Saturday, 5 October 2019

Air Force chief outlines plan to solve shortage of fighter squadrons

Jaguars to retire, additional MiG-29 and Su-30 squadrons being bought

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 5th Oct 19

Four days after assuming command of the Indian Air Force (IAF), Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria has described in detail what his fighter fleet will look like a dozen years into the future. 

There is already concern that the IAF is down to just 30 fighter squadrons, against the assessed requirement of 42 squadrons. Bhadauria’s plan, unveiled in an interaction with the media on Friday, will only raise numbers to 37 squadrons by 2025, before falling again to 33 squadrons by 2032. 

Behind the continuing shortfalls is the impending retirement of the last of six remaining MiG-21 squadrons when their technical life ends in 2021.

Jaguar to retire without new engines

In addition, Bhadauria announced that six Jaguar squadrons would retire in the early 2020s, since it would be too costly to equip then with new engines needed to extend their service lives into the 2030s.

“We have had to drop the plan for re-engining the Jaguar because it has been delayed inordinately and the cost went too high,” said the IAF chief. 

“The non-BISON MiG-21s will retire by the end of this year, or go up to March 2020 at the most. Only the MiG-21 BISON fleet will be left and will go up to the end of its technical life [in 2021], he said.

Worryingly, the shortfalls could be even worse if there is delay in processing the purchase of 114 eponymous Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA), which an Indian “strategic partner” (SP) will build in technology partnership with a global “original equipment manufacturer” (OEM).

Requests for Interest (RFIs) have already been sent out to prospective SPs and OEMs for this tender.

“The [vendors’ responses] have already been received for the 114 MRFA case. We have started the process for obtaining AoN (Acceptance of Necessity) now,” said Bhadauria. The AoN, which the defence ministry accords, is the first step in a procurement and is followed by the issuance of an RFP (request for proposals) – the basic tender document.

Bhadauria’s plan also includes building 83 Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) is quick time to fill the light fighter vacancies left by the retirement of the MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighters.

On a parallel track, India would build the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), a fifth generation medium fighter.

More MiG-29s and Sukhoi-30MKIs

Meanwhile, the IAF chief confirmed the IAF would buy 21 MiG-29 fighters that are lying ready built in Russia. “We are going to go in for 21 MiG-29, which has already been informed [to Moscow],” he said. 

Adding those to the IAF’s existing three MiG-29 squadrons, which are undergoing a mid-life upgrade, would take the number of IAF MiG-29 squadrons up to four. In addition, the navy flies two squadrons of the navalized MiG-29K/KUBs.

Bhadauria also confirmed reports that additional Sukhoi-30MKI fighters would be built by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) in Nashik. HAL will soon complete delivery of the last squadron of Sukhoi-30MKIs, bringing up the IAF fleet to 13 squadrons.

“We are moving towards ordering 12 more Sukhoi-30s. Whether we need some more in lieu of aircraft that are going to get phased out from 2025 onwards… we will have to take a look later. But at the moment, 12 is what is being followed up straightaway,” said Bhadauria.

The chief also confirmed plans to upgrade the Sukhoi-30MKI, with modern “radar and weapons capabilities and also tackling obsolescence management and electronic warfare aspects.”

No plan for 36 more Rafale

Dismissing rumours that India is buying 36 more Rafales from France, Bhadauria stated: “Our plan is for building 114 MRFA in the SP model. There is no separate plan for this (36 more Rafales).

He confirmed a delay in Dassault’s delivery of the first four Rafale fighters. While Defence Minister Rajnath Singh is going to France next week to accept the fighters, they would only fly to India in May 2020, said Bhadauria.


Vikram_prasad said...

The mirage and MIG29 should serve beyond 2025. The naval MIG 29 would also require maintenance.

Critical Thinker said...

Well there are a few good things and many bad things about this plan. Firstly ordering crash replacements for the Su-30MKI while the HAL production line is still active is a no-brainer. I am glad that they are going for it.

However please drop the 114 MRFA. Instead buy 114 Rafale in small batches, as and when budget becomes available. Having multiple fighter types for similar role is a redundant and costly proposition. Not to mention that they cannot be moved easily to different airbases. Having only 3 types of fighters will mean that the IAF will only need maintenance equipment and crews for 3 different types of fighters. Maintenance crews and equipment can be spread out over a larger number of airbases which will mean the IAF can move around their aircraft easily if a war does breakout. It will mean a lot of flexibility.

AMCA is a necessity and it seems far fetched to assume that HAL/ADA can deliver a squadron of AMCA in 12 years time. They can only be expected post 2040. Since there are a lot of fifth gen tech that HAL/ADA will need to master. Also AMCA should replace both Su-30MKI/ Rafales post 2045 and 2050. They should have an open architecture system where more capabilities can be added later on if needed.

Having any Jaguars and Mig-29 post 2030 is a recipe for disaster. They should start retiring these aircraft starting with the Jaguars and ending with the Mirage-2000. The last Mirages should be retired in 2030-2032. They should save the money on buying more Mig-29's and probably invest in another squadron of LCA Mark-1 FOC configuration just to keep the HAL production line running until Mark-1A comes online.

Finally as far as the deficit of fighters is concerned. They can all be made up by adding fighters in the light weight category. I don't understand why they are putting a number and limiting Mark 1A purchases. They should keep buying more Mark 1A's until they meet the desired fighter squadron numbers or until the Mark-2 comes online, whichever comes earlier. Then once the Mark 2 comes online they can start replacing the older variants of the LCA Mark 1/1A's. If HAL/ADA manage to bring out the Mark 2 and produce it quickly enough then the IAF can also look to sell the older LCA Mark 1/1A's in the second hand fighter market. Design Mark 2 with open architecture systems too so that they can be upgraded in the future.

Out in 2050, the IAF should only be looking to operate AMCA's and LCA Mark 2's. However these should be upgraded with super advanced capabilities like manned-unmanned teaming, Directed Energy Weapons and whatever tech is available at that time.