Wednesday, May 29, 2024

IAF’s Significant Global Air Reach

By Air Marshal Anil Chopra (r)

Air Marshal Anil Chopra (r) PVSM AVSM VM VSM, Director General of the Centre for Airpower Studies.

Indian Air Force (IAF) is now routinely exercising and demonstrating the long operational range of its fighter aircraft through missions deep into the neighbouring Seas and Indian Ocean. The global reach of its transport aircraft has been seen and appreciated during the Covid-19 pandemic and the support provided in various calamities and evacuations. This has earned India respect in the comity of nations. Especially, the Global South looks up to India as a role model with admiration and as someone they can bank for no-strings-attached support.

Just last year IAF carried out three long-range missions to train for and showcase its long-range strike and air patrol capability. These were flown by the Su-30 MKI, and Rafale fighters. They were supported by the IAF’s IL-78 Flight Refueller Aircraft (FRA) for inflight refuelling, and the A-50I based Phalcon Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft for aerial radar cover, and command and control. Any significant global power must have the capability for “global vigilance and global reach”. These 7-10 hour-long missions were a step in that direction. IAF must ensure the country has “freedom from attack and the freedom to attack”. India’s immediate area of regional influence demands an ability to cover and dominate the entire Bay of Bengal up to and beyond the Malacca Strait. Have an operational reach till British Indian Ocean Territories (Diego Garcia) in the northern Indian Ocean. Similarly covers the entire Arabian Sea up to the Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Oman. 

IAF’s Long-Range Fighter Missions in 2023

In May 2023 IAF’s four Rafale jets carried out a strategic long-range mission lasting over six hours delivering pinpoint precision strikes, on targets in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). It was also to demonstrate area domination and area denial capability. The aircraft reportedly took off from their parent base in the Eastern sector. The IAF media release said that the aircraft ‘fought’ their way through a large force engagement enroute to their weapon-release point, and met the planned time on target. Earlier, one can recall how all the Rafale aircraft were ferried non-stop from France to India by undertaking a mid-air refuelling enroute. 

In early June 2023, a large formation of IAF’s Su-30MKI jets carried out another strategic mission into the IOR. This mission was towards the western seaboard into the Arabian Sea. “Another outing into the Indian Ocean Region! This time, with IAF Su-30s flying for nearly eight hours, on a different axis. Both Seaboards covered,” the IAF tweeted. The Su-30 MKI took off from an airbase in Gujarat and carried out simulated attacks on targets near Gulf of Aden. Another mission down south into the northern India Ocean was flown by Su-30s from the IAF’s peninsular airbase at Thanjavur. IAF’s Su-30s are armed with the 450 km range BrahMos, and some other anti-shipping missiles. Also IAF Jaguars have maritime-strike role. IAF fighters transiting for major air exercises abroad have been using aerial refuelling, and often reaching far of destinations without landing enroute.

Rapid Long-Range Mobility Missions

42 IAF transport aircraft were deployed in Covid-19 relief operations. On 27 February 2020, 76 Indians and 36 foreign nationals were evacuated from Wuhan (China). The aircraft had also carried medical supplies as a symbol of goodwill to China. IAF’s C-17 Globemaster brought back 58 Indians from Iran on 10 March 2020. Two IAF C-17s landed in Turkey with supplies, and Indian Army medical personnel to set up medical facility after last year’s earthquake. The role of the IAF has been distinctive in all kinds of operations because of its efficiency to respond fast along with its inherent characteristics of range, mobility and flexibility. Two IAF C 130 J aircraft were positioned in Jeddah to evacuate Indian nationals from Sudan. One of them did a daring night mission, landing on a semi-prepared strip, with no runway lights, using night vision goggles. 

The successful evacuation of 111,711 Indian citizens from Iraq, Kuwait and Jordan in 1990 by operating 488 flights over a period of 59 days by Air India and IAF was a world record. Similar missions were carried out from Lebanon in 2006 (Operation Sukoon) and in Libya in 2011. ‘Operation Neer’ was conducted to help Maldives in September 2014 which suffered a major drinking water crisis. IAF deployed three C-17 and three IL-76 flights to airlift 374 tonnes of drinking water to Male in two days. IAF deployed three C-17 aircraft in ‘Operation Rahat’ when civil war broke out in Yemen in 2015, and ferried back Indian nationals from Djibouti. 2,096 were flown out of the warzone in 11 evacuation flights. During the 2015 Nepal earthquake, IAF and Indian Army made 2223 sorties and rescued 11200 people. IAF was the first to reach the disaster-hit Himalayan nation with Quick Response Teams (QRT). The world praised India for its “remarkable” response and described the country’s disaster management capabilities as sophisticated and advanced.

 During the 2013 Uttarakhand floods, the IAF evacuated 23,892 people, delivered 798 tonnes of relief material and flew 3,536 missions in 65 days. IAF had deployed 42 transport aircraft for COVID relief tasks including 12 heavy lift and 30 medium lift aircraft. They were used to move personnel and bring in relief materials. They lifted huge empty Oxygen containers to industrial towns for filling and quick turnaround. 

 IAF’s Fighter Aircraft with Global Reach

Most IAF fighters can now be refuelled in the air. The two fleets with longer range are the Su-30 MKI and Rafale. Su-30 fleet also has the advantage of numbers and the squadrons are positioned in different parts of India. These two types also carry larger weapon load for both ground strike and air defence roles. They are thus better suited for long-range missions. These, and the other twin-engine strike fleet of Jaguars could also operate from Andaman and Nicobar Islands to extend reach to South China Sea. The reach and weapon carriage will significantly increase when the runway of the airfield at Campbell Bay in the Nicobar is extended, and operational infrastructure developed further.

Fighter Crew Physiological Preparation

The joke about modern fighter cockpits is that a fully kitted pilot has to be pushed into the cockpit using a shoe-horn. Pilots gear is meant for frost, flames, and flotation. On top of the flying overall is the anti-gravity suit. The G-suit pockets are loaded with flight information cards and emergency procedures booklets, and even maps. Over and around the G-suit and flight suit, pilots use a combined integrated torso harness and survival vest. These are connected to the survival bag with special clips and lanyards. A low-profile flotation collar rides around the pilot’s neck. The flying helmet has radio communication cords and oxygen connection pipes. The helmet has a luminous film for night rescue in the sea. There is also a helmet-mounted sighting system. Some missions may require night vision devices. Many pilots will carry an ID, wallet, cellphone, a couple of pens, and a small notebook. Some pilots fly with a good luck charm or souvenir. In actual warlike mission there may be a personal weapon like a revolver. With all this, the pilots sits on an ejection seat, which is much less comfortable than even the low-fare economy class seat. Plus, he is tightly strapped, with little wiggle room.

Long missions in relatively cramped fighter cockpits require training and preparation. Physical fitness, and adequate sleep prior to flight have to be ensured. Long missions also require more navigational and systems preparation. There is need to store easy-to-consume nutrients, and drinking water among others. There are issues related to urination. The crew have to be mentally and physically fit enough to engage in high ‘g’ air combat at the far end of the flight. They have to be active enough to deliver weapons on target accurately. Deep sea flights, especially in dark night could have orientation issues for pilots. Also, sea search and rescue contingencies have to be factored in case of an ejection. Noise and vibration stress adds to fatigue. There are some psychoactive drugs to improve human performance, increase and lengthen wakefulness and concentration used by some air forces under strict aviation specialist supervision.  

IAF’s Transport Aircraft – Considerable Reach

IAF has a significant transport fleet with global reach. These include the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III (77.5 tons load capacity) which has a nearly 4,500 km range. They could carry 102 para-troops. Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 Super Hercules (20 tons or 74 stretchers) has a range of 3,300 km with 15-ton load. The C 130’s FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) systems, night vision capability, and all-weather operations are a big asset. The C-17 and C-130 have good short-field and rough airstrip performance. The Ilyushin Il-76 (40-ton load) has a range of 4,400 km. The An-32 (6.7 tons) has been a regional workhorse with around 2,000 km range. The EADS CASA C-295W will carry over 9 tons. Its range will be between 1,500 and 4,500 km depending on payload. All these give IAF global/regional reach, including to small runways on Island territories.

Force Multipliers

The FRA and AEW&C will play a very important role for global combat reach. In some very long-range missions multiple aerial refuelling could be required. In current Indian scenarios, it should not exceed two in a mission. AEW&C will be required to give extended radar cover during the mission and also support offensive and defensive combat engagements. India already has A-50Im based AEW&C with Phalcon radar, and the Embraer 145 based DRDO ‘Netra’. The FRA is based on the Russian Il-78. The under-development FRA and AEW&C platforms would be of Airbus A319/A321 class with close to 6,500 Km range.   

Strategic Requirements

Chinese naval vessels have been making more frequent visits into the IOR. Also, China has leased the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan. China has permanent base and naval presence in Djibouti. China’s third aircraft carrier is getting ready. The Chinese aircraft carriers have mostly remained within the 1st Island chain, and have still to go beyond the 2nd Island chain. But their next logical step would be to foray deeper into the Pacific and come into the Indian Oceans. While the Indian Navy will use its operational assets to monitor and take on PLA Navy, the IAF’s land-based fighters will carry a much higher firepower and punch.

Way Ahead India

India is growing in economic and military stature. It has become a benevolent big brother and become a net-security provider in the region. India has built good relations with most nations in West and Central Asia, ASEAN and others in its immediate neighbourhood. It has sizeable aerial HADR and evacuation missions’ capability.  For global reach India would have to enhance the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) footprint. It would have to increase Air and Space superiority capability. Rapid global mobility capability is somewhat in place. More FRAs are urgently required, even if it means leasing them for the interim period. More AEW&C is work still in slow progress.

Global precision air strike capability would also mean more long-range cruise and conventionally armed ballistic missiles. India would have to develop hypersonic weapons. Even if it means to accelerate development of the BrahMos II. Even long-range air-to-air missiles will be required. Global Command and Control can be achieved through much better satellite coverage for navigation, communications, and targeting. More satellites are required. Indian satellite navigation system NavIC must become operational quickly.

Global reach will be supported by advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing. Manned Unmanned Aircraft Teaming will be important. In coming years, India’s ability to gain and maintain superiority in all operating domains of air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace will be required for creating an asymmetric advantage, albeit it will become progressively more difficult. India must get to a position to be single-handedly dominate the northern Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea. For India to secure its rightful place on the global high table, time to act is now.

Air Marshal Anil Chopra PVSM AVSM VM VSM is the Director General of the Centre for Airpower Studies.


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