The customary press conference given by the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) of the Indian Air Force (IAF) every year on October 5 on the eve of Air Force Day (which falls on October 8) by and large targets contemporary issues on the state of airpower in the subcontinent and the more glamorous and glitzy issues regarding the IAF’s on-going force modernisation efforts and future plans. However, issues regarded as ‘esoteric’ by the mainstream ‘desi’ media in India are very rarely raised and explored, primarily due to their lack of knowledge about various subject matters.
Take, for instance, the on-going confusion concerning the Tejas Mk1 multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA). During the IAF CAS’ press-conference, one was simply aghast at the lack of basic knowledge on the part of the band of ‘desi’ journalists who were unable to draw distinctions between ‘Certificate of Airworthiness’ (CofA)—also erroneously referred to by the ‘desi’ journalsists as IOC-1/IOC-2—and ‘squadron-level Full Operational Capability (FOC)’. It should have been evident to all that since the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) Centre for Military Airworthiness & Certification (CEMILAC) hasn’t even reached the stage of awarding the Tejas Mk1 a CofA, therefore the FOC issue doesn’t even arise. In order to acquire the CofA, the Tejas Mk1 has to demonstrate its maximum angle-of-attack (AoA) in fully loaded configuration, something that has not yet been demonstrated. Furthermore, the RAFAEL-built Derby BVRAAM has yet to be test-fired from Tejas Mk1, nor has the RecceLite pod been integrated. It is now expected that by September 2013 all these pending tasks will be concluded. The LSP-series of Tejas Mk1—specifically LSP-2, LSP-3, LSP-4, LSP-5, LSP-7 & the yet-to-be-delivered LSP-8—are presently being used for flight certification/weapons qualification purposes only by both the Aeronautical Development Agency’s (ADA) National Flight Test Centre (NFTC) and the IAF’s Aircraft & Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE). Two other LSP aircraft—LSP-4 and LSP-5—built to comply with the IAF’s specifications for the ‘Tejas’ Mk1—have been located at the NFTC for realising the flight certification/weapons qualification objectives. Of these, only LSP-7 and LSP-8 along with the tandem-seat PV-5 are being used only by ASTE for drafting the Tejas Mk1’s flight operations and maintenance manuals, an exhaustive process that is expected to be completed by mid-2013. For achieving CofA, LSPs 7 and 8 are now being subjected to a tedious certification-cum-flight envelope extension process that will involve field-tests for each and every component and validation of their performance parameters, such as drop-tank ejection, stores integration and ejection, airframe flutter, pitot tube performance, airborne fire-control radar’s modes of operation, and robustness of the digital, quadruplex fly-by-wire flight control system, navigation-and-attack system, stores management system, and the defensive aids suite. Also explored are the aircraft’s ability to sustain increased g-force levels, higher AoA, and improved instantaneous and sustained turn rates.
Only after all this is completed will the initial 20 SP-series aircraft (16 single-seaters and four tandem-seaters) will begin being inducted into service by the IAF. The first two production-standard aircraft--SP-1 and SP-2—were due to be handed over to IAF by July 2012, with SP-3 and SP-4 following by the year’s end, but SP-1 and SP-2 are now only expected by the year’s end. These four SP-series Tejas Mk1s, powered by GE-built F404-IN20 turbofans, will be deployed at Gwalior with the IAF’s Tactics & Combat Development Establishment (TACDE) by mid-2014 and will be used for articulating the Tejas Mk1’s tactics for operational employment in both air combat and precision ground-strike. This process will last till late-2015. In the meantime, the IAF’s No45 ‘Flying Daggers’ Sqn—presently located at Naliya AFS, flying MiG-21 Bisons, and part of 12 FBSU—would have received all its 20 Tejas Mk1s (from the SP-series) by late-2015 from the MoD-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and by late-2016 the squadron will attain full operational capability. The 20 SP-series Mk1s will thus be the final production-standard aircraft that will be part of the IAF’s operational fleet of frontline combat aircraft. The IAF-specific LSPs will then become the property of ASTE. As of now that’s how the timetable stands. For the IAF-specific Tejas Mk1 the LSPs 7 and 8 are due to be tweaked and fine-tuned by both the NFTS and ASTE, after which the SPs 1/2/3/4 will give the TACDE the much-needed hands-on experience for devising operational squadron-level combat employment tactics. The Navy-specific NP-1 prototype will, however, require more structural refinements with the help of inputs from highly experienced ex-US Navy aviators/engineers from the Naval Air Systems Command at Patuxent River, who have been hired as private consultants.
The there is the issue concerning the IAF’s combat aircraft fleet modernisation. According to the IAF’s CAS, Air Chief Marshal Norman Anil Kumar Browne, barring the 63 MiG-29UPGs, all other existing MiG-21 and MiG-27M variants will be decommissioned from service by 2017. For the record, the MiG types that have already been decommissioned include the 205 MiG-21FL Type-77s (acquired between March 1965 and 1972) that were decommissioned by 2006, 158 MiG-21M Type-88s (acquired between February 1973 and November 1981), 150 MiG-21bis Type-75s that were acquired between 1977 and 1984, 95 MiG-23BNs that served between January 1980 and March 2009, 46 MiG-23MFs that served between July 4, 1983 and March 20, 2007, and 10 MiG-25Rs (8 MiG-25Rs and 2 MiG-25Us) that served between August 1981 and May 2006.
The ones still in service include 123 MiG-21 Bisons, about 30 MiG-21M Type 96s, less than 20 MiG-21U Type 69Bs, 40 MiG-27UPGs, 105 MiG-27Ms and less than 10 MiG-23UBKs. Their present dispositions are as follows:
Ambala AFS: 7 Wing’s 3 Cobras sqn with MiG-21 Bison
Hashimara AFS: 16 Wing’s 222 Tigersharks sqn with MiG-27M and MiF-23UBK
Jodhpur AFS: 32 Wing’s 10 Winged Daggers sqn, 29 Scorpions sqn & 37 Panthers sqn with MiG-27UPG, 32 Thunderbirds sqn with MiG-21 Bison
Kalaikunda AFS: 5 Wing’s 18 Flying Bullets sqn with MiG-27M
Pathankot AFS: 18 Wing’s 26 Warriors sqn with MiG-21 Bison, 108 Hawkeyes sqn with MiG-21M Type 96
Naliya AFS: 12 FBSU’s 45 Flying Daggers sqn with MiG-21 Bison (due to convert to Tejas Mk1s after re-locating to Sulur in Coimbatore in future) & 101 Falcons sqn with MiG-21M Type 96
Srinagar AFS: 1 Wing’s 51 Sword Arms sqn with MiG-21 Bison
Phalodi/Suratgarh AFS: 35 Wing’s 23 Panthers sqn with MiG-21 Bison
Most of the MiG-21 Bison and MiG-27M squadrons will, by 2016, be converting to the Su-30MKI. The dispositions of the present-day inventory of 162 Su-30MKIs are as follows:
Bareilly AFS: 15 Wing’s 8 Eight Pursoots (since mid-2007) & 24 Hunting Hawks sqns with Su-30MKI (since late 2003, and since early 2009 four of its Su-30MKIs have been tasked with strategic reconnaissance along the Sino-Indian LAC with EL/M-2060P SAR pod)
Bhatinda AFS: 34 Wing’s 17 Golden Arrows sqn with Su-30MKI since June 2012
Chabua AFS: 14 Wing’s 102 Trisonics sqn with Su-30MKI since March 8, 2011
Halwara AFS: 34 Wing’s 220 Desert Tigers sqn with Su-30MKI since September 25, 2012
Jodhpur AFS: 32 Wing’s 31 Lions sqn with Su-30MKI since October 1, 2011
Pune/Lohegaon AFS: 2 Wing’s 20 Lightnings sqn (since September 27, 2002) & 30 Rhinos sqn with Su-30MKI (since March 21, 2005)
Tezpur AFS: 11 Wing’s 2 Winged Arrows sqn with Su-30MKI since June 15, 2009
The above squadrons will in future be joined by:
Bhuj AFS: 27 Wing’s 15 Flying Lancers Sqn to begin converting to Su-30MKI in December 2012 and four Su-30MKIs will be tasked with strategic reconnaissance along the India-Pakistan borders with EL/M-2060P SAR pod
Sirsa AFS: 45 Wing’s 21 Ankush sqn (now with MiG-21 Bisons, will convert to Su-30MKI by the year’s end and four of its Su-30MKIs will be tasked with strategic reconnaissance along the India-Pakistan borders with EL/M-2060P SAR pod
Kalaikunda AFS: 5 Wing’s 18 Flying Bullets sqn will begin converting to Su-30MKI by June 2013
Hashimara AFS: 16 Wing’s 222 Tigersharks sqn will begin converting to Su-30MKI by June 2013
In addition to the above, an all-new Su-30MKI squadron will be raised for deployment to Thanjavur by 2015, and will be followed by the raising of three more Su-30MKI squadrons, leading to a grand total of 17 squadrons equipped with Su-30MKIs.
When it comes to deciding the fate of its flying training aircraft assets, the IAF is now between the devil and the deep-blue sea due to two reasons: the need to find a viable excuse for shelving the need for an intermediate jet trainer (IJT); and the pressing requirement for a lead-in fighter trainer (LIFT). The IJT was a valid requirement for as long as the IAF was devoid of a basic turboprop trainer (BTT). Now that the 75 Pilatus PC-7 Mk2 BTTs are due for arrival by next year (and will hopefully be followed by 106 HAL-developed HTT-40 BTTs), there is an urgent need for restructuring the IAF’s three-stage pilot training curriculum, which ideally ought to comprise Stage-1 on the BTTs, Stage-2 on the 123 Hawk Mk132 advanced jet trainers, and culminate in Stage-3 on a new-generation LIFT. It is therefore high time that the IAF’s IJT requirement for 12 LSP-standard HAL-developed HJT-36s and 73 SP-standard HJT-36 is given a quick burial, with HAL being allowed to continue developing the single-engined HJT-36 for exports markets only. The HJT-36 was due for receiving its CofA in July 2011, followed by service induction by June 2012. HAL, however, has so far missed all such deadlines, since the HJT-36’s flight-control logic, engine performance parameters (of the NPO Saturn-built AL-55I turbofan), certified weight envelopes, and in-flight stall and spin characteristics all await validation. Even though HAL has built four flyable AL-55I-powered HJT-36s, arrival of the CofA is not expected for at least another two years.
The most urgent need-of-the-hour, however, is for at least 60 LIFTs, for which the tandem-seat operational conversion variant of the Tejas Mk1 powered by a F404-GE-IN20 turbofan is the obvious choice. This is because the IAF does not possess the kind of LIFT that is required for training two-man aircrew teams that are required for the steadily expanding Su-30MKI fleet and in future will also be required for the initial 40 tandem-seat Rafale M-MRCAs and 48 FGFAs. This is a huge flying training void that needs to be filled ASAP. The Hawk Mk132, being only an AJT meant for training rookie pilots (destined for frontline single-seat combat aircraft) the art of mission management in a glass cockpit environment, is clearly not up to the task of LIFT-related flying training. The transonic Hawk Mk132 is thus used for empowering a trainee pilot for flying single-seat air combat aircraft. That is why the Hawk Mk132’s tandem-seat cockpit has been designed to accommodate only a pilot and his/her flight instructor, and not the pilot and weapon systems operator (WSO). A LIFT, on the other hand, is configured to accommodate the pilot and his/her WSO. Presently, there is no dedicated airborne platform available to the IAF for training pilot/WSO teams to undertake interleaved cockpit taskings and consequently, all such training has to be carried out on actual Su-30MKIs (and in future on the tandem-seat versions of the Rafale and FGFA), which will only reduce the total technical service lives of these operational combat aircraft. Therefore, just as the USAF employs its T-38s for training pilot/WSO teams destined for the F-15Es, the IAF requires a tandem-seat Tejas Mk1 configured as a LIFT (capable of accommodating the pilot/WSO team and also being fitted with a low-cost AESA-MMR and IRST sensor), as opposed to just a tandem-seat Tejas Mk1 operational conversion trainer that can only house the pilot undergoing operational conversion to the single-seat Tejas Mk1, plus his/her flight instructor. Given the fact that AESA-MMR-equipped aircraft like the Super Su-30MKI, Rafale and FGFA will all be capable of interleaved aircrew operations/taskings, logic demands that the IAF acquire a fleet of LIFT-configured Tejas Mk1 tandem-seaters as well.
Control Of Rotary-Winged Assets
Coming now to the issue concerning the Indian Army’s longstanding demand (since 1986) for raising its own integral fleets of dedicated attack helicopters, helicopter-gunships and armed medium-lift utility helicopters, ACM Browne revealed on October 5 that while in May 2011 the IAF had offered to surrender its sovereignty over dedicated attack helicopters, this was not acceptable to the Army, which at that time also insisted on raising its integral Combat Aviation Brigades (for conducting vertical envelopment air-assault operations) equipped with armed medium-lift utility helicopters—something which the IAF objected to. In the IAF CAS’ own words, “We can't have these little air forces growing and doing their own things”. When asked why the IAF unilaterally renounced its custodianship of attack helicopters, his response was that attack helicopters have a dual-role and are used not just for destroying armoured vehicles, but also for taking down enemy combat aircraft, helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).
In making such remarks, what the IAF’s CAS highlighted was his own ignorance about what is transpiring in India’s immediate neighbourhood. For instance, in neighbouring Pakistan, it is the Army’s Aviation Corps that has as its integral assets the fleets of AH-1S HueyCobra helicopter gunships, AS.350B3 armed light observation helicopters and Mi-171 medium-lift utility helicopters. In China, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) already boasts of five helicopter-based ‘Cavalry Brigades’, with another nine in the pipeline. Each such Brigade comprises a Battalion of 16 Z-9WE attack helicopters, a Battalion of 16 medium-lift Mi-171/Mi-17V-5 utility helicopters, and a Battalion of 16 Z-8WG heavylift helicopters. These Cavalry Brigades, attached to the PLA’s Highland Mechanised Infantry Divisions of the Chengdu and Lanzhou Military Regions (MR), are employed as Corps reconnaissance and screening forces, provide flank protection, and act as air-assault forces to seize high-value targets in cooperation with Division-sized formations (hailing from the PLA Air Force’s 15th Airborne Army) equipped with ZBD-03 tracked airborne infantry combat vehicles. Such Integrated Battle Groups (IBG) are specifically tasked to fight as independent battle groups on mountainous and urban terrain of the type prevalent in Xinjiang and Tibet. In one such exercise conducted in early June 2011, a Group Army of the Lanzhou MR for the very first time carried out a synchronised combined arms exercise in three different areas of northwest China. In Tengri Desert, a special operations detachment on board armed Mi-17V-5s penetrated into the enemy’s rear, while in the hinterland of the Qilian Mountains, a mechanised formation with its integral field artillery assets passed through a minefield and carried out a combined arms assault. By the Weishui River, a Brigade of the 2nd Artillery Corps fired its NLOS-BSMs in support of Corps-level offensive ground campaigns.
The Indian Army’s in-house think-tanks, which after OP Parakram in 2002 have been hard at work aimed at turning the lumbering Army into an agile, lethal, versatile and networked force capable of matching the PLA’s on-going force-modernisation efforts through re-organisation, restructuring, force development and relocation (all these being based on 13 transformation studies carried out so far), had by 2011 come up with a firm plan whose five main elements were:
1) Creation of integral Combat Aviation Brigades (CAB) for each of its three Strike Corps and 10 Pivot Corps over a 15-year period between (2007-2022), with each CAB attached to the Strike Corps comprising two squadrons each with 12 attack helicopters, one squadron with 10 ‘Rudra’ helicopter-gunships (for tactical battle reconnaissance and casualty evacuation) and five single-engined light observation helicopters. The CABs attached to the Pivot Corps were to comprise two squadrons with 24 ‘Rudra’ helicopter-gunships and one squadron of 15 Mi-17V-5 helicopters configured for Battalion-level armed air-assaults and casualty evacuation.
2) Raising of a rapid-deployment ‘Airmobile Division’ (this being the 54th Infantry Division), an idea that was first mooted by the Indian Army in 1986, and has since been further fine-tuned to now include the existing 50th Independent Parachute Brigade (making use of the IAF’s fleet of strategic transportation aircraft like the IL-76MD, C-17A Globemaster III and even C-130J-30s) and an existing Infantry Brigade converted into a quick-reaction Air-Assault Brigade.
3) Raising four new Mountain Divisions to add to the 10 existing ones, which would result in 10 of the 14 Mountain Divisions being China-specific (these including the 2 Mtn Div in Dinjan, 5 Mtn Div in Tenga, 17 Mtn Div in Gangtok, 20 Mtn Div in Rangiya, 27 Mtn Div in Kalimpong, 56 Mtn Div in Zakhama, 57 Mtn Div in Leimakhong, and 71 Mtn Div in Missamari, plus two more that are now being raised). The plan also included raising THREE Independent Armoured Brigades (each to be composed of one yet-to-be-raised Mechanised Infantry Regiment and two Armoured Regiments): one in Jammu & Kashmir’s Ladakh region (for the Karu-based 3rd Infantry Division under XIV Corps) to cover the flat approaches from Tibet towards India’s crucial defences at Chushul, and the other in Uttarakhand. The third Independent Armoured Brigade was planned for to supplement the existing sole Armoured Regiment now facing Bangladesh along the Siliguri corridor in West Bengal. Primary mission of this Independent Armoured Brigade was to cover the approaches from Sikkim to the plains due south and one of its Mechanised Infantry Regiment was earmarked for being permanently located on the flat, 17,000-feet-high North Sikkim plateau. Therefore, altogether, six new Armoured Regiments equipped with 348 T-90S MBTs (58 per Regiment, including war-wastage reserves) were to be raised along with three Mechanised Infantry Regiments equipped with BMP-2Ks.
4) Undertaking infrastructure development projects along India’s northern borders at a budgeted cost Rs24,312 crore; with upgrades of storage facilities for ammunition costing another Rs18,450 crore; construction of suitable habitat for soldiers deployed in high-altitude areas like Kargil, Siachen-Saltoro Ridge and Ladakh (which includes insulation, dome and fibre-glass shelters) costing another Rs6,000 crore; and acquiring 23,216 acres of more land in Uttarakhand and constructing helipads at Almora, Banbasa, Dharchula, Dehradun, Dharasu, Charmagaurd, Chhiyalekh, Gunji, Ghatoli, Ghansali, Auli, Haldwani, Pantnagar and Pithoragarh. The infrastructure accretions due for coming up in areas under the Army’s Eastern Army Command was planned to include 5,572 permanent defences and bunkers along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China, as well as major helicopter and UAV hubs at Missamari, Kumbhigram and Lilabari in Assam, and at Pasighat, Ziro and Vijaynagar at a cost of Rs9,243 crore. The idea was to link all these helicopter/UAV hubs with the IAF’s advanced landing grounds (ALG) at Pasighat, Mechuka, Walong, Tuting, Ziro and Vijaynagar in Arunachal Pradesh.
5) Undertaking new all-weather rail-connectivity projects (thereby reducing the Army’s dependence on the IAF for weather-dependent air-maintenance) like Missamari (Assam) to Tawang (Arunachal Pradesh), North Lakhimpur (Assam) to Along (Arunachal Pradesh) and Murkongselek (Assam)-Pasighat (Arunachal Pradesh). To the north, the key rail-connectivity projects envisaged included Jammu-Akhnoor-Poonch, Rishikesh-Karanprayag and Tanakpur-Bageshwar (Uttarakhand).
The above-mentioned plans were also the result of lessons drawn by the Indian Army from the Sumdorong Chu crisis of late 1986. Sumdorong Chu is in the Thagla Ridge area of Kameng District in Arunachal Pradesh from where the 1962 war started. After the Chinese unilateral withdrawal in 1962, Beijing had warned India not to enter certain areas evacuated by them. The routine of India’s small Intelligence Bureau (IB) detachment at Sumdorong Chu that left its border checkpost at Le for collection of salaries and rations was monitored by the PLA’s BDRs. One day in June 1986, when the IB personnel got back to the post after collecting supplies from a point near Nymjang Chu, the main river in North Kameng, they found it taken over by a PLA detachment that had built permanent barracks there and constructed a helipad which was then being used by the PLA’s newly acquired S-70C Black Hawks. This minor incident triggered off what came to be known as the Sumdorong Chu crisis between India and China. The Indian Army immediately retaliated by using the IAF’s newly-acquired Mi-26T helicopters to airlift troops and occupy a parallel ridge, known by the peaks Lurong La, Hathung La and Sulung La. In addition, two forward posts, Jaya and Negi, were set up across the Nymjang Chu river just below the ridge and only 10 metres from a Chinese forward post. At the peak of the Sumdorong Chu crisis in late 1986, three Mountain Divisions of IV Corps were pushed to the McMahon Line in Arunachal Pradesh. Two Divisions were deployed in Kameng District to defend Tawang, and a better part of the third Division was in Lohit District to defend Walong. Tawang was designated as the IV Corps’ vital area, which had to be defended at all costs (as per the political directive). Extremely strong field artillery elements—especially the just-arrived Bofors FH-77Bs, were placed in support of the troops in Tawang. The then COAS, Gen K Sundarji, under OP TRIDENT, ordered airlifting of field artillery ammunition estimated at hundreds of million rupees to be stockpiled in the forward areas. The field artillery units deployed near Tawang commanded the complete zone over which PLA re-enforcements would come in case of a crisis. Gen Sundarji also used the IAF’s new air-lift capabilities (thanks to the IL-76MDs and Mi-26Ts) to land a Brigade in Zimithang, north of Tawang, and a makeshift helicopter-base close to Sumdorong Chu. Indian forces also took up positions on the Hathung La ridge, across the Namka Chu River, where India had faced a humiliating defeat in 1962. By October 1986, eight reinforced Division-sized formations of the PLA hailing from the Chengdu MR, which took up to 20 days to travel non-stop by road from Chengdu via Lhasa, were facing two Indian Mountain Divisions deployed in a holding role to secure Tawang. HQ IV Corps deployed a total of three Mountain Divisions on the line with formations of HQ III Corps acting as reserves. To cater for an escalation of hostilities, vital areas and vital points which form the framework of a border conflict with China received very heavy deployments catering for the entire border length, especially in North Sikkim. However, sensible people in Delhi and Beijing reckoned that nothing worthwhile would come out of the conflict, and the situation was sought to be eased through back-channel diplomacy. Yet, a clear message had gone to China: India had the political will and the military muscle to defend itself. Once OP TRIDENT was completed, Army HQ ordered the then GOC-in-C Eastern Command, Lt Gen V N Sharma, to forcibly evict the PLA garrisons from Sumdorong Chu. This is when the shit hit the fan, as Lt Gen V N Sharma asked Gen Sundarji for instructions on follow-up actions in case the PLA, in retaliation, would decide to employ tactical nuclear weapons. Both Indian Army HQ and the then Govt of India were totally unprepared for this scenario (since India had not yet embarked on a nuclear weaponisation programme) and were therefore faced with an enormous debacle. Consequently, there was no other option for India, but to blink first. Subsequently, liaison channels between R & AW and China’s Ministry for Public Security were activated for arriving at a mutually acceptable de-escalation/draw-down schedule. But Sumdorong Chu was permanently lost to the PLA without even a bullet being fired in anger by India.
Fast-forwarding to the present-day, while it will be highly unreasonable for the Indian Army’s Aviation Corps (AAC) to insist on claiming ownership of all existing utility helicopter assets of the IAF, the past and present-day developments around India’s immediate neighbourhood makes it imperative for the AAC to have its own integral inventories of heavy attack helicopters, helicopter-gunships and utility helicopters (both medium-lift and heavylift) for its projected CABs and the rapid deployment Airmobile Division. It is high time the IAF realised that assets like AH-64Ds, Mi-17V-5s and the LCH will be optimally utilised more by the AAC than by the IAF. As a compromise, the IAF should be allowed to maintain a credible fleet (about 30 units) of FLIR pod-equipped Mi-17V-5s configured for combat search-and-rescue, as well as the 15 heavylift helicopters that ought to be dual-qualified for both high-altitude heavylift utility and special operations missions in support of the IAF’s offensive air-taskings.
(to be concluded)