Monday, 8 October 2012

Clearing The IAF Mist

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

Bhuj AFS: 27 Wing’s 15 Flying Lancers Sqn with MiG-21 Bison

Halwara AFS: 34 Wing’s 22 Swifts sqn with MiG-27UPG

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

Uttarlai AFS: 5 FBSU’s 4 Oorials 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.

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