Modernisation of the Indian Air Force

As the Indian Air Force (IAF) celebrates its 80th anniversary, the power and exuberance it exhibits has never seen before. From a mere auxiliary arm of the British Royal Force at its birth on October 08, 1932,

17th Jan 2013


 Modernisation of the Indian Air Force

Byline: Laxman Kumar Behera / New Delhi

As the Indian Air Force (IAF) celebrates its 80th anniversary, the power and exuberance it exhibits has never seen before. From a mere auxiliary arm of the British Royal Force at its birth on October 08, 1932, the IAF has now grown into as the fourth largest air arm in world with a strategic reach that is truly transoceanic. Much of its present transformation is however the result of decades of vigorous planning and modernisation, encompassing (planned) induction of the state-of-the-art aerial platforms, weapons, sensors and radars; upgrading of necessary infrastructure; and training at par with the best in the world. All these have been undertaken under the ambit of C4ISR (command, control, communication, computer, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) to achieve shared awareness, increased efficacy of command structure and higher tempo of operations with greater lethality.

IAF Modernisation: An Overview
In the words of the Air Chief Marshal Norman Browne, Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) of the IAF, the “IAF is witnessing an unprecedented phase of modernisation and capability enhancement [which can be] witnessed across the capability spectrum …” The most vital capability enhancement is perhaps the IAF’s modernisation of its fighter fleet, which has caused some concern in recent years due to the shrinking number of combat squadrons. According to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence (15th Lok Sabha), the present number of combat squadron has dwindled to 34 against the sanction strength of 42. Moreover, the number is likely to reduce further to 31 during the 12th Plan (2012-2017). To arrest the declining trend, the IAF has made a two-prong approach: upgrading existing fighters (MiG-29, Jaguar and Mirage 2000) while inducting new ones. The aim of the IAF is to increase its combat squadron strength to 40-42 by the end of 14th Plan (2022-27) and eventually to 45 squadrons by the 15th Plan (2027-2032).


The contract for upgrading MiG-29s was signed in 2008 with RAC MIG of Russia at a cost of US $964 million. This program is to be completed by 2014. The first three upgraded MiG-29s (known as MiG-29UPG) were handed over to India by the Russian company in December 2012. Three more fighters are to be upgraded in Russia and the remaining 63-odd planes are to be upgraded in India with support from the Russian partner. The service life of the upgraded aircraft has been extended to 40 years. Among other features the upgraded MiG include Phazatron Zhuk-M radar, beyond-visual-range combat ability and the mid-air refuelling.

The contract for modernising Jaguars to DARIN-III Standard was signed with India’s state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) in 2009 at the cost of Rs 31.1 billion. The work is scheduled for completion by 2017. The first upgraded Jaguar was successfully flight tested by the HAL on November 28, 2012. Among other features the upgraded aircraft incorporates new state-of-the-art avionics architecture including Mission Computer (MC), Engine and Flight Instrument System (EFIS), and autopilot. The retrofitted Jaguar will “result in a major operational improvement with regard to all weather air to ground, air to sea and air to air capabilities through incorporation of multi mode radar”, says R. K. Tyagi, Chairman, HAL.

In July 2011, the MoD signed a $2.4 billion contract with French companies Thales, and Dassault Aviation and HAL for upgrades to the IAF’s Mirage-2000 fleet procured in eighties. As per the contract, out of 50-odd fighters, two will be upgraded in France, two at HAL with French support, and the rest by the HAL. The entire process is expected to be completed by 2021. The improvements include new avionics, radars, mission computers, glass cockpits, helmet-mounted displays, electronic warfare suites, weapon delivery and precision-targeting systems, which will bring the fleet to Mirage 2000-5 standards and extend the service life by 20 years. A separate contract valued €959 million has also been signed with MBDA to provide 450 MICA missiles to arm the upgraded fighters.

The IAF is all set to induct in its fleet over 400 new fighters that include three new types of combat planes - Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), French Rafale and Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) – and an additional 42 SU-30MKIs. The additional SU-30 MKI is part of the $4.5 billion defence deal signed between India and Russia during President Putin’s December 2012 visit to New Delhi. The newly contracted SU-30 MKI will be license produced by the HAL, taking Indian aerospace company’s total order of the fighter to 222, and the total cost of procurement of 272 Su-30MKIs to $12 billion.

Beginning with inductions of new type of fighters, the IAF has already placed orders for 40 LCAs (20 each in Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) and Final Operational (FOC) standards) of MK-I version with GE404 engine. These planes are planned for induction in the 12th Plan (2012-2017). There is also a further plan to induct more LCAs of MK-II version with superior GE F414 engines, 99 units of which have been contracted for $800 million. All together, as many as six LCA squadrons (108 fighters) are to be inducted by the end of the 13th Plan (2017-2022).

The much touted approximately $20 billion medium multi role combat aircraft (MMRCA) deal, in which French Rafale emerged as the winner, looks set for contract finalisation in early part of the next financial year (2013-14). As per the plan, the first Rafale squadron comprising of 18 aircrafts will be inducted in 3-4 years after contract signing. The rest 108 aircraft, which will be manufactured by the HAL under the transfer of technology agreement with France, are to be inducted in the following seven years.

The induction of LCA and MMRCA is soon going to be over-shadowed by what is poised as India’s biggest ever defence programme to acquire 200-250 Fifth Generation Fighter Aircrafts (FGFA) – though in a recent interview the Air Chief has however indicated a lower figure of 144 fighters. Consequent to 2007 inter-governmental agreement between India and Russia for joint development of FGFA, both the sides signed a Preliminary Design contract in 2010 at the cost of $295 million to be shared equally. Drawning upon the basic structural and systems design of the Russian PAF-FA, the FGFA for the IAF is now visualised as a single seat fighter with advanced features such as stealth, super-cruise, and ultra-manoeuvrability. HAL, the Indian joint partner in the developmental efforts of the FGFA, has committed $6 billion dollars for the initial developmental efforts. Total programme cost on the Indian side including for the induction is estimated to be $30 billion. The IAF is hopeful of inducting the aircraft from 2020 onwards.

Transport Aircraft
Like the fighter fleet, the transport fleet of the IAF is on a major course transformation, by way of upgrades and replacement of existing fleet, and induction of new planes. Beginning in this regard was made in 2007 when India and Russia signed another intergovernmental agreement for joint development and production of 15-29 ton class Multi-role Transport Aircraft (MTA). Post the 2007 agreement, both the sides have formed a joint venture in India as an equal partnership. Of the total projected requirement of 205 MTAs, the IAF’s share is 45 (100 for Russia and the rest 60 for exports).

The big boost for IAF’s transport fleet however came in January 2008 when India signed the Letter of Offer and Acceptance (LOA) with the US government for procurement of six C-130J-30 Super Hercules at the cost of $962.5 million. Intended for use by the Indian Special Forces, the aircraft were all delivered by 2010-11 - ahead of the schedule. Happy with the performance of the new aircraft and the delivery schedule, the IAF is planning to induct six more C-130Js in the near future. Lockheed Martin’s success in bagging the first major IAF order was then replicated by the Boeing when Indian signed another LOA in June 2011 for procurement of 10 C-17 Globemaster III heavy lift aircraft at the cost of $4.116 billion. The delivery of the aircraft is scheduled for completion between June 2013 and June 2015. Like in the case of C-130J, IAF also plans to increase its C-17 fleet by 10 more of such planes.

The IAF’s AN-32 fleet inducted between 1984 and 1991 is presently going through a major modernisation under a $400 million contract signed with Ukraine in 2009. Of the total 105 AN-32s, 40 are being upgraded in Ukraine and rest will be done India. The upgrades, which will increase the service life by 15 years to upto 40 years, also include noise suspension, collision avoidance and ground proximity warning systems, and satellite navigation - among others.

In a major boost to the Indian private sector, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) – the highest decision making body in the MoD – in a July 2012 meeting gave its nod to the IAF’s Rs. 119 billion proposal to procure 56 aircraft (of 6-8 tonne class) as replacement of HAL-built Hawker Siddeley 748M Avro aircraft. The decision was then followed by issuance of RFP in November 2012 to five global manufactures - Russian Ilyushin, Ukrainian Antonov, European EADS, Italian Alenia Aeronautica and Swedish SAAB. As per the RFP terms, the aircraft are to be procured through the 'Buy and Make' route of the MoD’s Defence Procurement Procedure- 2011 (DPP-2011), with the condition that the foreign vendor will select a private Indian company for manufacturing 40 aircraft in India (initial 16 aircrafts to be procured off-the-shelf). The deliveries of aircraft would commence within 24 months from the date of signing the contract and would be completed over a period of eight years. The RFP also stipulates that of the 40 aircraft to be manufacture in India, 16 must have 30 per cent indigenous content which would increase to 60 per cent for the rest 24 aircrafts.

The IAF’s basic flying training (or Stage-I training) got a shot in arm when the government after some delay and controversy finally signed a contract on May 24, 2012 with Swiss company Pilatus Aircraft Ltd for supply of 75 PC-7 Mk-II turbo prop basic trainer aircrafts (BTA). As per the contract, valued Rs 29 billion, all the aircraft are scheduled for delivery between February 2013 and August 2015. The Pilatus contract may further be swelled with the MoD reportedly ‘rejecting’ on cost ground the state-owned aerospace major HAL’s proposal to supply 106 trainers from 2016 onwards. If the Swiss company succeeds in fishing in HAL’s misery, it may end up meeting IAF’s entire BTA fleet. Presently the IAF does not have a BTA since the entire fleet of HPT-32 (114 aircraft) was grounded after a fatal accident in July 2009.

Apart from the BTA, IAF has also set its eye on modernising its fleet of Intermediate jet Trainers (IJT) – for stage-II training - as its current fleet of 81 IJT Kirans inducted in seventies is on the verge of retirement. Although HAL has an order to produce 85 IJTs (including 12 Limited Series Production), the project is running behind the schedule. As against planned delivery from June 2012 onwards, the HAL is still struggling with the flight testing. This has not only displeased the IAF but could lead to procurement from the foreign sources given the criticality of training and the obsolescence of Kirans.

Unlike the basic and intermediate trainers, the IAF is however comfortable with its advanced jet trainers. So far IAF has contracted 106 AJT Hawks (as against the requirement of same number) from UK through two separate agreements signed in 2004 and 2010.

Force Multiplier
Among other major aerial platforms, the IAF has inducted or in the process of inducting aerial refuelling and airborne surveillance aircraft, in a move to enhance its force multiplier capability. The IAF, which is looking at midair refuelling a mandatory capability in its all on-going and future aerial platform purchases, is hoping that it is second time luck in concluding the $1.0 billion tender for 6 mid-air refuellers, to add to the six IL 78 procured in early 2000s . Pending the government announcement, Airbus has already issued a statement (on January 7th), stating that it has been ‘selected’ as the ‘preferred bidder to supply its A330 MRTT Multi Role Tanker Transport to the Indian Air Force (IAF).” Airbus’s win, which comes against Russian IL 78, also means Moscow’s third straight defeat in India’s competitive bidding process. Earlier, Russia lost to the US for two IAF tenders for attack and heavy lift helicopters.

India has a total requirement of at least 20 AWACS (airborne warning and control system), and AEW&C (airborne early warning and control) aircraft to maintain border and coastline surveillance. So far, the IAF has already inducted three IL-76-based Phalcon AWACS with two more under the pipeline. The first three AWACS, the contract of which was singed in March 2004 under a tripartite $1.1 billion deal among India, Israel and Russia, were the delivered in 2009 and 2010 and 2011, respectively. As a follow-on order to the 2004, agreement, the MoD has in December 2012 given its nod to procure two more AWACS, thus eventually increasing the total AWACS fleet to five. The imported AWACS fleet is soon going to be joined by three indigenous AEW&C systems based on the Brazilian Embraer platform. The first Embaraer aircraft fitted with the DRDO-developed AEW&C reached India in September 2012 for further testing before its induction in IAF.

Apart from the major platforms, the IAF modernization also includes induction of other systems, including simulators, air defence system and precision-guided weapons. Presently out of 46 simulators, 30 are operational, with others in the process of being replaced. Regarding radars, the IAF apart from the induction and imminent induction of AWACS and indigenous AW&CS, is in process of fielding a host of radars including Medium Powered Radars (MPR), Low Level Transportable Radars (LLTR), Low Light Weight Radars (LLWR), and Aerostat Systems. To give a further push to the Air Defence sector, a range of missile systems comprising of short range surface to air missile (SAM), medium range SAM and long range SAM are being introduced.

As part of the infrastructure development, the IAF has already commenced the Project MAFI (Modernisation of Air Filed Infrastructure) that envisages improvement of all IAF airfields to enable the operation of modern aircraft. The project is being carried out in two phases: Phase-I involving 30 airfields and Phase-II for 28 airbases. Among others, the modernisation includes highly advanced traffic management system, category-2 airfield lighting system and navigational aid to enable flying at night and in adverse weather. The contract valued Rs. 12 billion ($243 million) for phase-I, was signed in March 2011 with TATA Power SED which won the biggest ever defence contract by any Indian private company. TATA’s contract may be swelled further with the government keeping the o

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