India-  The Indian Air Force Takes Off

 Guy Martin / Johannesburg

MMRCA competition.

The shortlisting of the Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon in India’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft competition highlights the lofty ambitions of the Indian Air Force, the fourth largest in the world. With the order for 126 aircraft, India will have more than 800 combat aircraft in its 1,700 aircraft inventory. Such purchases are part of the Air Force’s biggest expansion in thirty years and are transforming India into one of the leading air powers in Asia.

The US$10-12 billion Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition will be India’s single largest ever defence procurement deal. The 126 fighters (with options for 74 more) will fill the gap between the lightweight MiG-21 and Tejas and high-end Su-30MKI, and will replace MiG-23MF interceptors (phased out in 2007) and MiG-23BN ground attack variants (retired in March 2009). Only 18 aircraft will be delivered as flyaways while the remaining 108 will be built by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). HAL is already developing the necessary MMRCA production capacity, which will be ready in roughly three years time.

MMRCA history.

A request for information (RFI) for the fighters was issued early in the decade and requests for proposals (RFPs) were sent out in 2007, with flight testing beginning in August 2009. Flight trials, testing nearly 650 parameters, were completed in May last year. Six aircraft were competing for the contract, including the Eurofighter Typhoon, Boeing F/A-18IN Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, Lockheed Martin F-16IN Super Viper (essentially a Block 60 F-16), RAC MiG MiG-35 (upgraded MiG-29) and Saab JAS 39IN Gripen (evolution of the Gripen NG).

Momentous news came on April 27 when Eurofighter and Dassault received bid extension letters just as the existing offers were about to expire. All four other competitors were eliminated from the race, leading Europe to declare victory as Eurofighter and Dassault were requested to extend their offer validity until 31 December.

The US Department of Defense said it was ‘deeply disappointed’ and US ambassador to India, Timothy Roemer, resigned after the announcement. If the US had offered F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, full technology transfer and avoided restrictive end user equipment agreements, they may have made the shortlist. Nevertheless, the US still has billions of dollars worth of Indian defence orders to fulfil. Russia’s MiG-35 was worse affected, as there is now no chance the aircraft’s price tag will be subsidised by an Indian deal. This could make the aircraft too expensive for the export and domestic Russian market.

An official in the Indian Defence Ministry said the Scandinavian, American and Russian aircraft did not meet the IAF’s technical requirements.  “We selected the best and it so turned out that they are European planes,” IAF head Air Chief Marshall Pradeep Vasant Naik said. Although India claims the two aircraft have been shortlisted on technical and operational grounds alone, politics most likely play a part. For instance, India is attempting to rely less on Russian equipment, especially as through-life support has been problematic with many of these systems.

The way forward.

The Indian Defence Ministry will now carry out a ‘benchmarking’ process to arrive at a reasonable price for the aircraft before commercial bids open in three to six months’ time. Before deciding the final winner, India will negotiate on the price, offsets and technology transfer. During Aero India in February, Naik said the final contract would be signed in September or October, but any time between March and September next year is more likely.

The promise of a healthy workshare and technology transfer to local companies is an increasingly important factor in the selection of future equipment. India’s Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) has made offsets obligatory for any defence deal worth over 3 billion rupees (approximately US$65 million). Arms suppliers are required to invest a minimum of 30% of the deal’s value into Indian industry. However, with the huge MMRCA deal the offset figure stands at 50%.

The MMRCA project will help the Indian Air Force (IAF) achieve its aim of having around 40 frontline squadrons with between 700 and 800 combat aircraft by 2022, the end of the 13th Five Year Defence Financing Plan. By 2017 it envisages reaching its minimum sanctioned strength of 39.5 squadrons. However, the service would prefer 44 squadrons to maintain a defensive posture against China and meet a potential full-scale conflict with Pakistan. The IAF currently has only 33 squadrons but squadron strength is projected to drop to 27 between 2012 and 2017 due to accidents, the retirement of old airframes and long procurement delays.

Capability gap.

For the last decade IAF chiefs have been warning that if new aircraft are not acquired, India will lose its traditional numerical superiority over Pakistan.  It would also become weaker in relation to China. Both of India’s neighbours have been rapidly modernising their respective air forces – former IAF head Air Marshal V K Bhatia has said that India may soon have to deal with between 1 500 and 2 000 modern fighters across its borders.

India has fought both China and Pakistan in the last 50 years and still regards them as a serious threat. This has not been helped by disputed territorial claims and deteriorating political, diplomatic and security ties. China is presently squatting on more than 7 000 square miles (18 000 sq km) of Indian land in Aksai Chin in Ladakh and claims ownership of the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh. China also continues to support Pakistan, delivering assistance for Islamabad’s nuclear programme and providing aircraft like the JF-17 Thunder.

As a result, India has deployed fighters along its border, with a Sukhoi Su-30MKI squadron being deployed to Tezpur in Assam (alongside Tibet) in 2009 in order to offset the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s build up in the area. At the beginning of March a Su-30 squadron was deployed to Chabua, also in Assam. The IAF has plans to deploy a total of four squadrons to these two bases by 2015.

India is also upgrading its airfields in many areas, including 16 alongside the Sino-Indian borderline. Thirty strategic airfields, including formerly abandoned airstrips along the perimeter with China (such as Nyoma in Ladakh) are being renovated to support Su-30 and C-130J aircraft. The IAF operates more than sixty bases, with more being built, planned or upgraded under the Modernisation of Air Field Infrastructure (MAFI) programme. On March 16 the Ministry of Defence signed a 42-month, Rs 1094 crore (US$240 million) contract with Tata Power’s Strategic Electronics Division (SED) to modernise the 30 bases. The contract was delayed by a legal battle with Selex Sistemi Integrati after Tata was chosen as the winner in 2009.

Future vision.

The IAF sees itself becoming a global player with a range of influence extending from the Persian Gulf to the Malacca Strait. It hopes to eventually be capable of fielding an expeditionary force able to undertake rapid deployments in case of disasters or acts of terrorism or piracy, using aircraft like the recently purchased Super Hercules. In fact, the latter is primarily intended for special operations use. The IAF has its own special operations unit in the form of the Garud Commando Force, which was established in 2004 with around 1,500 personnel.

In order to meet its goals of countering Pakistan and China and becoming a wide-reaching regional power, the IAF needs to replace its old and obsolete aircraft. In October last year Naik said the percentage of obsolete equipment in the Air Force currently stood at 50% but in five years would come down to 20% as new aircraft are introduced and old aircraft retired.

Defence spending.

Making it all possible is India’s burgeoning defence budget, which stands at 1.64 trillion rupees (US$36.28 billion) for the 2011-2012 fiscal year (starting March). This is up from 1.47 trillion rupees (US$32.23 billion) or 11.6% from last year. Nevertheless, it is still less than half that officially spent by China.

In 2010-11, India’s defence imports were estimated at around US$15 billion while consultancy firms like KPMG and Deloitte predict the country will spend between US$50 and US$112 billion on military equipment between now and 2016. This will ensure India remains the world’s largest importer of conventional weapons, a title it has held since 2006.

India’s biggest ever individual military purchase will be the US$25-35 billion order for 250-300 Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), which are being jointly developed with Russia. In December last year Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a US$295 million initial design contract for the FGFA, which will see Indian designers work with Sukhoi designers in Russia for the initial 18 month contract period. Estimated aircraft development costs range from US$5-6 billion, to be shared between the two countries. Service entry will be from 2017 onwards, according to the Indian Air Force. The FGFA will be based on the Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA that first flew in January last year. It is giving India its first opportunity to play a major role in the design and development of a high profile international fighter programme.

Occupying the spot of heavy fighter and strike aircraft is the mighty Sukhoi Su-30, which will continue to form the backbone of India’s fighter fleet to 2020 and beyond. In 1996 an initial 40 Su-30s were bought from Russia for US$1.46 billion, with deliveries beginning in 1997. Another ten Su-30s were bought for US$277 million in 1998. Most of the original Su-30s were retired, while 18 were upgraded to MKI standard. First deliveries of Su-30MKI full specification aircraft with thrust vectoring and phased array radars took place in September 2002. In 2000 HAL acquired a license to build 140 Su-30MKIs and began delivering these aircraft in November 2004.

In 2007 the IAF ordered 40 Su-30MKIs and another 42 in July 2010 (the latter deal includes aircraft to replace Flankers lost in May and November 2009). HAL will build the extra 42 aircraft, which will be delivered around 2016-2017. From 2012, Russia will upgrade 50 Su-30MKIs with strengthened airframes and avionics that will enable them to carry the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile.

Domestic capabilities.

Russian aircraft currently form the vast majority of India’s fighter force – over 70% of India’s military equipment comes from Russia. However, foreign designs are being joined by India’s second ever locally developed fighter. The Tejas (‘Radiance’) Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) first flew in January 2001 and achieved initial operational clearance (IOC) on January 11 this year. However, final operational clearance (FOC) is only expected in December 2012.

An initial 40 Mk I aircraft will be delivered to the IAF before the year is out. The Air Force ultimately plans to acquire 200 LCAs at a unit cost of roughly Rs 70 crore (US$15 million).

India launched the Tejas programme in 1983 to replace its ageing MiG-21 fleet. The project is indicative of India’s often messy indigenous aircraft programmes that ultimately force it to purchase large numbers of supplemental foreign designs. The project has suffered from cost increases (estimated at 3 000% since 1983 to the current Rs 17 269 crore/US$3.8 billion) and a major setback regarding its engine. This was supposed to be the Kaveri, designed locally by the Gas Turbine Research Establishment. Up until 2009, 20 billion rupees (US$455 million) were spent on the Kaveri, with the result being overweight and underpowered.

The General Electric (GE) F404-IN20 was chosen as a stopgap, but future Tejas Mk Is as well as the Mk II variant will use the more powerful GE F414-INS6 turbofan. This was selected over the Eurojet EJ200 in October 2010 and will fly in the Tejas Mk II in 2015. The IAF will buy 80 Mk IIs, which the head of the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) said would have 35-40% better performance than the Mk I. Current plans suggest the Mk II fly by 2014, enter production in 2016 and obtain final operational clearance in 2018. Meanwhile, the Kaveri is still undergoing testing (in Russia) and an improved variant may be fitted to Mk II aircraft in around a decade.

The Tejas Mk I has been widely criticised for being behind schedule, over budget, overweight and reliant on foreign equipment. Its combat effectiveness has been questioned and it will most likely be based at Sulur in southern India, far from possible conflict with Pakistan and China.

Nevertheless, the project has given India enormous experience in developing indigenous aircraft. The country is now planning to develop the 45 000 lb (20 ton) Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) to fill the gap between the Tejas and the FGFA. The ADA said a feasibility study and timeline for the AMCA would be concluded by the end of this year. Current plans suggest flight testing in 2019 and service entry of the first of 100 aircraft before 2020.


In addition to purchasing and building new aircraft, the IAF has embarked on a wide array of upgrades for existing airframes. The highly important strike fleet of MiG-27s and Jaguars will remain in service until approximately 2020. By 2017/2018 the IAF will have 40 MiG-27MLs with air-to-air refuelling capability and improved avionics and weapons systems. Around 120 MiG-27s are currently in service.

Around 160 MiG-21s are operational and of these, 121 have been upgraded to ‘Bison’ standard to counter delays with the Tejas. Upgraded machines will remain in service for another decade before being replaced, while unmodified MiG-21s will be phased out by 2013. The Bison aircraft feature new avionics including Super Kopyo radar, infrared search and track sensor and beyond visual range missiles, notably the R-77/AA-12.

Between 110 and 120 HAL-built Sepecat Jaguar S/M/Bs will be fitted with the Display Attack Ranging Inertial Navigation (DARIN) III avionics suite, enabling the aircraft to launch precision-guided weapons. At the moment the ASRAAM and Python 5 are competing to meet a close combat missile requirement for the Jaguar. The Maritime Jaguar squadron, with 20 aircraft at Jamnagar on the west coast, will shortly be armed with the Boeing Harpoon Block II missile, allowing them to attack land- and sea-based targets in support of the Navy.

In addition, the Jaguars will get new engines to lengthen their lives until 2022. The Honeywell F125IN and Rolls Royce Adour Mk 821 were competing for the contract, but Rolls Royce pulled out of the race in mid-February. As a result, the contract may have to be re-issued.

Also being upgraded is the MiG-29 Fulcrum fleet. Under a US$964 million contract awarded in 2006, the IAF’s 69 MiG-29s are being modified to MiG-29UPG standard with Phazotron Zhuk-ME phased array radars, R-77 Beyond Visual Range (BVR) air-to-air missiles, air-to-air refuelling probes, all-glass cockpits with helmet-mounted targeting systems, and improved RD-33 series 3 engines. Only six MiG-29s are being upgraded by RAC-MiG, while the rest are being worked on by HAL and the IAF. The first MiG-29UPG flew on February 4. Upgrades should be completed by 2013.

The IAF wants to also upgrade its 51 Mirage 2000Hs to Mirage 2000-5 Mk 2 standard. The Mirages have gained a reputation for being safe and reliable and have served the Air Force well, proving themselves in combat against Pakistan during the 1999 Kargil conflict. Their precision strike and BVR capabilities were especially well utilised during the fighting.

However, the proposed upgrade was delayed due to the high cost (around US$2.1 billion). The Air Force is continuing negotiations with Thales/Dassault, who are seen as the only ones capable of executing the upgrade.

Transport aircraft.

In addition to high-tech fighters, the IAF is completely revamping its transport fleet to give the Air Force its envisioned global reach within the decade. On February 3 the first of six new Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 Super Hercules arrived in India. Purchased for US$1.2 billion in January 2008, they are the first American aircraft bought by India in decades. They mark the country’s first transaction with the US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) system after decades of Cold War hostility and sanctions between 1998 and 2001 following India’s nuclear tests. The C-130Js will most likely be followed by a supplementary order for another six.

The order has paved the way for further American arms sales, but Indian officials worry the US could possibly impose sanctions again. Another issue is India’s refusal to sign agreements that protect and regulate the use of sensitive American avionics, notably the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA). As a result, Indian C-130Js have various communication and navigation equipment manufactured locally to replace items left off by Lockheed Martin.

Secure American communications equipment will also be left off the ten Boeing C-17 Globemaster III strategic transports the IAF is in the process of buying through the FMS system. Boeing expects to close the deal by the middle of this year, paving the way for deliveries to begin in 2013-2014. India is concerned about the US$5.8 billion price tag, which was initially estimated at US$4.1 billion, and has asked Boeing for prices paid by other C-17 customers.

The IAF is also looking into purchasing 16 medium-lift transport aircraft, with the Alenia Aeronautica C-27J Spartan and Airbus Military C-295 under consideration. In addition, India has created a US$600 million joint venture with Russia to develop the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC)/HAL Il-214 Multirole Transport Aircraft (MTA), which will have a payload capacity of 33-44 000 lb (15-20 tons). The two firms plan to make 205 of the twin jet MTAs.

Making up the core of India’s transport fleet are 17 Il-76s and roughly 110 Antonov An-32s. 105 An-32s are undergoing an eight-year long mid-life refurbishment upgrade in the Ukraine under a US$400 million contract signed in 2009. The upgrade will extend their service lives by 15 years, allowing the An-32 to fly for at least another decade. Other transports in the IAF include nearly 30 Dornier Do 228s and 60 Hawker Siddeley HS 748s.

Air-to-air refuelling.

Until 2003 the IAF lacked a dedicated in-flight refuelling capability, when it bought six Ilyushin Il-78MKI tankers. India is looking to buy another six tankers in a roughly US$2 billion competition. In 2007 the Airbus Military A330 emerged as the favourite, but the tender was cancelled in January 2010 due to cost concerns. A new tender was released in September last year, with the main competitors being the A330MRTT and Il-78. Boeing withdrew its bid pending a US Air Force purchase of its offering.


Pilot training is a major issue for the Air Force, especially as it is urgently looking for a new basic trainer to replace to replace 180-200 HAL HPT-32 Deepaks that were grounded in July 2009 after yet another fatal crash. Seven aircraft were evaluated between October and December last year, with the Korea Aerospace Industries KT-1, Pilatus PC-7 and Hawker Beechcraft T-6C emerging as the leading contenders. The IAF will buy 75 trainers outright while 106 will be built under license by HAL as part of a roughly US$1 billion deal. Defence Ministry officials expect to award a contract in the third quarter of this year, paving the way for deliveries some time next year. In addition, HAL is developing an indigenous counterpart in the turboprop HTT-40 basic trainer.

Intermediate and advanced training is provided by the HAL HJT-16 Kiran, which will be replaced by the HAL HJT-36 Sitara jet trainer, which has been under development since 1997. The latter will achieve initial operational clearance in July this year and final operational clearance 2-3 years afterward then. In addition, the IAF also has the BAE Systems Hawk Mk 132 advanced trainer in service. In 2004, 66 Hawks were acquired after twenty years of negotiations (the Hawk and Alpha Jet were evaluated in the 1980s). Another 40 Hawks were ordered in July 2010, at a cost of US$779 million. The Hawks were bought to lower the IAF’s high accident rate, particularly with the MiG-21. In addition, 17 extra Hawks were ordered for the Navy. India’s first 24 Hawks were bought as flyaways while the rest are being built under license by HAL, which should have completed them by next year.


One of the IAF’s most important directives is to support troops on the ground by providing air cover and by transporting men and material across the battlefield. Consequently, the IAF has a large fleet of around 250 helicopters. Most numerous is the Mi-8/17, with approximately 150 in service. They will be supplemented by 80 Mi-17V-5s from mid-2011. They were ordered in a US$1.35 billion contract in December 2008 and will be followed by another contract for 59 helicopters. Deliveries will be completed by 2014.

HAL has developed the 12 000 lb (5.5 ton) Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH), 54 of which will go to the Air Force and 105 to the Army under a US$3.56 billion order. About half of all Dhruvs will be Weapon System Integrated (WSI) with Mistral 2 air-to-air missiles, Helina anti-tank missiles and a 20 mm cannon slaved to the gunner’s helmet-mounted site. Dhruvs will replace the Air Force’s approximately 65 HAL Chetak light utility helicopters. Deliveries are expected to be completed by 2013-2014.

Like many of India’s other indigenous programmes, the Dhruv has been beset by contractual hitches, delays, sanctions and technical problems. However, it has achieved some export sales (notably to Ecuador) and is set to become an important aircraft in the Indian armed forces. It has given HAL the experience and confidence to build the related 6 500 lb (3 ton) Light Utility Helicopter (LUH), 187 of which will be acquired by the Air Force and Army Aviation Corps. The LUH project began in 2009 and should see the first aircraft take flight in 2013.

Additionally, the Indian armed forces in 2007 launched a search for 197 light reconnaissance and surveillance helicopters (64 for the Air Force and 133 for the Army). The winner of the US$750 million competition should be announced soon, possibly by the middle of this year. The Eurocopter AS 550 Fennec and Kamov Ka-226 are being considered after passing trials.

In the attack role the Indian Air Force has 20 Mi-25/35s in service and hopes to replace them with 22 new attack Helicopters. In May 2008 the Indian Ministry of Defence issued a request for proposals for twin-engined attack helicopters but the tender was cancelled in March 2009, only to be re-opened two months later. The AH-64D Apache and Mi-28 Night Hunter are the leading contenders. Due to its urgency, India has waived the normal offsets requirements. A decision is expected some time this year.

HAL is also developing the ambitious Light Combat Helicopter (LCH), which first flew in March 2010 after years of delays. It has stealth features, a glass cockpit and armour protection. The LCH carries the same armament as the WSI Dhruv. The IAF has ordered 65 LCHs for about US$1.4 billion, while the Army is buying 114. HAL expects certification in 2012 and production to begin in 2013.

The Air Force’s heavy lift helicopter fleet consists of four Mi-26 ‘Halos’, which may be replaced by 12-15 new heavy lift helicopters. Boeing’s CH-47F Chinook and Mil’s Mi-26T2 are competing for a contract.

In March 2010 AgustaWestland received a 560 million euro (US$764 million) contract to provide 12 AW101s to the Indian Air Force, together with training and a five year logistics package. They will be used for government VIP transport duties.

Airborne Early Warning & Control.

As airspace control is an important part the Air Force’s duties it has bought the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Phalcon airborne early warning and control system (AWACS). Three A50EI systems, mounted on Ilyushin Il-76 transports, were purchased for US$1.5 billion in March 2004. Deliveries began in May 2009 (instead of December 2007), with the second aircraft arriving in March 2010 and the third following in December. Another two A50EIs will most likely be ordered.

India also wants a smaller aircraft to complement its larger AWACS fleet and in 2008 signed a US$250 million deal with Embraer for three EMB-145s. These will have active electronically scanned array radars (Active Array Antenna Units) built locally by the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO). Embraer will deliver the jets between the second half of this year and early next year, for introduction into service by 2013. The IAF already has four EMB-135 Legacy VIP transport jets, while a fifth is used by the Border Security Force (BSF).

Ground-based air defence.

Air defence has the same priority as offensive air operations and remains a key part of the IAF’s air power doctrine. Land-based air defence systems rely on the Soviet-era S-125 Pechora (SA-3), 9K33 Osa-AK (SA-8) and 9K30 Igla (SA-18) surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). These are being replaced by the Akash medium ranged SAM system, built locally by Bharat Electronics Limited. An initial two squadrons with 32 launchers and 250 missiles will be delivered by 2013. The IAF has also ordered another six Akash squadrons (with 125 missiles each) for US$925 million.

India and IAI are developing the Barak 8 Medium Range Surface to Air Missile (MR-SAM) that will progressively replace the SA-3 and SA-8. The joint venture was launched in December 2009. Test firing is expected to begin this year. Ground-based radars are also being upgraded and the IAF has tenders out for a number of systems.

Due to delays with the Akash, the IAF is inducting 18 Rafael Spyder medium-range SAM systems, with deliveries scheduled to be completed by the end of 2012. Furthermore, the Indian MoD in April issued a request for information for a medium range SAM available within a short timeframe.


India is expanding into space in a big way, with all three services of the armed forces setting up an Integrated Space Cell. V K Saraswat, Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister, said last year that India is building a series of defence satellites, with launches increasing to one or two every year.

The IAF wants to launch satellites for communications, navigation, reconnaissance, ballistic missile defence and weapons guidance and will soon be getting its first dedicated communication satellite to network the IAF’s sensors and weaponry. Indeed, India’s airspace management system is being networked and overhauled with the Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS) and fibre optic Air Force Network.


India has one of the world’s most ambitious programmes to expand its air force. Whether its procurement system and industrial capability is up to the challenge remains to be seen.


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