New Delhi: The Indian Air Force (IAF) is set to launch a Request for Proposal (RFP) for six midair refuelling planes, even as it works to bolster its Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) fleet with fresh inductions and upgrades, Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria has said.
The IAF chief made the statement in an email interview to ThePrint, as he addressed queries about the force’s preparations amid a changing nature of war that is likely to result in more aerial engagements.
He also said the IAF is not in favour of “rigid theaterisation” of the defence forces, which he claimed would divide the “already scarce IAF combat assets and effort”. However, he clarified that the IAF is not against integration.
‘Specifications for midair refuellers ready’
Bhadauria said the IAF is set to float a request for proposal (RFP) to solicit bids for six midair refuellers.
The plans to address the shortage of Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA) have been worked out in a phased manner and short- and mid-term solutions are being looked at, he added.
“As a long-term measure, we have initiated the process of procuring six more FRAs. Draft ASQRs (Air Staff Qualitative Requirements) have been prepared and the RFP is likely to be floated soon,” he said.
ASQRs refer to the desired specifications of the aircraft, as put forth by the buyer.
“The induction process will address the IAF requirement in the long term in keeping with the LTIPP (Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan (LTIPP),” he added. The LTIPP specifies the capabilities the armed forces desire to achieve over a period of 15 years. The current one outlines goals for the period between 2012 and 2027.
When inducted, the refuellers, also referred to as tankers, would prove to be a vital strategic asset and force multiplier as they will allow fighter jets to stay airborne longer.
This will be the IAF’s third attempt to procure midair refuelling aircraft since 2007. The European Airbus 330 multi-role tanker transport and Russia-based Ilyushin’s Il-78 had competed in the past two attempts, but the tenders were reportedly scrapped because of “price complications”.
Currently, the IAF operates a fleet of six Russian IIyushin-78 tankers that suffer from maintenance and serviceability issues, as pointed out in an August 2017 CAG report that studied the refuellers’ operations between 2010 and 2016. The tankers were bought in 2003-2004 at Rs 132 crore per aircraft.
The IAF chief’s comments come at a time when there are fears that the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic impact of the ensuing lockdown will take a toll on the defence budget, an even more worrying prospect amid longstanding concerns over what is seen as meagre allocations for the military in recent years.
IAF to induct more UAVs, upgrade existing fleet
The IAF, he said, is also looking to induct more UAVs and upgrade its existing fleet of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA).
“Various classes of RPAs, ranging from small/medium to medium altitude long endurance (MALE), high altitude long endurance (HALE) and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) are being considered,” Bhadauria said, adding that options are available under Make in India too.
India’s current drone fleet includes unarmed Heron and Searcher UAVs, both from Israel, that are used for reconnaissance, surveillance and intelligence gathering. The IAF also has a fleet of Israeli Harpy UAVs that can attack enemy radar positions and are self-destructing.
Domestic efforts to churn out UAVs include a strategic partnership agreement between state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and the Indian firm Dynamatic Technologies Limited (DTL), signed in February this year at the DefExpo. The partnership is aimed at joint manufacture of a high-endurance drone Heron Mark II, which will not be armed but could be converted into an armed UAV.
India is also working on getting the armed Predator-B High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) drones for the three services from the US-based General Atomics.
Bhadauria said the IAF is constantly reassessing threats and balancing its force structure, weapons, technology and training methodologies to develop the desired capabilities.
“The IAF has combat capability across the spectrum of air operations. We are constantly upgrading our existing combat fleets and acquiring appropriate replacements for aircraft being phased out,” he added.
“Our focus is primarily to achieve combat and technological edge compared to our adversaries and I can assure you that the IAF is fully prepared for suitably handling any future conflict.”
IAF chief against ‘rigid theaterisation’
Bhadauria, who has 4,270 hours of experience on fighter jets and transport aircraft, was commissioned as a fighter pilot in June 1980. A decorated officer who has been awarded the Vayu Sena medal (2002), the Ati Vishisht Seva Medal (2013) and the Param Vishisht Seva Medal (2018), he took over as IAF chief in September 2019.
In the interview, the IAF chief expressed reservations about plans to create theatre commands — integrated commands of the Army, Navy and Air Force that would subsume regional commands. He, however, said he is not against jointness or integration, but against rigid theatrisation “that will divide the already scarce IAF combat assets and effort”.
In an interview with ThePrint earlier this month, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat had said studies were underway on theatre commands are on and suggested that the Air Defence Command will be the first on the block. The command will function under the IAF, he said.
“A study team established to work on the contours of Air Defence Command is progressing well, which will synergise our air defence setup,” Bhadauria added. “A similar approach would be followed to work out the optimum plan of joint commands or theatres that will achieve the desired integration.”
Bhaudauria said an integrated operations room for UAVs will be operationalised soon to help achieve synergy. “It is part of the process of enhancing jointness,” he added.
“The integration of UAV assets of the three services to be controlled from a joint operations centre will allow centralised tasking of all operational demands and decentralised execution of missions, thus enhancing efficiency,” Bhadauria said. “All capabilities of UAV platforms of the services will be put to optimum utilisation.”