Present and future challenges for the Indian Air Force

The India Air Force (IAF) is one of the best funded in the world, however, paradoxically it is one of the most underfunded for its allocated task. In order to defend the country against potential hostile actions and provide deterrence against both Pakistan and China, the IAF is increasingly ill equipped. One of its largest drawbacks in terms of operational efficiency—that it operates more types of fast jet simultaneously than almost any other air force—is also paradoxically an indication of how well funded it is compared to many air forces, which think of themselves as “reference air forces”. A victim of political interference in procurement efforts, the IAF has been relatively unsuccessful in convincing politicians to move towards an air power-centric approach taken by most global powers, and it still competes for funding with a huge Army and an increasingly strident Navy with blue water power projection ambitions. Despite a target strength of 44 squadrons of fast jets, the IAF is at present well below its authorised minimum safe figure of 39.5 squadrons.In fact, almost a quarter of its intended numerical strength has been lost to obsolescence in a little over a decade, even without considering normal attrition, which remains high in its older fleets.

A file photo of a Sukhoi-30 fighter

In terms of fast jets, India currently flies the Hawk, Mig-21, Mig-27, Mig-29, Jaguar, Mirage 2000, Su-30MKI and Tejas; and will soon fly the Rafale. In addition, the current ambition is to procure another lightweight fighter, most likely the Saab Gripen E/F or Lockheed Martin F-16 ‘Block 70/72’, as well as a fifth generation derivative of Russia’s troubled PAK FA/T-50 stealth fighter. With such a staggering diversity, ranging from extremely old and on their way to retirement to cutting edge and expensive multi-role aircraft, the IAF faces daunting logistics, training standardisation and force design challenges. Moreover, partly due to the expense of supporting and operating so many different aircraft fleet, the IAF is seriously under strength with only 32 squadrons as of early 2016. The fast jet components of the IAF will be examined here in terms of its air defence and strike capabilities as against Pakistani and Chinese airpower trends.

At present, the IAF is undergoing a phase out its ageing and accident-prone Mig-21, which was a fine interceptor in the 1960s and 1970s but is now laughably outclassed by every hostile aircraft it might encounter in the region. This leaves the bulk of Indian air defence duties to the large and growing Su-30MKI multirole fighter fleet, alongside the exclusively air-to-air Mig 29s and the small but capable multirole Mirage 2000-5 fleet. The indigenously produced Tejas Mark 1 has so far proven inadequate for IAF’s needs; and so development of an improved Mark 1A is a matter of priority in order to minimise the numerical shortfall created by the final retirement of the remaining Mig-21s by 2017. The 36 Rafale swing-role fighters being procured directly from France will certainly help meet India’s air defence requirements, given the potent air superiority capabilities of the type, but it is too small a number to provide much of an answer to India’s requirements for defending its vast airspace from intruders and potential hostile strikes. Further, the Rafale will be the only remotely credible type operated by the IAF for an airborne nuclear delivery mission against Chinese and even eventually Pakistani air defences in the years to come. So it is likely that the majority of the Rafale fleet will concentrate on the nuclear deterrence mission unless the order number expands in future to the detriment of its capability to maintain pilot proficiency in the conventional multirole and air defence domains.

The Su-30MKI needs to be discussed in some depth since its numerical dominance in the makeup of the IAF into the 2020s means that the latter has staked a huge gamble on the type, remaining viable and competitive against rival air forces for some time to come. India has ordered 272 Su-30MKIs and has, so far, received over 240 of the heavy fighters. This large fleet size contrasts with an envisaged strength of around 55 Mirage 2000s, 70 Mig-29s and 36 Rafales, as well as somewhere in the region of 200 light fighters—most likely a mix of Tejas Mark 1A/2 and Gripen/F-16s.

The Su-30MKI shares almost all standard strengths and weaknesses of late-model ‘Flanker’ family. It is extremely manoeuvrable in a close-range turning fight, although it bleeds energy fast in high-alpha manoeuvres and does not have the thrust-to-weight ratio of the latest Western or Russian fighters. It has a large and powerful radar, can carry a wide variety of missiles and ground attack munitions, and has an impressive range on internal fuel. On the downside, it has a huge radar cross-section (RCS) and is thus liable to be detected long before it can detect opposing fighters—whether operating under active or passive search methods. The thrust-vectoring engines significantly increase manoeuvrability at high angles of attack, low airspeeds and very high altitudes. However, at the same time, it increases maintenance complexity and decreases reliability. With a mix of long and short-range missiles and different seeker heads, the Su-30MKI is a dangerous opponent for non-stealth fighters of the fourth and 4.5 generations. However, against fifth generation fighters such as the F-22 Raptor and F-35, as well as China’s developing J-20A, the aircraft has few answers. Stealth aircraft will always detect the Su-30MKI from very long range, and can take position to either avoid it or engage under the best possible launch parameters.

For the task of carrying the main weight of policing India’s airspace and conducting multirole air superiority and strike missions against Pakistan in a future conflict, the Su-30MKI is likely to give the IAF a capable and potent core fleet for the next 10-15 years. However, against Chinese Su-35, J-10B and J-11 fighters, it is at least equalled in most scenarios; but the J-20A and future Chinese stealth aircraft will significantly outclass it. Further, the Su-30MKI is not credible against modern air defence networks, due to very high RCS, heat signature and, at best, average electronic warfare and jamming capabilities. This means that, for deterrence purposes, it is not credible against China and will slowly lose its capability to conduct deep strike missions in Pakistan as the latter improves its defences. With the air-launched Brahmos supersonic cruise missile integrated, however, the type does give the IAF a formidable anti-ship capability, especially with the long range inherent in the ‘Flanker’ design.

The IAF’s other air defence types do not offer much that the Su-30MKI cannot either. The Mirage 2000-5, currently being upgraded and modernised at the Indian Mark 2 standard, remains a capable and efficient lightweight fighter but cannot offer any BVR improvements over the Su-30MKI. It is a rough analogy in capability terms at medium and short ranges with China’s J-10A, Pakistan’s F-16 Block 52+ and FC-20 (J-10 derivative), and only provides a marginal superiority over the Sino-Chinese JF-17. Meanwhile, the Mig-29 is an ageing design, which remains formidably manoeuvrable within visual range but shares Su-30MKI’s drawbacks of huge RCS and lack of supercruise, besides being desperately short legged on internal fuel. It remains a limited capability interceptor for the IAF with little technology-growth potential. The Rafale could certainly be a highly capable air combat capability for the IAF but, as previously mentioned, 36 is a very small fleet to defend such a large airspace; and the IAF’s nuclear deterrence mission will most likely take priority for the type. Essentially, the IAF is equipping itself with air defence types that are at least adequate to face the current threat types, which it is likely to encounter. However, it remains numerically in a state of understrength; and consecutive delays in modernisation efforts mean that by the time the new force composition is fully in place, China will most likely to operating fifth generation J-20s in relatively large numbers, for which the IAF will have no adequate answer. Pakistan has also expressed interest in both the Su-35 (a more capable ‘Flanker’ in the air superiority role than the Su-30MKI) and the Chinese FC-31 stealth fighters. However, the FC-31 is still very much an unknown quantity and the J-31 on which it would be based has not found favour with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in China so far. It would be unwise, therefore, to suggest Pakistan is on the verge of operating fighters which could seriously threaten the IAF over Indian territory.

In the medium term, the IAF needs to decide whether it is aiming to offer a serious challenge to the growing might of the Chinese PLAAF or not. If the main effort is to remain focused on Pakistan, then the current acquisition programme for Indian combat airpower is probably technologically adequate but remains short on mass. If offering a serious aerial challenge to Chinese freedom of action in India’s backyard is the intention however, the IAF is on course to fall seriously short in both the quality and quantity of its fighter force by the mid-2020s. Indigenous fighter development efforts are unlikely to solve this problem. The Tejas saga has exposed some uncomfortable realities for India’s defence aviation industry. While it has proven to be capable of upgrading existing airframes with a variety of avionics, weapons and engines—for example, the Jaguar and Mirage 2000 upgrade programmes—HAL has taken 30 years, huge resources and a great deal of political backing to produce a lightweight fighter with modest conventional capabilities and serious quality control issues. The inability to reach a satisfactory set of arrangements to manufacture the 4.5 generation Rafale in India was not simply a matter of price, but also a result of HAL’s unsuitability in its current form to ensure sufficient quality control for manufacturing modern high performance fighter aircraft. The task of producing a fifthgeneration fighter—or sixth—will be a far more formidable undertaking.

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India has placed its hopes in the fifth generation sphere on the Russian PAK FA/T-50 programme, and has been a longstanding partner and funder of the aircraft’s development. However, this is beginning to look like a poor investment decision since Russia is discovering what China and US also discovered with the J-20 and the F-35 programmes, respectively. The fact is that while it is comparatively simple to develop flying prototypes that look like fifth generation fighters, it is exceedingly difficult to transition to produce something in quantity that performs like a fifth generation fighter, both in low-observability and sensor fusion-enabled situational awareness. There are many reasons to criticise the manner in which US and Lockheed Martin (an American global aerospace, defence, security and advanced technologies company) have managed the F-35 programme, but the core reason why the aircraft’s delivery is so delayed and expensive—compared to initial assumptions—is because of the featuresUS wants in the aircraft and its extremely difficult systems engineering.

Russia’s plans for purchasing the T-50 for its own air force have now been cut back to a laughable single squadron for the VVS, which is a very strong indicator that all is not well inside the secretive programme.Difficulties remain with the aircraft’s engines, wing strength and stealth properties, as well as sensor integration for the pilot. While a usable combat-capable T-50 might emerge towards the mid-2020s, developing an Indian Sukhoi/HAL Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) derivative will take longer still; and be expensive and slow to deliver in quantity. The upshot of all this is that India has a serious fifth generation fighter problem if it plans to confront China in air. It is unlikely to get combat-worthy platforms from Russia in the short term, and US has not yet indicated any willingness to sell F-35s to the IAF. Meanwhile, the J-20A low-rate production aircraft being displayed by the PLAAF represent a fast-emerging capability for low-observable strikes inside Indian airspace by China in a crisis. One solution might be to seek purchase of new generation AWACS aircraft, which might at least give current generation IAF fighters an idea of where to look for stealthy intruders. Saab’s latest Erieye ER—which uses a very high-energy AESA array to reportedly track stealthy fighter-sized targets at significant range—has been bought by the United Arab Emirates; and represents a potentially disruptive technology which India could benefit from.Another path might be to purchase Russian long-wavelength frequency agile ground radars such as the Nebo-series in order to provide a credible anti-stealth capability for the five regiments of long range S-400 air defence systems, which India agreed to purchase from Russia in October 2016 for deliver by 2020.This combination, far more than any aircraft which the IAF has in the procurement or development pipeline at present, is likely to remain a serious threat to any low-observable would-be intruders into Indian airspace.

In terms of offensive conventional striking power, the IAF will have to rely increasingly on the same multirole fighters as it does for air defence—the Su-30MKI and Rafale. This is because India’s two dedicated strike and interdiction fast jets, the Jaguar and Mig-27, are both long past their prime against peer-competitors in spite of several engine, avionics and weaponry upgrade programmes during their long service lives. Following a spate of crashes due to technical failures, the IAF is aiming to retire its entire Mig-27 fleet by 2024, and has already started decommissioning individual airframes.In contrast, the Jaguar has recently been upgraded again and, particularly in the case of these newest DARIN III standard aircraft, possesses a respectable payload capacity, excellent range on internal fuel at low level, and the ability to deliver a range of precision munitions. However, the essential limitation for both the Jaguar and Mig-27 in terms of current and future combat effectiveness is that generational improvements in fighter and air defence radars have rendered their core concept of operations—flying very low in ground clutter to avoid detection on deep-penetration strike operations—at extremely high-risk in the face of modern opposition. Pakistan’s F-16 fleet, as well as China’s Flanker derivatives and J-10 family are all equipped with radars capable of good detection and tracking performance in look-down, shoot-down mode against ground-hugging intruders. Both the Mig-27 and upgraded Indian Jaguar DARIN III have very limited self-defence capabilities, so would have to be closely escorted by dedicated fighter types during medium-level sorties into hostile airspace, thereby further reducing the number of Indian fighters available for air defence/superiority missions. The ill-fated MMRCA programme was supposed to provide a powerful supplementary and, eventually, replacement capability for IAF strike squadrons. However, as with air defence tasks, the 36 Rafales will be extremely capable in the strike role, but are being bought in completely insufficient numbers to replace the 125 Jaguars and around 85 Mig-27MLs still in IAF service. A purchase of either F-16 ‘Block 70/72’ Vipers or Gripen E/Fs to complement the Tejas in the light-fighter niche and fill some of the void left by the failure of MMRCA would certainly go a long way towards addressing the obsolescence of India’s strike fighter fleets.

None of the types at present operational in the IAF can hope to survive long inside a Chinese HQ-9 missile engagement zone (MEZ). Therefore, it seems logical for the IAF to accept that maintaining conventional deterrence capabilities against the might of a rising Chinese superpower is unlikely to remain possible in the next 20 years, based on current trends. However, it should be well within the capabilities of the IAF to adequately defend Indian airspace and provide a powerful deterrent against Pakistan, given its level of technical competence and funding, provided it accepts that its fighter aircraft will not be able to detect and destroy stealth threats, and continues to invest in modern air defence missile and radar systems optimised for these difficult targets.

The IAF as a highly proficient service which, unlike many of its Western counterparts, operates in the vicinity of, and trains to fight against, two peer competitors in high-end operations. Pakistani and Chinese aerial capabilities present very different levels of threat to India’s ability to defend its own airspace, and likewise, their respective air defence capabilities present greatly differing levels of threat to India’s own offensive power-projection capabilities. India stands to benefit from an effects-based measurement of capability requirements, rather than the older practice of ‘counting airframes’. Instead of chasing an unrealistic target of 40-44 squadrons of modern combat aircraft, or even the current minimum target of 39.5 squadrons, the IAF should try to eliminate much of the costly duplication of platforms for various missions and focus on defending its airspace from potential Chinese intrusions in future, and maintain credible offensive strike capabilities to ensure stable deterrence at the sub-nuclear level against Pakistan. These two tasks might be effectively attained by developing a modern and potent ground-based integrated air defence system (IADS) focused on counter-stealth capabilities for defence against China, paired with a smaller number of fourth and 4.5  generation multirole fighters to provide flexible air defence and strike capabilities to counter Pakistan. This sort of approach, however, would mean accepting a loss in airframe numbers and a cull of older, less effective types to allow rapid acquisition of modern multirole types in sufficient, but not equivalent numbers. An example of this approach is that against modern opponents such as the Chinese and Pakistani Air Forces, replacing the 14 squadrons of Mig-21s and Mig-27s with three or four squadrons of modern F-16 ‘Block 70/72s’ or Gripen E/Fs would certainly represent a significant growth in capability, despite a large numerical decrease in airframes available.

Given the lack of credible fifth generation fighter options for the IAF in the foreseeable future, India’s most profitable avenues for capability enhancement of its existing fourth and 4.5 generation types in the face of Pakistani and Chinese threat technologies are likely to be found in long-ranged, high-speed standoff weaponry and electronic warfare. These approaches both hinge around reducing the vulnerability of non-stealthy air assets—by allowing engagements at longer ranges in comparison to threat system engagement envelopes—and offer the potential to significantly prolong the operational usefulness of the fourth generation types against high-end threats for all air forces. It is, therefore, encouraging to see the progress being made in the IAF’s Su-30MKI fleet, for example, in terms of integrating the capable Israeli Elta EL/M-8222 jamming pod and Brahmos cruise missile. The eventual incorporation of the Zhuk-AESA radar on the fleet should also enhance situational awareness, survivability and electronic warfare capabilities.Equally, the Rafale will bring the formidable and impressive SPECTRA electronic warfare suite, SCALP EG cruise missiles and the Gripen NG (should India opt to purchase it). Electronic warfare-based approaches to aircraft survivability require a sustained tempo of investment in software development to remain viable but, due to this higher refresh time, are inherently more flexible than a reliance on airframe-shaping for stealth properties.

Luckily, part of the IAF’s core strength, partly as a result of its practice of operating so many different types of aircraft in so many different roles simultaneously, is its institutional capacity for flexible and novel ways of approaching problems. The IAF also stands at a fascinating crossroads between Eastern and Western approaches to airpower, a position which brings great logistical challenges but also great opportunities to harvest from technology and concepts of operations. A mix of Russian-style modern IADS development, with Western models of airpower for power projection, offers huge promises for India’s defence and deterrence needs. However, before embracing a radical modernisation and restructuring programme, the IAF must overcome entrenched political interference in military procurement decisions, as well as the fixation on solutions which have been ‘made in India’, otherwise it risks continuing along its current path of trying to catch up with outdated acquisition plans to fight yesterday’s wars.

This article was originally published in ‘Defence Primer