Saturday, October 09, 2010
A top-heavy Air Force will easily lose its balance
Air Chief Marshal Pradeep Naik has said that he expected the Indian Air Force to close the negotiations for the Medium Multirole Aircraft (MMRCA) by March 2011, six months from now. In an interview to the Vayu Aerospace magazine on the eve of Air Force Day (which happens to be today), he noted that the 126 aircraft will then be expected to be inducted by 2014. In the same interview he also revealed that the likely date for the induction of the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) is 2017. These are also the years in which the IAF will be acquiring additional 150 Sukhoi-30 MKI fighters as well.
So will the IAF go from being weak-kneed to top-heavy ?
The Su-30MKI is already considered the best fighter in the world today, exceeded only by the F-22 Raptor, a programme that the US is terminating because the aircraft are too expensive. India will have some 272 Su-30MKIs by the time the programme ends, presumably by 2020, when the FGFA, the Indo-Russian answer to the Raptor starts coming in.
By 2025 the IAF could well end up with all top-of-the-line aircraft, and not enough work-horses. If the MMRCA contest goes in favour of either the Eurofighter or Rafale, the IAF could have 272 Su-30MKIs, 126 Eurofighter or Rafale’s, and 200-250 or so FGFA which Air Chief Marshal alluded to in another interview last week. So from an abject position of an air force which is 50 per cent obsolete, India could well end up with the most modern air force in the world, with even more fifth generation fighters than even the mighty US, since the F-22 programme ends at 187 aircraft and we will have 250 FGFAs. There will also be some 320 or so LCAs, upgraded Jaguars, Mirage 2000s and MiG-29s.
All this is a good thing, or is it?
There are two issues here. First, these fighters will be all multi-role, as are most modern fighters and they will overlap each other’s functions. More important is the issue of cost. Heavy fighters cost a lot of money. The Sukhois are of the order of $50 million per piece. The MMRCA, if it is the Eurofighter Typhoon, could cost more than twice that amount. But the bigger costs lie in running them. According to an estimate, the Typhoon and Rafale could cost some $16,000 an hour. The costs for the Sukhoi are not known, but may be twice as much because serviceability is a major problem with Russian aircraft. Their engines have to be replaced at about 300 hours or so, as compared to 3,000 for comparable Western engines.
The country, and, of course, the IAF needs to take a hard look at whether they can afford all this. There is no doubt that we need to modernise our forces, but the need is for a balance that is distributed effectively between the Army, Air Force and the Navy. Bunched up acquisitions such as the ones we seem to be heading for could create major budgetary problems, or, result in parts of the air force remaining grounded because there is not enough money to fly the aircraft.
How did we land in this situation? Actually there is nothing unusual about it. From the 1980s onwards, IAF acquisitions have been an opaque affair. In fact, only the current MMRCA buy is a model of transparency, as compared to what went on in the past.
For example, there was no IAF demand for a Mirage 2000, but we bought them anyway. There is no trace of any IAF request for the Su-30 MKI, but we have those, too. This is not unusual in our dense defence decision-making process which we have been trying to open up. At least two former Navy chiefs have told this writer that they do not know who wanted the Akula-class nuclear attack submarine that is likely to be added to our fleet soon.
It is not as though the equipment thus acquired is a dud. It is not. The best example of this is the Bofors 155 mm howitzer whose acquisition was so controversial. The fact that bribes were paid for the buy does not detract from the fact that the guns performed superbly in the Kargil war. The IAF got to love the Mirage 2000, as it does the Su-30MKI.
But the obvious implications of the acquisitions is that they were made for considerations other than purely our defence needs. These “considerations” could be strategic i.e. made as a politico-economic trade off. But the more obvious conclusion is that they are the outcome of bribery and corruption.
The acquisition of the equipment has been a cavalier process, tailor-made for wasting money, rather than obtaining the most economical solution. Take the Sukhoi programme. Initially India sought 40 aircraft, it was then persuaded to buy 10 that Indonesia no longer wanted. Then it was decided that the country would build another 140 under licence. Later, when the LCA programme was delayed, 40 more were ordered, and then, more recently, another 42. On the tarmac of IAF’s Lohegaon airbase, there are another 18 old Sukhoi-27PVs that India had got at the outset of the programme, which the Russians were supposed to upgrade to 30-MKI standards and didn’t. They are no longer operational.
Ideally, the IAF in 2020 should be a three-tiered force of 16 Su-30MKI squadrons (320 aircraft) in the top-most tier, 8 of the MMRCA (160 aircraft), 6 of LCA (120), which means 280 tier II fighters, and the balance, 6 squadrons of upgraded Jaguars (120), 3 Mirage 2000 (60) and 3 Mig-29s (60) would be tier III, aircraft reaching the end of their airframe life to be replaced by the FGFA, as it comes into service.
This, of course, would assume that the MMRCA would be a lighter aircraft, not a heavy twin-engine fighter. In the current competition there are three that fit the bill— the Swedish Gripen, the American F-16 and the Russian Mig-35. Of the three, the Swedish aircraft is the most modern and economical to operate. Such a force profile would not only provide the optimum defence solution for India, but help keep the operating costs down, a not inconsequential consideration for a dirt-poor nation.
We also need to keep in mind the latest trends in air power—the growth of robotic aircraft. In early 2010, it was estimated that the US will spend some 15 per cent of its $230 billion budget for the next five years for unmanned aerial vehicles.
Considering that the price of the F-22 Raptor is of the order of $150 million, it is little wonder that the US has been forced to curtail the programme. When you can get Predator and Reaper UAV’s for $4 million a piece, bomb your enemies without risking your pilots, the decision is a no-brainer anyway. Already more drone operators are being trained than bomber or fighter pilots in the US.
The trends of the future are more than obvious, but there is little indication that our manned-fighter oriented air force is considering them.
Technology is a fickle master, those who are not sensitive to its trends are condemned to obsolescence.
Mail Today October 8, 2010