The Indian Air Force (IAF) is upgrading and modernizing its existing airfields and bases - rather than creating new ones - with the latest and ultra-modern communications, radar, aircraft landing systems and defensive shields, its top commander says.
A project, designated Modernisation of Airfield Infrastructure (MAFI), was already under way and airfields all over the country would be activated and upgraded, the IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik, told India Strategic defence magazine (www.indiastrategic.in) in an interview.
India has a total of 428 airbases, airports and airfields, most of them decades old as they were built by the British during World War II from the Himalayan border regions to India's island territories. Many of these airfields have been lying unused or disused.
The idea is to utilise these assets by various types of aircraft in the IAF's inventory - transports and combat jets included. India is acquiring the heavy-lift C 17 Globemaster-III and medium-lift C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft, both of which can operate from short, football ground sized airstrips, obviously in line with the MAFI project.
They would not however be permanent homes for aircraft but as and when required, aircraft and helicopters can be moved there.
All the airfields and airbases would be covered by the IAF's secure intranet, called AFNET or Air Force Net.
Some of the airports are operated by the Airports Authority of India (AAI) for international and domestic operations, but most of them are under the control of the IAF, although 28 of them like Pune and Chandigarh have been opened to civilian traffic.
The plan to develop the airfields was drawn about 10 years ago. The cost estimated then was Rs. 15,000 crore (US$ 3.5 billion) but this will have considerably gone up now, due to both price escalations and the requirement for newer equipment with higher technology levels as also for emergencies like the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack.
To ensure that aircraft can operate safely, the minimum Category-II landing systems have to be installed at these airbases and airfields, as well as a network or radars and anti-aircraft missiles. Details were not available but Naik said that the vendor to execute the project had been identified and that discussions were in the final stage to fix the costs.
"The MAFI project aims to modernise all the navigational aids at our airfields. The project is in CNC (commercial negotiations) stage. The vendor for the project has been identified. Various air bases across the country have been earmarked for installation of Cat-II airfield lighting system and upgradation of navigational aids, as part of the MAFI project," he said.
It is understood that wherever possible, depending on the length of the runways and terrain, particularly in the Himalayan border regions, these airfields would be made capable for combat jet operations, although they might not necessarily be based there.
The IAF does not, in any case, have many high-altitude capable combat aircraft in its inventory, except the Sukhoi SU-30 MKIs whose engines have been tweaked for high-altitude takeoffs and landings.
Besides, more than half of the IAF's combat fleet, with the exception of the MiG-29, is marked for phase-out in the coming years, including both the MiG 21-Bis and the MiG-27.
The upgradation would include the airfields in the islands, including Andaman & Nicobar and Lakshdweep, where only the Car Nicobar airfield is certified for fighter jet operations. In many places though, surrounding hills and the length of the airstrips, particularly in the Himalayan valleys, would impose barriers on the desired capability.
Besides the latest instrument landing systems (ILS) like the Cat-II lighting, which allows an aircraft to land with a visibility of 400 metres, an airbase or an airfield will also need modern surveillance radars, distance measuring equipment and communication aids to intercept and communicate with civilian traffic and and IFF (identification friend or foe) system.
Connectivity with the naval and army assets, both ground-based and aerial, is a requirement and something already being implemented.
Then, all the airbases or airfields would have to be made impenetrable by any enemy, which means all-round or 360 degrees surveillance and missile attack capability.
Air defence is admittedly very weak, and Naik said that due attention was being paid with the acquisition of short and medium range Israeli Spyder and indigenous Akash surface-to-air (SAM) missiles.
India's state-run Bharat Electronics Ltd. has been contracted to deliver several squadrons of the all-weather 24x7 Akash missiles by 2012.