India says it has successfully test flown a modified Jaguar multi-role aircraft with a foreign-made active electronically-scanned array (AESA) type radar. Depending on how extensive this upgrade program becomes, it could be a significant boon for the Indian Air Force, which has struggled with modernizing its diverse fleets of fighter and multi-role jets.
T. Suvarna Raju, chairman of the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics, Limited (HAL), made the announcement on Aug. 11, 2017, according to a report by The Hindu. HAL would not say what radar it used, but it is reportedly the Israeli Elta ELM-2052, which that company reportedly agreed to supply in 2015 for both the Jaguar and Indian-designed Tejas fighter jet.
HAL said the new radar alone could give the nearly 40-year old Jaguars, which it built under license from the Anglo-French consortium SEPECAT, at least another decade of service at life. “An Indian fighter flying with an AESA radar is in itself a landmark,” Raju told The Hindu.
No other Indian multi-role jets, including the country’s Russian-made Mig-29K Fulcrum and license-built Su-30MKI Flanker fighter jets, as well as the Tejas Mk 1 prototypes, have a fast-scanning AESA in the nose. According to Elta, the ELM-2052 has air-to-air, air-to-ground, and air-to-sea modes, which can track multiple targets at once and provide moving target indication and mapping functionality.
Adding an AESA radar to the Jaguars makes good sense and would give pilots the ability to detect more targets at greater ranges and with better fidelity, as well as being better able to resist jamming. Many air forces, including the U.S. Air Force see the new units as a relatively simple way to squeeze more capability of older jets in general. Perhaps the biggest limiting factor is finding a radar that will fit within the pre-existing radar space on any particular aircraft, but some modern AESA designs, like the ELM-2052, are modular in nature and get substantial capability out of a small radar aperture size. Elta boasts that it can size the ELM-2052’s antenna to fit where ever it needs to go, including in the tight confines of the Jaguar’s nose radome.
The Indian radar installation also shows important progress on the broader and long-running Display Attack Ranging Inertial Navigation III (DARIN III) upgrade program for the Jaguars, which began in 2009. The Indian Air Force had launched the first DARIN modernization project in the 1990s followed by a second round of upgrades in the early 2000s.The first DARIN III prototypes didn’t fly until 2012 and reportedly “could not meet expectations,” according to India Today. At that time, HAL wasn’t expected to complete the improvements on an estimated 50 to 60 of India’s approximately 120 Jaguars until 2019. The Indian Air Force said the first two-seat Jaguar IB trainers with the DARIN III modifications had reached initial operational capability in November 2016.
It’s is not clear how many of the Jaguars will ultimately receive the AESA radar update, either. India’s 18 Jaguar IM versions, optimized for maritime strike missions carrying Sea Eagle and Harpoon anti-ship missiles, have a traditional profile nose cone, but the IS multi-role variant has a narrower chiseled front end housing a combination laser range finder and target designator.
HAL could have to develop an entirely new nose section to fit the ELM-2052 onto the IS aircraft, which make up the bulk of India’s Jaguar fleet and the majority of the aircraft slated for the DARIN III upgrade package. This is where Elta’s scalable design could really shine.
We also don’t know what, if any, of the DARIN upgrades will apply to the dozens of second-hand Jaguars India is looking to acquire from France. The French Air Force operated A and E variants that have a similar nose profile to the IM and could more readily accept the AESA installation. All government officials would say is that “India is actively considering acquiring them after proper refurbishment,” according to Defense News. It is also very possible the 30 or so French jets that are supposedly being eyed could end up being used as spares for India’s upgraded Jaguar fleet.
Even if it feasible, though, such a significant modification would slow down the DARIN III project even more and increase its overall cost. The Indian Air Force, which originally hoped to have the upgraded Jaguars start to enter service by December 2012, can little afford to drag the project out longer than it has already.
Unfortunately, the DARIN III saga, as well as a separate and equally sluggish push to replace the Jaguars’ engines, seems reflective of the Indian Air Force’s modernization efforts. In January 2017, the country’s Minister of Defense, Manohar Parrikar, announced plans to sign a deal to license produce up to 200 single-engine fighter jets by 2021 at an estimated cost of approximately $45 million apiece.
The two major contenders for this tender are Lockheed Martin and its F-16 Block 70 and Saab and its Gripen E. In June 2017, Lockheed Martin separately announced plans to shift a significant portion of its F-16 production line to India, which many observers saw as giving the company an advantage in the domestic fighter competition. Saab has also offered a significant amount of technology transfer to go along with any purchase of Gripen aircraft.
But when and even if the Indian Air Force will ultimately receive any new fighter jets is unclear. The reason the country is looking for 200 new aircraft in the first place is because it scaled back purchases of the Dassault Rafale multi-role combat aircraft, which had won an earlier competition in 2012 worth approximately $20 billion, amid accusations of graft. The original plan was to purchase 136 of the French-made fighter jets, but now the Indian Air Force is only slated to get 36.
Another factor is the poor performance so far of HAL’s domestically-designed Tejas fighter jet, which first flew in 2001. The Indian Air Force expects to receive the first Tejas Mk 1A aircraft, which will also feature the ELM-2052 AESA radar among other features, by 2020 at the earliest.
However, in January 2017, the Indian Navy rejected the navalized Tejas variant, complaining that it is too heavy to operate effectively from the country’s sole aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, as well as the Vikrant-class replacements now under construction. Both Vikramaditya and the Vikrant-class use ski jumps to launch aircraft and the Tejas can’t meet the “thrust-to-weight requirement to take off with a full fuel and arms load,” Indian Navy Chief of Staff Admiral Sunil Lanba said, according to The Times of India.
There’s also a reasonable question of where the money for all of these procurements will come from. In addition to upgrading a significant portion of the Jaguar fleet, the Indian Air Force has been modernizing its Dassault Mirage 2000 at a cost of $43 million per aircraft and needs to replace hundreds of MiG-21s and MiG-27s that are simply becoming too old to fly safely. As of November 2016, the Indian Air Force had only committed to buy approximately 120 Tejas, worth approximately $12 billion, to replace more than 300 of the Soviet-era MiGs.
At the same time, India’s top regional competitor, China, is working on multiple fifth generation stealthy fighter designs, advanced unmanned combat air vehicles, and other new aircraft, to say nothing of its networked air defenses. India has been less than pleased with the result of its cooperation with Russia on the fifth generation PAK-FA fighter jet. This increasing gap between the two countries’ air arms is more pounced given that they have been engaged in a protracted standoff over a disputed border in the mountainous Sikkim region since June 2017, which observers worry could lead to a more significant conflict.
India’s Air Force also has to contend with its Pakistani counterpart, which, though far smaller and less advanced than China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force, has been looking to improve its own capabilities in recent years. Most notably, Pakistan and China had been working together on updating the JF-17 Thunder light multi-role combat aircraft, which first entered Pakistani service in 2008. These upgrades could include an AESA radar and the Block 3 aircraft may be ready for as early as 2019. There are also reports that Pakistan is interested in buying the Chinese J-31 stealth fighter.
Given these regional developments, the DARIN III upgrades, including the AESA radar, are essential for keeping the Jaguars combat capable, even if only as a second-tier multi-role aircraft. Additional upgrades, including improved, Israeli-made podded self-defense jammers could also add more capability to the aircraft.
Regardless, given the difficulties India faces in modernizing its Air Force, it’s likely that it will continue to operate the Jaguars, with or without the full suite of upgrades, for the foreseeable future.