by Nitin A Gokhale

Editor’s Note

The Indian Air force has recently gone in for another 83 Tejas Mk-2. The RFI for a hundred more fighter aircraft with no restrictions on their being single or twin engine is also expected any moment. The Air Force is also looking at enhancing its mid-air refuelling capabilities as also surveillance through AWACS. However, is the pace of modernisation/ inductions adequate? The IAF is already down in its squadron strength and its fleet of even the Jaguars, Mirages and MiG-29 are undergoing major upgrades.

For several years now any discussion on the Indian Air Force is centred on the rapidly depleting strength of its combat fleet. How bad is the situation and how are you planning to overcome the shortages?

Air Chief Marshal B S Dhanoa (CAS): The IAF is prepared 24 x 7 for any threat and is ready for a befitting response to any contingency. As far as our modernisation plans go, augmenting our fighter squadron strength is our top priority. To achieve this, the IAF is looking at new inductions wherein we are exploring all options and also undertaking mid-life upgrades. Towards this, MiG-29, Jaguar and Mirage-2000 aircraft are being upgraded in a phased manner. The induction of contracted fighter aircraft includes 40 x Tejas, 36 x Rafale and the balance of Su-30MKI aircraft. The Request for Proposal (RFP) for procurement of 83 x Tejas-Mk-1A has been issued in Dec 2017. Further, the Government of India plans to procure Fighter aircraft through a ‘Make in India’ initiative and other suitable options are also being considered to bolster the strength of fighter squadrons.

The IAF is in the process of acquiring additional force enablers and advanced weapon systems which include Air-to-Air and Air-to-Ground weapons. Short, Medium and Long Range Surface-to-Air Missile systems, as well as various Radars to provide adequate multi-layered Air Defence cover to the country are also being inducted. IAF is progressing towards Network Centric Operations through Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS) which is being expanded to cover the entire nation including Island territories. Rest assured, IAF is prepared to respond to future challenges and safeguard Indian skies.

NG: The Air Force is also seen as a major opponent of theatre command concept. What is the basis of the Air Force stand? Assuming that the Air Force will continue to resist theatre commands, how do you propose to support jointness, integration and optimisation of resources in view of resource constraints the military is increasingly facing?

CAS: It must be understood that the IAF is not in opposition to jointness or major reforms in defence establishment. IAF is the only Service which has the institutional framework headed by a senior officer with the other two services. These institutions with the Army are called Advanced Headquarters and are co-located with every Army Command HQ and with the Navy it is called Maritime Air Operations Centre. IAF has always been the Service to promote jointness and integration, at the functional level.

NG: Similarly, in the past at least, the IAF has been opposed to the creation of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) post? Has it overcome its reservation or it will continue to resist the proposal when it is on the table? 

CAS: The creation of Permanent Chairman COSC is an ongoing process and has been supported by the three Services. He would thus be the fourth four-star officer who would also be responsible for the various Tri-Service Commands. The Service Chiefs however, will continue to exercise operational control and training over their respective Services and have direct access to RM. The proposed set up will allow HQ IDS under Permanent Chairman COSC to function as an effective advisory system to the Govt on matters of policy, joint acquisitions, joint capability building and joint training matters. The issue is under consideration by the Government.

NG: The Congress party has accused the government of paying an astronomical price for the Rafale planes that the IAF has bought. How would you respond?

CAS: We need to understand that the package cost of the 36 Rafale aircraft cannot be compared directly to the cost of 126 MMRCA proposal as the deliverables are significantly different. The procurement exercise for the 36 Rafale was done with great care and mandatory procurement procedures were followed. Protracted negotiations took place with the French side for one year five months to arrive at better price, better maintenance terms and better delivery schedule, as compared to the 126 MMRCA deal which had not been concluded. The per unit cost of direct fly-away aircraft in the present procurement is in fact lower than the price offered in the 126 MMRCA proposal.

What do the Rafales enable the IAF to do that it hasn’t been doing so far? What are its special skills?

CAS: The Rafale is an omni-role aircraft and the version being supplied to India will have better operational capabilities than the Rafale being operated by the French Air Force and other Air Forces. The aircraft has a low turnaround time which enables higher mission exploitation. Also, the Rafale for IAF will have several India specific requirements. The IAF Rafale will be equipped with enhanced radars, avionics and other on board equipment. The IAF Rafale will also be equipped with advanced Beyond Visual Range and short to medium range Air to Air missile and precision guided Air to Ground missiles, which will enhance the capability of the Air Force and also provide strategic deterrence vis-à-vis our adversaries.

NG: When will the induction of Rafales begin?

CAS: Delivery of the Rafale aircraft and associated equipment will commence from September 2019 and will be spread over two and half years with the last aircraft delivery scheduled in April 2022.

Are you in favour of buying more Rafales? If yes, why? If not, why not? 

CAS: The 36 Rafale aircraft have been procured to meet the ‘Critical Operational Necessity’ of the IAF through an Inter-Government Agreement. We are looking at suitable options to enhance our fighter squadron strength. Apart from the 40 x Tejas, induction of which is already underway, the IAF will procure 83 x Tejas Mk-1A. The MoD is also exploring various options to procure Fighter aircraft through the ‘Make in India’ route. We are also upgrading the Mirage-2000, MiG-29 and Jaguar fleet to keep them contemporary and increase their operational capability.

NG: The IAF is often seen as reluctant user of indigenously-built Tejas aircraft. Is that philosophy changing? Does the IAF still think it is a good aircraft but not yet a good enough combat jet? Are you working with ADA and HAL to improve Tejas? What changes would you like to see in Tejas so that it forms the bulk of the IAF inventory in the coming decade?

CAS: The IAF has fully supported the Tejas program since the very beginning. Our test pilots have been involved since early 1990’s with the Tejas program. The IAF provides critical support for flight trials at Bangalore and the Tejas would not have reached the present state without the active involvement and support of the IAF. The numbers speak for themselves and as it stands today, the IAF has committed for 123 Tejas (40 x Tejas, 83 x Tejas Mk-1A ).

The Tejas is a potent platform which is being inducted to replace the ageing MiG-21 fleet and will fulfil its assigned role and tasks. As far as improvements are concerned, the Tejas Mk-1A  will have better capabilities such as AESA Radar, integrated Electronic Warfare Suite, long range Beyond Visual Range missile, Air to Air Refuelling and better avionics with many maintainability improvements. The Tejas Mk-2,which will have further enhancements, is at the design stage. We are also working with DRDO for the indigenous AMCA program.

NG: How many more Tejas aircraft would you like to see in the IAF in the next 10 years?

CAS: The IAF has committed for procurement of 123 x Tejas. As you are aware, the IAF has already signed two contracts for 40 x Tejas Mk-1 aircraft. Of these, 20 are in the Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) standard and 20 will be in Final Operational Clearance (FOC) standard. RFP for 83 x Tejas Mk-1A was issued in Dec 17. These deliveries of these aircraft would be completed in the next 10 years. We expect Tejas Mk-2 to replace Mirage 2000, Jaguar and MiG-29 aircraft in the future.

NG: Is the Air HQ likely to issue a new RFI for combat jets? If yes, will it be limited to single engine fighter planes? Or will the RFI be non-specific? 

CAS: Yes, the IAF is in the process of finalising the details of RFI in coordination with DDP and DRDO. The RFI for procurement of fighter aircraft will be issued shortly. The RFI will not be specific to the number of engines.

NG: Will the new process be as cumbersome and lengthy as the MMRCA contest? How you will make sure the new competition doesn’t get bogged down in technicalities, accusations and counter-accusation, delaying critical acquisition?

CAS: The procurement of fighter aircraft will be as per the provisions of DPP-2016 which focuses on institutionalising, streamlining and simplifying defence procurement procedure. Cutting down permissible time-frames and monitoring probity at various stages of the procurement process are the key functions of the DPP.

NG: What is the status of your helicopter fleet? What is the assessed requirement in the next five to 10 years? What is there in the pipeline already and are delivery schedules being maintained by the concerned manufacturers?

CAS: Our helicopter fleet is undergoing transformation with induction of several modern platforms. The fleet has undertaken all the assigned tasks in a befitting manner, including HADR missions and in support of Anti Naxal Operations. The ALH Mk III & ALH Mk IV were contracted by IAF with HAL. The deliveries for ALH Mk III have been completed and ALH Mk IV deliveries will be completed soon. The delivery of Chinook and Apache helicopters will commence in 2019 and be completed by 2020. Additional Cheetal helicopter deliveries will be completed by June 2019. RFP for LCH Limited Series Production (LSP) for IAF & IA was issued to HAL in Dec 2017. Procurement of Kamov helicopters is under progress and the case is currently at RFP stage. Procurement of additional MLH is at contract negotiation stage. The IAF is also upgrading its Mi-17 helicopters and the contract has been signed in January 2017.

NG: What about your air-defence holdings. What is the modernisation plan?

CAS: The IAF has a focussed modernisation plan to build up a robust layered Air Defence (AD) network, based on modern Radars and Surface to Air Guided Weapon (SAGW) systems. Besides obsolescence management, new generation AD radars are being inducted at brisk pace. Rohini radars, Low Level Light Weight Radars (LLLWR) and Medium Power Radars (MPR) have been inducted in the IAF. The induction of Low Level Transportable Radars (LLTR) has commenced. The IAF is also progressing the case for procurement of High Power Radars (HPR) and additional Aerostat systems. Several indigenous projects of BEL are also in the pipeline including Arudhra MPR, Ashwini LLTR and Mountain Radar. As far as SAGW systems are concerned, the induction of Long Range Surface to Air Missile (LRSAM) and Medium Range Surface to Air Missile (MRSAM) will enhance the AD range and lethality by a great extent. The Pechora system is planned to be upgraded and digitised so as to keep it contemporary. In the Short Range Surface to Air Missile (SRSAM) category, the indigenous Akash system is already operational in the IAF and more numbers are planned to be added. To meet our future requirements, an Akash New Generation (Akash NG) system is being developed by DRDO. The procurement of Very Short Range Air Defence System (VSHORADS) and Close In Weapon System (CIWS) are also being progressed. The induction of SPYDER Quick Reaction SAM has also given a boost to our terminal defences.

To further enhance our Air Defence Capability, additional AWACS, AEW&C aircraft are being procured. To have integrated Radar picture from the available sensors, Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS) has been operationalised, PAN India.

NG: What is the status of the planned purchase of the S-400 air defence system from Russia?

CAS: Presently, contract negotiations are in progress.

NG: The IAF’s AWACS resources are limited. What is your assessed requirement and what are your plans meeting the shortfall?

CAS: AWACS is an inescapable necessity considering its operational effectiveness and prevailing threat environment. The IAF is therefore keen to increase its inventory of AWACS. The procurement case for two additional AWACS is at the final stage. One AEW&C aircraft has been inducted in IOC configuration while developmental flight trials for the second AEW&C are in progress. The aircraft is likely to be delivered in FOC configuration by end of 2018. The design and development of six indigenous AWACS by DRDO is also planned.

NG: What about mid-air refuelling resources? There is some talk of using one platform for dual tasks of surveillance and mid-air refuelling? Is it feasible and will impact performance?

CAS. We are moving ahead with additional procurement of Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA) and RFI has been issued in Jan 2018 for six FRA.

NG: What are your plans for inducting more women in the IAF and specifically in the combat stream?

CAS: The IAF has been a front-runner in induction of women officers in front-line roles as well as combat support service roles. Women Officers (other than Medical and Dental branches) were first inducted in the IAF in 1992. Presently, women are inducted in all branches of the IAF as Short Service Commissioned Officers. In 2015, women were inducted in the fighter stream of the IAF. The intake and employment of officers inducted in the IAF is being done in a manner so as to ensure that fighting efficiency, combat effectiveness and functionality of the IAF are maintained at all times. This is also in consonance with the GoI instructions on the subject. Further, the whole process of induction of women into the Armed Forces should not be treated as a gender parity issue, but should be taken forward in a gradual/calibrated manner, ensuring combat effectiveness and functionality.

Are you faced with pilot or engineer shortages?

CAS: The IAF in the recent past has adopted measures to overcome shortages viz. setting up of additional AFSBs, online AFCAT exam for officers entry, and a proactive publicity campaign to attract the best talent. As on date, there is a marginal shortage in strength of pilots in IAF against the authorised establishment. However, the available strength of pilots in the IAF is sufficient to meet the current operational requirements. There are no shortages in the engineering branch of the IAF on date.