Airlift Capability of the Indian Air Force

Discussion in 'Indian Air Force' started by arnabmit, Apr 19, 2013.

  1. arnabmit

    arnabmit Homo Communis Indus Senior Member

    Dec 25, 2012
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    Airlift Capability of the Indian Air Force » Indian Defence Review


    In the context of a resurgent and globalised economy, India’s security interests in the future would no longer be confined to its national boundaries or be limited to the region between the Gulf of Aden to the Strait of Malacca but would have even a larger international footprint. Besides, India has entered into a strategic partnership with the lone superpower, the US. The rising status of the nation will surely be accompanied by new responsibilities for maintaining peace and stability in the region or undertake military intervention in different parts of the world either on its own or in collaboration with the strategic partner. Inter-operability of transport forces of the IAF with those of the US Air Force will, therefore, be an important dimension in the plans for modernisation.

    Over the years since its inception, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has evolved both in size and shape in keeping with the demands of national security and the rising status of the nation. However, quite understandably, the thrust of modernisation programmes in the IAF has generally been focused on enhancement of combat capability. This has been achieved through the induction of fleets of new generation top-of-the-line fighter aircraft that fly at higher speeds, have larger operating radii and are equipped with better avionics as also with the most potent aerial weapon systems. And rightly so, as the combat capability of the IAF is a critical and an indispensable component of air power which, in turn, is an important constituent of national military power.

    On the other hand, when compared with the combat fleet, efforts at modernisation in the transport aircraft segment of the IAF have been of a relatively lower order. Since the birth of the IAF, the transport fleet has been strengthened now and then through the acquisition of military transport aircraft from abroad. These included aircraft such as the C47 Dakota, the C119 Fairchild Packet, the Russian AN12 and a few de Havilland DHC4 Caribou from Canada. All these aircraft were in the ‘tactical’ category and many of them were refurbished old airplanes. However, beginning in the 1960s, the IAF inducted a fleet of 64 new Hawker Siddeley HS 748 Avro twin-turboprop transport aircraft of five-tonne payload capacity. Bulk of this fleet was produced indigenously under licence by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) at its facility at Kanpur.

    Although originally designed for civilian use, the Avro was employed by the military as well, essentially to ferry passengers. The intrinsic design of the aircraft was not suited for military tasks such as delivery of para-troopers or air supplies. The Indian version, however, had modified cargo doors for loading of military cargo such as light vehicles and was also used for delivery of para-troops. Though obsolete, the fleet of 50 odd Avro aircraft continues to linger in service with the IAF.

    Later in the mid 1980s, HAL produced the Dornier 228, a twin-turboprop light utility aircraft of 2.3 tonne payload capacity under licence from Dornier GmbH of Germany. This aircraft is currently being used in the IAF for communication duties as also for the training of pilots on transport aircraft.

    Induction of New Fleet

    It was only in the mid eighties that the IAF for the first time acquired true but limited strategic airlift capability by way of induction of a fleet of 17, four-engine IL76 heavy lift aircraft from the Soviet Union under a direct deal with the government. Almost simultaneously, tactical airlift capability of the IAF also received a shot in the arm with the induction of a new and customised fleet of 104 twin-turboprop AN32 medium lift transport aircraft also from the Soviet Union. On account of geo-political reasons, it was not easy to procure military hardware from western sources and as such, the IAF had no option but to rely almost entirely on the Soviet Union for military aircraft which included transport aircraft in the medium and heavy lift category.


    Both the transport fleets i.e. the IL76 and AN32, acquired from the Soviet Union were literally baptised by fire soon after induction. First, it was in Operation Pawan in July 1987 that involved the rapid deployment of No 54 Division of the Indian Army to Sri Lanka on a peace keeping mission. Even more challenging was the military intervention in Maldives the following year, ordered by the Indian government in response to a request from President Gayoom’s government there for assistance against the threat of a coup by external agencies in collaboration with anti-government forces.

    Dubbed as Operation Cactus, two IL76 aircraft operating from the IAF base at Agra delivered 400 para commandos by night some 3,000 km away within 15 hours of the receipt of orders. Operation Cactus which involved landing heavy lift aircraft on a pitch dark night on an unfamiliar airfield that was under threat of being overrun by anti-national forces, was a remarkable feat that could not have been achieved by any means other than strategic airlift capability. The manner in which the task was accomplished clearly demonstrated two distinct attributes of strategic airlift aircraft i.e. reach and the capability of swift response.


    However, Operation Pawan and Cactus were not the first or only occasions on which the transport fleet of the IAF had been called upon for military intervention. The first time that the IAF carried out such a critical operation in response to an emergency was on October 27, 1947, to save the valley of Kashmir. The aircraft employed then were the fleet of C47 Dakota affectionately called the “Gooney Bird”.

    India – a Regional Power

    India is now emerging as a regional power and has legitimate aspirations to grow to the status of a superpower in the years to come. In the context of a resurgent and globalised economy, India’s security interests in the future would no longer be confined to its national boundaries or be limited to the region between the Gulf of Aden to the Strait of Malacca but would have even a larger international footprint.

    Besides, India has entered into a strategic partnership with the lone superpower, the US. The rising status of the nation will surely be accompanied by new responsibilities for maintaining peace and stability in the region or undertake military intervention in different parts of the world either on its own or in collaboration with the strategic partner. Inter-operability of transport forces of the IAF with those of the US Air Force will therefore be an important dimension in the plans for modernisation.

    In the execution of these responsibilities, the Indian armed forces will be called upon to project power which invariably would involve airlift of large military forces to areas of interest in any part of the world as also to provide prolonged logistic support. Therefore, in future, a major responsibility of the IAF is expected to be in the area of strategic airlift. In addition to commitments in the region or other parts of the world, the requirement for the movement of a large body of security forces, military, para-military and police, within the country for deployment on short notice, is also likely to increase. There would also be growing demand for additional tasks such as Special Operations and deployment of quick reaction forces both within and outside the country.

    Modernisation of the Transport Fleet

    Since 1947, the transport fleet of the IAF has undoubtedly come a long way. However, practically the whole of the transport fleet currently on the inventory of the IAF, bulk of which was inducted in the mid 1980s, has been overtaken by obsolescence and is fast approaching the end of its total technical life. There is, therefore, an urgent need for its replacement with the most modern platforms to build up new capabilities literally from scratch for the new challenges that the nation will be called upon to face in the future. With this objective in view, today the IAF has embarked on a major drive towards modernisation of the transport fleet. But this time round, on account of the radically altered geopolitical environment, the IAF has options other than that of being tethered to the traditional Russian source to acquire military hardware. The IAF quite understandably, ought to opt for the most advanced technologies that it can access within the limits of affordability.


    The most important deal to be finalised in the recent past has been the $4.1 billion (Rs 22,550 crore) order for ten four-engine C-17 Globemaster III heavy lift aircraft manufactured by Boeing Defense, Space & Security. Being acquired through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme of the government of the United States, the first aircraft is scheduled to arrive by June 2013 and all ten are expected to be with the IAF by the end of 2014. The IAF has plans to order six more bringing the fleet strength to 16. Although numerically almost the same as that of the existing fleet of IL76 aircraft, with a capability of the C17 Globemaster III to lift 77 tonnes as against 43 tonnes of the IL76, the overall strategic airlift capability of the IAF will be substantially enhanced. Apart from the fact that the C17 Globemaster III with full load of 77 tonnes i.e. at its maximum all-up weight, can operate from airstrips as short as 3,000 feet, the new fleet would provide the IAF transcontinental range covering 2,420 nautical miles. With in-flight refuelling, the range would be considerably higher.

    The fleet of C17, which is regarded as the most advanced military aircraft in the world today, would be ideally suited for not only power projection in any part of the world but also for humanitarian assistance, disaster relief operations and emergency evacuation of Indian citizens abroad from areas in turmoil. Given India’s aspirations to be a superpower, the IAF would have to substantially enlarge the fleet of strategic airlift aircraft on its inventory.

    Prior to the C17 deal, in 2008, the IAF placed orders for six C-130J Super Hercules military transport aircraft powered by four turboprop engines. Manufactured by US aerospace major Lockheed Martin, once again the aircraft were procured by the IAF through the FMS route for $1.059 billion (Rs 5,825 crore). Although the C130 was conceived in the early 1950s, the Super Hercules C130J model is a radically different platform. Customised specifically for India for Special Operations, these aircraft are capable of all routine operational transport tasks and have been in service with the IAF for nearly two years now.

    For Special Operations, the aircraft is equipped with systems to facilitate highly accurate navigation in complete darkness at low level without the help from ground-based radio/navigational aids and deliver Special Forces on target with devastating accuracy. The IAF has placed orders for another six machines thus making up one full squadron strength. Like the C17, the Super Hercules too is an extremely versatile machine. With maximum payload capacity of just over 19 tonnes, the aircraft can operate from short, semi-prepared runways and has an unrefueled range of 2,835 nautical miles. Although generally categorised as a tactical transport aircraft, capability-wise it can well undertake strategic airlift tasks as well.


    Apart from the strategic airlift capability, the IAF needs a complete revamp of its fleet of tactical transport aircraft. The 100 odd six-tonne payload capacity AN32 aircraft acquired beginning in the mid eighties, are currently undergoing mid-life upgrade and would have to be replaced by around 2022. HAL has entered into an agreement with United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) of Russia for a joint venture project dubbed as the UAC/HAL Il-214 Multirole Transport Aircraft (MTA). The project involves design, development and manufacture of a 20-tonne class, twin-jet, high wing, T-Tail, rear loading military transport aircraft to replace the ageing fleet of AN32 aircraft. The project is moving forward albeit at a slow pace and the maiden flight of the prototype is expected in 2014 followed by entry into service a few years later, hopefully before the end of the decade. The IAF is to receive 45 of these machines initially, but more of these may be procured subsequently.

    Although categorised as ‘tactical’, the MTA, like the C130J, would also nudge the strategic envelope. There is, therefore, a need to equip the tactical transport aircraft fleet with aircraft of lower payload capacity and range. These would be required for tasks such as insertion of troops into dropping zones of restricted length as part of airborne assault operations, decoy missions, resupply operations, air maintenance of troops deployed in the forward locations of the North-east where the aircraft would have to operate from short advanced landing grounds or drop supplies in small size dropping zones in the mountainous regions. For such tasks it would not be prudent to employ the C17, the C130J Super Hercules or the MTA as these are in the 20-tonne or higher payload capacity.

    For such tasks, the IAF will require a fleet of aircraft with payload capability ranging between five to around ten tonnes, constituting the third segment of the fleet. Aircraft in this category operational around the world are the Alenia C-27J Spartan, the EADS CASA C-235 and the C-295 manufactured by Airbus Military in Spain. All these are twin engine, high wing turboprop military aircraft.

    The fleet of 50 odd HS 748 Avro twin engine transport aircraft acquired in the 1960s has, for some time, been overdue for replacement. In response to a proposal by the IAF, the Indian Ministry of Defence has cleared a proposal worth over Rs 12,000 crore to procure through global tender, 56 transport aircraft to replace the outdated Avro fleet. As HAL is already preoccupied with several mega projects and the MMRCA contract is imminent, this project has been opened to the Indian aerospace industry in the private sector.

    Private sector companies would have the option to seek a foreign Original Equipment Manufacturer to licence manufacture the selected aircraft in India. Options would be to select an aircraft that is already operational or design and develop a new machine, the latter being a more tedious option. The project calls for the first 16 aircraft to be procured off-the-shelf from a foreign vendor who will have to partner with an Indian aerospace company in the private sector. The next 16 aircraft will have to have 30 per cent indigenous component while the remaining 24 aircraft will have 60 per cent locally produced items.


    On the face of it, a fleet size of 56 aircraft does not appear large enough to justify the huge investment required to establish infrastructure to design, develop and manufacture a new aircraft. Unless the size of the order is enlarged to around 250 machines through orders for export, the private sector may not be easily forthcoming and too eager to grab this opportunity. A viable option may be to identify an aircraft in the global market that is compliant with the Qualitative Requirements formulated by the IAF and involve a competent private sector company in India for assembly. Manufacturing of components and sub-assemblies may be outsourced to local firms with the appropriate infrastructure and expertise. The three aircraft in this class currently operational in the world and listed earlier, are the Alenia C-27J Spartan, the EADS CASA C-235 and the C-295. These could be evaluated as replacement for the Avro fleet.

    There has undoubtedly been considerable progress in the recent past in the effort at modernisation of the transport fleet. However, much more needs to be accomplished and quickly. The IAF requires credible airlift capability not only during war but more so for the projection of power in peacetime.
    Last edited: Apr 19, 2013

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