Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Five steps to a viable air force

The IAF must extend life of Jaguars, push Tejas and AMCA, sign FGFA, acquire two more Rafale squadrons, and build up force multipliers

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 10th Oct 17

Air Force Day, celebrated on October 8 each year, provides occasion to revisit the IAF’s biggest worry – it’s declining squadron numbers – and to examine how this could be reversed within its budget. Military planners estimate the IAF needs 42 fighter squadrons to tackle a two-front threat from Pakistan and China. Against this, the air force has just 33 squadrons, including 10 squadrons of obsolescent MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighters overdue for retirement. True, new Tejas and Sukhoi-30MKI fighters are rolling off the lines, but not quickly enough to replace the retiring MiGs, leave alone increasing the number of squadrons.

Each fighter squadron should have 21 aircraft, including 16 single-seat fighters, two twin-seat trainers (which would fly combat sorties in wartime) and three aircraft as maintenance reserves. The IAF has about 600 fighters, and calculating at 21 fighters per squadron, this adds up to just 29 squadrons. That means many of the IAF’s 33 squadrons operate with fewer fighters than the 21 authorised.

So why is the air force not allocated more money to quickly buy more fighters? A look at the chart (below) shows the IAF has already been allocated the lion’s share of the capital budget – which pays for new equipment. Additional capital allocations are possible only by raising defence spending (at the politically costly expense of social sector spending and infrastructure creation), or at the expense of the army or navy. The army, despite its massive size and urgent need for artillery guns, infantry equipment and air defence weaponry gets less than a third of the capital budget. Reducing it is impossible. The navy, which plays a growing role in the Indian Ocean, is as short of warships as the air force is of fighters and cannot countenance its modernisation budget falling below the present 25 per cent.

Service-wise sharing of budget (in Rs crore)

Services’ share of

Personnel costs
Running costs
Capital budget**

2015-16 (Actual)

Air Force

2016-17 (RE)

Air Force

2017-18 (BE)

Army *
Air Force

*    Excludes budget for Border Roads Organisation, but includes for Rashtriya Rifles and National Cadet Corps
^    Excludes Coast Guard, includes Joint Staff budgets
**  Capital budget for services only, excludes allocations for DRDO and Ordnance Factories

The answer, obviously, is for the IAF to spend more judiciously. Its misguided quest to own all flying machines, including attack helicopters that fight the land battle and should rightly belong to the army, has resulted in the IAF spending some $2 billion on 22 Apache attack helicopters – money that could have gone out of the army’s coffers. The IAF must also balance between, on the one hand, buying pricey, cutting-edge fighters like the Rafale that it can afford only in small numbers; and, on the other hand, acquiring inexpensive workhorses that provide the numbers needed to cover India’s vast airspace. While fighter pilots must not be sent into combat in inferior aircraft, an obsessive quest for outright combat superiority will leave an air force short of numbers. A telling example is the IAF’s Rafale purchase, where exorbitant cost (Rs 686 crore per aircraft, Rs 58,000 crore for the deal with add-ons) has left the IAF with just 36 fighters instead of the 126 that were tendered. Everyone disregarded Stalin’s dictum: “Quantity has a quality of its own.”

Building up quantity, without sacrificing quality, requires the IAF to progress on five simultaneous tracks. The air force chief recently stated, without elaborating, that by the IAF’s centenary in 2032, its squadron strength would reach authorised levels. In a country where even annual plans are seldom met, this projection is so far into the future as to be practically meaningless. The IAF must clearly elaborate how it will meet its targets, and lay down mid-course milestones for 2025. To stimulate this process, here is a five-point road map.

India’s fighter aircraft roadmap

Fighter type
Squadrons in service


Medium-to-heavy fighters

Built in Nashik, production run ends in 2018-19
Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA)
To be co-developed with Russia and built by HAL in India

Delivery of 36 Rafales from 2019-2022. Follow up order needed for 36 more to be delivered by 2025
Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA)
Inducted to replace upgraded MiG-29, Mirage-2000 and Jaguar, starting from 2032

Legacy medium fighters

Being upgraded by 2018-19, likely phased out in 2032
Mirage 2000
Being upgraded by 2020-21, likely phased out in 2032
Being upgraded by 2025, likely retired starting 2040

Single engine fighters

Tejas LCA Mk 1
Being built by HAL in Bengaluru by 2019-20.
Tejas LCA Mk 1A
Being developed by 2018-19 and built by HAL by 2025
F/16 or Gripen E
Manufactured on new line in India, starting 2024-25
Being phased out of service by 2020
Being phased out of service by 2020


First, the IAF must expedite the long-postponed proposal to upgrade at least four of its six Jaguar ground strike squadrons with more powerful engines, DARIN-3 navigation-attack avionics, airborne electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and capable air-to-air and air-to-ground weaponry. Along with three Mirage 2000 and three MiG-29 squadrons already being upgraded, this would keep 10 squadrons of capable (though not cutting-edge) fighters flying for another 15 years till 2032. The upgraded Jaguars could serve some years beyond that.

Second, the IAF must whole-heartedly support indigenous fighter development: specifically the Tejas Mark 1A, followed by the eponymous Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) – a twin-engine, stealthy, fifth-generation fighter. The IAF has initiated the acquisition of 84 Tejas Mark 1A fighters (four squadrons). This will have four improvements over the initial Tejas – AESA radar for added combat capability; air-to-air refuelling to increase combat range; an externally-mounted “self-protection jammer” (SPJ) to blind enemy radars, and tidier internal systems to increase maintainability and reduce “turnaround time”, i.e. how quickly a refuelled and rearmed Tejas can leave on a fresh mission after returning from an earlier one. Improving the Tejas incrementally could give the 2032 fleet eight Tejas squadrons.

Simultaneously, the IAF must strongly support the indigenous AMCA. Having a fully-developed and flight-tested AMCA by 2032 is vital for replacing the upgraded MiG-29s and Mirage 2000s that begin retiring that year, followed by the Jaguar. Expediting the conclusion of a contract to build a single-engine fighter in India with foreign collaboration would benefit the AMCA by galvanising an indigenous aerospace eco-system. It would also add six (or more) squadrons to the IAF by 2032.

Third, the IAF must drive the contract for Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) to partner Sukhoi in co-developing and manufacturing the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA). This heavy fighter would replace the Sukhoi-30MKI, when that IAF workhorse ages. In July, a defence ministry Expert Committee ruled that the technological expertise Indian engineers would gain from working with Russian experts would also feed positively into the AMCA project. HAL chief, T Suvarna Raju says if India acted quickly, HAL would get to co-design the heart of the FGFA’s combat systems– including navigation systems, radars and weapon aiming devices. This would translate into the ability to upgrade the FGFA mid-way through its life cycle. Further, the FGFA co-development is incredibly cost effective –India will pay just $3.1 billion. There is no reason to delay this project.

Fourth, paradoxically, considering that buying the Rafale was a financial blunder, the IAF must now procure two more squadrons. The Rafale will be the IAF’s eighth fighter type when it joins (sixth if one discounts the MiG-21 and MiG-27 on their way out), and it makes little sense to create basing and maintenance infrastructure for just two Rafale squadrons.

Fifth and finally, the IAF must focus on acquiring and indigenously developing force multipliers, especially aerial tankers (unforgivably stuck for years in the defence ministry pipeline); airborne warning and control systems to maximize usage of existing combat assets; and satellite-based data links to greatly enhance airspace awareness and weapon-targeting capabilities of the fighter fleet.

The challenge is as clear as the opportunities. Can the IAF and defence ministry get their acts together? 


Anonymous said...

Some really good points especially about the Apache. I recall in the past you have advocated for the JSF. What it has going for it over the FGFA is mostly that it has a lot more aircrafts on order compared to the FGFA. Whereas the americans have experience with Stealth fighters for many decades, FGFA is the first Russian attempt at stealth and not quite a ready fighter yet.
Overall I think the JSF might work out cheaper than going for the FGFA. It might be also worth
the air forces while to back an LCA MK2 to make up the numbers once the production run of the LCA Mk1A comes to a close. On a side note , I really wish HAL and its chairman would get down to the business of delivering the LCA Mk1A in a timely manner instead of hardselling us on the need for jumping on board the FGFA.

Anonymous said...

I have my opinion which is from a bystander and I am giving an honest opinion , please do not write nasty things as it is no way binding to anyone. First and foremost Darin 3 upgrades must be done and give jaguar the EL - M 2052 radar which is AESA and would improve the ground striking capability as well its survivalibity and jaguars would be able to defend themselves with good beyond theisual range missiles. Work hard to certify the HTFE engines so that itcan quickly devlop 36-40 KN which would improve the performance of jaguar fighters. Give it the display that has been desiegnedfor the combat hawk to ease the work of pilot. The service ceiling would increase and performance would be lot better thus improving survivability. The same engine can be used for IJT as well as for combat hawk.
The tejas has to be quickly developed into MK1 A and try best to get help from GE to instal it in new airframe which is broader and less taller with supersonic air intakes like F35 and increase the fuel capacity to atleast 5K liters and implement all the changes that are required for MK1A so that with more powerful engine the T/W ratio would be better. Truest to get 414 EPE engines and and fit the electro opanique sensor so that it will be more performant . Built it in pieces and with scheduled delivery system so that assembly can be optimized. Built atleast 400 planes in 10 years and as I had advised use it as wolf pack of 5-6 planes with a one F 35 like fighter. This way it will be cost effective , more lethal and cost effective option as tejas is home grown product would be very cost effective and easily maintainable. I am happy that they hose American engine which is reliable and has long service life and thus the planes would be available for use having atleast 80 percent availability. Russia has fallen back after the break up and lags behind in engine technology , to have reliable highperformance engine and all they can offer is hanger queen.
PAKFA is in no way a fifth generation plane and nor is J 20 or J 31 , the shape of tejas be more streamlined and some coating be put to give it a passive stealth and add active jammers would be better so called fifth generation plane due to its small size and composite structure than the Russian and Chinese planes. If India produces 400 plus tejas then I am not talking of air superiority , nor air dominance but I am talking of battlefield dominance. Five tejas flying 20-30 miles apart with F 35 flying behind it can cover a battle field and knockout armour , artillery and supply lines and reenforcements with a good air to ground missile , that is why namica has to be fully developed with tejas carrying 8 of these missiles on two pyelons.
Buying Rafale was good as you have two swadrons of high end plane which is sanction free but it is very expensive and if today you order F35 then they would be available in 2020 and beyond and would cost atleast 50 million less per plane than Rafale which is extremely overpriced. F35 is whole generation ahead and would get a missile tracking sensor which would give advance information to the missile defense so that incoming missile can be shot down. It would help against alnasr missiles and tejas can clean up the launch vehicle.
That finishes two points that PAFKA has third generation engine technology , and is not a fifth generation plane and Rafale is just too expensive , full devlopedF35 with all its issues sorted out would be available from 2020 at atleast 50 million less than Rafale.

No country can become superpower till it has its own technology to devlop its plane and complete the tejas mess in two years and concentrate for AMCA with full effort , normally in America we get 44 months to devlop a prototype. Do it and let your your work speak.


Ashish said...

It seems to me that AMCA is on back burner & neither IAF nor government is interested in that project. AMCA still is in preliminary design phase which I think will be completed in 2018-19. Detailed design will follow which will take another 3 years followed by 4 years of Full scale engineering & development to commence. AMCA is likely to make first flight in 2027-28 & I think it is highly unlikely that IAF will have 1 squadron in 2032.

Anonymous said...

The steps are academic in nature and mostly archaic. Sounds like typically bureaucratic noting, to keep the file in a loop for years without action.

Anonymous said...

Quantity has a quality of its own.
Every country aspiring to be a big power needs to not only operate locally designed arms, but also export them.
Pakistan does not operate twin engine fighters.

Is Rafale the only mistake ? Maybe there are deep strategic reasons for buying Rafales. (Let us not forget post Kargil IAF wanted 126 Mirage 2000, but some smart Alec in MoD made a jamboree).
What about 270+ super heavy 2 seater Sukhois ? Do we need so many ?
Can we not increase the proportion of light fighters ?
Will increasing ADA budget by 2-3 times get the mk2 & AMCA out faster ?
Do we have sufficient experienced people to execute these ?

Maybe it is good decision hence to LCA + one more single engine fighter.

The Navy too had strategic submarine building program released in 1999. Look where we are.
Artillery would have met the same fate but for ATAGS.

So who messed the 18 years after Kargil ?

Anonymous said...

We must abandon FGFA project and save billions of dollars as well as years of time. keep adding Su-30mki. also we should go for F-35 and ask USA to share info on RAM. that's the best we can get out of it. In india aircraft development by DPSU and project managed by MOD are the best recipe for project running in decades rather than years so if we have to take that route then by 2132 we may have 42 sqdn!!
we need to keep adding planes till we reach close to optimum then we can think of development roadmap and technology. if there is a conflict today, it is the Su30 that will rescue and not the under development LCA.

Anonymous said...

Please stop harping about how different fighter types constitute additional logistics and other issues. Are you (and others) saying that the IAF can't handle multiple fighter types? Does it not make more sense to have multiple options at hand during combat? Does it not make sense that it keeps the enemy worried about facing different fighter types? Having indigenous, Russian, European and US inventories and resources is just perfect!

Anonymous said...

This is fighting last war. China and USA are thinking of using swarms of low cost drones to overwhelm air defences .
We are yet to fly even one proper drone nor do have capability to control even one (forget swarms).

Anonymous said...

NSR says ---

If India chooses F-16 or F/A-18 Block III, then it must bargain hard for GE F-414 engine and present generation AESA radar and targeting pod...
No tech transfer for these two items should mean no contract...
With these three items and many armaments that come for them will be far superior to what China and Pakistan will field...

F/A-18 Block III is a proven fighter bomber and can help Airforce and navy too...

No need to go with single engine as India already has Tejas MkIA and possible Tejas MkII with GE F-414...
India can build thousands of GE F-414 engines so GE may relent on transferring technology for some upfront fee and joint design and development contracts...
India can take the same path with AESA radar and targeting POD...

If Lockheed truly transfers the technology and full fledged manufacturing for 100 fighters, then it is worth to quickly shore up the numbers but Tejsa II is a better choice...

Whatever is the case, do not take the same box and screwdriver route again...

Pilgrim said...

The prescription is correct. Only if the advice is to be taken - there are too many lobbies and interests at work.

andy said...

Colonel much as I would like to agree with all your views the facts don't permit me the luxury.42 squadrons are old hat now considering the capabilities of platforms like the SU30.In war games conducted by the IAF the SU30MKI flew almost 10hour,1800 kms combat missions,with mid air refuelling,switching between the eastern and western fronts in the same sortie.This is possible because the SU30 can fly for 4.5 hours on internal fuel.

In the 1950s, the defence brass recommended 64 squadrons of fighters for the IAF. That was revised down to 42 in the 1960s( Underline 42 in the 1960s) However, modern aircraft like the Sukhoi are versatile fighters that not only undertake strike and bombing missions but can also provide combat air patrol, creating a safe envelope for other jets to operate freely.
What it means is that compared with previous generation aircraft, today you need fewer warplanes to get the same job done.

With such capabilities and the qualitative edge they give to the airforce, its surprising that no one is talking about inducting more SU30 into the IAF.Whats more surprising is that no one in the govt has called this bluff of the IAF,which just seems to be a charade for induction of exorbitant western fighter jets.Its just like a kid hankering after a new toy.Why buy a Ferrari when an honest Scorpio will do the job?

This pigheaded fetish resulted in the white elephant Rafale being procured from France,$8+ billions for just 36 units,now they’ve asked the govt to buy 36 more since their cost would “only” be 60% of the original deal.Really? how convenient.This is how they relentlessly push for new western toys and demean indegenous efforts like the LCA Tejas.

Tejas was one of the stars at the air show in Bahrain. That it performed without a hitch at a foreign air show is the aeronautical equivalent of human evolution, from ape to homo sapien. It’s nothing less than a miracle.Still the IAF would lose no time in shafting the LCA into oblivion given the opportunity.For the LCA to reach its pinnacle the government should get rid of the foreign import mafia that lives on defence commissions. (BrahMos director A. Sivathanu Pillai has written in his book how he checkmated serving military generals who attempted to scuttle the missile.)

Nitin Kumar said...

Very good post!! Indian Army is best in the world :)

Alok Asthana said...

Very well analyzed. Had a low opinion only of army brass till now. Seems that Air Force guys too, are similarly handicapped in basic management skills. Merely glamorous flyboys, it seems

Unknown said...

Sorry sir requirements of airforce could not be seen in isolation specially in fighter aircraft as navy should be involved in the decision. We have to seriously consider if we require naval Tejas or naval Gripen.It is surprising that you don't mention Tejas Mk2 anywhere. It seems that airforce has shelved it's plan for Tejas Mk2. And small no of 56 naval fighters would make naval Tejas unviable. This mean that we would be funding naval Gripen making it commercial viable at cost of our own naval fighter programme & increase chances for naval Gripen as Rafale, F35, F18 could not fit into lifts of our Stobar carriers specially when they all were designed for Catobar. If folly of chosing Naval F18 is repeated it would add another fighter type to country addon to the mantainance disaster for future theatre commands. Even US is going for joint fighter programme for commanality. This would also mean near death to naval AMCA too which could be thought of in 2040 timeframe to operate from IAC too. As naval variant has to be simultaneously developed with airforce one and not otherwise. ADA learnt that it is necessary to develop naval variant first and then think of airforce variant. The same has been proved in case of F35, F18, Dassault Rafale and Might 29k to some extent too.So we must pledge our naval aviation in hands of foreign OEM for atleast four decades till 2060, naval Gripen having life of 40 years.Also the capacities created for making IAC2 would go waste as there would be no follow up export orders for aircraft carriers which we could seriously push to either of Vietnam, Brazil , Thailand and Southafrica in 2030 timeframe when IAC 2 would leave its docks for sea trials.When IAF is so oblivious of Naval needs how could we ever think of reforms like that of joint theatre commands.I know IAF is adamant for Gripen but they will end up ordering 300 Gripen at cost of Tejas in long term as all others are costly Twin engines.Yes FGFA could be given a thought considering that Russian would not repeat there devious tactics once again. I still remember how Europeans exchanged gold for rifles from Red Indians and Negro's to kill each other ultimately turning them into slaves.Today they call themselves modern day Americans supplying arms to both India and Pakistan.Russia & Israel have no problem in supplying them to both India and China. Long live colonialism. It is still very much alive and we ourselves pave the way forward.

Nikhil Agarwal said...

Should IAF not consider asking for retired Jaguars from Oman last retired in 2014 to use them for spare parts? Second hand Mig 29 and Mirage 2000 could be considered if available at reasonable cost. Purchasing more Rafale might be considered cost-effective but considering how MMRCA contract was cancelled and how french went back on their words with dirty political games and promoting an equally corrupt buisnessman would create a very bad precedent with very high cost for the country in long term. High standards of ethics and past follies has its own cost and IAF must pay that cost. Tejas is the only viable solution and nation has to wait for it come what may. There is little threat of war and we have enough cheap missile systems for effective deterrent. IAF is getting mad but they must pay for killing HF24 Marut. Every sin has its penance. Nikhil

Nikhil Agarwal said...

Wonder why France provides arms to both India and Pakistan to kill each other.Agosta for Pakistan. Meteor and Rafale for India. We all are cannonfodder for their weopen manufacturers who are so e to vocally into buisness of killing

Sudip Das said...

What India gained by purchasing 36 Raffles at an exorbitant price
Should it be indigenously developed Texas or make in India single engine fighter (to favor a specific industrial house who part funded the last election campaign of the present establishment )

Anonymous said...

I just have to agree partly to Mr.Andy's comment dated 11 October 2017. One thing I need to say is " Do we need 42 squadrons today as it was an old estimate( 23 strike squadrons+ 19 air to air fighter squadrons)??
TWO. Do Indian navy need aircraft carriers in today's scenario? We should be looking at 40000 tonne LHDs ( 4 or 5) plus Yasen class SSGNs (8-12).