air refueller and another IL-76 transport aircraft, along with 150 airmen, set wings to South Africa in Sep 04 to participate in a joint combat exercise 'Golden Eagle' there. The exercise, a force and capability projection endeavour by India, had IAF fighters operating with the 'Cheetah' fighter jets of the South African Air Force. Mid-air refuelling by the IL-78 were carried out while over-flying the Indian Ocean. Marking a first in expanded defence relations, India and US once again fielded their top fighters, Sui-30MKIs and the latest F-16s respectively at Gwalior over the weekend. The political milestone was no less interesting. IAF pilots were to have flown against F-16s much earlier last year. But protests from Pakistan that Indian pilots should not be allowed to become "familiar" with F-16s had stalled the initiative. Pakistan's concern was that it has F-16s too, and that these are the sword-arm of its now fully stretched air force. The PAF was not too happy at the prospect of IAF pilots getting valuable experience of simulated air combat against the vaunted F-16.

While the sky is the limit, the Indian Air Force is preening its feathers for one of the most aggressive air-crew training programmes in the world. At least three High G-Ultra Modern Human Centrifuge Simulators are on their way from abroad for training IAF'S aircrew. These centrifuges will simulate modern fighter environment, in terms of high forces of gravity (G-forces), and will replace the primitive simulators for training fighter crew in Delhi, Hyderabad and Bangalore. Each centrifuge would cost more than Rs100-125 crore and funds have been approved for importing the same. Centrifuges simulating authentic flight environments in advanced aircraft, to be imported from US-based companies, will expose pilots to artificial conditions of high G-forces (acceleration due to gravity) and stress. This would help them react swiftly during spatial disorientation and Gravity-related Loss of Consciousness (G-LOC), the cause of many air crashes due to fatal errors of human judgement at high speeds the world over. Fighter pilots with increased G-tolerance will be more prepared for spatial disorientation during special manoeuvres, unheard of till a few years ago, with novel axes and high angular rotation rates.

Another piece of good news is that HAL is working hard to roll out an indigenous advanced jet trainer (AJT) by 2010. It has a blueprint for a twin-engine, combat-capable AJT with a fuselage built largely of composite materials that are radar resistant. With the door open for Russian collaboration in developing the high-powered engines, this HAL AJT will be called Hindustan Jet Trainer and is slated to be an improvement over the British Hawk, which is being acquired presently to meet the current needs of the Indian Air Force. Buoyed by the success of the Intermediate Jet Trainer prototypes, which will be ready for induction in 2007, the indigenous AJT project could ensure continuity after delivery of Hawks. The manufacture of upgraded SU-30MkI in HAL, costing about Rs 22,000 crore is on schedule. Struggling with the Kaveri engine being developed for the LCA Tejas, which is currently being powered by the American GE-404 engine in its test-flights, Russian help may bring about the much needed breakthrough. The Kaveri is being tested in Russia and the Russians are also helping out with a more powerful engine for the intermediate jet trainer (IJT).

This story cannot be complete without mentioning about the not so cheerful aspect of air crashes in the IAF mainly because of the far too old MiG-21s and the absence of an advanced jet trainer. While the Air Chief took consolation in mentioning this year’s record for the lowest number of accidents in 34 years, IAF suffered its first Mirage crash in 10 years last month –– the eighth crash of the year. Four Jaguars, one MiG-21, a MiG-23 and an Alouette helicopter complete this tally. We do hope the number of crashes next year would be even less.

We pay tribute to the men of the Indian Air Force and wish them high and mighty flying in the times to come earning laurels for the country. ‘Bravo Zulu’ –– which in naval parlance means ‘well done’.

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