Indian Air Force Needs Urgent Modernisation

Inidan Air Force needs modernisation

Inidan Air Force needs modernisationNeed for Procurement

Last week, while presenting the 2015-16 Union Budget, the Finance Minister of India announced a 10.95 percent hike in the country’s defence budget to INR 2.46 lakh crore. Very little, however, is being done to add to the obsolete crafts used by the Indian Air Force (IAF). Almost half of the fighter planes currently in use by the IAF are set to retire between 2015 and 2024. The country has about eight operational squadrons less than what the government has approved. A great number of MiG crashes over the past decade have depleted the fleet without adequate replacement. The procurement needs of the IAF are very high and not much is being done about it currently.

China and Pakistan Add State-of-art Fighters

Pakistan and China, both seem to be on a mission to rapidly modernise their aircraft fleet. While this in itself need not alarm India, border tensions with both countries do create a pressing need for the IAF to decommission obsolete fighter planes in use and add modern fighter planes to the arsenal. The underlying fear remains that given Pakistan’s close ties with China, any joint onslaught could only lead to humiliation, and perhaps worse.

Last week, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) announced the induction of the ZDK-03 Karakoram Eagle airborne warning and control system (AWACS) built by China. The aircraft is likely to revolutionise the PAF’s early warning capabilities. The PAF also upgraded 41 Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon aircrafts in 2014.

China’s air capabilities are far superior to India, given that their indigenously produced fighter planes are much in demand – at least in the continent. The recent launch of a short film by China as part of its pilot recruitment programme featuring the J-20 stealth fighter, suggests that the country is ready to come out and declare its domination over the skies in Asia.

What Ails the IAF?

The IAF is plagued by a number of concerns – quantity and quality issues and bureaucratic delays. The IAF relies a great deal on Mirage fighters procured from France and MiG Bison fighters and Sukhoi-30 that were procured from Russia, many years ago. While Tejas is touted to be a grand new addition to the fleet (India’s first indigenous Light Combat Aircraft), experts suggest that the time taken to develop the craft may have made it obsolete.

The Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender was floated by the Defence Ministry of India with an intention to procure 126 multi-role combat aircrafts for the IAF. In 2011, Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale emerged as the two main choices. A year later, Dassault Rafale was chosen as the lowest bidder and yet the deal has not been finalised. In February 2015, it was reported that the deal may not be closed and legacy fighters still remain in need of replacement. While there are hints that India may procure more Sukhoi-30s from Russia, there is no final word on this. The MiG27s, though, have been upgraded by Russia for the IAF.

Apart from fighter planes, the Avro transport fleet also needs replacement and there is no clear mandate on that. Recently, the government has cleared the purchase of 38 Pilatus basic trainer aircrafts from Switzerland in addition to the existing 70, but this is far from adequate. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is now under immense pressure to produce basic trainers in addition to fighter planes. The HAL Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) is also at least a decade away from induction (scheduled in 2024) making any new indigenous induction (apart from Tejas II) unlikely.

As far as helicopters are concerned, with the termination of the AgustaWestland deal, India now plans to buy more Russian-made Mi17V5 series of helicopters to add to those stationed at the Jammu & Kashmir and North East. HAL has been unable to keep up with the production requirements (quantity) of advance-light helicopters of IAF. The HAL’s Intermediate Jet Trainer project has also been delayed.

Most of India’s missiles are based on Russia’s SAM (surface-to-air missile) technology with range a less than 30 km. This requires urgent upgradation to the latest missile technology which may be used for ranges upto 50 km.

Is the Government Focusing Only on Maritime Security?

According to the latest military studies, the nation that holds maritime control over the Indian Ocean will emerge as a defence superpower. By the turn of the decade, a great deal of the world’s maritime trade (almost 90 percent) shall be routed through the Strait of Malacca. China’s presence in the Indian Ocean waters is also viewed as a security threat for India. The “string of pearls” is a series of Chinese ports with military capabilities developed through treaties with Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. In addition to this, a series of naval accidents has alarmed India. It has become important for the nation to focus on maritime security. The government has cleared the procurement of about USD 8 billion worth warships. This, however, is being done at the cost of the skies. It seems that the role of the IAF and its modernisation have taken a back seat in the current scenario.