Lockheed Martin’s F-21, Boeing’s F/A-18IN, Eurofighter Typhoon, French Dassault’s Rafale, Swedish Saab’s Gripen, Russian MiG-35 and Sukhoi-35

Phasing out of a chunk of IAF fleet poses a challenge as replacement projects are in various stages of fructification

AN emerging strategic scenario is the scheduled phasing out of a chunk of the Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter jet fleet, but the only firm replacement so far is the order for 83 planes of the TEJA MK-1A version. The other projects remain a ‘work in progress’.

Several projects are at various stages of fructification, with challenging timelines, as India catches up on technology and also meets its goals of being self-reliant. By the end of this decade, the IAF needs new inductions. Programmes for procuring and manufacturing of new planes with better capabilities are running simultaneously on multiple fronts. These include the ramping up of the jet fleet, next generation jets, unmanned jets and armed drones.

Over the next two-three years, all the four squadrons (each squadron has 16-18 planes) of the Soviet-era MiG-21 fighter jets will retire. The IAF’s Jaguar, MiG-29 and Mirage-2000 jet fleets — all inducted in phases during the 1980s — are slated to retire in batches beyond 2029-30. These four types of jets are about 270 in number and are operating on an extended life-cycle.

So, why the alarm bells now? Almost five-six years are needed to procure high-end military technology, and this includes cost negotiations, contract signing, manufacturing, aligning and mating the right type of missiles and training of pilots, before the jets can be inducted for actual combat. The order of 36 Rafales is an example. India and France signed an MoU in January 2016 and the last lot is expected to arrive anytime this year while the India-specific enhancements for the fleet could be done in more time.

In February last year, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) placed a Rs. 48,000-crore order for TEJAS MK-1A with public sector giant Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). The prototype is expected by July. A series of validations will follow and deliveries of the entire lot of 83 are targeted by February 2030.

The IAF, at present, has 32 squadrons against the 42 mandated by the government to tackle a collusive threat from China and Pakistan. The number could go down to 28 squadrons by 2024-25 when all the MiG-21s are phased out. So far, India’s plans to get additional MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-30MKI from Russia, as a stop-gap arrangement, have not fructified. Air Commodore Prashant Dikshit (Retd) says the government “ought to redraw induction plans, with a greater emphasis on developing combat UAVs”.

Make In India By Foreign Partner

Make in India by a foreign player is a key component of future plans. An RFI (Request for Information) to procure 114 multi-role fighter aircraft (MRFA) has foreign makers interested. The project is expected to be worth $20 billion (Rs. 1,50,000 crore) with weapons and packages.

A top functionary explained, “It will be a Make in India project, it has been explained to the vendors who can set up a plant in India.” The RFI mandates transfer of technology (ToT) to the Indian partner.

The IAF Chief, Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari, at a conference in October last year, had said, “We are looking at the future (in MRFA) to integrate 5th generation and 6th generation technologies.”

In the race are Lockheed Martin’s F-21, Boeing’s F/A-18IN, Eurofighter Typhoon, French Dassault’s Rafale, Swedish Saab’s Gripen and Russian MiG-35 and Sukhoi-35.

AMCA And MWF Hold Key

The second part of the Indian plan involves the advanced medium combat aircraft (AMCA), proposed to be a twin-engine 5th generation stealth fighter. Its first flight is scheduled in 2025; flight testing and validation will follow before production. A special purpose vehicle (SPV) is planned to produce the AMCA, which means a foreign partner may come in for joint manufacturing.

Dr Girish S Deodhare, Director General of the Aeronautical Development Agency, while speaking at a seminar this year, said, “The final configuration of the AMCA has been frozen (finalised) and by end of the year, we will complete the CDR (comprehensive design review).” A successful CDR means its design has been found viable. The Chinese have already tested their J-20 and claim it as 5th generation. The F-22 Raptor from the US is a tested 5th generation fighter, while the Russian Sukhoi-57 is yet to commence production.

Between the TEJAS MK-1A and the AMCA, the plan is to have an TEJAS MK-2 — also known as the medium weight fighter (MWF). At 17 tons all-up weight, the MWF is bigger than the TEJAS, which is 13.5 tons, but is smaller than the AMCA that tips the scales at 25 tons. HAL aims to roll out the first prototype of the MWF by early 2023. IAF could be looking at 10 squadrons, but numbers may be re-jigged on assessing the AMCA progress. Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (Retd), former Additional Director General of the Centre of Air Power Studies, says, “With the phasing out of fighter aircraft looming on the horizon, it is imperative that the AMCA and MWF come on time and with promised capabilities.” If this does not happen, the promises of being ‘Atmanirbhar’ would ring hollow, he adds.

Engine Is The Critical Factor

India wants a 110-kN engine to power the 25-tonne all-up weight AMCA. India and France are in the final stages of talks to co-develop an engine with French major Safran for AMCA. Safran has an existing partnership to make engines for helicopters, and is ready to make the jet engines as per India’s requirements and make it in India.

In 2019, Safran proposed transfer of military engine design capability to India’s Gas Turbine Research Establishment. The MWF is to be powered by a 98-kN engine, possibly General Electric’s F-414. The TEJAS uses a 84-kN thrust F-404 engine from General Electric.

Indian Air Force Sits On Cusp of Change For Future Wars

HAL and IAF are working at technologies that rival the very best. The HAL program, called the ‘Cats warrior’, will have an unmanned fighter jet controlled by pilots in another fighter jet flying a few hundred kilometres behind. The unmanned jet will not just be beaming pictures of the live battlefield scenario, it will carry a set of missiles to hit targets in the air as well as on the ground. The manned jet will remain in own territory while the ‘Cats warrior’ will fly ahead and hit targets 700 km away. HAL has invested Rs. 400 crore and the first flight is expected five years from now.

Armed Drones For Air-Launched Missiles

The MoD is processing a case of acquiring 30 armed drones — 10 each for IAF, Navy and Army. These are the MQ-9 Predator, the same used by the US. In 2020, India leased two such drones for surveillance along the LAC to monitor what China was doing along the Himalayan frontier. Since the drones are leased, they cannot be armed. The Predator, fitted with long-range missiles and endurance of more than 48 hours, could be the IAF’s ‘eyes in the skies’ and also the ‘attack-ready’ platform.