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Why India can't afford to ignore its air force in 2018

Defence contracts inevitably involve long-drawn-out processes and no government can really be judged by what has been achieved in a couple of years. However, the process of defence modernisation was given a huge boost by Manohar Parrikar when he was the defence minister. A ministry, which was mostly viewed as slow and indecisive, did display signs of a revitalised entity oriented to chase deadlines with vigour. However, more than three years down the line, since the present government in New Delhi picked up the reins, there isn’t enough evidence to conclude that substantial progress has been made.

Taking stock of the Indian Air Force (IAF), its equipment state has been deteriorating by the day. Instead of its authorised strength of 42 squadrons to meet the dual threat from China and Pakistan, the IAF stands at a mere 33 squadrons. It has also to phase out its vintage MiG 21 and MiG 27 fleet that together form 11 squadrons. In 2016, the minister of state for defence had informed the Parliament that all MiG 21s will be phased out by 2018, and MiG 27s in two lots. The last MiG 27 ML flew over Hashimara on December 28, 2017. A few upgraded MiG 27s will be grounded by 2024.

In between, the MiG 29s will be due for retirement, too. All that the IAF can be assured of inducting so far are 36 twin engine Rafales and 40 Tejas 1 light combat aircraft. Manufactured by Dassault Aviation, France, Rafale is undoubtedly a state-of-the-art fighter aircraft.

However, the first aircraft is scheduled to be delivered in September 2018 and the deliveries will be completed by April 2022.

The IAF is interested in purchasing an additional 36 Rafales. Rafales will come with state of the art weapon systems to include Meteor Air-to-Air missiles that range over a 100km. They will also have Scalp air to ground missiles, and perhaps the Brahmos too.

What’s even more important is it will be a part of India’s nuclear triad capability and surely a formidably deterrent for Pakistan and China. However, the French have declined to advance the deliveries. As such, most of the MiG 21 and MiG 27 squadrons will have been done away with before the Rafales enter service in strength.

The other deal that has started rolling is the 83 Tejas 1A aircraft. Tejas is a single engine, multi-role fighter aircraft. Out of the initial orders for 40 fighters, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has so far supplied five. HAL has been asked to forward RFP for another 83.

The search for a single engine fighter aircraft has been in progress with Lockheed Martin’s F16 or Swedish Aerospace Company Saab’s Grippen expected to make the cut. However, there are reports of the MoD thinking of opening up the contest by removing the restriction of a single engine and allowing twin engines also to compete. The single engine is primarily a cost cutting measure with engines being one of the most costly components of the aircraft.

Meanwhile, Saab has tied up with the Adani group while Lockheed Martin has gone in for Tata Advance Systems. Should we remove the number of engines criterion we can expect Boeing’s F/A 18, Russian MiG 35 and Eurofighter Typhoon also entering the completion. All these aircraft were in the race in the 2007 medium multirole combat aircraft contract that never materialised.

The year has ended with the contract for the last of Globemaster C 17 on sale. We already have 10 of these which provide us a much needed strategic lift capability. Boeing is closing the production line of this workhorse.

The Navy’s aircraft assets are at an all-time low. Keeping in view the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant’s induction in 2021, the Navy has issued an RFI for 57 multi-role carrier borne fighters. A hot competition is expected with Boeing, SAAB, Russians, Dassault and even Lockheed Martin’s F 35B and F 35C likely to slug it out.

Currently, the Navy operates a fleet of MiG 29K, off its decks. Its serviceability state has been a cause of serious concern. A similar story holds good for the few Kamov helicopters the Navy flies.

An urgent requirement demanding attention in 2018 are Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems. In the 2003-04 deal, India procured three of these systems by mounting Israeli radars on the Russian IL 76 aircraft; however, a follow-on deal for two additional AWACS has been bogged down with both the Israelis and Russians raising the costs steeply.

India is way behind the Chinese who fly more than 20 of these and even the Pakistanis, who hold four of them.

Another criticality is our fleet of Airborne refuelling capability. The IAF has six of them based on a 2003-04 contract. The fleet of IL-78 aircraft are due for overhauling in 2018-19. Two attempts at acquisition of additional assets have failed. The serviceability state of the fleet is poor. The hangers and runway lengths required for the aircraft are inadequate. If not addressed on a war footing, this would seriously dent the Air Force’s reach.

The military helicopters market in India involves a wide family of users to include the three services, Coast Guard, Border Security Force and even the other Central Armed Police forces. With an assessed requirement of more than 1,000 helicopters in the next 10 years, India is one of the hottest markets in the world.

The current holdings are largely dated and call for urgent replacements. The agreement shaping up with the Russians would cater for about 200 Kamov 226 helicopters, with 60 of them being made in Russia and the balance with HAL as a partner at the latter’s facility in Tumakuru, near Bangalore. HAL is also developing its own Light Utility Helicopter that will cater for another 200 or more.

A deal for 22 Apache AH 64 attack helicopters and 15 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters was signed in September, 2015 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited US. Both the helicopters are manufactured by Boeing. The Apaches will replace the aging MI 35E attack helicopters while the Chinooks will serve as a replacement for the MI 8 Russian helicopters.

There has forever been a contest between the Army and IAF over the ownership of attack helicopters. These helicopters are primarily utilised in the anti-tank role and as such the Army wants to take over the assets because of their close integration with the land battle.

The Army had made a bid for 39 Apaches, and the Defence Acquisition Council has finally approved six.

In the armed helicopters market, HAL has modified its Dhrub utility helicopter with weapon systems to produce the Rudra. As yet the DRDO’s Hellina missile that was to be Rudra’s main anti-tank armament is yet to be operationalised. In effect, Rudra becomes more a gunship rather that a potent anti-tank weapon. However, the helicopter is very manoeuvrable and holds out the promise of ultimately developing as a reliable anti-tank weapon system. HAL has been contracted to deliver 76 Rudra ALH Mk-IV helicopters to the Indian Army and Air Force.

Meanwhile, DRDO continues with its light combat helicopter that will be fielded by both the Air Force and Army. The MoD has already cleared the purchase of 16 of these. Its anti-tank missile is not yet finalised with Helina not having braced the tape as yet.

Other options include MBDA’s Mistral. In the Utility category, more than 60 Dhruvs produced by HAL are in service with the IAF, Army and the Coast Guard. The twin engine helicopter is likely to be inducted in greater numbers by its existing customer base and even through exports to various countries.

The Navy has not found it suitable for off-the-deck operations. Exports of defence equipment are essential for manufacturers given the limited absorption in domestic markets. The Navy requires to retire its aging Cheetah and Chetak helicopters. Similarly, its 17 Sea King helicopters used for anti-submarine operations are barely serviceable. The status of its Russian Kamov helicopters is no better. A state-of-the-art anti-submarine helicopter is required to replace and augment the fleet.

The Navy had issued a Request For Information (RFI) in August 2017 for 111 utility and 123 multirole helicopters under the recently-issued Strategic Partnership model.

On October 2017, the Defence Acquisition Council approved the purchase of 111 Utility Helicopter under the Strategic Partnership model. These helicopters are primarily utilised for communication, surveillance, reconnaissance, casualty evacuation, anti-piracy operations etc. Airbus and Augusta Westland should feature among the leading contenders.

The proposal for 123 multi-role helicopters has not been cleared by the ministry. These helicopters would come with anti-submarine warfare capabilities. The huge gap the Navy has in its anti-submarine warfare capabilities by use of heliborne platforms, remains unaddressed.

The helicopter market, especially when the civil aviation helicopter requirements are taken into account, is booming and promises a lot for both global manufacturers and Indian enterprises looking for partnerships with the best of manufacturers abroad.

The state of fighter aircraft, helicopters and other airborne assets is cause for worry. It’s a tough challenge for our air warriors to wargame against a China-Pakistan threat in their war rooms with just 33 squadrons, limited early warning and aerial refuelling capabilities.

The pace at which modernisation is being pursued even now by the dispensation at Delhi is quite inadequate. Until India makes substantial increases in its defence budget and brings in more accountability in the MoD, it will lose relevance in the power equation in its region.

In fact, if New Delhi does not speed up the pace of equipment induction, the least that can be expected from India’s northern neighbour China is to turn a bigger bully than it already is. Doklam should have taught us that no one is going to fight our war for us.

Kargil combined with Doklam holds out the lesson that you cannot predict the next war very confidently. Both cases were unexpected, at least in their intensities. While China is certainly not itching for a war right now, it would like to lower India’s stature, which recent diplomacy has earned it in south and southeast Asia.

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