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


Anonymous said...

total number of Su-30 MKI will be 270 and not 272. 2 had been crashed.

air chief also recently said that number of FGFA will be between 250-300.

USA will always have more 5th gen fighter aircrafts than India. though production of f-22 has been capped. the coming f-35 is also a 5th gen fighter which they will have in large number.

The other Indian 5th gen fighter program - AMCA is still on paper, as far as i know.

cost of f-22 is probably much more than $150. most likely it is between $200 -$300. closer to $300 if I remember correctly.

f-35 possible will cost somewhere between $150-$200.

Unavailability may be one of the reasons why IAF is not inducting UCAV .

Another reason can be that UCAV -with it's limited payload may not be able to replace conventional fighters at present. And external threat for India is more conventional in nature against china and pakistan.
even bombing a terrorist camp in pakistan may trigger a conventional retaliation by pakistan unlike their response in USA's drone strike.

IAF probably prioritize air-superiority than close air support to army. that may explain the top heavy structure.
had it been the latter case IAF possible had chosen lighter fighters which can give higher rate of sorties with less expenditure.

USA - unlike India doesn't face any conventional threat .

But i agree with you that we don't plan efficiently. I even doubt whether we have a well established strategic doctrine and our procurement/modernization goes according to that.
as a result we often end of spending a lot more money. and of course there is corruption.

Anonymous said...

Manoj you make it sound as if all the new aircraft will get to the IAF at the same time!! This is far from true...The last of the Mirage upgrade will only enter the IAF by the end of 2020,….that is if we are to sign the contract today. We would be lucky to have the FGFA by 2027. By which time the Jaguars, Mig 29s and most of the older lot of the Su-30 MKI would be out as gate guards baking in the Sun. Even the MMRCA would be ready for an upgrade by then. Trust our men in blues to plan ahead and not wait till the last moment, like we did for the CWG. There is no way the IAF can be top heavy...we don't have the money for it!!!
If we have regional ambitions, ranging from Malacca to Madagascar, as our Navy keeps touting, this is the price you have pay. It’s time we decided where we stand in the world order and shape our ambitions to suit our purse. We live in a troubled neighborhood with China breathing down our backside. We have little choice except to deter war or face the consequences. I dare say 26/11 happened because we lacked sufficient deterrence and our enemies were reasonably sure we wouldn't hit back.

Jeet Hormuz said...

Sensational reading, but quite a few factual errors, Mr Joshi.
I think you will find the Su30MKI engine change cycle is far better than what you have quoted. The IAF has no ex-Indonesian aircraft, and only 40 Su30Ks were ever bought. Also, the GOI has been paid its money for the 18 Su30Ks in Pune, that the ac are not operational is a matter between the Russian and Belarus Govts. Would be nice if you were to check your facts before making strong statements.

manoj joshi said...

Point on two crashed taken. Only if Indo fighters are counted we reach 272.
My timeline of acquisitions and the rationale for the article was from ACM Naik's pre-Air Force Day press conference.
The 18 in Pune are occupying valuable tarmac space.
Anon 1 you have a good explanation for why we are not going for UCAV's. But between now and 2020, there could be advanced in AI that could make the UCAV's even more effective and competitive with manned fighters. We need to keep our eye on the ball.

We keep on saying Malacca to Madagascar or Malacca to Suez. Malacca is not a problem we have an unsinkable aircraft carrier in Car Nicobar nearby. As for Aden, I wonder whether if its really in our interest to be there.
We have a lot of internal problems, it would be good if we kept our heads down and adopted Deng Xiaoping's 24 character strategy of keeping our profile low while building our capabilities.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering whether the UCAVs are under the missile treaty.
they certainly can act as missiles which fly more than 300 km.
and may be able to carry small nukes. even if not they can certainly do so in future.

can you inform us about that?

manoj joshi said...

There is only one treaty for air-breathing vehicles like UCAV's that is the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty between the US and the erstwhile USSR.
Other cruise missiles are out of its purview.
I would presume that the UCAV's are not covered under any treaty, though you have truly long-range ones like the Global Hawk. Target and reconnaissance drones are not covered by MTCR, but UCAV's are likely to be. But MTCR is a closed tech-denial club and countries like INdia do not adhere to it.

Anonymous said...

UK is scrapping her sea harriers.
and we have virat , apparently with only few harriers but very likely to be available till '20 , if not'25.

may be india should seriously consider buying some of the fighters.

Anonymous said...


India got MiG-29K for IN.
Why dont you pls. Google and ease your worry about India Navy.