AUGMENTING THE AIRLIFT CAPABILITY
Geopolitics|February 2021
India is slowly and steadily raising its means to deploy and sustain military forces across possible distant battlefields by air, writes NINAD D SHETH
NINAD D SHETH

The 1960s were a very long time ago. When an aircraft was introduced in the Indian Air Force, the choice was befuddling. Nehru ordered the purchase of the Hawker Sidley-748 to fulfill the requirements for a transport fleet. The aircraft was a curious choice as it lacked a loading ramp at the rare and its fuselage did not open at the back either - thus ruling out any cargo attributes.

Despite all this, the aircraft has served the IAF well. Being a very forgiving workhorse, it has been in its role as a troop and VIP carrier - not hauling cargo that was the original requirement. When electronics and reconnaissance hardware was added, it also served as a communication aircraft that could check on enemy missile defenses and eavesdrop on missile sites.

However, the new tender by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) aims at replacing it with a proper military transport aircraft. The likely contender is the Airbus C-295. Sixty-two of these aircraft are to be purchased at `17,000 crore rupees ($2.6 billion) for the IAF and the Indian Coast Guard.

The reason that India wants this medium-light aircraft is flexibility. The aircraft can carry a maximum payload of 9.25 tonnes. Being smaller in dimension than the other aircraft in the IAF’s fleet such as the C-130Js, C-17s, and IL-76s, the C295s can take off and land at many airstrips where the larger ones may not find operations easy. This will give the airforce a nimble choice to airlift supplies drop troops or carry out medical evacuations.

The other fact that has worked in the favor of this aircraft has been its proven performance in theaters of war like Iraq, Chad, and Afghanistan, albeit where the operators had air superiority so the threats to the aircraft were much less than the theaters in which it may participate for the Indian Air Force.

The new aircraft is also specifically to be manufactured not by the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited that is the usual partner for such deals, but a private company. While the first 16 aircraft will likely be built at the Airbus facility in Spain, the remainder will be manufactured in India by Tata Advanced Systems Limited. It is a huge leap of faith for the private industry and indeed will be very closely watched for the success of the ‘Make in India’ program in defense. A recent release by the MoD did not mention the Tata’s by name but said, “…the case is first of its kind which envisages participation of private companies and would prove to be a boost for our defence industry.”

The deal is expected to be signed during the Aero India exhibition at Bangalore in 2021. Former Vice Chief of Air Staff R K Sharma puts the importance of the acquisition in perspective: “India will be able to replace the Avro with the C-295. It achieves two critical goals. First is the tactical load-carrying capacity in all weather especially where you do not need to deploy heavy-lift aircraft. Secondly, a fast aircraft with lower turnaround time allows for a greater concentration of logistics.”

The deal is just the latest in a series of recent acquisitions that have powered the impressive airlift and logistical capabilities of the Indian Air Force (IAF). With the lack of relative road access, airlift has proven to be a boon in the ongoing standoff with China on the Himalayan heights. Since 2014 India has been deploying elements of the armored formations to Ladakh. The rich history of the Indian Air Force - that flew 12 AMX tanks up to Chushul near the Pangong lake in 1962 in AN 12 aircraft and also flew in troops back in 1948 for the defense of Srinagar is now being taken forward in a manner and scale that resembles the world’s great air supplied interventions such as the famous blockade of Berlin.

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