Indian Air Force to be ‘transformed’ over 10 years: Air Chief

By Gulshan Luthra and Air Marshal Ashok Goel (retd), IANS

New Delhi : The Indian Air Force (IAF) has initiated a major transformation process, requiring around $70 billion over the next few years.

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According to a study by the India Strategic defence magazinae, except for the newly acquired SU 30MKIs, IAF needs to replace and augment nearly 100 percent of its fighter, transport and helicopter fleet for the simple reason that all of them are around 20 years old or more, and would need replacement even after their useful lives are extended by around 10 years or so with new onboard avionics and missiles as the airframes and engines remain the same.

Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal F.H. Major told India Strategic in an interview that the process to transform the force had begun and that the next 10 years would be important in this regard as there would be positive, all-round changes.

From aircraft to airbases with precision approach and surveillance radars, there would be visible changes by 2015, the air chief observed, adding that the emphasis was on all-weather, round-the-clock operational capability.

He did not comment on the financial figure calculated by the India Strategic study but said the IAF “plan is three-pronged – to preserve, upgrade and acquire” and that “adequate budgetary support is available for procurement of new aircraft”.

IAF has a sanctioned strength of 45 combat squadrons, but it never got more than 39.5 squadrons. As a thumb rule, it takes approximately $1.5 billon to set up a fighter squadron of 18 aircraft, two of which are used for operational training and as reserve.

The IAF combat squadron strength has been depleting over the years and, according to the study, even if 35 squadrons were replaced with new jets over the next 10 to 15 years, their cost would be around $50 billion.

This is because of the aircraft mix. Some would be cheaper than the others, particularly the Indian-made Tejas that Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) is going to deliver from 2010.

Even the air dominance SU 30 MKI, which is now being made by HAL, is cheaper than the 126 multi role combat aircraft (MRCA), which the IAF hopes to induct by 2012. The Sukhoi is cheaper because the Russian platforms are generally lower in costs, and also because the agreement for this aircraft was signed in the 1990s when the prices were low.

India is buying 230 of these aircraft, most of which are to be progressively assembled or built by HAL.

According to the air chief, IAF had taken possession of all the SU 30MKIs that were supposed to have come directly from Russia, and now, their production was “proceeding satisfactorily” at the HAL facilities in India.

Firm costs of aircraft are never available as the final cost of an aircraft depends on the avionics and weapons on board, and these are generally secret.

But the cost of one MRCA is estimated at around $50 million.

The problem for the overall transformation has arisen because nearly all acquisitions for the armed forces and intelligence agencies were stopped by the then government in 1990, and the process to re-equip was triggered only after Pakistani troops occupied the Kargil heights in Jammu and Kashmir, leading to the 1999 war.

The other factor was the rising number of air crashes, both because there were no advanced jet trainers (AJTs) and also as some of the aircraft were getting old.

The air force now needs to replace as well as augment its aircraft and systems in line with modern technology.

About the ageing aircraft and their declining strength, Major said: “With regard to the hardware, it is our endeavour to make good all deficiencies, upgrade the existing equipment and procure state-of-the-art weapon systems.”

(Gulshan Luthra can be contacted at [email protected])