Wednesday, 3 October 2012

IAF Sorry State Of Affairs

Just as I had predicted a few months ago, the Indian Air Force (IAF) will be receiving another 42 Su-30MKIs (these being the first to be built to Super Su-30MKI standard by Russia’s IRKUT Corp) under a contract to be inked later today. This will bring the number of aircraft ordered from the Su-30MK family for the IAF to date to 314. Ever since the contract for procuring the Sukhoi Su-30MKIs was inked on December 28, 2000, the order-book has comprised the first 50 Su-30MKIs that were delivered off-the-shelf in successive tranches of 32 and 18 between 2002 and 2009, the licenced-production of 140 aircraft that is now underway, the supply of another tranche of 40 aircraft in completely knocked-down condition (ordered in 2007) between 2008 and 2009, the supply of another tranche of 42 aircraft in completely knocked-down condition (ordered in December 2011) due between 2012 and 2014, and now the first 42 Super Su-30MKIs that too will arrive between 2014 and 2018. The 40 + 42 IRKUT Corp-built Su-30MKIs + the 42 IRKUT Corp-built Super Su-30MKIs will be inducted along with 189 Rafale M-MRCAs as replacements for the 40 MiG-27UPGs (presently equipping three squadrons), 105 MiG-27Ms (presently equipping two squadrons), MiG-21 Bisons (presently equipping nine squadrons) and MiG-21Ms (presently equipping two squadrons), since the MiG-27UPGs, MiG-27Ms, MiG-21 Bisons and MiG-21Ms will all be decommissioned from service by 2017. There are also plans to locally upgrade the first 100 Su-30MKIs (the first 50 that came from IRKUT Corp + the first 50 to be delivered by HAL between 2004 and 2008) to the Super Su-30MKI configuration.

Another piece of good news is that 11 of the 17 US-origin QRT patrol boats are now operational with the Indian Army at the Pangong Tso Lake in eastern Ladakh. I had reported this development last year and it appears that finally the ‘desi’ mass-media has got wind of it.

However, regretably, the entire DRDO-led programme to develop home-grown AEW & CS platforms seems to have got off on a wrong footing. This is how matters should have proceeded: Firstly, the DRDO’s Centre for Airborne Systems (CABS) should have been instructed to acquire the expertise to design AESA radars operating in the L, S and X-bands. In fact, when the L-STAR radar programme was first conceived, it was meant to operate under L-band (so says the Indian MoD’s annual report for 2002-2003 on page 63), but it subsequently morphed into the present-day S-band radar. Secondly, CABS should have been mandated to develop the chosen S-band AESA radar into two distinctive variants: one for AEW & C, and the other for maritime reconnaissance/surveillance (MR/MS). Thirdly, CABS should have been authorised to develop an X-band AESA antenna for battlefield surveillance that ought to have been capable of being belly-mounted.
Subsequent detailed feasibility study phases of all three types of AESA radars to be developed would then have clearly identified a single type of airborne platform that could be suitably modified to mount all three types of mission-specific AESA radars. Only then competitive bids from Boeing, Airbus Military and Embraer should have been called for. Had this process been followed since 2005, then a wide-bodied airframe would have been selected from the outset (my personal preference would have been for either second-hand but refurbished A310-300 or B.767-300ER). Following this, CABS should have been authorised to procure a pre-owned airframe (whichever was selected) and use it as an airborne integrated testbed for not only validating in a sequential manner the two versions of AESA radar fitments (one atop the airframe for AEW & C & MR/MS roles and the belly-mounted one for airborne battlefield surveillance), but also optimising the two different internal mission management suites. Only after all this had been completed should the authorisation have been given for procuring larger number (at least 30) of the selected new-build airframe-type for series-production of the AEW & C, MR/MS and airborne battlespace surveillance platforms. Of these, 12 would be AEW & CS, 12 for MR/MS and six for airborne battlefield surveillance. 
By not adhering to such a schedule, the CABS is now saddled with developing three EMB-145I AEW & CS technology demonstrators (a very expensive way indeed of carrying out technology demonstration-driven R & D), with the IAF being the final arbiter on whether the project is successful or not. That’s the reason why only three—not the much-hyped-about figure of 15—EMB-145I platforms have been ordered, and why the DRDO is now seeking funds for developing a next-generation AEW & CS that will be make use of a larger, wide-bodied aircraft sourced from either Boeing or Airbus Military, and will accommodate a 360-degree multi-mode radar similar to what is now operational with the IAF’s three A-50I PHALCON AEW & CS platforms. The IAF, therefore, has clearly stated its requirements: it swears by its three A-50I PHALCONs and it wants six more AEW & CS platforms with similar capabilities. 
And to make matters far more worse, no one is even exploring the idea of further developing the existing S-band AESA designed by CABS into a MR/MS system, nor is there any meaningful effort to leverage the L-STAR programme for developing theatre-level airborne battlespace surveillance systems.

Why this sorry state of affairs? This is exactly what happens all the time when hardware/capabilities requirements are not viewed from the consolidated tri-services prism. This is also the reason why there’s the IAF-centric LCH, but no Army-centric LAH, and why there’s been plenty of talk of the DRDO attempting to indigenously develop futuristic 155mm/52-cal field howitzers for the Army, but no talk at all about developing 155mm/52-cal naval main guns for the next generation of principal surface combatants.

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