THE Indian military’s aerial asset profile has in recent years been steadily edging away from Russian fixed-wing combat, transport and surveillance aircraft and assorted rotary-wing platforms to their Western equivalents. Military officers and defence analysts say that this signifies a subtle but veritable ‘NATO-isation’ of the services’ airborne asset profile as India has edged strategically closer to the US and its European Union, Japanese and Australian allies.
The move away from Russian materiel and platforms, plagued by low serviceability and crippling maintenance issues, has gathered momentum over the past 21 months following the US-led sanctions on Moscow for invading Ukraine. These embargoes have adversely impacted Russia’s defence-industrial complex, leading to India’s further disillusionment with Moscow as neither a reliable and timely kit provider nor a sustained one.
Rosonboronexport, Russia’s monopolistic joint stock arms export body, obliquely admitted as much recently when it expressed its inability to continue defence equipment deliveries to its many clients, including India, as it needed to ensure uninterrupted supplies to its own military, presumably to execute its deadlocked offensive in Ukraine.
In its October 19 press note, Rosonboronexport admitted to facing ‘pressing challenges’ and offered potential clients alternative formats centred on technology partnerships. Indian defence planners rightly interpreted this to mean the ‘precipitous decline’ of Russia’s once mighty military-industrial empire, which, almost singlehandedly, had armed India over five decades. A cross-section of serving and veteran Indian Air Force and Navy fighter and helicopter pilots concurred that the ‘golden era’ of Soviet, and later Russian, aircraft that began with the induction of MiG-21FL ‘Fishbed’ combat aircraft in 1963 was ending.
In hindsight, such an outcome was inevitable as Delhi’s materiel imports from Russia between 2017 and 2022 had reduced from 62 per cent to 45 per cent, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. This downturn had grown amid sanctions on Russia as deliveries of equipment to India were interminably delayed, as were spares and technical support for in-service materiel.
A catalogue of India’s latest aerial military acquisitions is instructive. The IAF recently procured 36 Dassault Rafale fighters from France in addition to a host of US-origin transport and attack and heavy-lift helicopters. These included 11 Boeing C-17 Globemaster III and 12 Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 air lifters to supplement and eventually replace the IAF’s fleet of legacy Soviet-era Antonov An-32s and Illyshin-76s. Also underway is the induction of 56 C-295MW medium-lift transport aircraft from Airbus Defence and Space to replace the IAF’s aged Avro-748M fleet; 16 C-295s are being acquired in a flyaway condition, while 40 are being built at a recently inaugurated facility in Gujarat via a transfer of technology.
In early 2019, the IAF began replacing its dwindling fleet of 8-10 Russian Mil Mi-25/35 attach helicopters with 22 Boeing AH-64E Apache equivalents that were acquired alongside 15 Ch-47F Chinook heavy-lift rotary aircraft. Both models were acquired after besting comparable Russian platforms in user trials.
Notably, India had more or less terminated the 2014-15 $1.2-billion tender for 200 Russian Kamov Ka-226T ‘Hoodlum’ light utility helicopters, of which 135 were intended for the Army Aviation Corps and 65 for the IAF. Conversely, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was on the cusp of signing two ‘landmark’ deals with the US to locally manufacture General Electric GE-414 jet engines and acquire 31 MQ-9B ‘Predator’ unmanned aerial vehicles for all three services.
The Navy had also turned its back on MiG-29K/KUB deck-based fighters for INS Vikrant, its newly commissioned aircraft carrier, as these had proven operationally inefficient and problematic since their induction into service 2009 onwards. The Navy is in advanced negotiations with Dassault to acquire 26 Rafale (Marine) fighters.
The Navy had procured 45 MiG-29/KUBs between 2004 and 2010 for $2.29 billion, but presently, it operates around 40, almost half of which are believed to be in reserve because of their dismal performance and inability to deliver their declared weapons payload to their stated range with a full fuel load. An excoriating Comptroller and Auditor General’s audit had revealed that the MiG-29 K fighters’ operational availability between 2014 and 2016 oscillated between a paltry 15.93 per cent and 37.63 per cent, whilst that of twin-seat MiG-29KUB trainers fluctuated between an equally dismal 21.2 per cent and 47.14 per cent.
The Navy also recently retired its Ilyushin IL-38 Sea Dragon long-range maritime patrol aircraft as it already had two non-Russian substitutes in service: 12 Boeing P-8I Neptune anti-submarine warfare long-range maritime multi-mission platforms and 26 German-origin turboprop Dornier Do-228, licence-built by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, while another 12 such examples are on order.
Even the Army is scheduled to begin inducting in early 2024 six Apaches it had signed up to acquire in 2020 for around $500 million.
Nevertheless, Moscow derives some pecuniary comfort from the reality that some 60 per cent of India’s in-service materiel, including fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, are of Russian origin and heavily dependent upon it for spares and sundry technical support. The foremost of these are the IAF’s twin-engine Sukhoi Su-30MKI ‘Flanker-H’ multi-role fighters and around 65 retrofitted MIG-29UPG air-superiority platforms, which together presently constitute the bulk of the IAF’s combat squadrons. In September, the MoD had approved the acquisition of 12 HAL-built Su-30MKIs as replacements for an equal number lost in accidents since their induction 2002 onwards.
But suggestively, the IAF had opted to ‘sidestep’ Russia in upgrading 84 of these Su-30MIs to ‘Super Sukhoi’ standards and opted to execute the retrofit indigenously. Alongside, the IAF had also exhibited ‘disinterest’ in evaluating Russia’s offer of MiG-35 ‘Fulcrum’ and Su-35 ‘Flanker-E’ fighters for its proposed tender to acquire 114 multi-role fighter aircraft (MRFA). Both Russian offers are believed to have evoked little or no enthusiasm at Air Headquarters, portending the end of an epoch monopolised by Soviet and Russian combat aircraft.
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