Private participation in aerospace is the way forward to innovate and indigenise
In the midst of uncertainty about how things will pan out in Ladakh in the face of China’s inane expansionism, one certitude has emerged emphatically: the consistent neglect of the needs and wants of Indian defence forces has now placed them in a situation where their equipment and weaponry leave a lot to be desired and their preparedness for war under an interrogatory mark. As demonstrated by the events since April this year in Ladakh area, there is no doubt that, in a possible kinetic military action with China, Indian forces will give a good account of themselves but regrettably, that would be despite the fact that they do not have all their war fighting wares in place, and not because the establishment met their justifiable demands. The neglect started during the UPA regime but was consolidated institutionally during the years since 2014; the Modi government, with a misplaced confidence in its foreign affairs initiatives, has continued to deny the services their just needs while volubly flying the nationalist flag almost to jingoistic levels. Indeed, in August 2018, the 29th report of the Murli Manohar Joshi-headed Parliamentary Committee On Estimates on Preparedness Of Armed Forces-Defence Production & Procurement had declared that the NDA government had brought down defence preparedness to the lowest ever in history. In recent months, the noises being made by the establishment have altered their tenor and texture in favour of undoing this damage but its cumulative effects cannot be reversed in a day. The worst affected service is the Indian Air Force (IAF). This article addresses the potential and limitations of innovations and indigenization to mitigate the effects of IAF’s blunted air power.
As far back as February 2014, the IAF had stated to the Parliamentary Committee on Defence that its capability to manage a two front war with the then 34 squadron strength was questionable, but clarified that it had plans for that contingency. Two years later, Air Marshal Dhanoa, then the Vice Chief of Air Staff (VCAS), reportedly told media that, “Our numbers are not adequate to fully execute an air campaign in a two-front scenario”; at that time the squadron strength was 33. A year and a half later, and with the squadron strength having dropped further to 32, as the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa declared on 08 October (Air Force Day) 2017 that the IAF was ready for a two-front war. This perplexity has characterized the IAF combat aircraft strength narrative for years now. The squadron strength has gone from 34 (when the IAF prodded the Parliamentary Committee in 2014) to 30 today and the distant possibility of a two front war stares the nation at point blank range now. The 2018 edition of Exercise Gagan Shakti had highlighted IAF’s preoccupation with fighting a two front war but was not conducted on both fronts simultaneously and so it was not a two front war but two single front wars fought serially; the first phase was focused on the Western borders of India in terms of deployment and operations after which the Northern borders became the significant area of operations. In effect it thus created ample doubt about the IAF’s capability to fight on two fronts simultaneously. In any case the 30 squadron strength falls 12 short of the sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons (a figure which itself dates back by more than two decades and a fresh assessment exercise may produce a figure closer to 60). The 30 squadron strength is poised to drop further in the near future as more old aircraft reach retirement age. Can innovation and indigenization help assuage this long festering problem?
According to open sources (Flight Global’s World Air Forces 2020), IAF has 242 Sukhoi Su-30MKIs, 66 MiG-29s, 42 MiG-27s, 130 Jaguars, 45 Mirage 2000s, 132 MiG-21s and 16 Tejas. Nominally taking a squadron as consisting of 18 to 20 aircraft, this roughly adds up to 12 squadrons of Su-30MKIs, three of MiG-29s, two of Mig-27s, seven of Jaguars, two of Mirage 2000s and about seven of MiG-21s. The actual figures of MiG-27s and MiG-21s are probably much lower as constant attrition is on, the Tejas is not really an operational aircraft yet while the Rafale is still fetching up (five aircraft are not really an effective measure of power while the remaining 31 more Rafales on order are expected over the next two years). Thus the total now would be about 30 squadrons; however, the MiG-27 and MiG-21 fleets are being shrunk at a rapid pace and by 2021 or latest by 2022, the squadron strength will be down to 26. The government, in a move obviously driven by the events in Ladakh, is fast tracking the procurement of 21 MiG-29s and 12 Su-30MKIs from Russia.
Coming to indigenization, some consolation can be drawn from the fact that the Su-30MKIs are being license produced in India although the term indigenous would not be an accurate description of the production process. In the next three to four years, the Su-30MKI strength is expected to go up to at least 272. The Tejas 123 is indeed an indigenous aircraft but it has taken more than three decades to be ready to join the IAF ranks and is still not a fully combat worthy aircraft, the first one of which is expected to be inducted only in 2025 (provided HAL gets its act together).
The cancelled 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) deal was disastrous for the IAF and the currently ongoing procurement process for 114 Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) is under a cloud due to the vociferous support for ‘Make In India’ and ‘Atma Nirbhar’ with new nuances being added on progressively. Every Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) in the fray for the MRCA has offered to set up manufacturing facilities in India but there is uncertainty about how much of transfer of technology would be involved especially in the significant technologies like aero-engines, on board radars, weaponry and avionics. Without that, even if the aircraft be produced on Indian soil, the indigenous content would be trifling.
Unarmed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)
There has been some indigenization in the field of UAVs although the bulk of IAF’s UAV inventory is a result of Israeli cooperation in that field. Indigenous endeavours to produce UAVs started in 1990 with DRDO’s Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) being tasked to produce India’s first Nishant UAV based on Indian Army’s requirement for a platform for intelligence gathering over enemy territory. It first flew in 1995 but, with four accidents involving Nishant in quick succession, its fate was sealed. DRDO then developed a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV RUSTOM-1design based on Rutan Long-EZ Homebuilt aircraft developed by American based Rutan Aircraft Factory. RUSTOM-1 was planned to be a technology demonstrator platform for more advanced and more capable UAVs. It first flew in 2009 but did not evince much interest in the IAF due to the slow pace of development and an inadequate sensor package. RUSTOM-1 is unlikely to ever be a full-scale production UAV although the project is not yet officially shelved. Another UAV that was reportedly said to belong to the Rustom family was the Rustom H (H for high altitude version but not much has been heard about it in recent months.
RUSTOM-2, another UAV in the Rustom series, was renamed Tactical Advanced Platform for Aerial Surveillance Beyond Horizon-201 (TAPAS-BH-201, or TAPAS 201). It made its first flight in 2016, but had major technical problems. TAPAS BH 201 is projected to have an operating altitude of 30,000 ft, a service ceiling of 32,000 ft and the ability to take off from runways as high as 11,000 ft. The 2 ton MALE UAV will be able to carry a 350 kg payload of ELINT and COMINT suites, Synthetic Aperture Radar and other medium and long-range electro optical sensors to capture imagery to undertake Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions for the IAF. Reportedly six TAPAS BH 201 prototypes have been produced. It will take a long time for TAPAS BH 201 to be a UAV of operational use to the IAF.
In 2014, DRDO had unveiled Panchi, a wheeled version of the Nishant but its future is as yet uncertain. Panchi is a variant of Nishant (launcher based tactical UAV) with capability of conventional take-off and landing. Another UAV under development by ADE is Abhyas, a High-speed Expendable Aerial Target (HEAT) which offers an aerial threat scenario for practice of weapon systems. It is designed for autonomous flying with the help of an autopilot, and has Radar Cross Section (RCS), Visual and IR augmentation systems required for weapon practice. Abhyas was successfully flight tested in May 2019.
Following on from Lakshya 1, Lakshya 2 is a target for weapon systems like radar guided and heat seeking Surface to Air Missiles and Air to Air Missiles. According to the ADE site, it has a scoring system capable of calculating the miss distance of weapons accurately, has an integrated digital flight control processor, autonomous flight capability in low level flight. Transfer of Technology has been given to L&T. Lakshya Weapon Delivery Configuration has also been developed and several weapon delivery sorties have been completed including with live weapons.
The NETRA V Series is a light weight, autonomous UAV for surveillance and recce operations jointly developed by DRDO’s Research & Development Establishment (R&DE) and ideaForge Technology Pvt Ltd — a Mumbai based private company. It weighs 1.5 kg only and is constructed of carbon fibre composites. However, it has limited use for IAF.
DRDO also has initiated studies and research to develop an autonomous UCAV called Aura which it describes as long-range, self-defending, high-speed reconnaissance UAV with weapon carrying capabilities. Aura’s design is an all wing concept akin to the Boeing Phantom Ray UCAV which is being developed to carry laser guided or other bombs. It is expected to have stealth properties to make it undetectable by radar and thus would be suitable for cross border strikes. However, the absence of any hype about the project from DRDO spokespersons indicates that its consummation is quite distance in time. In pursuance of international UAV trends, ADE has developed Micro and Mini UAVs in collaboration with National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), a constituent of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), for ISR missions. Reportedly, Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) has been cleared by MoD to commence work on the development of an Unmanned Tejas (India’s Light Combat Aircraft or LCA). This development may contribute to India’s indigenous stealth autonomous UCAV program albeit at characteristic public sector leisurely velocity. In the distant future, it may evoke interest from the IAF (although the IAF is not very enthusiastic about the manned version itself).
As can be seen from above, some small UAV projects initiated by DRDO have had some success mostly in the area of micro UAVs (MAVs), mini UAVs, tactical UAVs, and MALE UAVs, where the designs were started from scratch but integration was undertaken with the help of foreign companies. However, there still has not been a significant, successful major UAV program. The programs under development too do not hold great promise from the IAF point of view; those that do appear to be wrapped in uncertainty about features and time frames for operationalisation. In any case, the past history of DRDO UAVs does not encourage much enthusiasm. In short, indigenous unmanned systems development is unlikely to satisfy the IAF’s growing needs of such systems in the near future and with the public sector at the lead. Private sector participation and significant transfer of technology are required to make indigenous UAV production meaningful.
India signed up for six Ilyushin IL-78MKI Flight Refueling Aircraft (FRA) from Uzbeghistan in 2002; innovatively, the Russian airframe (a variation of IL-76) with an Israeli fuel transfer system was inducted into IAF in March 2003. This FRA, six of which are in current service, can refuel three jets simultaneously. When the IL-78 was procured, the projected serviceability figure was 70 %. However, the actual serviceability that accrued has been less than 50% and with the IAF needing more than six FRAs in any case to meet its requirements of possibly fighting a two front war, it started looking at a new procurement within three years of inducting the IL-78. The first Request For Proposal (RFP) was floated in 2006 and the Airbus A-330MRTT (Multi Role Tanker Transport) was the finalist but in 2010 the RFP was inanely shelved reportedly because the finance ministry expressed “reservations relating to the competitiveness of the bids and the reasonableness of the price.” In 2010, another RFP was given out; Russian Ilyushin, Ukrainian Antonov Design Bureau and European Airbus responded; Antonov’s proposal was technically rejected. In January 2013 A-330 MRTT was selected over IL-78 in as the L-1 choice using a selection criteria that compared operational costs over its entire life cycle (the IL-78 had a cheaper unit price). Incredibly, the process was terminated once again citing high operational costs. In January 2018, the IAF initiated its third endeavour to augment its existing flight refuelling capability.
This background was felt necessary to locate an innovative initiative by IAF and DRDO — that of an Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS) aircraft being developed around an A-330 platform since 2015 with the additional role of FRA. The wisdom of such a design is debatable and possibly such an aircraft will lead to unsatisfactory attainment of either role while meeting the urgently required numbers of both AWACS and FRA. Anyway, while the FRA selection process is under way, this project also appears to be breathing. In the past IAF has declared the intent to have all its combat aircraft capable of flight refuelling. Given the fact that their operations also need AWACS support, the innovation of an AWACS-cum-FRA aircraft appears attractive albeit at the cost of that aircraft meeting either role only sub-optimally.
AWACS and AEW&C
Indian efforts at producing an indigenous AWACS capability came to grief when an Avro HS-748, being used as a flying test bed crashed in 1999. India now has three IL-76 based Phalcon AWACS aircraft and two more have been sanctioned while a proposal to procure six Airbus A-330 based AWACS has been in suspended animation for years. The indigenous story here is that of the Embraer ERJ145 based Airborne Early Warning & Control System (AEW&CS), dubbed Netra, of which IAF has two and expects to get 20 more in coming years. While the Phalcon has a 400 km range and 360 degree coverage, the Netra has a 240 degree coverage radars with a 250 km range.
India’s ambitions to be an aerospace power and its indigenous capability are a pitiable mismatch. Colossal amounts of money have been invested into Indian public sector aerospace manufacturing infrastructure i.e. HAL and aerospace R&D (several laboratories directly or indirectly involved in aerospace R&D) but the internal inefficiencies of the public sector have kept the sector’s growth stunted. The time is right for removing the public sector monopoly (by withdrawing governmental patronage) and encourage private participation in aerospace. Only then would we be able to get out of the rut of licensed production and strive to imbibe technology needed for innovation and indigenisation in a meaningful way. The current sloganeering of ‘Make In India’ and ‘Atma Nirbhar’ could be perilous to indigenisation inasmuch as they could be twisted to create a narrative discouraging imports. Indeed, the CDS is on record as having indicated that his understanding was that only Tejas aircraft were needed for the IAF and that no foreign ones need be explored! Should that interpretation of indigenisation be adopted, the IAF could well end up suffering ignominy in any future action involving its air power. There appears to be some bustle at the government level (impelled by the Chinese presence in Ladakh) to do something about the neglect the defence forces have been afflicted with during the last decade or so; one hopes that once the confrontation with China has passed over, we do not return to the erstwhile attitude of denying the services the wherewithal to fight the war they are intended for.