An IDC Analysis


New Delhi, 21 February 2006

We post below a survey of the IAF that appeared in the January issue of the Asian Military Review and is reproduced courtesy AMR. The strength of the IAF is bound to dwindle and it needs to get the RFPs (tenders) for the 126 fighter aircraft the Government had sanctioned soon as it will take a few years for the contract to materialise. 

Air Force Readies For Net Centric Warfare Capability In The Future  

By Ranjit B Rai

A Review of IAF’s Mixed Bag Vintage Combat Aircraft

Indian Air Force pilots are rated high for their individual flying skills. India’s fighter pilots have proved their mettle in close combat in the all the four wars they have fought, beginning with the Second World War and then in the major wars with Pakistan, but the last aerial combat they have faced was in 1971. It would be fair to state neighbouring Pakistan Air Force pilots too have displayed similar skills but they have been dwarfed by India’s numbers, though PAF’s acquisition of modern F-16Bs in 1983 gave them a leap forward in technology. Combat dog fights are known by the words ‘Tally Ho’ which is a report from the pilot that he has the enemy in his view and is going in for the kill. Royal Indian Air Force pilots earned their first Tally Ho spurs and decorations in action, flying Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain and in the North East of India and Burma. After partition IAF inducted the French supplied Ouragons (called Toofanis) and Mysteres, De Havilland Vampires, and home built Gnats and Maruts designed by the German designer Kurt Tank, and the battle proven series of Russian supplied MiG 21s (1963 onwards), which formed its main stay. The Mirage 2000H(1985) and MiG-29s(1987) were inducted in the 80s.

IAF’s ground attack needs were met by the wide wing Russian supplied Sukoi-7s, Canberras, Hunters and later the Jaguars from 1979 dubbed deep penetration strike aircraft. MiG 23s arrived in 1983 and the swing wing MiG 27s in 1989. A half squadron of MiG-25s provided high level photography from 1984 and though considered obsolete, with the induction of spy planes like Astra and Gulf Stream by RAW(India’s CIA) and satellite data, they still operate from Bareilly in Central India. Three squadrons of the large twin engine multi role variable nozzle fitted SU-30MKIs have recently joined the IAF arsenal. They are rated as excellent flying machines, but are still to achieve final operational status(FOC) as the planes’ beyond visual range air combat missiles (27R and R77 series) and air to ground Kryptons requires AEW and ground inputs for long range targeting, to harness the machine’s full potential. The IAF’s Wide Area Network and Integrated Air Command and Control System IACCS, which will incorporate inputs from a variety of sources is still to become fully operational. .

The vintage inventory of 600 operational fighters includes some 200 MiG 21s (around 105 out of 125 upgraded to Bison), 107 Jaguars, 46 Mirages 2000H, 150 Mig 23/27s and 70 MiG 29s. These are being selectively up graded at Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd Bangalore to enable their transition to the change taking place in warfare, in what is known as Revolution in Military Affairs RMA, for net centric operations NCO. The upgrades includes fitting of digital bus inter faces and latest colour displays, mission and attack computers provided by the Defence Avionics Research Establishment DARE, Doppler fire controls, ring lasers and GPS, multi mode pulse radars and indigenous radar warners. IAF’s operational challenge is to enable the transformation swiftly as its strength is depleting below its sanctioned 39 and a half squadrons. It would be proper to say in the early 90s Indian Air Force let by the opportunity to buy second hand F-5s the complete F-5 Northrop Grumman plant, at a throw price. Singapore and South East Asian Air Forces pledged to seek spares and Indian support, but Aeronautical Development Authority ADA convinced the Government that India’s home built LCA now christened Tejas(Swift) would enter the IAF’s arsenal in numbers by 2000. Despite over $ 1.3 bill invested, the programme kept slipping. The Government is now determined the programme succeeds and two proto types PV 1 and PV 2 as successors of the three technology demonstators are flying and awaiting weaponisation to enable initial operational clearance(IOC). However the selection process is dilatory. The LCA has a fibre glass cockpit, composites in its airframe, and advanced control laws which make the fighter amenable to newer configurations and compensate for pilot error by ensuring that the airplane stays within its fly by wire parameters. The ADA has achieved only around 470 sorties powered by the GE 404 engines with the five models since the first was rolled out in 1985 and has faced problems of shortage of equipment as only essential numbers are acquired. The heart of a fighter is its engine and radar. The GTRE have spent over $ 500 million trying to develop the indigenous Kaveri engine but it was recently reported help is finally being sought from four combat aircraft engine developers - GE, Pratt and Whitney, Snecma Moteurs and NPO Saturn who have been asked to bid for collaborations. The LCA's Pulse Doppler Multi-Mode Radar (MMR) is also being over taken by the ASEA radars and the IAF is demanding this change. The IAF have recently been cajoled to issue a firm order for 20 LCAs at $ 22 mill a piece from its $ 4.7 bill budget.

A look at the futuristic picture of the IAF is interesting. In the next few years most of the older MiG-21FL/M variants, including the air defence cum tactical fighter non upgraded MiG-21bis, will come to the end of their technical lives as also the four MiG-23 UM and MF squadrons to be later followed by seven MiG-27 squadrons (first inducted in 1984 but subsequently upgraded) and the three MiG-29 squadrons (first inducted in 1987 but now also going in for an upgrade). The deep penetration strike Jaguar (five squadrons, first inducted in 1979 but later upgraded) will also be at the end of its technical life, while the three operational squadrons of the Mirage 2000 H/TH (first inducted in 1986) will soldier on after upgrades. The 10 Su-30 MKI squadrons whose initial deliveries were begun as second hand SU 30s in 1997 and the 10 aircraft per year are expected to come off the HAL assembly lines until 2018 will form the backbone of the IAF by 2020. So the IAF has pitched for 126 MRCAs and the figure could rise and the final selection process for the $ 5 bill purchase is on with US( F-16/18), French (Mirage 2000-V), Swedish( Grippen JAS-39) and Russian(MiG-29 and SU –35) offers and the Typhoon too making overtures .

Changes in Combat Flying

IAF fighter pilots traditionally fly best by the ‘seat of their pants’ and in 2004 the US Air Force were taken by surprise when they got a taste of visual combat in the first ever Exercise Cope US India exercise conducted over India’s Gwalior skies against American F 15Cs. The US top guns direly missed their ground and AWACS support, which was corrected in Cope India 05 held at Kaliakunda in November with F 16Cs and an E-3C from Japan. The Indian pilots quickly adapted to fly sorties supported by US E-3C control in BVR mode and learnt all about the AN/APY-2 radar, AN/AYR-1ESM suite and Link 16 operations, by cross flying.. The IAF appreciates the change as the pilot now receives his inputs and intelligence from ground and airborne platforms and satellites fed automatically by links like 16, in to the cockpit’s computer controlled displays. Inputs also show up the visor or on his helmet mounted display to enable him to shoot down the enemy machine he will never see in what is called the ‘Judy’ technique of beyond visual range BVR combat. The IAF has only recently been exposed to foreign Air Forces and is challenged to change its repertoire in planes, ground and satellite support, training and most important ‘mind set’. The IAF is attempting to change from extracting the most out of their flying machines called the man machine interface, to net centric warfare and wish to acquire 126 plus world class fighters from abroad as soon as it is feasible with support systems. For training they have sent SU 30 and Mirage pilots in batches to UK and are upgrading the Air Academy at Hyderabad to receive the 66 BAe Hawk 132s. The IAF also looks forward to receiving the 3 IL76s in 2006/7 mounted with the Phalcon AWACS system from IAI/ELTA to ensure they enter the NCW era, in what is being called the ‘Make Over Indian Air Force’. The IAF is also set to acquire ACMI facilities and individual combat aircrew display systems to ensure feed back of practice sorties in BVR mode.

Air Chief ACM SP Tyagi has made a bid for a Space Command as IAF’s life line, to protect Indian skies, despite reservations by the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Space and the other two services. It is in this vein the former Chief of the IAF ACM S Krishnaswamy a brilliant test pilot credited with raising IAF’s operational standards, asked at a recent NCW conference whether the epithet that the IAF is the fourth largest Air Force in the world is truly applicable as its large 120, 000 manpower size is no more a determinant but capable NCW fire power is. He made his point to hasten the IAF’s need to get net centric and also be inter operable with other air forces. In fact inter operability is the buzz word in all the three Indian Armed Forces and a individual race to become net centric has begun. In the words of Admiral Arun Prakash Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee, “Now, in recent times our ears have been assailed by the buzz of the phrase network-centric warfare. And all of us –– the younger generation with comprehension, and ours with perhaps a small sense of bewilderment –– are very keen that we must all jump on to this band-wagon”. The Navy has of course taken the lead with its own home built secure NCW net work in conjunction with INMARSAT and land line facilities and cooperating with the US 7th Fleet for inter operability and data sharing with its Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange between regional partners.

For the present the IAF is basking in the glory of their nation wide flying shows that thrill the public. The Surya Kiran (homage to the sun) Kiran jet trainer aerobatic team and the Sarang (Peacock) helicopter top guns have thrilled audiences even abroad, at air shows. But now recruiting fixed wing pilot talent and retaining it, is becoming IAF’s upcoming next challenge. India’s civil aviation sector has seen phenomenal growth and airlines are poaching IAF pilots with their larger pay packets. The SU-30s need two pilots a piece and the IAF is 230 pilots short. It traditionally supports state governments, Border Security Force and India’s expanded Aerial Intelligence Arm of RAW( India’s CIA) called Aviation Research Centre with pilots on deputation but a re think is in the air and short service commission commenced. In a recent order by Delhi’s High Court an IAF pilot’s pleas to be released on humanitarian grounds was denied as the Judge sided with the IAF lawyer, that the pilot was seeking greener pastures. On rotary flying wing front, the IAF is comfortable with pilots and has spared dozens of machines from its over 400 strong inventory and pilots to serve in UN Missions abroad.

Pointers for Modernisation And Development

India’s Armed Forces have yet to issue a common doctrine so essential for joint ness and NCO. The strategic long term plan for modernization is seldom spelt out jointly, and the Chiefs have no control over the time line for large acquisitions which even today are driven by vested interests. The recent peace process with Pakistan has ensured there is no immediate threat in the Government’s view. Each service individually and as a practice bids for more than the budget can chew, but the IAF did well by ordering the 3 Phalcons in early 2004 and their 6 IL 78 aerial tanker refuellers are now fully operational giving confidence to the IAF that out of area operations is not a challenge any more. The Flight Refuelling 700 series pods have proved successful with the make shift on board system that can pump 11.4 tons. The Indian Air Force’s has bid for 6 more IL 78 tankers. The earliest the LCA Tejas may be inducted is in 2012 and the IAF hopes the plane will have modern long range ASEA radars for its BVR role. The offers from SELEX(Vixen 500E airborne active phased-array fire-control radar), IAI/ELTA’s EL/M-2052 and US APG/67 and others are contenders. The IAF has been well served by its Air Defence Ground Environment System called ADGES which combines static and mobile tropo scatter communications and radar chains between stations for air coverage. The IAF is now inducting L band low level, indigenous Indira and C band CAR radars and upgrading the Thales TRS 2215-3-D series seeking connectivity to transfer digital data for quick time reactions by stations and HQs. Each service is going its own way for the time being as bandwidth and spectrum challenges have arisen and in due course the services hope to marry the three systems by a common protocol hand shake which the Integrated Defence Staff is charged to look into.

In 2007 the IAF will migrate to a new era when the three IL76s arrive with Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) fitted Phalcon system for early Warning, Command and Control (AEWC&C). The force multipliers will play a major role in the modernization and combat plans of the IAF by providing real-time intelligence needed to achieve and maintain air superiority over the combat area and to enable surveillance of borders in peacetime, including warning of boost phase of a missile launch, which is one of the attributes that convinced the Government to go in for the system especially after the Chinese were denied similar technology. The Active Phased Array Electronic Beam Scanning Technology avoids a roto dome on the platform and will provide operational flexibility and performance by several orders of magnitude and includes IFF, ESM/ELINT and CSM/COMINT with 360 degree coverage. Its unique fusion algorithm technology originally from Raytheon, cross-relates the data gathered by all sensors and when one of the sensors reports a detection, the system automatically initiates an active search of the complementary sensors. The aircraft has a data link and can communicate a complete spatial picture to the Air Defense Centre including those from additional air defense sensors/inputs and direct air interdiction. The IAF has also ordered two trial aerostats from IAI and one is already operating on the Western Pakistani border with its Greenpine EL/M 2080 radar variant as a precursor to the coming technology to enable marrying its UAVs links and data in to the net work, as all these equipment are from single source –IAI of Israel.

The Helicopter and Transport Aircraft Scene

The futuristic Helicopter scene in the Armed Forces is in a state of flux with conflicting interests. HAL is promoting its Dhruv family of advanced light helicopters led by its Chairman Ashok Baweja even though the Turbomecca engine is under powered for combat and ASW operations. HAL has firm orders from the Armed Forces to keep their ALH line occupied for the next two years and the IAF has ordered 60 pieces. For exports in a tie up with IAI the Dhruvs have been showcased at Paris, Farnborough, Singapore during Asian Aerospace and in Chile seeking export orders. However the helicopter has yet to be certified and some vibration problems persist. The army is not happy with its limitations of altitude. The need of the day for the Army is a high altitude capable aero scout to replace the Cheetak(Alloutte) fleet to support troops at over 20, 000 feet in Kargil and Siachen, and the final choice of the Army after rigorous trials is between the AS550 Fennec, Bell 407LRH and possibly the NH 90 and the Vice Chief of the Army Lt Gen Pattabhiraman has stated the Army would soon acquire 60. Concurrently the HAL has re engined the Cheetak( Alouttee) series to Cheetan/Cheetah for the IAF with the TM 333-M2 engine and landed it at 23, 220 feet on a glacier. The IAF claim it can be fitted with an advanced glass cockpit and engine management display VEMD.

The Army claims it needs an integral modern attack helicopter, and not as support helicopters presently flown by the IAF pilots who operate the Mi 35/25s on assignment. The IAF is pursuing a Combat model of the ALH with 20mm GIAT guns, a 70/80mm Belgian rocket launcher and a French missile or the Indian Anti Tank missile NAG produced by DRDO. The IAF abhors the term 'close air support' and prefers battlefield air interdiction instead, and is opposed to the Army thrust on doctrinal basis. Rosoboronexport State Corp have recently pitched to supply 40 armed utility variants of the upgraded Mi-17V-5 to the Indian Army for heavy lift. This is another need felt during the recent earth quake along the LOC in Kashmir when the Army lost lives in bunkers and the large Mi-26T operated by the IAF has the highest direct operating costs per flying hour and takes hours to ready the helicopter.

On the Transport front the fleet of some 100 AN 32s have provided the IAF long service and the up grade with modern avionics and sensors stands approved. The selection process for equipment is proceeding in conjunction with the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. Many vendors including the Israelis and US Firms like Honey well have sent in their proposals and the HAL has also signed an agreement with Embraer to seek support. During Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s December visit to Mocow an agreement to invest $ 190 million each in developing the IL-214/MTA multipurpose military transport plane jointly with IAF’s requirement of 45 moved closer.The IAF has been flying the President and VIPs in the luxury of the three VIP Embraer 135 and initial reports are glowing. One plane has been inducted in to the Border Security Force but had to be grounded for technical reasons. The IAF will receive one more 135 and on 25th November the Government confirmed orders for three 6000 mile range Boeing Business Jets based on the 737s latest series and when they arrive in 2008.. The IAF are also slated to get 12 new helicopters for VIP duties and the short list includes Agusta Westland EH-101, SikorskyS-92 and EADS/Eurocopter EC-721 Cougar and Russian MI 171.


In all the year 2005 was a satisfying one for the IAF as its accident record reduced , from 1.722 per 10, 000 flying hours to 0.83 last year and 0.5 in 2005 -- the lowest in three decades. It gained immensely from the exposure to French Mirage 2000-5s and KC 135 tanker in ‘out of area’ operations in Ex Garuda Two, held from 15 to 30 June at Gwalior where the IAF fielded 6 SU 30s and IL 78 tankers. In November in Ex Cope India held with US Air Force in the newly readied and enlarged Kaliakunda air base, India aircrew gained AWACS know how flying against F 16s in BVR modes. Lt. General D.A, Deptullah, Vice Commander of Pacific Air Force, expressed satisfaction and said, "I believe it will go a long way in increasing the mutual understanding and cooperation not only of the Air Forces but our military and our governments that will allow us to continue to assure peace and stability in the region”. From 6 Jan the Republic of Singapore Air Force F 16s will take part in SINDEX 06 at Kaliakunda in ground attack exercises with the swing wing MiG 27s at the the IAF air-to-ground range at Dega and the air-to-air range at Chandipur-on-Sea. Singapore which lacks air space has agreed to defray the Indian government for the use of air space as well as facilities at the air base, including landing and parking charges. All this depicts the many changes augur well for the IAF in the years ahead.

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