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.
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”.
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 BoeingAGM-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.