India overhauls its fighterforce



OCTOBER WAS an important month for India’s flagging air combat capability, with newly installed Indian Air Force (IAF) chief, Air Chief Marshal Rakesh Kumar Singh Bhadauria, promising to acquire additional Sukhoi Su-30MKI and Mikoyan MiG-29 fighters, raising the IAF’s order of battle to 37 fighter squadrons, at least in the medium term.

The month also saw the official handover of the first of the IAF’s 36 Dassault Rafale aircraft in a ceremony in Bordeaux, and in September, the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) completed a ski-jump take-off and arrested landing, demonstrating its carrier launch and recovery capability.

Additional fighters

Air Chief Marshal Bhadauria assumed office on September 30, 2019, becoming the 26th Chief of the IAF. Only days after taking on the role, he told local media the Indian government will buy an additional 12 Su-30MKIs to replace aircraft lost in accidents, as well as 21 MiG-29s.

The additional Su-30MKIs will be built in India, by HAL at Nashik and will be attrition replacements to make good losses. According to Indian media reports, HAL will soon complete delivery of the last of 272 Sukhois (50 of which were built in Russia), bringing the number of IAF Su-30MKI squadrons to 13.

The service has three MiG-29 squadrons and the additional 21 aircraft will add a fourth unit, according to the reports. The aircraft have already been built and are in storage in Russia, pending a buyer.

The existing MiG-29 fleet is currently undergoing a mid-life upgrade and Air Chief Marshal Bhadauria has stated that the Su-30MKI fleet will also be upgraded in the near future, with new avionics, precision guided munitions and an enhanced mechanically scanned radar. In addition, 42 Su-30s are currently being upgraded to enable them to use the joint Russian/Indian BrahMos supersonic missile.

India currently has a total of 30 fighter squadrons, against a stated requirement for 42 such units, and Bhadauria’s plans will temporarily close the gap to 37 squadrons by 2025. Compounding the shortfall, however, is the fact that the last IAF MiG-21 squadron is set to disband in 2021, when the aircraft reaches the end of its technical life. Bhadauria also told reporters that the IAF’s six BAE/HAL Jaguar squadrons will be retired in the early 2020s, after plans to re-engine the strike aircraft with modern engines had to be abandoned due to cost and schedule overruns.

On the other side of the ledger, the first IAF Rafales will begin arriving in the first quarter of 2020 and India’s indigenous Tejas LCA programme is overseeing the acquisition of 83 Mk1A aircraft. The country also has a requirement for 114 multirole fighter aircraft, for which Bhadauria says a request for information has been sent to prospective Russian and western fighter manufacturers, with the requirement of forming a strategic partnership to build the aircraft locally.

Further into the future, the Indian government is still planning to acquire a fifth-generation fighter under its Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft programme, which has been given the go-ahead to develop an indigenous solution.

First Rafale handed over

India’s Minister of Defence Rajnath Singh accepted the first of 36 Rafale fighters acquired under a government-to-government deal in Bordeaux on October 8, 2019. The aircraft will be retained in France to support training of IAF Rafale crews, before being delivered to India, together with the next three aircraft, in April or May 2020. All 36 aircraft are scheduled to be delivered by September 2022.

Speaking at the ceremony, held at Dassault’s manufacturing facility at Merignac, Singh said: “In India today it is Dussehra, the festival where we celebrate victory over evil. It is also the 87th Indian Air Force Day.”

The Indian government signed the Rafale contract on September 23, 2016, and an IAF project monitoring team arrived in France in August 2017 to oversee acquisition of the 36 aircraft.

The IAF will form two Rafale squadrons, the first of which will be based at Ambala Air Force Station, south of Chandigarh in northwest India. A second squadron will stand up at Hasimara in West Bengal.

On September 9, 2019, Indian media reports suggested the first Rafale unit will be 17 Squadron ‘Golden Arrows’, which had previously operated the MiG-21 before disbanding in 2016. First formed in 1951, the unit is significant in that it was commanded by the IAF’s outgoing chief, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, during the Kargil War between India and Pakistan in Kashmir in May to July 1999.

Tejas LCA cats and traps

The first prototype of the Indian Navy’s Tejas Mk1 Light Combat Aircraft (LCA Naval Prototype 1) performed its first arrested landing, at its shore-based test facility at INS Hansa in Goa on September 14, 2019, according to the country’s Ministry of Defence.

Indian Air Force Su-30MKIs in Australia during Exercise Pitch Black 2018. Nigel Pittaway

The achievement was bettered on September 29, 2019, when the naval variant of India’s indigenous LCA programme demonstrated a ski-jump take-off and arrested landing during the same flight at INS Hansa.

According to the Indian Ministry of Defence, the second naval prototype 3002 (c/n NP-2) launched off the facility’s ski ramp at 16:21hrs local time, before successfully trapping ten minutes later at 16:31hrs.

The Ministry of Defence said: “While both these activities have been achieved individually earlier, this was the first occasion when the complete launch and recovery necessary for aircraft carrier operations was accomplished in a single sortie.”

The Ministry says the successful test paves the way for testing aboard India’s aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya in the future, adding: “Being a pioneering technology acquisition and demonstration programme for the unique short take-off but arrested recovery concept of operations, the LCA [Navy] team has had to conceptualise and experiment with complex software modes from a clean slate. All this had to be done while tentatively exploring and incrementally expanding the structural capabilities of the aircraft to withstand the brutal requirements of carrier operation.”