The Boeing C-17 Globemaster-III strategic airlifter is in India to begin flight trials this week towards clearing the last formality from the Indian Air Force (IAF) for its acquisition.
One US Air Force (USAF) aircraft was been flown to India on June 19 for technical checks of the fuselage, seating and engines, as also para-jumping and loading and unloading systems by IAF test pilots.
It will now go through the routine checks of operating in humid, hot and rarefied environments at Bangalore, Jaisalmer and Leh respectively, something which is a fundamental requirement for all IAF combat and transport assets due to the geographical terrain of the country, India Strategic defence magazine reports.
Although the IAF has asked the government for an initial batch of 10 C-17s, confirmation of the aircraft's required capabilities by the test pilots would formally seal the process from the Indian side, and the defence ministry would then give its endorsement and forward a note to the US government.
Washington would follow with the procedural Letter of Acceptance (LOA) in response to New Delhi's Letter of Request (LoR) for the aircraft to be acquired under a government-togovernment Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme.
This would be India's single biggest defence acquisition agreement with the US ever, estimated in the industry to be between $4-5.8 billion depending on what the IAF requires in terms of onboard assets, capabilities, spares and maintenance support duration.
The deal will be with USAF, and the US government will charge an administrative fee on the actual amount calculated after IAF requirements are finalized.
Col. Kelly Latimer, a former USAF pilot whose laughter matches the respect she commands in flying this huge aircraft, flew in the C-17 to India. A USAF and Boeing team is at hand to explain its capabilities in peacetime for humanitarian missions or to airdrop special forces personnel and material or to pick up the wounded from short, unpaved grassy fields in the thick of battle.
India Strategic quotes Boeing's Vice President for Global Mobility Systems Tommy Dunehew as saying that although it should take about three years to supply the first aircraft after an agreement is signed with a customer, Boeing could deliver all the 10 aircraft within two years.
Every programme has to end somewhere, and as Boeing has only the last 24 aircraft in its order book for the USAF, and another 20 for other countries, it could comfortably juggle with them to meet any IAF requirements.
The USAF has a total of 223 aircraft of order. Its 199th C-17 has just finished pre-delivery flying tests and is on way now to its designated squadron in the USAF Air Mobility Command.
The IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik, had told India Strategic last year that IAF was looking for 10-plus 10 C-17s, described in its parlance as VHTAC, or Very Heavy Transport Aircraft, as a replacement of its ageing fleet of Soviet vintage
IL-76 transport jets as also to augment its strategic lift capability in the coming years.
Air Marshal Ashok Goel (retd), who had flown in the first IL-76 from the Soviet Union to India in April 1985, says that the acquisition of the C-17, as also that of Lockheed Martin's C 130J Super Hercules are timely.
The IL-76, which had given IAF strategic lift capability, and the smaller AN 32, would last another 10-12 years although as per the manufacturers' specifications, they are at the end of their lives. IAF has not used them fully and there is substantial residual life in them.
Assimilation of new aircraft takes about five years, and by the Sovient vintage aircraft are phased out, the C-17 and the C-130J would be 'in the bloodstream' of IAF pilots.
The C-17 is the lifeline of US and NATO troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and its operational capabilities have already been displayed informally to IAF officers on various occasions, the first in 1998. A C-17 can carry one heavy-lift Chinook or two Apache helicopters after folding their rotor blades, and even one 60-tonne Arjun main battle tank (MBT) of the Indian Army.
(Gulshan Luthra is a defence analyst. He can be reached at Gulshan.Luthra@IndiaStrategic.in)