India’s Government is seeking to meet its urgent defence requirements from within the country.
India’s ongoing border face-off with China along the Sino-Indian border, near the disputed Pangong Lake in Ladakh and the Tibet Autonomous Region, has triggered the Indian Government into a troop build-up to strengthen defences on its Himalayan borders.
The urgent requirement to modernise India’s armed forces has been impacted by the slowdown in its economy due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This has forced the military to prioritise weapons acquisitions. The Government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is promoting a policy which provides an impetus to indigenous defence production under its ‘Atamnirbhar Bharat’ (Self Reliant India) drive to reduce the import of costly defence equipment from abroad.
The Government has been strongly promoting its Atamnirbhar Bharat initiative and in August, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) released a list of 108 systems and subsystems identified for design and development by Indian industry. The import of these systems would be banned completely by 2021. In December, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) led by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh accorded its Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) for procurement of six Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) Mk-II aircraft under the ‘Buy (Indian-IDDM)’ category of the new Defence Acquisition Procedure 2020.
While there is no official confirmation yet, it is expected that the earlier Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) India programme for which the Airbus A330 had been selected will make way for the AEW&C Mk-II project. The Indian Air Force (IAF) operates three Beriev A-50I Phalcon AWACS and two Defence Research & Development Agency (DRDO) developed AEW&C platforms called ‘Netra’ based on Embraer EMB-145 aircraft. The Indian AEW&C Mk-II programme however, calls for pre-owned Airbus A-319/321 aircraft from state owned carrier Air India to be used as the platform. The IAF received its second Netra AEW&C aircraft in September 2019 and is slated to add a third, completing the programme. Additional A-50I orders have been in the news for many years, but the contract for two new aircraft to join three of the type already in service, has not fructified.
A major beneficiary of the Atamnirbhar Bharat initiative is state-owned airframer Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). While much of HAL’s history has seen manufacture Russian and British military platforms under license, today it has a credible rotary wing design, development and manufacturing capability and has ironed out production related issues for the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), with larger orders expected soon. To overcome the performance limitations of the Tejas Mk-1, the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and HAL have offered the substantially improved Tejas Mk-1A which will feature an Israeli Elta Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, new Air-to-Air Missiles (AAM) in MBDA’s ASRAAM and the indigenously designed and developed Astra, Self-Protection Jammer (SPJ) along with other improvements. “The contract for the production of 83 Tejas Mk-1A is in final stages and is likely to be signed shortly. HAL has proactively gone ahead with the task of design and development of Mk-1A specific systems like AESA Radar, EW suite etc. The details of prototype roll-out and first flight would be shared after the contract is signed and the relevant steps are worked out,” HAL chairman R Madhavan told Asian Military Review.
Tejas is now operational in its Mk-I Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) and Final Operational Clearance (FOC) variants with two IAF squadrons, entering operational service with No. 45 Squadron ‘Flying Daggers’ in July 2016 and No. 18 Squadron ‘Flying Bullets’ in May 2020. All 16 aircraft in IOC configuration have been delivered by HAL, which has also started delivery of the FOC standard aircraft. These feature improved weapons capability, an enhanced fight envelope with improved low speed handling and inflight refuelling capability. Production of Tejas twin-seat trainers is also underway, with 16 aircraft having been delivered to the IAF in IOC configuration. Delivery of FOC aircraft is now underway.
An indigenously developed Basic Trainer Aircraft (BTA), HAL’s Hindustan Turbo Trainer 40 (HTT-40), is expected to complete developmental trials in 2021. The DAC has already approved the procurement of 106 aircraft and the new type will join the existing fleet of 75 Swiss Pilatus PC-7 MKII BTAs. HAL is geared-up to commence the delivery of aircraft within two years from the placement of the order and plans to attain a peak production rate of 20 aircraft per annum. While initial aircraft production as well as further developmental activities will be carried out at Bengaluru, the bulk production will be done from HAL’s Nashik Plant in Maharashtra. Current plans call for major structural components to be outsourced to Indian private sector companies in order to ramp up production capacity. An armed light attack variant of the trainer is also planned for development.
Growing Indigenous Capability
HAL has successfully developed a range of helicopters with five variants of the five tonne Dhruv utility helicopter, followed by the 5.8 tonne Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) and three tonne Light Utility Helicopter (LUH). The airframer has also commenced work on a future replacement for IAF Mi-171V medium lift helicopters under the Indian Multi-Role Helicopter (IMRH) programme which will be in the 8-10 tonne class. An IMRH developmental timeline of eight years at a cost of $1.3 billion (Rs 100 billion) has been indicated by HAL. Design and development of the LCH is now deemed as largely complete and HAL has commenced manufacture for a Limited Series Production (LSP) of the helicopters split between the army and IAF. “We expect to complete deliveries of the LCH in a shorter span of time and it would probably take us a maximum of two years to deliver all LSP LCHs once we receive the contract,” said S Anbuvelan, chief executive officer, Helicopter Complex, HAL. A minimum order for an additional 145 LCH is further expected.
All of HAL’s indigenous rotorcraft are powered by Safran Helicopter Engines powerplants. Dhruv Mk-I, Mk-II and its civilian variants are powered by TM333 engines supplied directly by the French engine maker, while the Dhruv Mk-III, MK-IV variants and the Light Combat Helicopter are powered by Shakti (Ardiden 1H1) engines, which are produced in India by HAL. The Ardiden 1U engine which is a variant of Shakti, modified for single engine operation, powers the LUH. “For many years now, we have been producing Shakti (Ardiden 1H1) engine kits to be transformed into Shakti engines by HAL. From 2018, till now we have almost completed the production of the order that came in 2017 for 184 kits, which are is dedicated to the order for 73 Dhruv helicopters from the Indian armed forces,” said Benoit Gadefait, vice president Medium Helicopters at Safran Helicopter Engines.
At present, HAL is completing contracts with the Indian Army, Indian Navy and Indian Coast Guard (ICG). The Army has 40 Dhruv helicopters on order, split across 22 MkIII utility variants and 18 MkIV ‘Rudra’ armed helicopters. The Navy and ICG each have 16 Dhruv MkIII utility helicopters configured for maritime and coastal surveillance missions respectively. HAL inked a contract with the ICG in March 2017 for 16 Dhruv MkIII helicopters. All 16 ALH Mk-III helicopters are planned for delivery by September 2021 and deliveries of the first two helicopters is slated for January. HAL has completed modifications related to upgrading these helicopters with state-of-the-art maritime sensors and systems and an integrated architecture display system (IADS), surveillance radar, electro optic infra-red (EO-IR) systems, automatic identification system (AIS), 12.7mm cabin mounted gun, high intensity search light (HISL) and so on. The ICG will use the new helicopters to undertake operations ranging from shore and ship borne operations for maritime surveillance, search & rescue (SAR), medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) and casualty evacuation (CASEVAC), logistics support and pollution response sorties.
Coast Guard Awaits
The ICG continues to progress its case for the purchase of 14 twin engine heavy helicopters (TEHH). A Request for Proposal (RfP) was issued to four global vendors in June 2020 and Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) for the purchase was obtained in January 2020. It is understood that the ICG hopes to conclude a formal contract by March 2022, ending a procurement process that began more than a decade ago. Deliveries are slated to take place between 2025-26. Adding to its fleet of soon to be inducted Dhruv MkIII helicopters, the ICG’s choice of TEHH will undertake maritime surveillance, SAR, medical evacuation and pollution response missions up to 200 nautical miles (nm) from the Indian coastline.
The ICG is also upgrading its fleet of Dornier Do-228 Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA). As per a contract inked in February 2020 with HAL which produces the type under license in India, 17 Do-228s will be receive a mid-life upgrade at HAL’s Transport Aircraft Division (TAD) in Kanpur. The first aircraft will enter the upgrade in September 2021 and is due to completed by July 2022. The upgrade of all 17 Do-228s is planned for completion by December 2025. HAL will also upgrade the Do-228s with 20 new systems and sensors including a glass cockpit, new mission management system, pollution surveillance aystem (PSS), 12.7mm gun, and five blade propellers.
Modernising Airfield Infrastructure
The modernisation of Indian military airfields under the Modernisation of Airfield Infrastructure (MAFI) programme has made significant progress. Phase-I of the airfield modernisation programme, which involved 30 IAF airfields was contracted to Tata Power SED in March 2011 under a $166 million (Rs12.2 billion) contract, which was completed in December 2019. Air Force Station Bhisiana (Bhatinda) an airfield in the Western sector, was selected as the pilot project for the MAFI programme and commissioned in March 2014. Phase-I of the MAFI project also included installation of one Doppler VHF Omni-Directional Radio Range (DVOR)/Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) at Kochi Naval Base.
Phase-II of the MAFI programme will encompass 37 airfields (24 IAF, nine Navy, and four others) with upgraded navigational aids and infrastructure to enable operations even in adverse weather and poor visibility conditions. The MAFI Phase-II contract valued at $140 million (Rs10.19 billion) was awarded in May 2020 to Tata Power SED, which will manage the turnkey project, including installation and commissioning Cat-II Instrument Landing Systems (ILS), Cat-II Airfield Lighting System (AFLS), DME (High and Low Power), DVOR, Tactical Air Navigation (TACAN) etc, along with integration and calibration of the equipment with Automated Air Traffic Management (ATM) at Air Traffic Control (ATC). The Surveillance Radar Elements (SRE), Precision Approach Radars (PAR), UHF Ground-to-Air Radio sets and Commutated Automatic Direction Finder (CADF) systems are being provided by the IAF.
The DAC recently accorded its AoN for procurement of new weapons such as the Astra Beyond Visual Air-to-Air Missile (BVRAAM) missile, Smart Anti-Field Weapon (SAAW), Long Rang Land Attack Cruise Missile (LR-LACM), etc. The Astra BVRAAM can be fired from Indian SU-30 MKI, Tejas, MiG-29 and MiG-29 K aircraft. Design and development of the new Indian BVRAAM was undertaken by the Defence Research & Development Laboratory (DRDL) Hyderabad, which comes under the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) and the manufacturing agency is Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL), Hyderabad. User trials with the IAF have been completed for the missile, which has a claimed range in excess of 100 km and features midcourse guidance and RF seeker based terminal guidance. The IAF is also upgrading its legacy Pechora Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) systems, which were acquired around 1987 vintage. Pechora missile system firing units are being digitized as part of a contract inked in September 2020. Further looking to bolster indigenous sourcing of defence equipment, the IAF has awarded Indian industry with orders for prototype design & development of chaff and flares, infra-red search and track (IRST) for its Su-30 MKIs, foldable fiberglass mats for runway repair, 125kg aerial bombs and fuzes. A Technology Development Fund (TDF) managed by DRDO has also been setup by the government. There are presently 18 projects underway and contracts have been awarded to Indian vendors for design and development of Su-30 MKI video processing/switching board and Mirage 2000 engine burner rings.
Despite sustained efforts to increase its defence manufacturing base, India has the dubious distinction of being one of the largest importers of defence equipment in the world. Long delays in finalisation of defence deals, often due to political considerations have also meant that Indian industry rarely has access to state-of-the-art technologies and is yet to achieve the economies of scale needed to reduce the cost of procurement vis-à-vis imported equipment. Much of the equipment often touted as indigenously developed by India’s public and private sector companies often features very high levels of import content. It will be a challenging task for the mandarins in the higher echelons of Indian defence planning to balance the conflicting needs of budget pressures, looming obsolescence, and recapitalising large defence fleets with the rapid technology leapfrogs taking place in defence technology today and attendant investments to keep the Indian defence industry relevant for the modern battlefield.
by Mike Rajkumar