For all the build-up and anticipation about the medium multi role combat aircraft (MMRCA) contract for 126 fighters, the IAF’s other backbone is conveniently shuffled to the end of the queue. It’s definitely worth spending a little time focusing on that other backbone – the transport fleet. Let’s be clear about one thing – all purchases are stepmothered down the priority queue when the country needs fighter aircraft, and this is despite being armed with red-hot production lines that will give the nation a staggering 190 Sukhoi-30 MKIs by 2014, among miscellaneous orders for Jaguars.
Get this: In the last five years, Vayu Bhawan has not authored a single perspective plan for transport aircraft acquisitions. A senior Air Marshal, a transport pilot, recently told me, “In the last five years I have not heard or been able to discuss anything about a perspective plan for the transport aircraft (tpt ac) fleet at Air HQ. All discussions have centered on how the Qataris 'did us in' by showing the Indian delegation the door for the price we quoted for their second-hand Mirage 2000-5.”
“The last time any tpt ac induction was probably discussed was when the Dakota, Caribous and C-119 Packets were to be phased out some time in the late 1970s and some aircraft were flight tested by ASTE,” he adds.
The need is obvious, he indicates: A perspective plan for the IAF’s s transport aircraft fleet should meet the needs of strategic and tactical airlift not only of the Army and IAF but also an ability to convey troops, goods, relief material anywhere in Asia and Europe. It needs to have an assured line of spares supplies and overhaul facilities to make them last 50 years, with periodic upgrades. The plan should be based on the military plans of the three services and will need to be cognisant of what the national aim is.
Here’s the ideal requirement: we need to be able to fly heavy (read tanks and howitzers) and troops of Para Brigade strength (1,200 men) to distances of 2,000 nautical miles (or 4,000 km) or more with their support weaponry in one wave. This would entail about 24 fully serviceable aircraft of the Ilyushin-76 class (now the Americans want to sell us the C-17 Globemaster). Later on the troops will have to be re-supplied for which we need medium load- ong range aircraft like the An-12/74/C-130 class. We would need about 60 of these to take over from the An-32, Avros and Dorniers.
As of now, all we’re doing is purchasing 12 C-130J Super Hercules planes, all configured for Special Forces injection operations with a side profile of medium transport – wholly inadequate. The Multirole Transport Aircraft (MTA) co-development protocol signed with Russia recently envisages an Ilyushin-214 based twin-engine jet, but that could take ten more years. In 2000, HAL and Antonov design bureau were to collaborate on producing the Antonov-74. The hitch was that the Uzbeks wanted to produce it in Tashkent because they had a factory not doing much. They tried getting then chief Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy to commit to the An-74 on his visit in 2002, though it didn’t finally work out.
According to available estimates, we have about 254 transport aircraft (24 Ilyushin-76, 112 An-32, 64 Avros and 40 Dorniers). These are not unimpressive numbers by themselves, but serviceability and capability ultimately underscore and determine adequacy. If only 3 out of 21 (3 are with the RAW’s Aviation Research Cell permanently) Il-76 and 35 per cent of the An-32 are serviceable then the IAF’s airlift capability is only that much.
The Il-76 is over-taxed and under-utilised because every load above 5 tonnes weight or larger dimensions than the cargo hold of the An-32 meant tasking an Il-76. Flying an Il-76 with less than 35 tonnes of load is not only waste of resources but also of precious engine and airframe hours. Upgrades include: on the Il-76 upgrade of the engines by trying to fit high-bypass engines; on An-32 it is to replace hand-held GPS with integral GPS; on Avro it is to integrate TACAS and VORDME.
The Avro is essentially a communications/passenger conveying aircraft of 1966 vintage. Its production was been stopped many years ago and now it is in the ‘reduce to produce’ stage (where components are steadily stripped off an aircraft to keep others serviceable) and there are many ‘Christmas tree’ aircraft. It has an average serviceability of 40 per sent. The Dorniers are worthy assets, but they hardly count in the broader picture unless you have them in their thousands, which we don't.
A real, concerted transport aircraft perspective plan is evidently the order of the day. For now, miscellaneous transport aircraft acquisitions include 80 medium-lift Mi-171V helicopters from Russia, a development plan to build a Mi-17-class helicopter by HAL and a foreign partner, at least 12 heavy-lift helicopters (the Ch-47F Chinook is a contender) to augment the Mi-26 Halos at Chandigarh and more Do-228s from HAL.