IAF chooses Boeing’s latest C-17 for heavy-lift transport aircraft

June 14th, 2009 - 3:57 pm ICT by IANS  

F-16 By Gulshan Luthra
New Delhi, June 14 (IANS) The Indian Air Force (IAF) has shortlisted the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III as its new Very Heavy Lift Transport Aircraft (VHTAC).

Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik is quoted by the India Strategic defence magazine as saying that the aircraft had been chosen after a thorough study because of its capability to take off and land on short runways with heavy loads, long range, and ease of operation.

IAF was looking at acquiring ten C-17s initially through the US government’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route, and a proposal in this regard was being considered by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), he said adding that the aircraft should come in about three years after a contract is signed.

The air chief, who spoke to India Strategic on the eve of the Paris Air Show beginning Monday, is also quoted as saying in its report that flight trials for the six Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCAs) would begin in July and end around March 2010. The chosen MMRCA should start coming to India by 2014.

Outlining the trial procedure, Air Chief Marshal Naik said that initially, test pilots from IAF’s elite Bangalore-based Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE) would visit the manufacturing facilities of the six contenders; in the second round, they would test the aircraft’s performance in humid, hot and cold weather in Bangalore, Jaisalmer and Leh; and in the third and final round, they would test live precision weapon firings from the aircraft in the country of their manufacturer or another country designated by them.

“There would be one team leader but two or three sub-teams, and the template would be common for all,” he was quoted as saying.

The six aircraft in the fray are European EADS Eurofighter, US Lockheed Martin F-16 Viper and Boeing F-18 Super Hornet, French Rafale, Swedish Gripen and Russian Mig 35. One of them would be chosen to supply 126 aircraft worth about $10 billion, but the order could go up by another 50 per cent to 189 aircraft, a clause for which is built in the tender (Request for Proposal or RfP) issued last year. The interview report has been published in the June edition of India Strategic, being released at the Paris Air Show.

Notably, except for the Su30-MKI, all the combat and transport aircraft of the IAF were acquired in the 1980s, and IAF needs new, and newer generation, aircraft to replace and augment that capacity.

India has about 100-plus medium An-32 and less than 20 heavy lift IL-76 aircraft. It is difficult to get their spares as the Soviet Union where they were made has disintegrated into Russia and other states. IAF has acquired old, refurbished IL-76 platforms for its AWACS and Midair Refueler requirements.

An agreement was being signed with Ukraine to upgrade and modernize the An-32s, the Air Chief said.

An IL-76 can carry a cargo of around 45 tonnes and has a crew of six while a C-17 can carry 70 tonnes, and is much easier to operate with a small crew of two pilots and one loadmaster (total three), thanks to its various power-assisted systems. Two observers though can also be seated.

Despite its massive size - 174 ft length, 55 ft height and about 170 ft wingspan - a pilot can fly the C-17 with a simple joystick, much like a fighter aircraft, which can be lifesaving in a battlezone as the aircraft can take off quickly and at steep angles. It is powered by four Pratt & Whitney F-117-PW-100 turbofan engines.

Air Chief Marshal Naik said that IAF required contemporary and futuristic aircraft and systems, and that there was an urgency to acquire modern aircraft. The government shared the concern of the armed forces, and the pace to renew IAF’s assets was on schedule. By 2020-25, IAF would achieve its optimum level (of 45 squadrons).

At present, it is down from its sanctioned strength of 39.5 squadron to around 30-32, but this trend has been arrested, particularly with the induction of more Su30-MKIs and Jaguars. India has given a repeat order of 40 Su30-MKIs to Russia to take their total number to 230.

The requirement today is for technologically better, easier to maintain, and a larger number of combat and other aircraft, including helicopters, due to the strategic scenario around India and the need to ferry troops, men and material even within India in times of contingency and natural disasters.

He observed: “The IAF of the future, post-2025, would consist of FGFA (Fith Generation Fighter Aircraft), Su30-MKIs, MRCAs and Tejas/MCA (indigenous Medium Combat Aircraft) with multi-role as well as significant swing role capability.”

“They would employ advanced technologies, sensors and precision weapons. The larger aircraft, i.e. FGFA and Su30 would focus on Air Dominance and specialise in similar roles in long ranges over land and sea, while the MRCAs would don a variety of medium-range and tactical roles. These assets would be capable of all weather, day and night attack with adequate self-protection capability… these assets would be immensely capable and are not going to be confined to the strictly stereotyped roles. They would carry out a number of roles in the same mission.”

Air Chief Marshal Naik, who assumed charge May 31 from Air Chief Marshal F.H. Major, would be visiting the Paris Air Show along with top IAF officers to witness what new technologies are being introduced and displayed there by various aircraft manufacturers.

The Air Chief said that IAF was also looking at more AWACS but after studying how the first lot of three Phalcon AWACS functions. The first of these aircraft was delivered last month, and the remaining two would be delivered by Israel in 2010.

He indicated that IAF had short-listed the Airbus A330 MRTT to augment its Midair Refueller requirement, and that the proposal was being processed by the Ministry of Defence. IAF already has six IL-76-based aerial refuellers, designated as IL-78.

As for the C-17, Boeing has brought the aircraft several times to India for its literal catwalk on IAF tarmacs, including at the Aero India 2007 and 2009 in Bangalore. Indian military officials and journalists have been invited for the aircraft’s flight displays during the Paris Air Show.

The C-17 is the mainstay of the US forces for worldwide deployment, and can be refuelled midair. It is in fact the lifeline of US and NATO troops deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

According to the Boeing company, the high-wing, 4-engine, multi-service T-tailed military-transport C-17 can carry large equipment including tanks, supplies and troops directly to small airfields in harsh terrain anywhere in the world day or night.

The massive, sturdy, long-haul aircraft tackles distance, destination and heavy, oversized payloads in unpredictable conditions. It has delivered cargo in every worldwide operation since the 1990s. It can take off from a 7,600-ft airfield, carry a payload of 160,000 pounds, fly 2,400 nautical miles, refuel while in flight for longer range, and land in 3,000 ft or less on a small unpaved or paved airfield day or night.

The aircraft can also be used as an aerial ambulance.

(Gulshan Luthra is a defence analyst. He can be reached at gulshan.luthra@indiastrategic.in)

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