Everything you always wanted to know about Indian air power, but were afraid to ask: In conversation with Shiv Aroor

 

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Shiv Aroor makes himself familiar with India’s next fighter, the Dassault Rafale

Indian air power is a fascinating, and perplexing, subject. We met up with Indian defence reporter Shiv Aroor to find out more.

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What’s your name and what do you do?  

My name is Shiv Aroor. I’m a journalist based in New Delhi, India. I’m a TV anchor & consulting editor with the India Today Group, where I’ve spent ten years reporting on the military, conflict and the country’s big stories. I’m also editor of Livefist, where I do original reporting on defence and aerospace in India and the neighbourhood. I started Livefist in 2007 when I moved from a newspaper to a television station as a space to continue my writing. The blog became much more popular than I had anticipated and will be, starting April, my principal work. In ten years, Livefist has won two awards.

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What was the greatest news coup of your publication?
Livefist has scooped a number of secret or unknown military programs over the years. I think the biggest, most important coup was my 2010 scoop on India’s AURA UCAV project, a project that wasn’t publicly known to even exist. The report spawned huge interest that continues to this day. We’re proud of our ‘reveal’ list, which includes India’s supersonic Long Range Cruise Missile (LRCM), HAL’s seaplane concept and several other Indian aviation and weapon systems.
The Indian Air Force claims to have a fighter shortage, is this the case and if so, how should they solve it?  
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The Indian Air Force has a legacy ‘sanctioned strength’ of 42 full-ops fighter squadrons, and currently operates a little over 30. The reason I say ‘legacy’ is because that number, defined many decades ago, doesn’t quite take into account higher performance jets eroding the need for larger numbers. You’re inviting problems if the planning-related bean count involves both MiG-21s and Su-30MKIs in the same sweep. It’s a bit of slippery slope. The ‘no replacement for numbers’ theory has some good arguments, but many bad ones — not least inventory and cost. Many of the IAF’s logistics and planning issues probably have a road leading to that inescapable tether around its sanctioned squadron strength. I’ve suggested in the past that the indigenous LCA Tejas should be inducted in large numbers to build an eco-system around the platform and help speed up the replacement of MiG-21 squadrons.


Flying and fighting in the Mirage 2000
here.

Was Rafale the right aircraft for the IAF, and if so, why? 
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The Rafale was a fair distance more than what the IAF had been aiming at in its infamous, self-destructive M-MRCA contest. An effort to acquire large numbers of cheap, light-medium aircraft aircraft spiralled into an inherently fallible toss-up between flagrantly different aircraft, both in terms of capability and cost. It’s a bit of a joke now, but a former IAF chief actually boasted about wanting to patent the selection process the IAF used in the M-MRCA. On the face of it, the IAF loves the Rafale, and is looking forward to operating it. It also fits with the IAF’s expansive air dominance requirements on two fronts with a nuclear undertone. It will also be the first fighter the IAF operates with a smorgasbord of new technologies, including an operational new generation AESA radar. But 36 aircraft is a bit of a nothingburger for both the IAF and France. For the IAF, it’s a complex addition to inventory without numbers that speak economy of scale.

 

Typhoon versus Rafale: the final word here

 

The IAF is much beloved by aviation fans for its diversity of types, but this must be expensive and cause logistical problems. Why does it have more types than similarly sized air forces? 
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A nightmare is what it is. A ‘diversity of types’, as you put it, is possibly the nicest way you could describe it. The IAF is saddled with more types than it can handle optimally given budgetary, man-hour and other constraints. This ‘diversity of types’ is thanks to a number of historic factors: Diplomatic pressures (did you know the IAF didn’t even want the Su-30MKI?) and periodic political pivoting. Both factors seemingly justified by the unfortunate lack of a credible indigenous fighter program that could deliver on time. While some would argue that the impulse for foreign imports was spurred by the unavailability of a domestic solution, the truth is likely somewhere in the middle. It’s a combination of both, garnished with some astonishing flourishes of bad planning over the years, that has left the IAF with a Christmas Tree of inventory.

What is ‘Make in India’ initiative and how do you think it should proceed? 

Well, the Make In India campaign is a very ambitious, but in my mind necessary, effort towards putting India very seriously on a large-scale manufacturing map. For far too long, India has remained unplugged from global supply chains in sectors where it has enormous potential. Defence happens to be one of them. There’s a long way ahead, and an ocean of inter-warring bureaucracies that come in the way of an efficient roll-out, but it’s trying to make a start. They key is India’s long ignored private sector for complex systems-related defence production. If that doesn’t happen, and soon, this is brochure in the wind.

Is it possible to write about military aircraft in a non-political way? Is there a risk of normalising them by celebrating the amazing technology they include? b9b274ffb08a71a37a2bc6e7730b4cd5

I like to think I write about military aircraft in a non-political way. A lot of terrific aviation writers, (including you Joe) do that, and really well. Appreciating aircraft for what they are is a liberating exercise. And I think you ask a really good question because it really is tremendously difficult to look at aircraft shorn of the politics that come with them. Yes, celebrating the technology they include definitely normalises them, but again, I like to think that for all the political/controversial stuff that goes into aircraft programmes, there’s a lot of space to appreciate the machines they are.
Why does the Indian Government seem to take so long to make military aircraft procurement decisions? 
Easy. Fast decisions in India are generally looked upon with suspicion. This stems from a legacy of slow decisions. And after the Bofors scandal in the 1980s, defence procurement sits is nice and snug at the bottom of the pile. Couple that with a traditionally long-winded bureaucracy and a system that doesn’t place national security spending above party politics, and you have files that don’t move.
 The top ten dogfighting aircraft here

 Does India spend too much or too little or defence?

 Terrific question. India definitely spends enough, but it certainly doesn’t spend it smartly. We still don’t have lean forces, and like other countries with large armed services, spend a colossal amount on salaries and pensions. Budgets for modernisation and acquisition of weapons are frequently returned to the treasury unspent. There are grave overlaps and double-efforts across agencies, a lack of synergy that has a huge attendant cost too.

In terms of training time/flight time/tactics how good are IAF crews?

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 They compare very favourably, in many cases better than a lot of air forces. The IAF cadet navigates a training regimen that’s buffeted by obsolete aircraft and changing doctrine. The IAF also has a pretty substantial shortage of pilots. In terms of tactics, a combination of type diversity and a very long wait outside of real fourth generation tech gives IAF pilots a frequent edge in that adage that applies to all militaries, but especially to India’s — they’ll fight with what they have.

Is the Pakistan Air Force still viewed as the primary notional threat, and if so how do the air forces compare?

No longer. An air war with Pakistan isn’t the aggravating prospect it was in the sixties and seventies. The PAF is very well trained and professional force, but a full-scale air power confrontation of the kinds that took place between India and Pakistan and 1965 and 1971 would be likely end quite badly for Pakistan.

How does the IAF match up against the Chinese air force?

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Like most countries, the Indian military regards their Chinese counterparts with one enduring question: ‘what’s their long term gameplan?’ In terms of a straight bean count, China outclasses the IAF in size and structure. In terms of how things are matched in terms of logistics, deployment and how stretched the PLAAF is in its areas of responsibility near India, the game is a measure more equal. Chinese air power, in my mind, is less of a pressing concern to India than its naval strength.

You may also enjoy 11 Cancelled French aircraft or the 10 worst British military aircraftSu-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II , Su-35 versus Typhoontop WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Flying and fighting in the Tornado. Was the Spitfire overrated?

Which fighter type should the Indian Navy procure? 

 I’m actually in the process of doing a comparison of the aircraft eligible for an Indian Navy deal, so I haven’t really made my mind up yet.

Tejas has a very bad reputation, is it deserved?

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Not all of it, but some, sure. There’s a great deal of propaganda both against and for the Tejas in India — emotive, extreme opinions on the program, ranging from cruel ridicule to flag-wrapped patriotism in favour of an Indian jet. There’s very little sensible, cool-headed assessments of the program. I’ve tracked the Tejas for 13 years. I have to say I’ve swung sharply on the project too. But I’ve maintained right through that the Tejas needs to see squadron service early, with concurrent development. Get it out of development and into flying units. I strongly believe it is a better aircraft than it is reputed to be.

Sukhoi/HAL FGFA – will it happen? Do you think it’s a good idea? 

Anyone looking at the FGFA (it’s called the PMF in India) as a joint programme is kidding themselves. There hiccups right now are probably only an appetizer. Without going to deep into problems with the T-50 itself, HAL will have next to no input on the platform. Any suggestion that it is a partnership is ludicrous. HAL’s license-built Su-30MKIs, the ‘joint’ India-Russian aviation program that comes to mind most obviously, are almost entirely from knocked-down kits. Worse, Indian-built Su-30s are more expensive than units that could have been imported. Net-net, more expensive jets with zero spin-off benefits for HAL’s capabilities, and commitments to operate an enormous fleet that’s hugely expensive to maintain. These are solid aircraft, but that’s one tough deal.

Do you have a favourite aircraft- and if so, why?

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The F-15E Strike Eagle, without a doubt. I played an F-15 game by a company called Microprose on one of those big black floppy disks as a teenager in the early nineties and fell completely in love with the aircraft. Anything I say about why I love the F-15 would come up short. It’s an aircraft that has many associations for me, and as I grew up, was enormously happy to learn that its capabilities and aeronautical elegance fully justified my very unempirical love. I got my first chance to see one in 2005. Let’s just say I’d trade all of the five fighter sorties I’ve done so far for one in an F-15E. I hope Boeing or an operating air force is reading this interview.

What did you think about the cancellation of the recent Russo-Indian transport aircraft? 

Inevitable. And won’t really mean much. There are a plenitude of transport aircraft programs in country. The Make-in-India C295 program between Airbus and Tata to replace the IAF’s Avro HS748s is one. There are other concept aircraft on the drawing board too.
 

What are your thoughts on the HAL AMCA?

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The AMCA is actually a DRDO/ADA concept. HAL will only build it. It’s necessarily ambitious, has a large list of seriously cutting edge target technologies and will be India’s first real crack at a stealth aircraft. Apart from a good centrepiece for meaningful foreign collaborations, I think the AMCA is worth India’s time and money. It’s a good way off, but there’s reason to believe that lessons learnt from the Tejas program will be built into the AMCA, both technologically and in terms of fording pitfalls.

The Su-30 has reputation for poor reliability and maintainability in IAF service- why is this?1373993526321448549

The Su-30 fleet has suffered availability and maintainability problems, forcing the Indian Air Force into a looming upgrade programme. What started off as a deal that didn’t fully lock in Russian support and guarantees is now having to follow up with more contracts to spruce up the fleet. And this is even before all 272 aircraft have been delivered.

I’ve heard wildly differing accounts of the RAF/IAF exercises where Typhoons flew against Su-30s, what is your understanding of this?

The 2015 Indradhanush exercises? The IAF did in fact brief journalists about how they hit that one out of the park in close combat/WVR engagements. I’m not sure we’ll ever know the truth, but I wouldn’t discount either side entirely. Revealing the ‘score’ after an exercise meant to build a joint working ethic as much as bonhomie is a bit of gaffe, so I’m not surprised the RAF reacted the way it did.

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What should I have asked you? 
Which aircraft do I hate the most? The F-111. Only joking…
It would be the P-75 Eagle. It will always be unbelievable to me that the F-15’s namesake predecessor could be such have been such an audacious dud.

 If this interests you, support Hush-Kit.net with a donation (buttons above and below). If this goes well we’ll be able to give you much more! Recommended donation £15. Many thanks for helping to keep us impartial and independent. 

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3 comments

  1. Parshu Narayanan

    You nailed the issues Shiv. Just a tad too polite about our general Incompetence. The one thing I find interesting about the IAF’s muddled doctrine is they believe WSOs to be very necessary – the only other example I can think of is the other IAF – Israel’s – whose later gen F16I Soufas are WSO Two-seaters – aur yehudi Su30MKI se also involved thay.

  2. parsheau

    You nailed the issues Shiv. Just a tad too polite about our general Incompetence. The one thing I find interesting about the IAF’s muddled doctrine is they believe WSOs to be very necessary – the only other example I can think of is the other IAF – Israel’s – whose latest F16 Soufas are WSO Two-seaters – aur yehudi Su30MKI se also involved thay.

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