Sunday, June 20, 2021

IAF’s Fighter Fleet Requirements and Options Ahead

by Air Marshal Anil Chopra (retd), DG-CAPS
Technology intensive air power requires faster replacement of assets due to quicker obsolescence. It is clear that IAF must win the air war for the Army and Navy to win the surface war. It is time to see where IAF is heading

The Galwan showdown of June 2020 and the continuing stand-off between the world’s two powerful nations, India and China, have focused on Indian Armed Forces capability building. Indian Air Force’s (IAF) fighter fleet modernisation has been in discussion. The convergence of strategic interests between China and Pakistan and their rapidly modernising air force is of concern. Notwithstanding the induction of 20 Rafale as of date and order for 83 LCA Mk1A, the IAF continues to be at a low of 32 fighter squadrons vis-a-vis the government authorised 42. Technology intensive airpower requires faster replacement of assets due to quicker obsolescence. The IAF must win the air war for the Army and Navy to win the surface war. It is time to see where IAF is heading. 

IAF’s Fighter Inductions and Upgrades 

Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has delivered all the 20 LCA Mk1 ordered in the Initial Operation Clearance status (IOC). The second LCA squadron was formed in May 2020. 20 LCA Mk1 (FOC) will get delivered by mid-2022. All 36 DassaultRafale will be provided by early 2022. IAF’s MiG 29, Mirage 2000 and Jaguar fleets are undergoing avionics and weapons upgrade to take them closer to 4-plus generation. The process is scheduled for completion in 2021. All the ordered 272 SU-30 MKI have been inducted. 12 additional aircraft will replace those lost in the last two decades. IAF will upgrade 40 Su-30 MKI with a new AESA radar, onboard computers, a new electronic warfare suite, and the ability to carry BrahMos cruise missile. Desperately short of fighters, 21 additional upgraded MiG 29 aircraft are being acquired. 

LCA Mk 1 and Mk 1A

 LCA Tejas first flew in January 2001, and twenty have been inducted as of date. Delay in LCA forced IAF to postpone the retirement of a few MiG-21 variants. The MiG 21 Bison-fleet will perhaps continue till 2024 with depleting numbers and lower availability of spares. Due to delays and challenges to achieve technological milestones, the LCA programme had to be split into LCA Mk1 IOC, FOC, Mk1A, and Mk 2 variants. The indigenous ‘Kaveri’ engine has still to succeed, and India may have to seek foreign help to retrieve it. India also needs help in airborne radars, stealth, electronic warfare (EW) systems etc. 

LCA production is currently around 12-14 per year and is expected to be ramped to 16 by mid-2021. Indigenous content of the Tejas is 59.7% by value and 75.5% by the number of line replaceable units. An order for 83 LCA Mk 1A was placed at HAL in February 2021. The first delivery is planned for early 2024. LCA Mk1A will have the improved version of the Israeli EL/M-2052 AESA radar and an electro-optic Electronic Warfare (EW) suite developed by the IAI subsidiary ELTA. There will be a special data link package, self-protection jammer, satellite navigation systems, improved flight controls, electrical and electronics system, among others, to increase the operational capability. It will also incorporate weight reduction along with easier servicing and maintainability. The Mk 1A will one day have an indigenous AESA Radar jointly developed by BEL and Israel’s ELTA. 

LCA Mk II 

IAF needs nearly 200 LCA Mk II aircraft, taking the total requirement of LCA to over 300. The Mk II also called the Medium Weight Fighter (MWF), would be 14.6m long with a wingspan of 8.5m, compared with 13 m and 8.2 m respectively for the Mk1 and 14.36m and 9.13m for Mirage 2000. The aircraft will have a compound delta wing with close-coupled canards. The longer fuselage will allow for more fuel and could also carry more drop tanks. The maximum weight of the aircraft would be 17.5 tons (compared to Mk 1’s 13.5 tons). Its external stores will increase from the current 7 to 11, and carrying capacity will increase from 5.3 to 6.5 tons. It will be equipped with a higher thrust General Electric GE-F414-INS6 engine. New systems will include an indigenous onboard oxygen generation system (OBOGS), a built-in integrated electro-optic electronic-warfare, an infra-red search and track (IRST) system, a missile approach warning system (MAWS) and a new AESA radar. It will be designed for swing-role, with combined BVR air defence and precision strike capability. The realistic first flight timeline would be around 2025. The aircraft may be inducted in 2030. In any case, HAL will require at least 7-8 years to deliver the LCA Mk1 variants. For India to remain a significant player in aircraft manufacture, LCA has to succeed, and it must establish the framework for the leap ahead to AMCA.    

HAL is also proposing a Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) aircraft for the Navy, and a Twin-engine Medium Class Omni-Role Combat Aircraft (ORCA) fighter for the IAF, though no such decision has yet been taken. 

DRDO-HAL AMCA

The AMCA is a fifth-generation aircraft being designed by ADA and will be manufactured by HAL. It will be a twin-engine, all-weather multirole fighter. It will combine super-cruise, stealth, advanced AESA radar, super manoeuvrability and advanced avionics. It is meant to replace the Jaguar and Mirage 2000 aircraft and complement the SU-30 MKI, Rafale and Tejas in the IAF and MiG 29K in the Navy. The feasibility study of the program had already been completed, and the programme has already been given the nod by the IAF to initiate the AMCA Technology Demonstration phase before launching the full-Scale engineering development phase. 

The AMCA design is known to have shoulder-mounted diamond-shaped trapezoidal wings and an all-moving Canard-Vertical V-tail with a large fuselage-mounted tail-wing. The reduced radar cross-section (RCS) would be through airframe and engine inlet shaping and use of radar-absorbent materials (RAM). AMCA will have an internal weapons bay, but a non-stealthy version with external pylons is also planned. It is being said that AMCA may initially fly with two GE-414 engines. Eventually, it is planned to be powered by two GTRE, 90 kN thrust, K 9 or K10 engines which are the successors to the troubled Kaveri engine. France has also offered access to the Snecma M88 engine and other key technologies. The realistic first flight could be around 2028 and induction in 2035.

114 New Fighters

The first round of, to be Made-in-India, Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) with the requirement of the 126 aircraft had to be curtailed due to technical and contractual reasons, and finally, only 36 fly-away Rafale aircraft were bought from France. The process for the second attempt, now to acquire 114 aircraft, was initiated after the IAF released the RFI on April 8, 2018. The response to RFIs was received by July 2018. Six global companies responded. The contenders were the same six aircraft that were part of the earlier MMRCA competition. These were Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Block 70 (later named F-21), Boeing’s Advanced Super Hornet F/A-18E/F, DassaultRafale, Swedish Saab Gripen JAS-39E/F, Russian MiG-35 and European Eurofighter. A new participant Sukhoi Su-35 was added later. Meanwhile, Boeing has announced to offer the F-15 EX. IAF has still to issue its Request for Proposal, which would become the basis of actual competition. Having initially wanted only a single-engine fighter with more significant numbers, the selection for IAF has now become rather wide. The much heavier F-15EX could be at one edge of the spectrum and a much lighter single-engine Lockheed Martin F-21 and Saab Gripen JAS 38 E/F on the other end. 

Fighter Fleet – Target 2035

 IAF today has roughly five squadrons of MiG 21 Bison, five of Jaguars, three MiG 29 (UPG), three of Mirage 2000 (UPG), 12 of Su-30 MKI, two LCA, two Rafale, totalling 32 squadrons. IAF is thus short of 10 fighter squadrons vis-a-vis authorised. For some time now, there has been an ambitious plan to re-build the IAF to 42 squadrons by 2035. Even if IAF was to stretch the Mirage 2000 and MiG 29 (UPG) till then, there would be a need to replace the ten squadrons of Bison and Jaguars. That would mean a need to induct 20 squadrons between now and 2035. Based on the ambitious current induction plan, that would mean one squadron each of SU-30 MKI and MiG 29, six of the new fighter, 10 LCA, and two AMCA squadrons.  

The Cost Mechanics

The 83 LCA Mk1A, with support package, are going to cost IRS 45,000 Crore, meaning IRS 550 Crore per aircraft. 36 Rafale had cost IRS 59,000 Crore. It can be safely assumed that for any new MRCA class aircraft; the average package cost will be above IRS 1,000 Crore per aircraft. Twenty squadrons would mean close to 360 aircraft, meaning 360,000 Crore at current prices. IAF’s Capital Budget for 2020-21 was Rs 43,282 Crore. In addition to fighter aircraft, IAF has to pay for many other systems already being inducted or planned. These include S-400, ALH, LCH, LUH, Avro replacement, radars, surface and aerial weapons, among many others. The backlog in modernisation is so huge that out of budget funds may be required. With the economy being hit by Covid-19 and other national commitments, where will the money come from?  

Way Ahead 

The thrust is rightly on indigenisation. LCA and AMCA are flagship programmes of Indian defence manufacturing. Aviation technologies are much more complex and expensive than building ships and tanks. India is still at the MK 1A stage. The variables and anxieties will continue to hit the LCA Mk II and AMCA. The engine, AESA, EW systems, and the complex aerodynamic configuration and stealth of the AMCA will require technical help. It is going to be an uphill task. The AMCA would require national resources and very professional management. A ‘hit and trial’ approach will not work, lest we end up in serious delays and cost overruns. 

While India pushes for ‘Made-in-India’ fighters, it has no choice but to procure some more fighters from abroad. IAF always wanted a single-engine aircraft because it would be cheaper, easy to maintain and turn-around for a more significant number of missions. IAF already has many twin-engine aircraft in SU-30 MKI, MiG 29, Jaguar, and Rafale. If India has to acquire a twin-engine aircraft, then why not buy more Rafale to reduce the logistics burden of too many types. China is pulling ahead with massive induction of funds in military aviation. Pakistan and China are also working in close coordination. It is critical to building back fighter numbers. The time to act is now

About the author: Air Marshal Anil Chopra (retd.) is currently the Director General- Centre for Air Power Studies.

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