Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Pleased With C-130Js So Far, India Eyes More

Impressed by early deliveries and the aircraft’s performance in recent operations, the Indian air force (IAF) is actively considering a proposal to acquire more than the 12 Lockheed-Martin C-130J Super Hercules tactical special mission aircraft already expected.

With the last of six C-130Js from an original 2008 contract to be delivered in November, and a follow-on order for six more to be signed shortly, the IAF has lavished unusual praise on the program and indicated it will ultimately need more than a dozen. The IAF has not released an official figure, but Indian sources have said it could be as many as 24 aircraft.

“It is historic,” Air Chief Marshal Norman Browne says of the current order. “This is the first time in history that we have received aircraft earlier than the stipulated date. This has never happened before and is a new experience.” Speaking at his first public press conference since taking office at the end of July, he added that two C-130Js that had been pressed into earthquake relief duties in late September had performed “extremely well.” The C-130Js flew in bad weather typical of India’s northeast, ferrying tons of equipment and supplies to remote, quake-hit areas.

The IAF’s C-130Js operate as part of the 77 Veiled Vipers squadron at the Hindon air force base just outside New Delhi. It was recently decided that the follow-on six aircraft would join a newly formed squadron in Charbatia in the eastern peninsular state of Orissa, giving the IAF reach across the Bay of Bengal to its island territories, chiefly for deployments to the operationally significant Car Nicobar island base. Browne says the new aircraft will have “certain improvements” over the ones currently being delivered, but did not specify what those were.

Interestingly, the IAF chief says Lockheed would pass on certain cost benefits from the original contract, resulting from early execution of the contract, to the follow-on order for six more. This, the IAF chief says, would translate into a discount of $60-$80 million on the follow-on foreign military sales (FMS) contract, scheduled to be signed before January 2012 (Aerospace DAILY, Oct. 4).

For an armed service used to time and cost overruns both from indigenous and foreign military purchases, chiefly from Russia, the IAF hopes that the other aircraft it has contracted for from the U.S. will deliver similar results. In June, the IAF contracted for 10 Boeing C-17 Globemaster III strategic lift aircraft for $4.1 billion.

Still, one defense ministry acquisitions team officer who worked on the C-130J procurement tempers the IAF’s enthusiasm. He suggests that the higher price of U.S.-built equipment, compared to Russian, for instance, more than balances out “perks” like early deliveries, roll-over price benefits and efficient program execution.

Meanwhile, the IAF also is eyeing the expansion and modernization of two crucial forward bases in the north in Nyoma, close to the disputed border with China, and Kargil, where India and Pakistan had a brief but intense border skirmish in 1999. Browne says he wants both bases to be able to operate the C-130J with full payloads, which is critical to high-altitude logistics operations currently undertaken by the IAF’s Antonov-32s. The IAF’s C-17s, which begin delivery in 2013, will also operate at these forward bases when runway extension and base upgrades are complete.

By contrast, things do not seem to be going as well for a related Russian deal. In Russia to attend the 11th Indo-Russian military cooperation meeting this month, Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony criticized “tardy progress made in the design and development of the Multi-Role Transport Aircraft (MTA).” Ministry sources said Antony was not pleased with the status report of milestones achieved in the development phase since the two countries formally agreed to jointly develop the aircraft in September 2010.

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