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Transformation of the Indian Air Force over the Next Decade

Group Captain Vivek Kapur was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • June 13, 2012


    The Indian Air Force (IAF) is in the midst of a major equipment renewal. This process involves the induction of several advanced weapon and combat support systems that are likely to transform the IAF over the next decade. The IAF is additionally expected to address other problems, such as manning shortages, training shortfalls, and organisational inefficiency, which it currently faces, in innovative ways to transform itself into a much more potent and “able-to-deliver” force.1 While no clear annunciation of the IAF’s planned transformation exists in the public domain, it is possible to shed light on the direction being taken from media and open sources. The ongoing transformation is aimed at developing the IAF’s capabilities; this is not necessarily aimed at any other country, but rather to make it capable of delivering what is required of it. Given the very nature of air power and seeing the track record of the IAF since its inception in 1932, the question is not “if” but “how, and at what pace”, the IAF will transform over the next five to ten years.

    The Transformation Process

    Equipment Induction and Replacement

    The Union War Book tasks the IAF with the Air Defence of all Indian territories.2 It is towards this responsibility that the IAF is in the process of inducting modern Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs), such as the indigenously designed and built Akash to replace older Soviet era SAM-III systems. Further, the collaboration with Israel towards developing a variant of the existing Barak SAM to meet the IAF’s Long Range SAM (LRSAM) project continues. This system should see induction within the next five years in parallel with increasing numbers of the 25 km range indigenous Akash SAM. Induction of at least four more Aerostat radar systems imported from Israel should also be completed within the next five years in view of the acceptable performance of the first two such systems purchased by the IAF. In addition to imports of aerostat radars from Israel, a simultaneous induction of indigenous Aerostat systems designed and built by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO)3 should also commence in five years and lead to about eight to ten such indigenous systems being in service ten years hence. These aerostats could, it is expected, be supplemented by larger numbers of indigenous Rohini and Reporter ground-based radars.

    The current fleet of three Phalcon AWACS could be expected to increase to a total of five such aircraft within the next five years. Starting at about three to four years from now, the DRDO developed indigenous EMB-145 based AEW&C platform should start to enter service, increasing to six such platforms in the next ten years. The radar network (ground and air based) and SAMs would be backed by an Air Defence aircraft force comprising of primarily the Tejas LCA aircraft supplemented by a few MiG-21 Bison (its phasing out will begin seven to ten years from now) and MiG-29 upgrade aircraft.4 A limited number of Su-30MKI and Rafale could also be expected to be assigned for Air Defence duties depending upon the situation.

    In ten years time, the indigenous ballistic missile defence (BMD) system based on the Swordfish radar (a modified and enhanced partially indigenous Active Electronically Scanned Radar [AESA] radar derived from the imported Israeli Green Pine radar) and the Prithvi and Advanced Air Defence (AAD) missiles should be approaching initial operational capability (IOC) in parallel with possible inductions of Israeli Arrow3 and/or American Standard Missile (SM)-III systems in smaller numbers.5 The BMD capability should be able to protect vital areas of the hinterland as well as forward based forces against known Pakistani and Chinese ballistic missiles on minimum energy, lofted and depressed trajectories.6

    Evolving Shape of the IAF Aircraft Fleet

    The aircraft fleet of the IAF is likely to undergo major changes as well. The Su-30MKI, numbering about 272 aircraft, would continue to form the high and heavy end of the fleet. The low end would be comprised of the Tejas LCA which, by then, would be in final operational clearance (FOC) configuration. Tejas numbers could be expected to be in the region of 350 to 450 aircraft. The current three squadrons of MiG-29 would be well into their upgrade and would be available in upgraded form about five years hence. Likewise, the three squadrons of Mirage-2000H would also be available in upgraded form in a similar timeframe.

    The rotary wing fleet should retain the same inventory more or less with the most significant changes being the entry of larger numbers of Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH) as well as upgraded Mi-8/17/17-1V/ 17-5V. In addition, the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) will be inducted starting about five years hence in parallel with the Apache Longbow-III attack helicopters.

    In the fighter category, the most significant change should be the completion of the development of the Indian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) from the Sukhoi T-50/ PAK FA baseline by the end of this decade and the commencement of induction of FGFAs into service starting about ten years hence against a total order of 250 or more. Older aircraft types would be retired in a phased manner so that the available numbers of aircraft to the IAF does not fall excessively until the force level required has been built up with new inductions.7 This could see the MiG-21 Bison, MiG-29 and Mirage 2000 upgrades continue in service well into the 2020s, with carefully staggered retiring of these fleets commencing from 2025.

    The IAF’s airlift capability would also be considerable as, in the next five to ten years, all 16 C-17 aircraft and a total of nine to twelve C-130J would be in service and be supplemented slowly with the Indo-Russian collaboratively developed Multi-role Transport Aircraft (MTA). The Il-76 should be commencing retirement from service about the same time.8

    Weapon induction should also see a change with the indigenous Astra missile becoming the standard fit Beyond Visual Range (BVR) standardised across all IAF aircraft fleets in the next ten years. The short range close combat missile of choice is likely to be the Russian R-73 and its newer variants. Once the Astra is in service, there could be indigenous development of short range close combat missiles either derived from it or developed independently. For precision attack, the Helina (an air launched variant of the Nag anti-tank missile) with an imaging infra red (IIR) seeker backed by an upgraded variant of the currently available algorithm able to discriminate targets including moving targets even in heavy clutter, should be the standard fit across all types of IAF aircraft.9 Indigenous Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) with satellite navigation-laser designation/terrain matching/optical hybrid guidance systems developed indigenously should become available in the five to ten year period given that work on such weapons is being pursued, albeit at a slow pace, because these fall under unfunded private research at a few DRDO laboratories in the absence of firm IAF orders and sanction to develop such weapons.

    Network Centric Warfare Capabilities

    Within five years, the IAF would have its proprietary AFNET network fully in place with enhanced encryption features implemented. The Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS)10 should also be ready with all its modules including encrypted jam resistant wireless component, thus giving the IAF full networked war fighting capabilities. The data link system embedded in the IACCS architecture would enable high situational awareness for all war fighters and the battle commanders even at “remote from the battlefield” locations. The IAF would, in ten years, be moving towards dynamic targeting of ordnance. It would be in the process of developing capability to data link with, say a missile in flight, to reassign its target or modify its attack profile on the fly.11

    The IAF would be developing Two Stage to Orbit (TSTO) craft in consultation with and through the DRDO and ISRO, to ensure assured space access when required. Interest in micro-satellites for defence support tasks is also likely to increase in view of the fact that such small satellites can be launched by lower lift capability launchers or even from aircraft with suitably modified boosters at much shorter notice than heavy satellites. Such raid satellite launch capability is likely to be crucial for a networked organisation to operate effectively. Ten years from now this project could be expected to be at technology demonstration stage. The IAF should also at this time be commissioning dedicated research into Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) at institutes of higher learning and research centres in the country.

    What Needs to be Kept in Mind

    There are a few salient features of the planned transformation of the IAF over the next five to ten years that merit attention.

    • The IAF is moving towards advanced capabilities in platforms and systems.
    • The focus is slowly shifting towards indigenisation, i.e., production of all major and crucial systems within the country.
    • Between license production (which leads to obtaining “know how”), technology transfer, and “know why” (which leads to actual technology transfer and gains in design and development skills), the latter are being preferred. For instance, this aspect may have played a part in the choice of the PAK FA over the F-35 JSF offer from the US. The MTA, LRSAM and other projects also demonstrate a bias towards collaborative development rather than “buy and make” as seen in the MMRCA deal; this MMRCA license manufacture agreement may have been found acceptable in view of the great time pressure to induct aircraft at the earliest given the currently falling numbers of fighters due to unplanned retirement of a few squadrons from IAF service.
    • Several high-end systems for the IAF have been developed totally indigenously in the public and the private sectors of the Indian Aerospace Industry. These include the secure and encrypted pan Air Force wide area network (WAN), AFNET, IACCS, and the Advanced Command Air Tasking System (ACATS), to name a few. Other noteworthy indigenous systems in or about to enter service are the Reporter and Rohini radars, Tejas LCA, Dhruv ALH, LCH and EMB-145 based AEW&C system.
    • Purchases of defence and civil equipment from foreign sources are now accompanied with offset clauses varying from 30 to 50 per cent.
    • There are great opportunities for foreign companies to enter into genuine collaboration with Indian players in the public and private sectors of the aerospace industry in India to design and develop new systems and platforms leading to a win-win situation for both sides, given India’s proven “frugal engineering” and Information Technology (IT) skills. Just these two proven skills available in India justify the setting up of joint ventures (JVs) in the aerospace field by foreign technology giants with Indian companies, quite independent of bidding for any civil or military contract and its offset requirements.
    • Foreign governments and companies will require to shed their erstwhile “sell and maybe give a license to make” policy in favour of genuine from-the-ground-up collaborative design and development. A step in this direction has been made by the Indo-Russian Brahmos project.12 More than the original Brahmos project,13 this is more applicable to the new hypersonic variant of the Brahmos missile being developed jointly.14 The Indo-Russian collaboration for the PAK FA fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) wherein India is partly funding a substantial part of the project in exchange for design involvement and development of a variant to meet India’s specific needs is another tentative step in this direction.1516

    Organisational and Structural Changes

    The IAF is likely to resolve its current manning issues through the induction of women in all branches and jobs, while at the same time evolving a gender neutral short-service cadre that is assisted to find employment in other sections of the economy post tenure. This would form a ready reserve force for recall during periods of hostility with a permanent commission cadre at its core. There is also likely to be greater emphasis on multi-skilling of personnel from the initial training period itself in order to improve upon productivity and efficiency of IAF manpower. The IAF should also be in the process of completing a re-organisation of its organisational structure and cadre to promote flexibility and efficiency while minimising costs.

    The transformation of the IAF will, however, be dependent upon and be influenced by a few major factors:

    • The growth of the Indian economy: only robust growth of the economy can ensure adequate funding for the various projects already sanctioned or awaiting final clearance.
    • Fructification of a few long period indigenous technology development initiatives, especially in sensors and their integration.
    • The geo-political scenario: an increased perceived threat of military confrontation with India’s neighbours would spur on the programmes discussed above, while a benign security situation would lead to less urgency to build up capabilities rapidly. The latter situation may further result in other military or non-military programmes taking higher priority for allotment of resources, possibly leading to inadequate allotment of funds and consequent slippages in schedules for IAF’s modernisation.
    • Any serious natural disaster could potentially disrupt the transformation process both directly (through the impact of such a disaster on the laboratories, etc., involved in the work) and indirectly (through the need to re-prioritise the entire national effort and resources towards disaster alleviation efforts).
    • A major unforeseen technology breakthrough in India or abroad that could make the entire transformation effort redundant.

    The IAF’s transformation process is likely to progress in the manner indicated above. It is important to note that true technology co-operation with foreign vendors who have access to advanced technology is likely to be the greatest challenge and opportunity for foreign as well as Indian companies operating in the aerospace field.


    Being a technology-dependent organisation, the IAF has been in a state of transformation for most of its existence. However, the speed of technological advancements has led to greater emphasis on its current transformation. This process, over the coming decade, appears poised to add to the IAF’s combat potential in a major way through induction of advanced weapon and combat support systems. These changes span the induction of new aircraft, radars, and networking equipment to organisational and manning changes. All the aspects of this transformation share the common characteristic of being tailor-made to make the IAF more efficient and effective in execution of the tasks entrusted to it by the nation.