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Strategic reach

India’s transport fleet and heavy lift capability

With China showcasing early this year two prototypes of heavy lift intercontinental range transport aircraft Y-20 alleged to be a copy of the C-17 Globemaster model, though little smaller and also working on 500 kms speed Blue Whale tilt rotor helicopter with a payload of 30 tons Indian air force seems to be years behind the strategic airlift capability of the Chinese PLAAF.

However, the IAF is trying to catch up with the world powers by acquiring the US manufactured Globemasters, the Super Hercules and the Chinook heavy lift helicopters.

The overall strength of the heavy lift aircrafts and helicopters indicate the strategic capabilities and the strategic intent of a country. The heavy lift aircraft extend the strategic reach of a country and IAF has been lacking these till this year. The C-17 Globemasters have just begun arriving this year on the IAF airbases and the IAF intends to extend the fleet from the already contracted 10 Globemasters to 16. IT also plans to increase the Super Hercules fleet by another six as mostly its Soviet origin transport fleet is now on the verge of retirement and needs immediate replacement.

The Indian MoD has been extremely slow in executing the approved projects and sanctioned proposals to enable the IAF to be ready, not for extending its strategic reach but for supplying without fail the rations and stores for its own troops deployed on the far off treacherous snow capped mountains.

The over 100 fleet of AN-32 transport aircraft acquired in early eighties and over two dozen IL-76 aircraft getting old and currently being refurbished to enhance its service life presents a sad spectacle of the air lift capability of the IAF. With the replacement program for 56 AVROs running into trouble, because of IAF’s lack of vision and MoD’s bureaucratic hassles, the IAF seems to be relying chiefly on the US Boeing and the Lockheed Martin for resurrecting its transport fleet.

The India-Russia joint development and production project for the Multi Role Transport Aircraft (MTA) has remained dormant after the agreement signed last year in November between the HAL and the United Aircraft Corporation of Russia.

Acquisition program

In view of India’s emergence as an economic powerhouse and the resultant competition poses lot of challenges for India’s military to protect national interests, the country must fast track its transport fleet acquisition program. Though the C-17s will have a very significant role in transporting the forces in an emergency situation to far flung areas, the IAF would require the smaller sized aircraft like the Hercules also in large numbers in view of the emerging challenges.

The AN-32 transport aircraft of six ton load capacity has served the nation very well during the last three decades but its time to retire them, though the IAF is trying to enhance the service life of the AN-32 aircraft by placing upgrade orders with the original manufacturers in Ukraine. The IAF is still using those aircraft for transporting ration and equipments to the troops based on snow capped high mountainous terrain.

India has contentious boundaries of almost 4000 kms with China and 740 kms of Line of Control with Pakistan for which the troops need to be positioned round the clock, who require sustained supplies of ration and equipments.

Since the bulk of the present inventory of transport aircrafts are on the verge of retirement the MoD must execute its perspective plan to upgrade the transport fleet well on time. With increasing requirements for ferrying troops and ration on the remote border posts more and more aircrafts will be required in future.

To replace the twin engine HS 748 Avros the IAF also requires the third light weight segment of the transport fleet for which RFP was issued in May this year. This has already run into trouble with a cabinet minister Praful Patel asking the MoD to explain why the Indian PSUs are barred from participating in this tender.

The project seems to have been misconceived since early stages as the MoD has already given clearance to the 19 ton category MTA to be jointly produced with a Russian company. According to experts of military aviation, the smaller and lighter payload aircraft were required as it can land on shorter runways. However, today even the C-17s can land on a high mountain at a 3000 feet long runway, the IAF can very well utilizes the middle range version of the transport planes which can supply much more goods in a single sortie.

In fact the middle weight category Hercules or the MTA can be a better replacement for the Indian Avro, which has since retired.

The C-17s can perform not only domestic airlift missions but also can make transcontinental forays with over 70 tons of payloads for which six more will add weight to India’s strategic ambitions and preparedness. Presently the C-17s are being used to ferry military goods for the Indian bases at the Andaman Islands, which has filled a huge gap in the oceanic missions and has given confidence to Indian Air Force to fly on much longer distances helped by air refueling facilities.

Heavy lift choppers

The Russians and the French engineers are also working on heavier and ultrafast helicopters and the race is hotting up with heavier and faster versions of helicopters hitting the stands, which will also have a major impact on the future air-land battlefield scenario. The European helicopter giant has also come out with a faster version called Eurocopter X-3 which has reached a speed of 472 kms, currently the fastest in the world. This will be able to conduct border patrols, search and rescue missions, troops transport and other military operations. On the other hand, China also has a very ambitious unmanned helicopter program which has a Helicopter Research and Development Institute. According to its director China has developed certain core technologies in key areas like rotors, flight control and avionics and developed a wide variety of unmanned helicopters.

The Indian aviation giant the Hindustan Aeronautics ltd has also come out with the advanced light helicopter and is also in the process of releasing the Light Combat Helicopter but the HAL is still to enter the arena of heavier categories of helicopters, required in the future battlefield. And in the transport aircraft sector India has not yet embarked on any independent mission to match the Chinese.

The extremely ambitious Chinese Y-20 development program will be capable of transporting all types of armored vehicles and the heaviest tanks and can fly at a speed of 800 km\hour with a range of 4500 kms. The plane is powered by four Russian turbojet engines, but the Chinese engineers will soon replace them with their own designed engines. This will significantly strengthen China’s long term strategic transport capabilities.

On the other hand the main focus of the IAF modernization and the capability upgradation program has remained on enhancing the combat capability. The transport fleet remained out of radar after the nineties and the government has realized the huge upcoming gap and trying to fill that up with the American Super Hercules and the Globemasters.

A few giant steps have indeed been taken but IAF will have to walk long and faster to compete with the transport fleet of the rival forces.