ANALYSIS: India's air force modernisation challenge

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The modernisation of the Indian air force is massive in scale and hugely expensive, but should deliver capability that will put the service at the forefront of any future conflict.

At the beginning of this decade New Delhi embarked on a modernisation of the Indian air force on an unprecedented scale. The process is under way as part of the long-term integrated perspective plan, which spans a period of 15 years from 2012. This plan split into five-year periods, from the 12th plan, which runs until 2017, to the 14th plan, which covers 2023 to 2027.

The intervening 13th plan period will see the entry into use of the Dassault Rafale and Russian perspective multi-role fighter (PMF), which is essentially an India-specific development of the Sukhoi T-50/PAK-FA.

These future types will be backed up by about 260 Sukhoi and Hindustan Aeronautics-built Su-30MKIs, operating alongside 49 Dassault Mirage 2000 multirole fighters, 60 RAC MiG-29 interceptors and approximately 120 Sepecat/HAL Jaguar strike aircraft – all of which will have completed upgrades. The air force's last of 80 MiG-27 ML ground attack aircraft will be retired by 2020, along with 150 MiG-21s, which will be phased out by 2022.

In all, some 230 combat aircraft will be retired from service during the 13th plan, with the home-grown Tejas Mk I and Mk II fighters replacing the MiG-21 and MiG-27.

Dassault’s "omnirole" Rafale offering emerged as the winner for the air force's 126-unit medium multi-role combat aircraft requirement early in 2012. The French company was required to deliver 18 aircraft directly in "fly-away” condition, with the rest to be produced under license by HAL. While a contract has yet to be signed, India’s defence ministry announced in June that Dassault’s offer for the required transfer of technology was compliant with the requirements specified in its earlier request for proposal.

Speaking in March, Dassault chief executive Eric Trappier announced the finalisation of a workshare agreement with HAL. “It wasn’t easy”, he said, but “the French and Indian partners have decided who does what and how they should work together as an organisation.” For its part, HAL will need to absorb technology from over 70 partners associated with the Rafale programme, and chairman RK Tyagi acknowledges that “license production would present plenty of challenges”.

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New Delhi's incoming PMFs will be a country-specific development of Sukhoi's T-50/PAK-FA

Sukhoi

At an estimated cost of $30 billion, the effort to develop the fifth-generation PMF – modified to meet India’s requirements – is the nation’s most expensive defence programme ever. Delays have beset New Delhi's part of the project, and the air force's expected order requirement has been slashed from 214 aircraft – 166 single-seat and 48 twin-seat examples – to just 144 single-seat fighters.

A $295 million project definition phase was completed in June 2013, but contract signature for full-scale design and development work is still yet to take place, with programme options also including the possible integration of a higher thrust engine at a later stage. Flight testing of prototypes manufactured by HAL at its Nasik facility is scheduled to begin from 2018, but the overall effort has been delayed by at least three years, and the type is now expected to enter squadron service from 2022.

India's PMF aircraft will be manufactured in Nasik, once HAL has completed production of the air force's Su-30MKIs. The cost of acquiring 272 examples has been pegged at $9 billion, including those aircraft delivered directly by Sukhoi. An estimated 200 Su-30MKIs are already in squadron service, with HAL having handed over more than 150 aircraft from the licensed production of 222.

The remaining aircraft on order will be delivered by 2018-2019. However, to bridge the gap between Su-30MKI assembly and PMF manufacture, an additional MKI order is likely to be placed. This is despite engine trouble that has dogged the fleet and issues with aircraft serviceability, which has also proved problematic.

Today, the air force is in the midst of deep upgrades for a substantial portion of its fighter fleet. The $1.8 billion upgrade of 49 Mirage 2000s will see them remain operational until 2040. According to Nicolas Korotchansky, vice-president, deputy combat aircraft domain at Thales, “Dassault and Thales will help HAL in the integration work starting from the fifth aircraft," with integration work on the first four being performed under the responsibility of the French companies. India's first upgraded Mirage 2000 was flown at Istres air base in October 2013. All 49 aircraft were to receive the upgrades by 2021, but the project is not now expected to be completed until 2024.

In 2012, MBDA bagged a $1.3 billion contract for 493 Mica air-to-air missiles, which are to be delivered between 2015 and 2019 as part of the Mirage 2000 upgrade. To replace life-expired Matra Super 530D and Magic II missiles, the new weapon has a key advantage over the earlier systems due to its 112kg (246lb) weight. This means the upgraded Mirage can be configured to carry four radar- and two infrared-guided missiles.

“MBDA has been working closely with Thales, which has been responsible for the integration work on the first Mirage upgrades carried out at the French air force base in Istres, and [is] training HAL engineers in readiness for carrying out the integration work on the remaining Mirage aircraft in India,” the European guided weapons manufacturer says.

Also moving ahead is the modernisation of the MiG-29 fleet, part of a $964 million contract signed in 2008. The deal was for the upgrade of 63 MiG-29 interceptors to the UPG multi-role standard; equivalent to the MiG-29SMT. However, the loss of three in-service examples since the contract was signed has reduced the programme scope to 60 airframes. So far, work on four single-seat and two twin-seat MiG-29s has been completed, and the aircraft have been redelivered to India. The remaining 54 examples will be modified in India. Local companies were invited to undertake structural retrofit and life extension work on 33 of the fleet earlier this year, with the task to be completed within three years.

A $520 million Jaguar upgrade to the Darin III (display, attack, range and inertial navigation) standard has been delayed and will now be completed by 2020. Efforts to re-engine the entire fleet of more than 120 strike aircraft with Honeywell F125-INs have also been delayed. The US contractor responded to a single-source request for proposal issued in 2012 for 270 engines, and a technical evaluation is now under way.

Darin III-standard Jaguars will also receive MBDA's ASRAAM air-to-air missile as part of a $428 million order finalised during July. The ASRAAM has been designated as the “new generation close combat missile” by the Indian air force. The upgraded Jaguar will also carry Textron Defence Systems' CBU-105 Sensor Fused Weapon, and maritime strike variants of the Jaguar are now equipped with Boeing AGM-84 Harpoon Block II anti-ship missiles.

The Indian air force took delivery of its sixth Boeing C-17 strategic transport in June, and the remaining aircraft on contract will be delivered by December, completing an order for 10. There has so far been no announcement on orders for a further six of the type, and Boeing anticipates completion of C-17 production by mid-2015.

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The air force will eventually boast 49 upgraded Dassault Mirage 2000s

Indian air force

Lockheed Martin will commence deliveries of an additional six C-130J-30 tactical transports from 2017. The new aircraft will be based at Panagarh air base in India’s eastern state of West Bengal. The first batch of the special mission-configured transports are based at Hindon air base in Delhi. The government has chosen not to order an additional Hercules to replace aircraft KC-3803, which crashed in March 2014, and as a result the service will operate a total of 11 C-130Js once deliveries for the second batch are concluded.

HAL's effort to co-develop and produce a multirole transport aircraft (MTA) with Russia's United Aircraft Corporation has run into delays, and a programme definition phase that was to have been completed by September 2013 has still not been declared as complete. This has delayed contract signature for the detailed design phase, which once launched should be followed by first flight within approximately four years. As a result, the debut flight of the MTA is now expected to take place around 2019-2020.

The MTA will be a largely conventional aircraft, with minimal use of composites for structures such as the empennage. The choice of engine for the Indian version has yet to be decided, with two candidates under consideration. There will be a 60:40 workshare split between Russia and India, and the total development cost of $600 million is to be shared equally between the partners.

India's MTAs will eventually replace its air force's upgraded Antonov An-32REs in service. A total of 104 of the updated medium transports are being completed, under a $400 million deal placed in 2009, with an additional $110 million spent on upgraded Motor Sich AI-20 engines. Delivery of the last batch of five aircraft to India later this year will complete the upgrade of 40 of the type in Ukraine. The remaining 64 aircraft are to receive their modifications at Kanpur in by 2017-2018.

HAL has been kept out of the HS 748 replacement contract for 56 transports to replace the obsolete Avro, which was produced under license at Kanpur. The selected foreign original equipment manufacturer will deliver 16 aircraft, and an Indian production agency from the private sector will supply the remaining 40 under license. India's bid submission deadline has been extended until 28 August, with Airbus Defence & Space and Alenia Aermacchi respectively offering their rival C295 and C-27J tactical transports.

A contract signature for six Airbus A330 multi-role tanker transports (MRTT) is expected to happen soon. Airbus's defence unit had extended the validity of its bids until June at the request of the Indian government. Once the contract is signed, the air force can expect the delivery of its first aircraft in three years.

All deliveries of the A330 MRTT from the end of 2017 will benefit from structural and aerodynamic improvements as well as updated computers and displays being introduced on the basic A330. “Additionally, we are introducing enhancements to the mission system and mission planning system, and the configuration of the Indian aircraft will contain all these enhancements,” says Federico Lacalle, regional sales director for Airbus Defence & Space, Asia Pacific.

“We and some of our customers have always been aware of the potential capabilities of the A330 MRTT as the basis for SIGNIT/ELINT [signals/electronic intelligence] applications, as the weight and power requirements of modern mission systems have grown and require larger platforms," Lacalle says. "It would also be possible to combine the roles of AAR [air-to-air refuelling] and SIGINT.” He says that while some "interesting conversations" have been held with certain operators, "there is no immediate plan to proceed with such a design”.

New Delhi has also invested a substantial sum towards developing indigenous airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) and airborne warning and control system (AWACS) platforms. A global tender was issued in March for six aircraft for use in an AWACS India program. “We have held productive meetings with the Centre for Airborne Systems [CABS] and Defence Research & Development Organisation to evaluate the use of Airbus platforms as the basis of an indigenous AWACS. Those conversations have gone well, and we will certainly be responding to the tender,” Lacalle says.

Development of the AWACS platform is scheduled to be completed in seven years, but realistically will take at least a decade. A $300 million effort to design and develop an indigenous AEW&C system is running behind schedule, with the first of three aircraft to be delivered to the air force next year. Embraer has already delivered two EMB-145s to CABS for this project, and flight-testing is under way. The third aircraft will be delivered by the end of this year.

Airbus Defence & Space is also jointly reviewing the home-grown AEW&C system, along with CABS. The Indian air force already operates three A-50I Phalcon platforms, based in Agra under Central Air Command control, along with Ilyushin Il-76 airlifters and Il-78 tankers. The service plans to have five AWACS and two indigenously-developed AEW&C platforms operational by 2017-2018.

The air force's helicopter fleet is also to complete its modernisation during the 13th plan period. “We are in contract negotiations with the MoD for the requirement of 22 [AH-64E] Apache attack helicopters for the Indian air force. Additional orders are expected, but we cannot comment on timing or negotiations,” says Dennis Swanson, vice-president, Boeing Defence, Space & Security India. The manufacturer is “bullish on finalising the contracts by the end of 2014” for the Apache and an expected contract for 15 CH-47F Chinooks, he adds.

Also to be introduced between 2018 and 2022 are 64 of the air force's eventual 197 reconnaissance and surveillance helicopters, which will be purchased once a long-running tender concludes: the current request for proposals was issued some five and a half years ago.

“The extended delay has become a serious concern for Airbus Helicopters,” the European manufacturer says. “Bid dates have already been extended numerous times, and Airbus Helicopters will no longer be in a position to maintain the current bid without a clear visibility regarding the conclusion of this programme.” The company, which is offering its AS550C3 Fennec against the Kamov Ka-226T, has said that if its product is selected deliveries will commence within 12 months of a contract signing, with a final assembly line to be set up in India.

Russian Mil Mi-17V5 and Mi-171Vs will handle the medium lift role, as older Mi-8 and Mi-17s are retired. Half of the order from a 2012 contract for 59 V5s has already been delivered, and all 80 of the type from an earlier order are operational. With the service having grounded its three AgustaWestland AW101 helicopters following a procurement scandal, the VVIP transport role will now be handled using Mi-17V5s.

More than 150 Dhruv helicopters have been delivered to the Indian military and paramilitary forces. HAL is now manufacturing Mk III utility and Mk IV Rudra weaponised variants, along with examples in the light combat helicopter (LCH) and light utility helicopter (LUH) guises.

“LCH is in the advanced stage of certification, the detailed project report for production is ready and certification activities have been accelerated,” says Tyagi. Basic flight tests have been carried out to evaluate its performance parameters, and sea level trials have been successfully completed. “The detailed design activities have been completed for LUH and we are expecting the first LUH to fly out from 2017,” he adds.