The Indian Air Force (IAF), facing a severe shortage of fighter aircraft, will have the opportunity to boost its combat strength with an unusual asset - fitting guns and rockets on Hawk trainer aircraft, bought for training IAF pilots before they entered the cockpits of high performance fighters like the MiG-21.
On Tuesday, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and UK-headquartered BAE Systems (BAE), agreed to explore the development of a "Combat Hawk" which could even be exported to friendly foreign countries.
India already has the world's largest fleet of Hawk Mk132 advanced jet trainers (AJTs). The IAF and navy have 123 Hawks on order, of which 90 are already in service, training their pilots. While HAL builds the remaining 33 in Bengaluru under licence from BAE, the IAF is contracting for another 20 Hawks for its superlative aerobatics display team, which so far flew the Kiran Mark II.
The Hawk AJT already has advanced avionics, including digital cockpit displays that allow trainee pilots to practice navigation, the use of sensors like radar, and to fire weapons. Transforming this into a "Combat Hawk" involves fitting air-to-air missiles and air-to-ground guns, rockets and bombs. The Hawk Mk132 has seven wing stations for mounting weapons and reconnaissance equipment. These weapons need to be integrated with the avionics of the aircraft.
Such "light attack aircraft" are adept at several missions that high-performance fighters are ill suited to perform. Flying slower, their pilots get more time to identify targets, especially over jungle terrain, or when targets are camouflaged. In mountains, accuracy is extremely important because even narrowly missing a target on a sharp ridgeline means the bomb or rocket strikes harmlessly, hundreds of feet below. Light attack aircraft allow greater accuracy.
Besides accuracy, affordability is another big plus for light attack aircraft. Many countries cannot afford to buy or operate fighters. The Afghan Air Force will fly 20 Embraer A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft for counter-insurgency (COIN) operations against the Taliban. Meanwhile, the United States Special Operations Command is also buying a fleet of similar aircraft for its "light air support" programme.
The defence ministry has not yet announced a plan to acquire or operate light attack aircraft. India's military has been historically reluctant to use combat aircraft in COIN operations, given the potential for collateral damage.
Even so, HAL officials say a Combat Hawk could be offered to the military once it is developed. In advocating its programme to develop the indigenous Hindustan Turbo Trainer - 40 (HTT-40), HAL argued that it could be combatised, unlike the Pilatus PC-7 Mark II trainer, which would require permission from Switzerland.
Light attack aircraft, say HAL and BAE officials, would also find ready markets in smaller regional countries.
The HAL-BAE agreement also envisages upgrading the Hawk Mk132 to the capability level of Hawk Mk128 trainers on which Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots train. The IAF procured the Hawk Mk132 before the RAF upgraded to the Mk128. The latter has a cockpit display that more closely resembles the kind of fighters that trainees graduate to from the Hawk.
"If India wants to become an export hub for the Hawk, it would need to graduate to the latest standard, which is the Hawk Mk128. Saudi Arabia and Oman, which are inducting the Eurofighter Typhoon, are likely to demand Hawk trainers built to the latest RAF standards. India could position itself to address those markets", says Chris Broadman of BAE Systems.