by Gp. Capt. Anupam Banerjee (r.)
The transport aircraft fleet of Indian Air Force – the big fat giants are giving our country something to cheer about in this gloomy and critical phase of the pandemic.
Lately, when India experienced a surge in number of active Covid-19 cases in the month of April and consequent surge in the demand of medical Oxygen (O2), a severe crisis unfolded for the Govt authorities to handle.
The crisis placed the republic in a war footing zone, with an immediate requirement of many cryogenic Oxygen containers, to arrest the situation and subsequent Civil adversaries. To execute the required plan of actions, the situation demanded marshaling of efforts from around the globe and subsequent distribution of these containers across the country before time, compared to the scheduled time of arrival.
The IAF transport fleet was immediately pressed into action. The C-17, IL-76 and C-130 aircraft flew more than 1300 sorties/2000 hrs from the outbreak of the second wave of pandemic which included close to 160 sorties/750 hrs of overseas effort, as well.
Maintaining a robust strategic and tactical airlift capability by a nation is not only required as a part of an efficient military readiness; but also gives Governments around the world a tremendous flexibility and edge to manage disasters in unprecedented times efficiently, one such that we are battling in present.
In addition to assets like the Boeing C-17 Globemaster and Lockheed Martin C-130 to its existing fleet of IL-76, the IAF’s transport fleet has improved its air mobility capabilities in manifolds over the years for the heavy lift sector. However, we could have been in a better situation today if IAF could have acquired assets as planned, or desired for long.
To quote a recent example, the contract for the initial C-17 acquisition included an optional follow-on clause that allowed for the purchase of six more aircrafts. The IAF required these assets, but by the time purchase was cleared for three more aircraft, Boeing had stopped its production line and only a single C-17 aircraft was available for purchase which was acquired by IAF then.
All that being expressed, the cost of operations of these heavy transport aircraft are very high, any balanced Air Force would like to have a good mix of Heavy and Medium lifters in its inventory for more flexibility with edge. The Avro replacement program thus acquires enhanced significance in this context. The procurement process of the program is currently at an advanced stage of clearance.
IAF is to procure 56 medium military transport aircraft C-295 under the ‘Make-in-India’ initiative as a part of this program. Once approved, Airbus Defence and Space in a joint venture with Tata Advanced Systems is to deliver these aircraft to IAF. The first 16 aircraft under this project are likely to be delivered in flyaway condition within two years from signing the contract while the remaining 40 aircraft are planned to be manufactured and assembled in India over a period of eight years.
With the experience of Avro replacement program and by catering for the inherent delay in our procurement process it might be prudent to start planning for replacement of another work horse of IAF – the An-32s. IAF currently operates close to 100 An-32 aircraft and the upgradation program of this aircraft which is currently under progress is reportedly running behind schedule. Looking at our volatile neighborhood IAF can ill afford to have a gap in capability in this critical sector in the coming days.
About the author: Group Captain Anupam Banerjee (r.), is a senior advisor- Society of Indian Defence Manufacturers and former spokesperson of Indian Air Force.