IAF set for critical replenishments to meet growing threats

Reportedly, a part of China’s dole to Pakistan in March 2022 was the multirole J-10C fighter jets which can be interconnected with their Chinese counterparts through the PLA air force's KJ-500 early warning aircraft.

Col Anil Bhat (retd) Dec 18, 2023
C295 aircraft

In an interaction with media ahead of Air Force Day, India's Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari, said on October 3, 2023 that the contract for 97 additional Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas Mark-1A is expected to be signed this year. Speaking on the status of the LCA program earlier on August 22, the IAF Chief had stated that the deliveries of the earlier requisitioned Tejas Mark-1 had been completed.

Reportedly costing about Rs 1.15 lakh crore, IAF is going to procure 97 more Tejas Mark-1A fighter jets in addition to 83 such aircraft ordered by the Defence Ministry in February 2021 for Rs 48,000 crore order to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). Asked whether or not these 97 aircraft would have any improvement over the already ordered 83 jets, the IAF chief said changes in technology would be implemented.

On September 20, 2023, the Air Chief formally received the first new generation tactical airlifter aircraft C295 with its symbolic keys at the Airbus facility in Seville, Spain. This first C295 aircraft was delivered in a flyaway condition after IAF crews conducted acceptance trials in early September 2023 at the Airbus Defence and Space’s Seville facility in southern Spain. It is the first of sixteen C295 aircraft that will be delivered to the IAF by Airbus in flyaway condition from Spain. The remaining forty planes are to be built in India, for which, work on domestic production is in full swing. The delivery of this first C295 to India kickstarts a crucial ‘Make in India’ project worth 21,935 crore to equip the IAF with 56 such aircraft.

While the first C295 aircraft completed its maiden flight in May 2023, the second one in the final assembly stage at Airbus’s Seville facility will be delivered to IAF in May 2024.

Contract with Airbus

In 2021, India’s defence ministry signed a contract with Airbus to boost self-reliance in the defence manufacturing sector. Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) and Airbus are jointly executing the project.

In October 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone of the manufacturing facility being set up by the Tata-Airbus consortium at Vadodara. By that time, 24 IAF pilots and 80 technicians were reportedly trained at the Seville facility. The main constituent assembly for the C295 set up by Tata at Hyderabad became functional in July 2023, while the final assembly line in Vadodara will be operational in November 2024.

Airbus’ new generation C295 is considered a robust, reliable and highly versatile tactical transport that is tailored for missions that range from carrying troops and cargo, maritime patrol, airborne warning, surveillance and reconnaissance to signals intelligence, armed close air support, medical evacuation, VIP transport and airborne firefighting. It is capable of carrying up to nine tonnes of payload or as many as 71 troops at a maximum cruise speed of 260 kts (knots). An important added asset is that it is equipped for the air-to-air refuelling of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.

Fitted with retractable landing gear and featuring an unobstructed 12.69 meters long pressurized cabin, the C295 cruises at altitudes up to 30,000 ft., while also retaining commendable low-level flight characteristics. It has remarkable short take-off & landing (STOL) performance from unpaved, soft, and sandy/grass airstrips.

It is also claimed that the C295’s two Pratt & Whitney Canada PW127G turboprop engines “provide excellent maneuverability, outstanding hot-and-high performance, with fuel consumption for a very long endurance of up to 13 hours aloft”.

Future plans

Some important inputs that came from the Air Chief’s responses to queries from journalists on October 03, 3023 were:

On the pending supply of S-400 from Russia for air defence regiments, the IAF Chief said: “Three (of the five) were supplied. The Russia-Ukraine conflict led to a delay. We are hopeful of getting the remaining two in a year.”

On its plans, the Air Chief informed that 66 more light combat helicopters (LCHs), 40 training planes, upgrade of 84 Sukhoi 30 MKI jets for Rs 60,000 crore are being considered for procurement.

On whether there was a requirement for 42 fighter jet squadrons required to tackle a collusive China-Pakistan threat in the changing war-fighting scenario, the Air Chief explained the need to enhance the numerical strength of aircraft owing to the Soviet-origin MiG-21 fighter jets being phased out by early 2025.

Air Chief Marshal Chaudhari significantly stated that IAF will remain deployed till complete disengagement is done by Chinese forces at friction points along the LAC and added that IAF’s operational plans are “dynamic and change as per developing situation.”

Following the Air Chief’s statement on August 22, 2023, there were news reports about a second order of 100 Tejas Mk1A jets for the IAF, which will be delivered by 2028-2029. This is over and above the 83 Mk1A Tejas jets that are already on order. An interesting input from Lt Gen Prakash Katoch (retd.), interacting with this author, was what he wrote in SP’s MAI, dated September 24, 2023, that about half of the Mk1A Tejas fighter jets will carry the Israeli AESA radar, which is more advanced than the pulse Doppler radar mounted on the trainer jets and existing Mk1 Tejas fighter jets have, The rest, starting from around 2026, will carry DRDO’s top of the line Gallium Nitride Uttam AESA radar, which is exponentially more powerful than Gallium Arsenide radar. The Gallium Nitride Uttam AESA radar will allow a Tejas jet to land a mightier punch much earlier and from much further away. These fighter jets are to be armed with the indigenous air-to-air Astra missile. The Astra air-to-air missile is among the most sophisticated missiles in the world in this category. The Astra Mk 2 was successfully test-fired from a Tejas fighter jet in 2022. The Astra Mk 3 is under development.

Different types of aircraft IAF has are:

The LCA, designed to replace the ageing Mig 21 fighters has been developed by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) under the Department of Defence Research and Development and manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). It is the lightest and smallest multi-role supersonic fighter aircraft in its class.

Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA), which are designed to perform various missions such as air-to-air combat, air-to-ground attack, and electronic warfare. IAF is pursuing the procurement of 114 MRFA to replace the aging fleet of Soviet-era MiG-21. they will be procured under the Make in India initiative. The selected vendor will have to set up a production line in India and transfer technology to local partners.

The MiG-21supersonic jet fighter and interceptor aircraft designed by the erstwhile USSR in the 1950s was acquired by IAF in 1963 and was unfortunately involved in many accidents and crashes, earning it the nickname “flying coffin”. It is to be phased out by 2024.

Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) is part of an Indian program to develop a 5th generation stealth, multirole combat aircraft for the IAF and the Indian Navy. Designed and developed by the ADA of the DRDO, in collaboration with HAL and other public and private partners. Expected to have features such as a stealth airframe, internal weapons bay, advanced sensors, data fusion, supercruise capability and swing-role performance. Started in 2008 as a successor to the Sukhoi Su-30MKI, its first flight is planned for 2025 and production is expected to start after 2030.

Sukhoi Su-30MKI, a twin-engine, two-seater, multirole fighter aircraft developed by Russia’s Sukhoi and built under license by India’s HAL was acquired by IAF in 2002

Rafale, the French twin-engine and multirole fighter aircraft’s first consignment in 2016 was of 36 jets for Rs 59,000 crore. It is equipped to perform air supremacy, interdiction, aerial reconnaissance, ground support, in-depth strike, anti-ship strike, and nuclear deterrence missions. The weapons package of Rafale jets includes a Meteor missile, Scalp cruise missile, and MICA missile system. Meteor missile, the next generation of Beyond Visual Range air-to-air missile designed to revolutionize air-to-air combat, is capable of targeting enemy aircraft from 150 km away. SCALP Cruise Missiles can hit targets 300 km away, while the MICA missile system is a versatile air-to-air missile capable of hitting targets up to 100 km away. It has a flight hour capacity of 30,000 hours in operations.Long overdue requirements

In April 2023, an IAF representative reportedly informed the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence that the IAF has only 31 fighter squadrons, against the sanctioned strength of 42. These 31 squadrons are not expected to increase till 2029-2030; they may even decrease further.

While COVID and resultant lockdowns have caused delays for many jets in various stages of development/ manufacture, they did not slow down China’s proliferation drive. Reportedly, a part of China’s dole to Pakistan in March 2022 was the multirole J-10C fighter jets which can be interconnected with their Chinese counterparts through the PLA Air Force's KJ-500 early warning aircraft.

While there has been much progress in initiating the requisition of IAF’s important long overdue requirements, momentum must be maintained to fulfill all its needs to cover two enemy skies, in the west and east of the country. Production capacity will need to be increased considerably to equip the IAF within a reasonable time frame and also deliver to the contracted foreign buyers.

(The author is a former spokesman, Ministry of Defence. Views are personal)

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