Piotr Butowski uncovers the current status of indigenous Indian aviation programmes and international acquisitions during a visit to Aero India in late February
JUDGING BY numbers, the Aero India exhibition is shrinking year by year. This year 414 companies from all over the world (including 247 from India) took part; 135 less than 2017, and 209 less than 2015. The number of participating aircraft was also smaller; fortunately, there were some noteworthy novelties among them.
The largest foreign nation participating was France, represented by 45 companies, all looking for industrial partners with which to discharge offsets connected with India’s purchase of Rafale fighters; a story that has rumbled on ever since. Back on January 31, 2012, the Dassault Rafale was declared the winner of India’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender for 126 fighter aircraft. This tender was later cancelled and instead on September 23, 2016, the Indian government contracted 36 (plus an option for 18 more) off-theshelf Rafale aircraft under an intergovernmental agreement with France. The contract for Rafale generated contentious disputes in India; now even more heated, just weeks before the country’s general elections planned for April and May 2019. The first Rafales will enter Indian Air Force service in September; three Armee de l’Air Rafales were at Aero India 2019; two B-models in the flying display and one C-model on static display.
Also notable was the American presence, which included 37 exhibitors and a US Air Force B-52H bomber in the opening air parade. Over the last decade, the United States has become India’s biggest military equipment provider delivering C-17 Globemaster III and C-130J Super Hercules transports, P-8I Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, and CH- 47F(I) Chinook and AH-64E Apache helicopters. Now American defence companies are hoping to win even larger contracts involving 114 fighters for the Indian Air Force, 57 carrier borne fighters and 22 unmanned air vehicles for the Indian Navy.
Russia’s presence was far more modest with 23 companies involved, but no aircraft.
The most spectacular part of each Aero India exhibition is the air parade staged on the opening day; it is the only time, when Indian Air Force and Indian Naval aircraft from other bases fly over Yelahanka. Flight displays on subsequent show days only involve the aircraft on the exhibition flight line.
The most interesting guests debuting at this year’s show were the veteran MiG-21 Bison fighter, a P-8I Poseidon and a B-52H Stratofortress. More than 1,200 MiG-21s have been operated by the Indian Air Force since 1963; Aero India 2019 was one of the last chances to see an Indian MiG-21 perform a public display. India’s MiG-21 fighters will be retired in the coming years because of their age; flying at Yelahanka was MiG- 21 Bison, serial number CU2820, piloted by Group Captain Dasgupta.
The Boeing P-8I is a variant of the P-8A Poseidon customised for India; beginning in May 2013, the first of eight aircraft started to replace the obsolete Tu-142ME in Indian naval aviation service. India ordered another four P-8Is in July 2016 to be delivered by 2020.
During a rehearsal on the eve of the opening day, two Hawk Mk132 aircraft assigned to the Indian Air Force Surya Kiran aerobatic team collided in mid-air; one of the pilots, Wing Commander Sahil Gandhi, was killed. During the opening day’s air parade, Wing Commander Sahil Gandhi was honoured by a ‘missing man’ formation over the crash site comprising a Su-30MKI, Jaguar and Tejas.
Is 42 an axiom?
Many years ago the Indian Air Force declared that to provide defence of the nation, 42 combat aircraft squadrons were needed. However, instead of approaching that number, the Indian Air Force is receding more and more from that goal. As the service life of old MiG- 21 and MiG-27 fighters is nearing their end, and delivery of new fighters is slow, the force capability gap gets greater.
Currently, the Indian Air Force has 31 combat squadrons, in contrast with 33 in 2017 and 35 in 2015; a squadron’s allotted strength is 16 to 18 aircraft. The need for 42 fighter squadrons is increasingly and often questioned in India, as befits the world’s largest democracy – in both directions.
Some maintain this level was specified a long time ago, when tactical combat aircraft were single role, either fighter or strike, and today all new aircraft are multi-role and therefore a smaller number is sufficient to perform assigned tasks. Opponents claim that India needs far more than 42 fighter squadrons due to the growing capability of Chinese and Pakistani air arms.
Multi-role fighter aircraft
New fighter aircraft are still needed by the Indian Air Force. Cancelled, the MMRCA programme found its extension in a new fighter procurement programme codenamed the Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) with the requirement for 114 made-in- India fighter aircraft; the request for information was issued by the Indian Air Force in April 2018.
The MRFA programme is to be implemented under the new Strategic Partner (SP) procurement model, one that envisages manufacture of military hardware by an Indian Production Agency (IPA) in collaboration with a foreign Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) that provides advanced technologies and sets up production facilities in India. For MRFA, 18 aircraft would be procured in a flyaway condition from the OEM, while the balance is to be built by an IPA in India. The same companies that bid for the MMRCA are now bidding for the MRFA, with minor updates.
On the first day of Aero India 2019, Lockheed Martin announced that from now on its offer was known as the F-21, stressing that the new designator is not a Block 70 F-16. In reality, the F-21 is an F-16, but one that’s different inside and out. Why Lockheed Martin has dubbed its Indian F-16 as the F-21 remains unclear.
Under the US Department of Defense’s unified tri-service designation system, in operation since September 1962, the F-21 designation was given to the Israeli Kfir C.1 fighter, 25 of which were leased by the US Department of the Navy and used as adversary aircraft by the US Navy’s Fighter Squadron 43 (VF-43) based at Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia (12 aircraft, 1985-1988) and Marine Fighter Training Squadron 401 (VMFT-401) based at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona (13 aircraft, 1987- 1989). Under the DoD designation system, a type designator is generally not used again.
The reasons behind the F-21 label are politically driven; an aircraft operated by Pakistan (the F-16) is probably best not to be offered to India.
Whatever designation used by Lockheed Martin, if selected for the MRFA, the aircraft will be manufactured by the company in collaboration with India’s Tata Advanced Systems at a new facility in India.
One new candidate has joined the previous six; Sukhoi’s Su-35, offered by Russia. This is an unusual candidate since the Su-35 is a heavy-class of fighter, the Indian Air Force already has eleven squadrons of Su-30MKIs, and its requirement is for a medium class fighter, in size terms, one that’s between the Su- 30MKI and the Tejas.
The new MRFA programme found little reflection at this year’s exhibition; of the seven companies bidding for the contract, only Boeing and Dassault had aircraft at Bengaluru; Boeing with the F/A-18 Super Hornet and Dassault with Rafale, though a US Air Force F-16C was present. Others limited themselves to a full-size mock-up (Saab JAS 39 Gripen E) or small models (Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Martin F-16, RSK MiG MiG-35, and Sukhoi Su-35). No wonder: companies have concluded that investing money at such an early stage of the procurement is not justified, after all, the aircraft types are already well-known, because all but the Su-35 have previously appeared at Bengaluru.
A second programme that may be related to the Air Force’s MRFA is the Indian Navy’s requirement for 57 fighters for its future aircraft carriers in a programme dubbed the Multi-Role Carrier Borne Fighter (MRCBF), for which an RFI was issued in January 2017. Two of the strongest MRCBF candidates - the F/A-18 Super Hornet and the Dassault Rafale M – are also bidding for the MRFA.
More Flankers and Fulcrums
By December 2018 the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) facility in Nasik had produced 203 Su-30MKI fighters of 222 ordered (the first 50 aircraft were delivered directly from Russia); thus the entire current contract will be fulfilled in the next fiscal year, ending in March 2020.
After fulfilling the order, HAL is seeking to fill its available production capacity, and the Indian government is considering buying another batch of Su-30MKIs.
According to Anatoly Punchuk, deputy head of Russia’s Federal Service for Military Technical Cooperation, in January 2019 Russia received an official request for 18 aircraft from India. Accordingly, Russian manufacturer Irkut is to provide HAL Nasik with the raw materials and sub-systems needed to build the additional fighters.
After Su-30MKI production has ceased, HAL will be able to use its empty production capacity with major overhauls, and then upgrades of Indian Air Force Su-30MKIs. The scope of the upgrade, colloquially called the Super 30, is still unspecified, but there is no doubt it will be undertaken and HAL will be the main contractor.
Quite unexpectedly, a couple of weeks before Aero India a Russian offer appeared to sell 21 MiG-29 fighters, made from abandoned half-airframes, commenced and unfinished at MiG’s Lukhovitsy facility near Moscow.
Reportedly the unit price is only $25 million and supposedly the aircraft would be delivered in a simple configuration. From India’s perspective, upgrading these aircraft to the most advanced MiG-29UPG standard makes sense, but would almost double the unit price. The Indian Air Force currently has three squadrons equipped with MiG-29s which are undergoing a mid-life upgrade to MiG-29UPG standard.
On December 31, 2018 the Centre for Military Airworthiness & Certification (CEMILAC) cleared production documentation for the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mk1 in its final operational clearance (but actually limited FOC) standard. On February 20, the first day of the exhibition, the FOC certificate was ceremonially presented to the Air Force Chief, Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa. Since Aero India 2017, the Tejas passed several milestones; successfully launching a Derby air-to-air beyond visual range missile in radar-guided mode on May 12, 2017, and completed aerial refuelling trials in September 2018.
All 16 aircraft ordered in the first batch (manufactured to the initial operational clearance standard approved in December 2013) will be complete by March 2019. That means in FY2018-2019 the HAL facility in Bengaluru will produce eight Tejas aircraft, using the full capacity of the production line’s current capability.
The FOC certificate presented to Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa enables production launch of the second batch of aircraft to FOC standard; the first of them, SP- 21 is due to fly in October 2019. HAL reckons that all 16 Tejas Mk1 FOC aircraft will be complete by March 2020.
To date, the Indian Air Force has placed two orders for the Tejas LCA Mk1: the first placed in 2006 covers 20 IOC standard aircraft, the second placed in 2010 covers 20 FOC standard aircraft. Each batch includes four two-seat trainer variants, which is a problem because the two-seat version has yet to receive its clearance and the reason why each of the two orders actually covers just 16 jets.
Aircraft built in the first IOC production batch are being assigned to the 45 Squadron ‘Flying Daggers’, formed in June 2016 at Bengaluru, and from July 2018 redeployed to Air Force Station Sulur; 18 Squadron will form and use the FOC standard aircraft.
Chasing export orders, the Tejas was expected to be demonstrated at the LIMA 2019 show in Langkawi, Malaysia as part of the bid for the Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia’s 36-aircraft fighter programme; this the second overseas demonstration after the 2016 Bahrain International Air Show. Other potential customers are Sri Lanka and Vietnam.
In November 2016, India’s Defence Acquisition Council accepted the purchase of 83 LCA fighters in the improved Mk1A standard (including ten two-seat trainers); in December 2017 the Indian Ministry of Defence issued the relevant acceptance of necessity declaration, but the order is still awaiting technical clearance from the Indian Air Force. During Aero India 2019, HAL Chairman and Managing Director, R Madhavan expressed hope that a firm order for Mk1A aircraft would be signed in one or two months, and the first aircraft would be complete in 2022.
Fulfilment of the entire 83-aircraft order would be complete within 3-4 years for which HAL would launch another Tejas assembly line at Bengaluru, allowing the production rate to increase from eight to 16 aircraft per year. Further in to the future the production rate could attain 24 aircraft per year. India’s government assigned INR 13.81 billion for the programme as early as March 2017.
Uttam AESA radar
In accordance with Indian Air Force requirements, the Tejas Mk1A modification, retaining the present airframe and engine, will be fitted with an active electronically scanned antennae radar, new beyond-visual range air-to-air missiles, a jamming system with an integral warning sensor and a pod-mounted jammer, and aerial refuelling capability. Maintenance is to be facilitated thanks to easier access to the aircraft systems and interchangeable modules. Some of the improvements, including the maintenance aspects and aerial refuelling capability are already complete.
Ambiguity associated with the modification programme concerns the AESA radar and missile. Current Tejas fighters are equipped with Israeli systems; a mechanically scanned, slotted-array Elta EL/M- 2032 radar and I-Derby extended range beyond visual range missiles (as well as the smaller Israeli Python 5 and Russian R-73E air-toair missiles).
In December 2018, HAL signed a contract with Israeli company Elta for EL/M-2052 AESA radars, and a selfprotection pod for the Tejas Mk1A.
Selection of the EL/M-2052 was based on a lower price; this type of radar will also be fitted to upgraded Indian Air Force Jaguars, and will be produced in India by an Indian- Israeli joint venture. So what about problems? MBDA’s Meteor missile is an important stick for the Indian Air Force to acquire, but MBDA is denied the ability to integrate the Meteor missile on an aircraft fitted with a non-European radar.
However, India’s Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) showed another option at Aero India 2019: aircraft KH2012 (LSP-2, the second limited series production aircraft) fitted with an indigenous Uttam AESA radar. MBDA is cleared to integrate the Meteor missile with the Uttam, a system made by the Electronics and Radar Development Establishment (LRDE), a part of DRDO.
Aircraft KH2012 was also loaded with two Brahmos-NG air-tosurface missiles. Weighing 1,400kg (3,086lb), this next generation missile, previously referred to as the Brahmos-M or Mini, is a down-sized version of the original Brahmos-A suitable for a small fighter such as the Tejas. It’s big sister, the Brahmos-A has a range of 320 nautical miles (600km), a terminal speed of Mach 2.5 and weighs 2,550kg (5,622lb); the first air launch of a Brahmos-A missile was fired by a Su-30MKI on November 22, 2017.
Right now, Brahmos-NG is a mock-up, but judging by Indian Air Force demand, and a moderate level of complexity in manufacturing, the Brahmos-NG missile is likely to be built. Nota bene, this year’s variant of the missile differs from the one previously displayed in the shape of its wing: originally the Brahmos-NG had a two-piece wing but the latest mock-up features an X-wing similar to the type used on the Brahmos-A.
Medium weight fighter
India’s Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), the government agency responsible for designing the Tejas, showed models of two new versions, one for the Air Force and one for the Navy; both differ from the previously shown Mk2 models.
The variant for the Air Force, previously known as the LCA Mk2, has been renamed the Medium Weight Fighter (MWF) to reflect its 30% weight increase in comparison with earlier versions of the LCA Mk1.
The MWF will be powered by the higher-thrust GE Aviation F414- INS6 engine and will be capable of carrying a much heavier weapons payload. A new element of the MWF configuration are coupled canard fore planes, absent in the earlier LCA Mk2 design. Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa said earlier that the Indian Air Force is willing to have 12 MWFequipped squadrons: a fleet of over 200 fighters.
The future naval carrier-based variant, the LCA Navy Mk2, also has a new configuration. As early as December 2009, a decision was made that the initial LCA Navy Mk1 version would only be used for testing and pilot training and not for carrier-borne operations. To date, two LCA Navy Mk1 prototypes have completed over 150 test flights, including 18 ski-jump take-offs, but no arrested landings because tail hook integration and landing gear strength tests have yet to be completed.
Currently the Indian Navy is running the MRCBF programme to meet its requirement for 57 carrier-borne fighters which will complement its fleet of 45 Russian MiG-29Ks. Nevertheless, the Navy continues to fund development work on the LCA Navy Mk2 aircraft, whose design is to be revised to optimize structure and weight, and improve aerodynamics. A model of the new LCA Navy Mk2 shown at Aero India 2019 featured two small tail plane surfaces fitted on the lower part of the engine nacelle but the leading-edge vortex controllers, previously mounted in the wing roots, have been removed.
India’s ADA is also working yet another future fighter; the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). Models of the AMCA shown at Aero India 2019 did not differ from those displayed at previous editions of the exhibition, but more information about the programme appeared.
ADA Combat Aircraft Programme Director, Girish Deodhare claimed that four AMCA prototypes with provisional F414 engines would be completed and undergo testing “in about seven years” following which the up-scaled production version equipped with new, yet-to-be developed, higher-thrust engines would be developed.
However, India’s next-generation fighter programme might be subjected to major transformations, because the Ministry of Defence is closely linking AMCA to the current 114-aircraft MRFA programme. This means the winner of the MRFA competition would be invited to participate in the AMCA programme further in the future. This might be the primary reason why the Russian Su-35 has entered the MRFA competition. The previous cooperative Russian-Indian nextgeneration fighter, the Perspective Multirole Fighter (PMF) or Fifth- Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) project based on the Su-57 seems to have been terminated. When asked about a new-generation fighter, Air Force Chief Dhanoa did not even mention the FGFA preferring to only discuss the AMCA. At Bengaluru HAL Chairman and Managing Director R Madhavan described the Russian-Indian FGFA project as deferred.
Centre stage of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited hall was occupied by a Dhruv helicopter adapted for ship-based operations with folding rotor blades and tail boom to enable stowage in ship hangars. With rotor blades and tail boom folded, the helicopter’s dimensions are reduced; the length from 15.85m (52ft) to 13.5m (44ft 3in); rotor diameter/width from 13.2m (43ft 4in) to 3.5m (11ft 6in); and the height from 5.06m (16ft 7in) to 4.2m (13ft 9in).
According to HAL, the helicopter can be armed with torpedoes, missiles, and depth charges, and fitted with additional navigation and communication equipment. HAL displayed the naval version at Aero India to promote Dhruv as a suitable contender for the Naval Utility Helicopter (NUH) programme, intended to replace the Navy’s vintage Chetak helicopters.
Production of two basic versions, the utility Dhruv Mk III and attack Mk IV Rudra, continues at the HAL Helicopter Complex in Bengaluru. On February 12, India’s Ministry of Defence issued an expression of interest document inviting Indian and foreign manufacturers to submit bids for the production of 111 NUH helicopters (16 by an OEM and 95 by an IPA) under the Strategic Partner procurement model. The request for proposals is likely to be issued later this year.
Nota bene, two years ago the centre stage of the HAL stand was occupied by a full-scale mock-up of the 13-tonne Indian Multi-Role Helicopter (IMRH), which this year was relegated to a poster inside the exhibition hall; the IMRH is suspended awaiting further decisions.
Two prototypes of the singleengine Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) made their maiden flight since Aero India 2017; PT2 (registration ZJ-4630) on May 22, 2017 and PT3 (ZK-4640) on December 14, 2018. Aircraft PT1 (ZG-4620), the first prototype made its maiden flight on September 6, 2016. All three appeared at this year’s exhibition.
One of the prototypes piloted by Unni Pillai and Anil Bhambhani climbed to 19,685ft (6,000m) at Bengaluru on December 7, 2018; a high service ceiling is one of the critical requirements for every Indian military helicopter.
Speaking at the exhibition, HAL Chairman and Managing Director, R Madhavan said by February 2019 the three LUH prototypes had logged 170 flight hours and that the flight test programme and operational clearance would be completed in September 2019.
HAL is self-funding LUH development, hoping for orders from the Indian Army and Air Force to replace their respective vintage Cheetah and Chetak helicopters. HAL claims it has “an in-principle order” for 187 LUHs; 126 for the Army and 61 for the Air Force. LUH production is expected to be launched at a new facility at Tumakuru 75km (47 miles) from Bengaluru.
HAL’s LUH has a rival: Russia’s Kamov Ka-226T. This little cab will be produced in India under an intergovernmental agreement; the Russians will deliver 60 helicopters and a further 140 will be produced in Bengaluru by an Indian-Russian joint venture. However, with a current Indian requirement for 485 light helicopters, there is a place for both the Ka-226 and the LUH.
Russia has already announced its intent to submit the Ka-226T as its contender for the NUH programme.
Progress in the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) programme during the last couple of years has been minimal; other than the four prototypes no new helicopters have been built; three prototypes appeared at Aero India 2019. Armament and fire control system tests are still in progress; the biggest achievement was a successful firing of an air-to-air missile against a moving aerial target on January 11, 2019.
India’s Defence Acquisition Council approved procurement of an initial batch of 15 limited series production LCH helicopters some years ago, but there is no formal contract yet.
The Light Combat Helicopter is fitted with the same engine and rotor system as the Dhruv, but features a new narrow fuselage with tandem crew seat configuration. LCH armament and its targeting system are adaptions of the systems equipping the Rudra; the armed version of the Dhruv ALH MkIV in production and in service with the Indian Army since February 2013.
According to Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa, the Indian Air Force’s fleet of Avro HS748 transport aircraft will be replaced by 56 Airbus C295 aircraft, and contract negotiations are nearing completion. Airbus will deliver 16 aircraft from its Seville, Spain production plant, with the remaining 40 produced in India at a production facility run by a joint venture between Airbus and Tata Aerospace and Defence. One C295, a Portuguese Air Force-operated C295MPA Persuader, was at the exhibition.
Another contender was present: Antonov’s An-132D. Despite the unlikely reversal of the Indian Ministry of Defence’s selection of the C295, the An-132 is a likely contender for the future replacement programme for An-32 aircraft. Antonov test pilots flew incredible flight demonstration routines at the show, including manoeuvres untypical for a transport aircraft.
Aero India is traditionally a military exhibition, and despite a 20-year forecast for 1,500 frames with a capacity exceeding 110 passengers, few civilian aircraft are displayed at the exhibition.
One such type, the Saras, India’s first indigenous passenger aircraft designed by the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) at Bengaluru, made a re-appearance at this year’s exhibition.
The first prototype, PT1, flew as early as May 29, 2004, and the second (PT2) in April 2007. After PT2 crashed on March 6, 2009, the Saras programme was suspended; the aircraft proved to be too heavy, and required more powerful engines and improvements to its flight control systems.
NAL resumed the programme in 2016, and the re-designated PT1N prototype featuring new engine nacelles, improved flaps, an improved rudder, and a new cabin environment system made its first post-upgrade flight on January 24, 2018. PT1N was displayed at Aero India 2019.
NAL’s planned production version dubbed the Mk2 will weigh much less, feature an improved flight control system, new avionics, have a 19 seat capacity (compared to 14 on the Mk1) and a pressurized cabin.
The Mk2 will be powered by two PT6A engines providing capability to transport 19 passengers over a range of 430 nautical miles (800km) at an airspeed exceeding 270kts (500km/h).