The Indian Air Force (IAF) is one of the largest in Asia and one of the few combat-proven air arms in the region. The IAF is tasked with defending India’s Western border with Pakistan and Eastern border with China against aerial threats, and also support the Indian Army’s troop movement and logistics requirements in terrain that is often inhospitable. 

The IAF is now in the midst of a long overdue modernization effort, which is seeing it induct new fighter aircraft, transport aircraft and helicopters, that are conferring on it, a dramatic increase in capability. 

The air arm is also overhauling its training pattern to cater for the disruptive nature and challenges of warfare in the future which is also evolving rapidly. This transformation is now thought to be nearing completion. The air force has invested significant expenditure in modernising its training infrastructure and the IAF leads the other two services in the use of modern military simulation and training equipment. The IAF’s endeavors have been directed towards bridging the gap between freshly trained aircrew and maintenance personnel in quickly attaining the experience and skill required for operational missions. 

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The IAF is accelerating the use of VR training within the service. Pictured is a new Dornier Do-228 VR based technical training simulator installed at Air Force Station Yelahanka. Credit: Indian Ministry of Defence.

Basic Training Upgraded

In recent years, the IAF’s pilot trainee intake has nearly doubled and it is to the air arms credit, that it has been able to absorb and clear the increased intake without any dilution in training standards.  

This has been achieved through rationalisation of the training syllabus and optimisation of training resources. The induction of modern Western combat platforms has also resulted in the air force overhauling its technical training curriculum to meet the demands of newer systems being inducted. 

The IAF fully transitioned to undertaking basic training on the Swiss Pilatus PC-7 MKII in 2018, when the last of 75 aircraft was delivered. This resulted in the air force shifting from a piston engine trainer with an analog cockpit in the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) HPT-32 “Deepak” basic trainer to the turboprop PC-7 MKII which has a glass cockpit. The PC-7 MKII ushered in the use of Fixed Base Full Mission Simulators (FBFMS), Avionics Part Task Trainers (APTT), and Cockpit Procedure Trainers (CPT) for Stage 1 flight training in the IAF. 

In addition to the PC-7 MKII, the air force is awaiting an order for 70 indigenously developed Hindustan Turbo Trainer 40 (HTT-40) basic trainers that will be built by HAL. India’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) approved the procurement worth approximately US$850 million in March 2023. The deal will also include associated equipment and training aids including simulators. A formal contract is expected sometime this year, with deliveries to begin 30 months after contract signature. HAL is slated to deliver all 70 basic trainers within six years of the first delivery. An additional 36 aircraft order is planned for the future. 

The IAF also operates a large helicopter fleet and basic training for these is now undertaken on Russian Mi-17 helicopters. Until 2017, the venerable Mi-8 was used. Since 2017, the IAF has also begun offering ab-initio training slots to friendly foreign countries, something already being done earlier with transport aircraft training. 

The IAF has now transitioned its entire basic transport training activities onto the Dorner Do-228, which is produced under license in India by HAL. In November 2023, a new DO-228 Level-D Full Flight & Mission Simulator (FFMS) built for HAL by the Slovakian firm Virtual Reality Media (VRM), was formally commissioned into service at Air Force Station (AFS) Yelahanka in Bangalore. The new Level D FFMS is configured with a glass cockpit to cater for upgraded Do-228 aircraft now entering service. 

Stage III transport flight training is also being undertaken on the Do-228, following which the crew will move on to types such as the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III, Lockheed Martin C-130J and newly inducted Airbus C295 MW. The IAF is also using an indigenously developed Virtual Reality (VR) based simulator for technical training of Do-228 maintenance personnel at AFS Yelahanka.  


Advanced Training 

The IAF follows a three-stage flying training pattern. Stage I flying training is undertaken with the PC-7 MKII fleet, Mi-17 and Do-228 for the fighter, helicopter and transport aircraft streams respectively. Pilots destined for the fighter stream of the IAF undergo Stage II and Stage III flight training, which is performed using HAL built Kiran Mk-I/IA jet trainers, PC-7 MKIIs and BAE Systems Hawk Mk132 advanced jet trainers respectively. The 86 aircraft Kiran Mk-I/IA fleet is slated for replacement with the HAL designed and developed Hindustan Jet Trainer 36 (HJT-36) intermediate jet trainer, which is long delayed and yet to obtain certification. 

The 98 aircraft Hawk fleet plays a key role in pilots transitioning to the IAF’s operational fleet of Dassault Rafale F3-R, Mirage 2000 T/TI, Sukhoi SU-30 MKI, Tejas Mk1 and Sepecat Jaguar fighter jets. A case for procurement of 20 additional Hawk aircraft has not progressed since 2015. In February, BAE Systems announced that it had partnered with Indian flight simulation training firm Flight Simulation Technique Centre (FSTC) to design, build and supply Hawk simulators to the IAF. The Hawk Mk132 Twin Dome Full Mission Simulator (FMS) is slated to be installed in February 2025, with an additional simulator to be acquired at a later date. 

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This HAL image shows the future of Indian pilot training. From L-R – upgraded Hawki advanced jet trainer, HJT-36 ‘Sitara’ intermediate jet trainer and HTT-40 basic trainer aircraft. Credit: Hindustan Aeronautics Limited.

Simulator Upgrades

The IAF is also upgrading simulators on its existing fleet of fighter aircraft such as the SU-30 MKI and Sepecat Jaguar, both of which were produced under license in India by Hindustan Aeronautics. In November 2021, the MoD inked a deal worth approximately US$45 million with HAL for supply of two Jaguar FBFMS to be installed at Air Force Stations in Jamnagar and Gorakhpur. The first FBFMS was slated to be commissioned within 27 months of contract signature at AFS Jamnagar, while the 2nd FBFMS at AFS Gorakhpur is to be commissioned 36 months after the contract is concluded. Both these simulators will be capable of providing training on deployment of long-range weapons carried by the strike fighters. 

In March, this year, the MoD entered into a contract with an Indian manufacturer to upgrade an SU-30 MKI simulator, which will also be able to provide training on indigenously developed weapons integrated on the Russian fighters. The IAF is also moving ahead on a US$7.2 billion upgrade effort of its SU-30 MKI fleet by state-owned airframer Hindustan Aeronautics. 

At present there is only one Full Mission Simulator available for the air force’s two Squadron’s of Tejas fighter jets. However, with a total of 83 Tejas Mk-1A aircraft on order and deliveries slated to begin in the first half of this year, several more Tejas FMSs are expected to be commissioned in future. 

The air force is also making greater use of Virtual Reality (VR)-based training devices and will acquire them for nearly its entire training fleet, even for aircraft types which have FMSs. VR-based training is being taken up in a big way on the IAF’s fleet of legacy aircraft. Since 2022 VR based training has been made available on the seventies vintage HAL Kiran Mk-I/IA jet trainers and Chetak helicopters (license produced SA 316 Alouette III).

The air force and Navy are also looking at acquiring additional Spatial Disorientation Simulators. These simulators are intended for training of all air force and navy aircrews from all flying streams (fighter/ transport/ helicopter). Three SDS’ are already in service with the IAF, with an additional two envisaged, one each for the air force and navy. 

The IAF’s modernization and shift away from Russian defense equipment with a greater focus now on simulation and training, presents a once-in-a-decade large market opportunity for companies in this space. However, India’s insistence on in-country procurement means that foreign firms will have to find Indian partners. While the many Indian firms in the military simulation and training space are yet nascent, they would have grown sufficiently by the end of the decade with large orders from the Indian armed forces, creating a thriving domestic simulation and training industry. 

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