Indian Air Force (IAF) has a remarkably large transport fleet, probably one of the largest in the world. The IAF benefitted from the close relationship between India and Russia, thereby possessing a large number of IL-76MD aircraft and a substantial An-32 fleet. However, India also possesses locally-built fleets of Avro HS-748 and Dornier 228 for small lifts over short distances for the military.
India’s recent proximity with the United States has had a profound effect on the capability enhancement of the transport fleet of the IAF. A fleet of 13 Hercules CJ-130 and 11 C-17 Globemaster III was added to the IAF over the last 15 years. This has brought a substantial increase in the strategic lift roles of the IAF while also improving its tonnage capacity per mile.
Except for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), most countries in the world have reduced their military transport fleet numbers over the last 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union. This helps make an inference about the nature and role of transport fleets in the defence of a nation. The role of military transport fleet in the IAF can be broadly defined as below:
Strategic lift in emergency positioning of troops, equipment and stores before or during a war at our Northern or Eastern Borders. This requires the Air Force to possess a fleet of large- bodied planes and heavy-lift helicopters, which can position stores, personnel and heavy equipment like tanks, infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), artillery and multi-barrel rocket launcher (MBRL) vehicles in not-so-remote locations for onward road-based transport to the Sikkim and Arunachal borders as well as at Leh, Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) and Chushul.
Lift of military ration and equipment to provision a corps-sized army formation movement, either in defence or in attack at either Indo-Pak or Indo-China borders. These require a larger fleet of smaller transport planes, which can land and take off from short, largely unpaved runways as well have a high availability ratio through easy maintainability as well as sheer numbers.
Lift of rations, equipment and personnel to company or battalion-sized formations cut off from other forms of transport either in attack or in defence during or before a war to remote locations. This requires the IAF fleet to possess high numbers of easily maintainable light and medium-lift helicopters that can land and take off from unprepared helipads and operate a high sortie ratio when in an emergency.
The IAF also needs to possess specific role-based transports like Ultra-Light helicopters for high-altitude landing and take-off, mid-air refuel planes and also gunships although presently these are not used in the war doctrine of the IAF.
The above four principles when combined give us the vision for the IAF’s transport fleet operation, planning and procurement of planes and helicopters in the future. A metric used by the United States Department of Defense when calculating the need for cargo and strategic lift requirement uses the metric of million-ton miles per day to integrate the distance and capacity requirement into one unit of measurement.
Using the same principle one can calculate the same value for India’s present airlift capacity per day.
The above is an estimate of the projected estimate of IAF’s lift capacity of cargo.
Traditionally, a mountain corps of three divisions has about 45,000-50,000 personnel. Assuming the higher figure, India would most probably require the III corps to defend the Walong and Siang valley approaches while the IV corps would defend the Tawang valley with two divisions and the third used to attack in conjunction with one or two divisions of XXXIII corps depending on the Chinese attack size. This means with a division size of around 16,300 (a total of 50,000 per corps divided into three divisions), IAF would be required to push cargo for nine divisions along with the attacking XVII corps comprising two divisions. With a supply requirement for 11 divisions in which probably four would be in an attacking role, five divisions in defending and two in reserve, the IAF will be constrained to do its maximum airlift in the Arunachal and Sikkim regions.
Considering the relative strength of the PLA in the Ladakh region (as they are able to reinforce their attack from the Xinjiang-based Group Army), the IAF shall be required to use its airlift capacity in Kashmir to support the XIV corps of two divisions and one Independent Brigade at Kargil and since the two divisions of Chinar Corps will be required to defend Kashmir Valley. IAF shall, therefore, be required to push supplies for four defending divisions and two Independent Brigades. This apart, any artillery, armoured and air defence brigades pushed into Ladakh, Kargil, Daulat beg Oldi and Kashmir valley shall be also required to reinforce these supply heavy units. The IAF, therefore, in total is required to supply at least four divisions in the attacking role and nine divisions in the defensive role and two divisions in reserve. These are only those divisions whose road and rail supply shall be cut off immediately as they shall be moving into border areas or near border areas. Therefore, the supply shall have to from bridgeheads at Jammu, Chandigarh to Srinagar, Leh and the four other Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs).
Similarly, in the North East, the runs would be required to be made from Hasimara, Guwahati, Tezpur to the seven ALGs in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. The movement of large planes like C-130 will probably be restricted to the larger ALGs like Tawang, DBO, Thoise etc. and the regular bases, while the smaller planes will provide last mile connectivity to places like Tuting, Walong, Aalo, and Mechuka, which are crucial for the defence of the Siang and Walong valleys.
An attacking corps roughly needs around 3,000 tonnes per day of fuel, ration, clothing and ammunition etc. Considering the aforementioned formation for China alone, the IAF needs to shift 4,000 tonnes per day to provision attacking forces. Similarly, a defending corps needs no less than 2,100 tonnes per day of provisions, which comes to 6,300 tonnes of provisions for the defending formations. Further, considering a 500 tonnes provisioning for reserve forces, the IAF needs to account for another 1,000 tonnes of lift per day. Theoretically, the IAF is looking at 10,300 tonnes a day.
If the average kilometres travelled per trip is around 800, the IAF is looking at just over eight million ton kilometres per day. The above estimate shows the IAF has an adequate lift capacity to carry out strategic lifts across Our Eastern and Ladakh border if not more than 13 divisions were used. However, a two-front war will definitely entail the use of more forces, either in East or West. Therefore, there is a need to have adequate reserves in the cargo lift to be able to meet unforeseen circumstances. Further, since air cargo trips will definitely be the target of PL-15 missiles shot from 200-300 km afar, there is a chance that some will be lost to enemy fire. Therefore, while the IAF’s strategic lift needs to be augmented to an extent, there is no need to panic or look for a large Joint Venture (JV). The IAF needs to strategise in three different aspects.
A higher number of medium-lift aircraft in the range of HS-748, AN-32 and CASA C-295 with around five-eight tonnes, preferably propeller-based planes that can land on ALGs, to provide important air haulage when roads are out of use as well as to allow quicker positioning of provisions where much needed as well as build up stocks for impending operations quickly.
The C-295 order of 56 planes given to the TATA-Airbus JV is an excellent foundation to replace older HS 748 and An-32 planes over time. It is desirable that the present four planes per year production from the Indian plant of the JV is increased to eight so that some of the production is used to augment the fleet size and not just replace the older planes. It is desirable that the present number of 162 in this range is augmented to 200 at the minimum or 225 if more funds can be found for a purchase to be made in Indian rupees.
The heavy-lift aircraft range of around 20-25 tonnes capacity needs to be augmented as this is the weight class which can land on the larger ALGs in forward areas. In this range, the IAF has the C-130J fleet of 12 planes which needs to be augmented. The MMTD available can be increased drastically by having instead a 30-plane fleet. For 18 plane buys, there is no need to demand for an Indian production line unless the plane sought to be purchased can be used for AECW/Refueller/maritime reconnaissance/Gunship roles also, in which case the order book can be increased to 60. It is desirable to have such a multi-role plane as the economics of a common platform can really cut costs of both production and maintenance. India can choose to have a tie-up with Airbus/Lockheed/Embraer for a joint venture for the A400M/C-130J/KC-390 planes, which can be produced in India over the next 20 years to take care of India’s requirement which in today’s costs is around US$ 5 billion considering the specific costs involved in each type of plane.
The super heavy-lift class of 40 tonnes and above. The IL-76 fleet needs replacement over the next 15 years. In this weight class, unfortunately, there are no in-production aircraft except the IL-76 itself. Since there is no sense in using a 70s design plane for the next 30-40 years, the only other aircraft close to this range being the Airbus A310 and A330 MRTT (Multi Role Tanker Transport), it is better to continue with the C-17 for heavy equipment lift like tanks and choose to have a JV for either the A310 or the A330 MRTT or Embraer KC-390.
The KC-390 despite being only capable of lifting 26 tonnes can also double up as a light tank/IFV carrier to remote ALGs since its high rear door design and high wing clearance allow it to perform well in short strips, almost as good as the C-130J. Moreover, the C-390 can be converted into a medium-range Refueller as well as a replacement for the IL-76-based Phalcon AEWC. Further, it can be used to augment maritime surveillance and long-range ASW role that is presently performed by the P-8I. KC-390 is in need of customers and the IAF can negotiate with Embraer and Airbus as well as Boeing for their respective options (KC-390/A330 MRTT/KC-767) to set up a JV.
Embraer is in need of regional partners and India can enter the production and design of civilian passenger aircraft using Embraer, for which there is a huge demand in India’s civil aviation industry. India should leverage its huge demand to get a favourable work share in a JV which helps create a domestic aircraft manufacturing industry.
IAF’s transport fleet is presently adequate but soon shall suffer from low availability and airframe obsolescence. It is the right time to make plans for replacement at a scale that justifies domestic production over foreign purchase which is largely the outcome of small procurement outlays. The IAF needs to enter into JVs for all its needs, be it transport or anything else.
In case of Refueller aircraft, India urgently needs at least 10 Refueller aircraft over the next five-six years to replace the IL-78 fleet. Ideally though with rising numbers of fighter aircraft equipped with refuelling probes like Tejas, Rafale and the soon- to-be-procured MRFA as well as upcoming AMCA/TEDBF, IAF needs over 18 such aircraft to be sited in all border commands of IAF, to enable it extend reach of IAF aircraft deep into enemy territory.
Similarly, the IAF is in dire need of AWACS/AEWC aircraft of which there are only 5 (2 being Netra). India needs at least 15 AWACS/AEWC aircraft to ensure 100 per cent mission availability in at least 4-5 theatres of action in war, failing which IAF will be at disadvantage over PAF and PLAAF.
The ASW/Maritime Reconnaissance Role is also now assumed importance due to the rapid expansion of the Pakistani and PLA Navy. In war, it is expected that India would face the intrusion of no less than 20 SSK and at least 5 SSN submarines into the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. In such a case, ASW aircraft need to cover all approaches and hunt down intruders. The Indian Navy in such a case needs more than just 12 Boeing P-8I and needs at least 10 more ASW planes to enable better patrol on both coastlines.
The IAF’s transport fleet therefore, while currently very capable, needs to be carefully augmented with good aircraft that can be used in multiple roles and therefore save costs and increase availability. If anything, India needs to make a decision soon as any undo-ordinated purchase reduces India’s leverage over any potential JV.
(Chiranjeevi Bhat is a journalist. His writings are focused on security, politics, distortion and appropriation)
(Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own)