Indian air power is a fascinating, and perplexing, subject. We met up with leading Indian defence reporter Shiv Aroor to find out more.
Rafale — what is going on?
“Thanks for having me again, Joe. I love Hush-Kit. To your question, not very much other than flight test of the new IAF airframes over at the Istres base in France. The ferocious political storm over the Rafale deal abruptly died with the end of the elections — and tellingly, there are next to no calls for investigations and such. So politically, it’s all quiet. The Ambala AFB not far from Delhi is all prepped now for the arrival of the first jets next month. There’s a handover of the first airframes in France around mid-September, and then they’ll ferry fly to Ambala.”
How many aircraft have been ordered and delivered?
“The first four Rafales will be commissioned into the IAF in France on October 8, with a total of 36 to be delivered in batches till 2022. That’s about two squadrons worth, with one to based at Ambala and the other at Hasimara AFB in the east, facing the Chinese front. There’s reason to believe the Indian government is weighing a French offer for 36 more, though this could be a while away.”
Was the procurement corrupt? Is it being investigated?
“There were very loud allegations of corruption, and plenty of innuendo of crony capitalism, but there has been no proof (certainly not so far) of dirt. The BJP government saw the allegations as politically driven and rode out the storm in the hope that a complex military procurement wouldn’t find traction with millions of India’s voters. As it turned out, they were right. With no proverbial ‘smoking gun’, the government decided that acceding to an investigation would translate into bending to an adversary when there was no need for it. The ‘scandal’ as such went to India’s Supreme Court, and none of the various levels of recourse exercised by the Congress Party and Opposition ever resulted in either tell-tale proof of corruption, not any compelling directives to investigate. It is unlikely that there will be any investigation in the foreseeable future, but as with all things procurement in India, the foreseeable future is a very short time.”
Was Typhoon actually the cheaper aircraft?
“I don’t think it was ever that simple. On the one hand, India’s national auditor poured limitless scorn on the manner in which the Rafale was selected in the first place by a Congress-led government (the party that went on the accuse its successor of a Rafale scam). As I understand the maze of decisions during that time, the ‘cheaper’ Typhoon offer was on the original number of 126 aircraft — the infamous MMRCA contest that crashed and burned, as it were. That higher number would have offered a lower per-airframe rate when compared to the price per Rafale on a deal for 36 aircraft. If my memory serves me, the Indian government never engaged with Eurofighter on a lower number of jets.”
What is Tejas’ status?
“As you probably know, the Tejas began squadron service a few years ago, and the Flying Daggers squadron that flies it is breaking the jets in quite gamely. For all the anticipation and bad blood over years of delays, the squadron has been very pleasantly surprised with the jet. I spent some time with the squadron pilots when I did a back-seat sortie in a Tejas in February. HAL is currently trying to ramp up production to meet the initial order of 40 on the Mk.1. An order for 83 the improved Mk.1A is in the wings, though an actual specimen will likely only begin being tested next year.”
What still needs fixing?
“The Tejas is a nimble, very capable little jet in its class. The thrust, if you will, of the improved Mk.1A will be vastly better (as will) squadron-level maintainability. Even though the baseline Tejas has proven to be far more serviceable than the IAF suspected, the Mk.1A fully addresses the niggles. Several requirements the IAF needs on the Mk.1A have begun being tested. The Mk.1A will be mid-air refuellable, sport an updated internal Radar Warning Receiver (RWR), an external Self Protection Jammer (SPJ) pod and an AESA radar. The IAF has also stipulated that the Tejas Mk.1A needs to be able to fire different types of BVR and close combat air to air missiles. The Tejas has so far fired Vympel R-73 CCMs and a Derby BVR missile. It’ll need to prove itself using the R-77, Python-5 and DRDO Astra too.”
As it stand, is it any good?
“It’s an excellent jet. Apart from the journey to where it is now, I’d believe the men operating it day and night at the squadron in Sulur, and who’ve been tamely taking them abroad and keeping them almost 100% serviceable away from base. The key now is for larger numbers to be inducted faster. HAL has to ramp its production rate up to at least 18-20 a year.”
What is its likely future?
“The future has had a shape for years, though it isn’t clear if the Indian government or IAF can or will pull the trigger on it. The erstwhile Tejas Mk.2, redesignated recently as the canard-fitted Medium Weight Fighter (MWF), broke cover at Aero India 2019. But that’s still a long way off. Tentatively it’s a beefier canard jet concept, up-engined with an F414 to take care of thrust inadequacies on the baseline Tejas. Plenty stands in the way of a decision to sanction the MWF as a formal requirement, not least the experience with the Tejas (ironic, since developers are literally pitching that lessons learned on the Tejas Mk.1/1A will mean the MWF won’t be beset with pitfalls), but also by a budget stretched ludicrously thin even just on proposed combat aircraft purchases.
India-Pakistan air skirmish 2019
As it stands – what is the difference between the story told by the IAF and PAF, and who should be believed?
“We know for certain that an Indian MiG-21 was shot down. There are two other claims — a Pakistani claim that an IAF Su-30 MKI was also shot down, and an Indian claim that a PAF F-16 was shot down. The former is untrue without any doubt. The latter has been suggested by the IAF with ‘proof’ in the form of AWACS battle imagery and the testimony of the MiG-21 pilot officially credited with the kill. But there is no conclusive proof of this. My personal view is that Pakistan lost an aircraft, though I’m wondering if it could have been a JF-17. With no conclusive proof either way, I’m also open to the theory that both the MiG-21 and the PAF jet were brought down by Pakistani ground fire. It’s far harder for the IAF to hide a loss than it is for the PAF — sentiments and emotions aside, Pakistan has proven in the past to be capable of masking military losses of all kinds, including damage to aircraft. The PAF claim of a Su-30 MKI is therefore preposterous across the board. In a fairly pathetic hunt for ‘proof’ of the Flanker kill, the ISPR even put out a 2015 video of 1965 IAF war hero Air Marshal Denzil Keelor speaking of losses in the 1965 war, purporting it be proof of IAF losses in the Feb 2019 air skirmish.”
Who fired what?
“We know Pakistan fired at least one AMRAAM, very likely more. The IAF says its MiG-21 pilot Abhinandan fired a single R-73, and that none of the other jets in the air fired any weapon.”
What are the repercussions of the incident?
“Other than Pakistan closing down its airspace until very recently, and a very high state of aviation alert at forward bases, the skirmish has ensured that elusive normalcy on the frontier is now a virtual impossibility for the foreseeable future. On the nuts and bolts side, the IAF has fast-tracked purchases of weaponry that would have otherwise taken far longer. For instance, the IAF has pushed through buys of more Spice 2000 PGMs and a sizeable package of AAMs from Vympel.”
It has been reported that the IAF is not happy with Russian missiles and is moving towards Western manufacturers, is this true?
“The IAF isn’t unhappy with Russian missiles, but it is definitely true that it is looking at newer generation missiles and believes there’s better technology in the West. There’s been a misconception in some media that India’s purchase of Russian air-to-air missiles recently was a validation of the post-Balakot skirmish. Not really true — the purchase was a top-up in the pipeline anyway. But as I reported on Livefist earlier this year, there’s are firm plans afoot to standardise the ASRAAM across its tactical fleet. This won’t be without hurdles and resistance from a multiplicity of quarters though. For instance, the ASRAAM faces off with the Python on the Tejas platform, and the R-73 on others.”
Has the Su-30 been tested with ASRAAM?
“Integrations are complete. A first test could happen later this year, but as I reported from Moscow recently on Livefist, the Russians aren’t happy at all. The folks over at MBDA acknowledge that the ball is in the IAF’s court on this front, and they’re prepared to help in any way. It will be for the IAF to navigate any diplomatic friction with Moscow to effect the integration, since it erodes Russia’s own package pitch of improved Vympel missiles.”
When will Jaguars get ASRAAM?
“They’ve got them. First test firings scheduled for this year.”
What is happening with indigenous air-to-air missile programmes?
“The Astra missile is swimming along rather well. The missile is in guided test and has orders from the IAF already. The good news is the missile is flying with an Indian seeker, after being guided by a Russian one for the first part of its development. Officers I know on the test team say they’re very pleased with the weapon and see it entering proper user trials next year. The extended range Astra Mk.2 is also now a formally sanctioned project, which is always an affirmation of the Mk.1.
FGFA — dead as a door nail? Definitely dead. India finally acknowledged that it was basically bankrolling a fully Russian development, and the technology spin-offs simply weren’t there. It would have turned out like another Su-30 MKI type agreement. India has said it would be open to considering the Su-57 as a customer once the platform is ready, but I would be very surprised if that ever happened.”
Will India get F-35s and should they?
“I’m going to say that the possibility of F-35s in Indian service has increased quite dramatically in the last three years. The FGFA flying into the ground and a strong, steady, but strictly subterranean pitch of the F-35 over a decade or more is finding takers in the Indian system. Whether this finally results in a procurement is as unclear as anything else in the Indian armament landscape, but the the appeal of a jet like the F-35, especially in the B and C variants definitely stands amplified.”
How many remain in service?
“A little over a 100 MiG-21s remain in service.”
Has the skirmish incident hastened their retirement?
“If anything, the skirmish has burnished the MiG-21’s credentials. The Bison that was at play in the dogfight is officially acknowledged to have performed admirably. I don’t think the skirmish has hastened or delayed their retirement though. They definitely need to go, and the IAF has a set phase-wise draw-down plan.”
Should they be in service now?
“The Bisons can stay on course for the planned retirement dates, which are in a few years. But all other variants ought to be retired immediately, in my opinion. They’ve got no business being in the air anymore — and this is despite a highly professional maintenance force keeping them available. It must be said that the IAF holds on to its MiG-21s also because the inbound pipeline of jets has stood choked for years, with very little sustained force accretion taking place beyond the Su-30s. The LCA Tejas that was meant to augment and replace the MiG-21s have only now started picking up production pace. It’ll be two years before they’re churned out in meaningful enough numbers to consider hastening the retirement of MiG-21s.”
Which future procurement programmes are currently active?
“There’s the Make-in-India multirole fighter contest that seeks to build 114 fighters in country through the Indian government’s highly ambitious and convoluted Strategic Partnership policy. This is widely seen as an MMRCA 2.0, but with the added benefit of even more complexity and hoops to jump through. I highly doubt the contest will take place on the contours currently set out. Political decision-making will most likely guide a quicker decision on this front.”
Is India moving away from Russia as a supplier? If so, why?
“Not nearly. India continues to source a wealth of kit from Russia. Apart from the five S400 Triumf regiments recently contracted amidst a disapproving scowl from the Trump administration, India has plenty of business that’s keeping its channels with Russia nice and warm. It’s on the threshold of ordering a dozen more Su-30 MKI kits for the Indian production line, will likely conclude an order for 21 upgraded MiG-29s from the Lukhovitsy plant by next year and is awaiting finality on the joint venture Indian facility that will manufacture 200 Ka-226T Sergei light helicopters for the Indian military. On another front, the two countries recently inaugurated a facility in north India that will manufacture over 600,000 AK-203 rifles for the Indian Army. Russia is still upgrading India’s old Kilo-class submarines, has been declared a winner in the hard-fought and very lucrative VSHORADS program (the Igla-S has won amidst protest), and is seen as an aggressive contender in the ambitious P75I submarine build program. So, no, not really!”
What is the biggest problem facing the IAF?
“Well, like every other air force, budget. The IAF stands weighed down by financial commitments that strait-jacket it from fresh capital acquisitions. It’s one of the reasons it has run around in circles for desperately needed new generation mid-air tankers, for instance. It’s one of the reasons why the IAF has asked the government for nearly double its assigned budget for the coming year. ”
What is the current carrier air inventory?
“The Indian Navy’s carrier air arm includes a pair of MiG-29K squadrons and a squadron each of Ka-31 for AEW duties, Sea Kings, Chetaks and Dhruvs.”
What are the biggest problems facing naval aviation?
“The Indian Navy’s problems with its MiG-29Ks –both in terms of performance and availability — has forced them to freeze a long-pending decision on its second indigenous aircraft carrier (the first, under construction, will be a STOBAR like INS Vikramaditya). It has decided that this second aircraft carrier will be a flat-top featuring a CATOBAR/EMALS deck configuration. A requirement for 57 aircraft has been suggested by the navy, and is widely being seen as a future battle between the Rafale and F/A-18. A section within the Indian Navy is also rooting for the F-35C, since it would fit the bill as a fitting future platform that will have ‘settled’ into its role by the time the Indian Navy is in a position to take a decision.”
What does it need and what will it get? Does India need aircraft carriers?
“The Indian Navy believes it needs three aircraft carriers -— two for each sea board, with one in refit/maintenance. Personally, I believe the navy’s dollars would be far better spent on more land attack cruise missile/AIP-armed conventional submarines, with a concurrent accelerated effort on the nuclear-powered attack submarine programme. I’m of the opinion that aircraft carriers don’t serve India’s force projection needs any longer. With China’s long legs in the IOR, the fight is definitely below the waterline.”
What is best and worst about the current government’s policies regarding the following?
“Best? A strong emphasis on Make in India that will for the first time hopefully create real advanced aerospace capacity in the country. Worst? Offsets. It’s a self-defeating mess that isn’t being resolved quickly enough. Indian industry is simply unable to absorb the narrow channels of offset requirements mandated by current policy.”
“Best? The government recently announced the creation of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) post. While the contours of the new position remain unclear, the government has basically implemented a recommendation made after India’s last major confrontation with Pakistan in Kargil in 1999. It will lead to better coordination and joint leadership. Worst? A continuing unwillingness to reform and overhaul India’s defence R&D and state-owned industrial establishments.”
What does the Indian media repeatedly get wrong around the subject of air power?
“Apart from photographs of aircraft in their reports? 😀 The Indian media has come a very long way in its reporting of air power, but sometimes continues to see air power within the framework of a tactical setting with immediate objectives rather than as strategic messaging. I don’t for a moment intend to sound sanctimonious — I’m very much part of the media, and I definitely do fall prey to the temptation to oversimplify stories involving air power. This is likely because there is a relatively small appetite for detailed, nuanced journalism on air power. I must add that this has dramatically changed since India’s airstrikes in Pakistan’s Balakot and the air skirmish the following morning.”
What should I have asked you?
Do you ever miss anything, Joe?
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