Editorial comment: Old can be gold - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Thursday 22 August 2019

Editorial comment: Old can be gold

Combat aircraft with upgrades remain in service for many decades

By Ajai Shukla
Editorial in Business Standard
23rd Aug 19

The government must take seriously Indian Air Force (IAF) chief, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa’s recent lament that the IAF was still flying 44-year old MiG-21 fighter jets, a vintage far older than the cars that people currently drive. With Defence Minister Rajnath Singh listening on, this was an unmistakeable indictment of the defence ministry’s tardy procurement system, which compels the IAF to make do with just 29 squadrons of fighter aircraft, against the 42 that defence planners say the country needs. The IAF will have to manage with even fewer squadrons, because the MiG-21 fleet will retire soon, and only a handful of Rafale, Sukhoi-30MKI and Tejas Mark 1 fighters would be inducted in their place. Further, as this newspaper has reported, the IAF has decided against extending the service life of four Jaguar squadrons, which means even more fighters will become due for retirement. The defence ministry has commenced the purchase of six more fighter squadrons but, going by past experience, they could take a decade-and-a-half to come. All of this was foreseeable, but has still come to pass.

Notwithstanding the real crisis in fighter numbers, the IAF chief’s complaint does not reveal the full picture, which is that combat aircraft routinely remain in service for many decades. The US Air Force, unarguably the world’s most cutting edge, continues to fly several aircraft that are over half a century old. The B-52 bomber has been in service more than 60 years, and the KC-135 Stratotanker has been refuelling American fighters for over half a century. The T-38 Talon supersonic trainer has trained close to 60,000 US pilots over the last fifty years.

The IAF should know this, since it is procuring American combat aircraft that have crossed the half-century landmark. The CH-47 Chinook, which began entering IAF service earlier this year, has already flown in combat for 57 years. The US Air Force plans for the Chinook to remain till 2050, by when it will be 90 years old. The C-130 Hercules, which the IAF happily bought, has completed 50 years of service and will continue for another 30 years. The AH-64 Apache which will enter IAF service next month is not far from its golden jubilee.

There is a lesson for the IAF in how these “vintage” American aircraft remain at the cutting edge even today, even as Indian MiGs become flying jalopies much earlier. The US military works with the American defence industry in developing its own aircraft, and then in incrementally upgrading them, progressively introducing new technologies that improve combat capability, without obsessing about flying performance. The F-16, which is also close to its half-century age landmark, flies today much like it did in the early 1970s. 

However, its current airborne radar, data links, communications and weaponry make it far superior to its initial variant. The IAF too has upgraded its MiG-21s, MiG-27s and MiG-29s, largely with Israeli avionics. However, there are limits to the extent to which one can upgrade a foreign aircraft, whose design parameters and software source codes are not known. The answer is to introduce indigenous aircraft into service early, and continually upgrade them, keeping them combat-worthy for decades. This is the most economical way of structuring an arsenal. The Tejas light combat aircraft would be a good place for the IAF to start.


  1. Misrepresentation of facts, hercules and Chinook are transporters and cannot be compared to MIG 21's. B52 bombers now flown have modern avionics and so has MIG21 Bioson. Chief dhanoa said was not about the life of jet but specifically for Indian MIG21 which were procured 44 years back. And every product has shelf life just like you.

  2. Dated technology is not being used by USAF.


    F16A/B/C/D THAT PAKISTAN HAS IS OLD STUFF WHICH IS OUT DATED. F 16 BLOCK 70 IS THE latest stuff by Lockheedmartin.
    Modular design enables upgrades.Tejas is the need of the hour along with 100 RAFALES and SuMKI.

  3. A flawed argument, which 2/3 generation fighter jet is the USAF/USN Operating.
    Air dominance is the primary role of any airforce and same cannot be achieved or maintained using MIGs/jaguars.
    The C130/ Ch 47 etc of today are almost a entirely different craft as compared to their predecessors.

  4. "The B-52 bomber has been in service more than 60 years,"
    true but also they are upgraded at least once every 5 years. Also less than 10% of the original 744 built are still in service.

  5. You have taken example of US planes.
    Yes , these when introduced are far ahead of times in terms of technology & build quality.
    All US planes , engine & avionics, under go upgrades through out life cycle.
    Look at F-16, F-15.

    However, Indian armed forces use mainly Russian planes & western training drills.
    Not all are suitable for continuous upgrades.
    Su 30 is now, by fitting it with AL41 engines & upgraded radar, those will be carried.
    Same with MiG29.
    MiG21, 23, 27 that form bulk of IAF cannot be upgraded,
    This is what IAF chief is referring to.

    IAF will use Mirage 2000, Jaguar , Avro, cheetah, Chetaks for 40 years , no issues. Same with naval sea kings.
    That is why IAF loves western aircraft.
    Expensive while buying. But they are very reliable, remain state of art for a long time, very high mean time between overhauls.
    Now IAF bought C17, P8I, Apache (proposed MH24 for navy) we can expect them to serve the nation well for a Long time .

    I just hope we buy F16 for MMRCA after buying additional 44 Rafales. These will do an excellent job replacing our single engine MiG21/23/27.

  6. Fact Check & Putting things in correct perspective :
    The chief of the Air Staff ACM BS Dhanoa while giving a key note address on the occasion of 'Modernisation & indeginisation of IAF' and said "It goes to the credit to our MiG-21 aircraft, which is almost
    44 years old, and which I can fly. I m sure no one would drive a car that old." Our hon'ble Defence Minister Rajnath Singh was the chief guest for the event. The CAS was appreciating the commendable effort that goes in keeping the old vintage machines into fully operational status. His statement was inductive of unflinching faith and trust in IAF's maintenance crew and technicians, who by virtue of their dedication and professionalism maintain the war worthiness of IAF's assets.
    He also highlighted the points related to upgradation & indigenisation of old weaponry. Which is a sign of a good leader ,who shows belief in the existing capabilities but doesn't shy away from looking ahead and demanding futuristic technology.
    A leader should be able to fight with what he has WIN and at the same time use the peacetime to built up the capability of the forces to make them invincible and ever growing both in terms of technology & moral, and that's what the CAS speech was pointing at.
    He brought out about the fields which need to be improved and at the same time he gave a pat to the air-warriors who are ever ready to safeguard the sovereign skies of the Nation. JAI HIND!!!

  7. It is quite cringe worthy to hear a "defense expert" of your repute dole out such ludicrous examples to prop up such a feeble argument.

    Promoting indigenization is fine, but pray tell what happens to preparedness?

    The Tejas you tout will have to be re-engineered into a completely new aircraft to be anything more than a "better MiG-21".
    And when will that be?
    To this often have I heard lamentations of the services shifting goalposts.
    Of course what was good enough yesterday is not good enough today.
    Is it a reasonable expectation that the services make do with equipment with ten year old specifications that will be delivered five years in to the future.
    At last check, the idea was to stay one step ahead of our adversaries not two steps behind.
    After all is the pilot to find solace in his plane being indigenous, while getting shot out of the sky?

    Somewhere in your writings one gets the sense that it is all the generals' fault, prioritizing imported over desi.
    Should we blame them? For we live in a country which has not been able to produce satisfactorily that most basic military tool, the infantryman's rifle.
    Leave aside comparisons with the likes of the HK 416s,the FN SCARs the Tavors and the X95s, the forces prefer even the decades old AK over what is standard issue.
    Instead of building to print and labeling it as indigenous;have any of our defense production units shown any inclination to establish design teams of any worth?

    Indigenization is a worthy goal no doubt, but should we risk sacrificing our preparedness.
    As it is our higher defense management and perspective planning has been nothing short of a joke and a poor one at that. This is what needs to be fixed first and foremost.

    Would we not have been in a better position had we phased out the MiG-21 by bringing in the Mirage 2000 production line while we had the chance?
    Instead we hung on to the idea that the Tejas will replace the MiG-21 some day and that day is yet to come.
    Incidentally what started as the proposed Mirage 2000 acquisition a decade and more earlier is yet to conclude, meandering through the aborted MMRCA contest and now going through the motions of MMRCA 2.0.

    The IAF having to make do with the MiG-21 into the 2020s speaks to apathy bordering on criminal negligence exhibited by the powers to be.
    At the same time it would be a crime forcing the services to accept platforms while they are still works in progress, and not ready to meet operational challenges.
    And while the wait for Tejas continues the MiG-21 continues to do ORP duty.

    Before we declare indigenization as a cure all we must face hard facts.
    Our mastery of the basic building blocks for complex weapon systems is nowhere near what is needed to successfully deliver operational platforms.
    Trying to build Tejas without Kaveri is akin to putting the cart before the horse.
    We are trying to build jets, tanks and submarines with imported components and know how, we should instead focus on building indigenous components.
    Foreign platforms with indigenous components substituted in, is a far better proposition than namesake indigenous platforms with foreign components.

    We should not let our operational preparedness be sacrificed further at the altar of indigenization.

    1. Comparing jet engine to cart. Are you thinking??!
      Jet engine is the most complex technology that ever is..
      Even Sweden and japan has built or have been building advanced fighters without having their own jet engine technology

  8. The previous commentator has hawked the same pusillanimous line about importing immediately, rather than developing our own indigenous weaponry. Laced with falsehoods and misnomers, it's should be countered point wise:

    1) The forces do change goalposts unceremoniously, and NO it isn't always in keeping with the latest threat perceptions, but just to delay the indigenous product. For example, the IAF suddenly demanded that Tejas have a refuelling probe 2010. So, were they sleeping from 2001 to 2010, when Tejas was under tests ? IAF kept on demanding an AESA radar even though not even the Su-30 MKI or Mirages use it (and they still have a few decades of life in them). All this directly leads to delays.

    2 Isn't it fishy, that the IAF makes do with doddering MiG-21s, and MiG-27s even though it just refused to accept the baseline Tejas Mk.1 in 2011 ? Why, even if it didn't have a fancy AESA radar and a refuelling probe, surely it was still qualitatively much better than those MiGs ! The BVR missile tests could soon have followed in the year later. Yet, the IAF insisted on more and more modifications to the Tejas, without any justification, which delayed the BVR missile integration. This reeks of a concerted attempt to delay it, so as to justify a knee-jerk import of fighter jets.

    3 Air Forces across the world move lock and step with their indigenous defence industries. Their Air Chiefs don't come on TV, lamenting their indigenous products, like a former IAF Chief did. Even the Pakistani Air Force has embraced the JF-17 in a very large-hearted way, despite the fact that it's a Chinese hack-job, and doesn't even have many 4+ gen features like a full Fly-by-wire in all 3 axes. They're manufacturing it with gusto and are positioning it along the Indian border.

    4 The Arjun saga is even more sacrilegious. Even though it pounded the T-90 to the ground in tests way back in 2008, the army shamelessly asked for 52 modifications from it, and went ahead with procuring even more T-90s ! Now, when the DRDO has delivered those 52 changes, the Army says it no longer wants it. It has it's eyes on the latest Russian toys (and bribes) on offer.

    5 For the nth time, the Tejas' development was always detached from the Kaveri engine. The F-404 is a good engine, which served the Tejas well ever since it's first flight in Jan 2001. It will serve on 40 Mk1s and 83 Mk.1As too well into the 2050s. It's newer version, the F-414 will server on the Mk.2 version, which is the same one used by the Gripen-NG being dangled to the IAF.

    At no point of time was Tejas' flight-testing halted or delayed by the progress of the Kaveri. The F-404 ably flew it forward without a hitch since 2001.

    Finally, this noble sounding motto of "preparedness being sacrificed at the altar of indigenization" is really a masquerade for justifying imports, while deliberately asking the moon of indigenous products -- knowing fully well that they inevitably will lead to longer gestation.

    It's high time that we shed the Emperor's invisible clothes, and ask the armed forces some really tough questions. Why do you outright refuse to purchase quality indigenous equipment ?

  9. Seems like India will only learn the lessons in a hard way after getting a bloody nose in future.

  10. "The IAF should know this, since it is procuring American combat aircraft that have crossed the half-century landmark. The CH-47 Chinook, which began entering IAF service earlier this year, has already flown in combat for 57 years. The US Air Force plans for the Chinook to remain till 2050, by when it will be 90 years old. The C-130 Hercules, which the IAF happily bought, has completed 50 years of service and will continue for another 30 years. The AH-64 Apache which will enter IAF service next month is not far from its golden jubilee."

    The difference being that the Chinook, Hercules and Apaches are still being manufactured. That's the reason why the USAF can keep ordering newer Chinooks, Apaches and Hercules. There are nobody manufacturing the MiG-21s except perhaps the Chinese who managed to reverse engineer it in the past. Yes you can fly Jaguars and MiGs but if the plan is to just keep the same airframe and add upgrades, that's quite risky.


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