'India to buy more than 16 C-17 airlifters'

New Delhi, June 14 (IANS) The Indian Air Force (IAF) will acquire more than 16 Boeing

C-17 heavy airlifters to add to its strategic capabilities, a top military commander has said.

The IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik told India Strategic defence magazine (www.indiastrategic.in) in an interview that while the government had accorded approval earlier this month to buy 10 aircraft, the air force was now processing a case for six more of these airlifters. At a later date, 'we will add some more,' he disclosed but did not specify the number.

He said that IAF's existing Soviet-vintage IL-76 heavy-lift aircraft would last approximately another 10 years, and the induction of the C-17 Globemaster IIIs during this period would be a timely replacement. India has less than 20 IL-76 in a dedicated transport role, while there are six midair refuellers designated Il-78, and another three to house the Israeli Phalcon AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control Systems).

The IAF has to replace the old aircraft and also augment its capability and capacity in accordance with the current and emerging security situation in the region in the foreseeable future.

The Indian government has just cleared the deal for 10 C-17s for $4.1 billion, and together with another six aircraft, the deal would be for around $6.5 billion, inclusive of the 30 percent offset clause.

The US government, and the Congress, have already cleared the deal under the government-to-government Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme and it would be sealed once the Indian government signs the agreement and the US government issues what is called the LoA, or Letter of Acceptance, possibly by mid-June, to sell the aircraft to India.

Reliable sources, however, say the IAF could opt for eight more aircraft, in which case the deal for the C-17s could touch about $10 billion or so.

A key advantage of the offsets under this programme is assistance by Boeing to set up an approximately $500 million engine-testing wind tunnel for jet engines with the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). The air chief said that this project should go a long way in helping Indian scientists develop jet engines.

The indigenous capability in India for aircraft engines at the moment is vastly inadequate as it is difficult to master the engine core technology. Despite the acquisition of a very large number of aircraft from the Soviet Union/Russia and France, nobody has shared this expertise despite various collaborative programmes.

Even to test the Kaveri engine for the light combat aircraft (LCA) for instance, facilities in Russia have recently been used.

Notably, although Boeing is the largest manufacturer of civil and military aircraft in the world, it uses engines built by the GE and Pratt & Whitney. But Boeing has the talent and expertise to integrate, and help develop, the best of the aerospace technologies thanks also to its involvement in US space programme, particularly the space shuttles.

About the C-17s, Air Chief Marshal Naik observed that a key advantage of this aircraft is that despite being a huge airlifter with 75-tonne capacity, it can operate from very short and unpaved grassy airfields. As IAF has several small airfields all around, this is a decisive factor in acquiring the C-17, the other being a long-range global capability with mid-air refueling.

As for short landing and takeoff, this capability of the C-17 was demonstrated during the aircraft's trials in 2010. Boeing test pilot Col. Kelly Latimer, a former USAF pilot whose laughter matches the respect she commands in flying this huge aircraft, actually landed and took off in less than 3,000 feet from a small airfield in the mountains.

This writer had the privilege to meet this NASA veteran during a visit to the US. She explained the capabilities of the C-17 in peacetime for humanitarian missions as well as in the battlefield to airdrop special forces personnel, material or to pick up injured and wounded from short unpaved grassy fields in the thick of battle. The area around the landing field has to be sanitized though, as for any transport aircraft or helicopter in a battle zone, with the help of fighter and combat helicopter cover.

According to this writer's understanding, the C-17 also played a decisive role in the recent Operation Geronimo against Osama bin Laden by ferrying the highly-capable

multi-role Chinook MH 60R and Apache helicopters to Afghanistan. These helicopters were deployed in the Navy SEAL commandos strike against Osama's hideout in Pakistan's garrison city of Abbotabad.

Notably, India has played an active role in the international community in disaster relief even with IL-76 aircraft and they have been deployed usefully in crises situations also to help the neighbouring countries, including Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

The first IL-76 was flown into India in 1985 by Air Marshal (retd) Ashok Goel, who is now the mentor of 44 and 25 Squadrons which operate this aircraft. (He is also India Strategic's Aviation Editor).

According to Goel, it is imperative for the combat fleet to be supported by highly capable transport aircraft and helicopters. The reach of the combat aircraft is supported and sustained by airlifters, and timely supplies of equipment, supplies and boots on the ground in any operation can only be done by a mix of heavy-lift and other aircraft like the special operations' C-130J Super Hercules.

It may be noted that a modern version of the IL-76, designated just 476, is being developed in Russia and will be out in 2014.

(Gulshan Luthra writes on strategic affairs. He can be reached at Gulshan.Luthra@IndiaStrategic.in)