INDIAN NAVAL AVIATION ON THE FULCRUM OF CHANGEIndian Naval Aviation completed 60 years on 11 May 2013. The first MiG-29K squadron, INAS 303 ’Black Panthers’ was formally commissioned into the Indian Navy on that day even as the delivery of the new carrier, the INS Vikramaditya is now delayed to the end of 2013. If all goes to plan, then the carrier should be in Indian waters by early 2014 and its airgroup can begin integration with the ship, the fleet and undergo their Deck Landing Qualifications in the process.
The Indian navy (IN) has embarked on an ambitious plan to have 3 aircraft carriers. The next two known as IAC-1 and IAC-2 are indigenous developments but both projects are running behind schedule. While IAC-1 is being built in Cochin Shipyard with a planned launch in August 2013 and possible delivery by 2018, the IAC-2 design has not yet been frozen on account of its preferred configuration – CATOBAR or the low risk STOBAR like the Vikramaditya and IAC-1. There is talk that US help may be sought for catapults for the IAC-2.
The Light Combat Aircraft Navy (Tejas) prototype has started flying ,but a definite schedule and configuration for the aircraft is still pending. Even as the underpowered and overweight Mk 1 variant is being refined ahead of further flight tests, the Navy is waiting for the definitive Mk 2 variant which won’t be ready until 2017-2018.
The existing Sea Harriers with the LUSH upgrade are expected to serve till 2017 with INAS 300 ‘White Tigers‘ and INAS 552 ‘Braves‘, by which time the MiG-29Ks should be fully integrated with the Fleet.
Still, the Navy , while confronting budgetary pulls and pressures, indifference and apathy at the decision making levels is right to look ahead at its carrier acquisitions with a mixture of hope and apprehension.
The fleet air arm is operating well over 200 aircraft today. It is expected to double its fleet size as per the 14th plan. This will make it larger than many regional Air Forces.
Numbering some 10300 personnel including 1300 officers, the fleet air arm will require exponential and balanced growth in its Human Resources and support organizations.
As new inductions and upgrades increase, there is a dearth of naval Test Pilots and Flight Test Engineers. Aircrew Examiners, Qualified Flying Instructors and Observers will be required in greater numbers.
Senior officers have realized that a permanent cadre of officers is an imperative in the Air Arm .This is because of the shortage of available candidates as the Navy is growing overall. Plus, the skills demanded of pilots and observers are very perishable and a long term plan will benefit the Navy.
Naval Headquarters is evaluating cadre management, career planning and progression policies. Some new decisions are awaited soon.
The Navy may also soon have a Flag Officer (Naval Air Maintenance) or an ACNS (Air Maintenance) along the lines of the Indian Air Force’s Air Officer Commanding in Chief(Maintenance Command).This is a much needed recognition of the enormous and extraordinary contributions that the officers and men of these branches have made to the service.
The Navy now has 14 female officers as Observers/Airborne Tacticians across its fixed wing aircraft. They are posted to the Dornier-228 , IL-38SD and Tu-142 fleets. Like their male counterparts, the female officers fly 10 plus hour long missions while posted to the ‘big birds’ of the IN. They are being made trained for cross-functional postings and there is one female officer undergoing the Boeing P-8I conversion as well. The policy for them will be continued postings in their specialization as they cannot be sent for sea time. This is a wonderful Tiara in Naval Aviation’s Diamond Jubilee.
Other induction concerns have been the delay in the Multi Role Helicopter procurement.
Also, the Navy wants MALE,HALE UAVs ,Amphibious aircraft , MRMR and LRMR aircraft to add to its fleet.
To enhance fleet air defences, the LR-SAM is also a must have on the Fleet Commander’s wishlist considering the proliferation of aircraft among the nations of the region.
The Tupolevs may get a further life extension as they bring unique capabilities to the arsenal and the Navy will like to retain that capability. So, contrary to some reports, the type will serve for at least another five years, if not longer.
The Navy is striving to standardize its ASW mission and sensor suites and sonobuoys across the fleet of MPA. It is also operationalizing a high speed tactical datalink for better situational awareness across different units.
A sparkling Diamond Jubilee.
The Navy has commissioned INS Baaz, the easternmost Naval Air Station recently.
This year is an unprecedented year for the Indian Navy’s Air Arm.
First, the MiG-29 K Squadron has been commissioned as INAS 303, the Black Panthers.
The aircraft carrier for this aircraft, the INS Vikramaditya is expected to be commissioned by the end of this year. If this happens, India will be one of the few nations in the world to have more than 50 years of continuous aircraft carrier operations.
Another MiG-29 K Squadron is expected to commission the next year.
The Boeing P-8 I , of which the Indian Navy is the first and so far only, non-US operator has commenced its induction into the Indian Navy since May 15, 2013.
The first aircraft reached INS Rajali and will be part of INAS 312 .INAS 312 will thus operate two different types of aircraft whose predecessors were adversaries in the Cold War.
The Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer will start its induction in the second half of this year. Pilots/Instructors are converting with the Indian Air Force at Bidar.
It is expected that INAS 551 ‘Phantoms’ will move to INS Dega at Vizag and reform on this aircraft. Facilities for the Hawk at Dega have already been completed. Naval pilots are thrilled with the aircraft’s handling and capabilities and the aircraft is coming at a right time to help pilots transition to the MiGs ,existing Sea Harriers and later the Tejas. As they say in Goa, you may be a White Tiger or a Black Panther but you definitely are a Phantom.
The Navy may also sign a contract with Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Udaan Academy (IGRUA) for ab-initio training of its pilot trainees. This will speed up the basic flying of the trainees as the Air Force offers limited slots to the Navy because of its own expansion.
Finally, ten years after it was inducted, the Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) will commission as a squadron later this year. The 321 ALH Flight (formerly the ALH IFTU) is expected to be commissioned as INAS 322 and it will be a fitting compliment to the multiple roles and activities that this marvelous rotorcraft has carried out. It’s forte is SAR, SHBO,Utility roles and it was a treat to watch the two ship close formation of the ALH detachment at the INAS 303 commissioning ceremony flyby.
With all this, Indian Naval Aviation is only going one way - forward and upward