India Today - - THE BIG STORY | IAF - By San­deep Un­nithan

THE IN­DIAN AIR FORCE WILL CEL­E­BRATE its 85th anniversary on Oc­to­ber 8 un­der a dark cloud—due to its shrink­ing fighter squadrons. The IAF is now down to 33 squadrons from a high of 39.5 over a decade ago (each with a strength of 18 jets), much lower than its au­tho­rised strength of 42 squadrons. Over the next five years, th­ese num­bers will dip into the 20s when the IAF com­pletely phases out 11 squadrons of age­ing MiG-21 jets (a to­tal of around 220 jets). The re­place­ments for th­ese sin­gle-en­gined work­horses, the main­stay of the IAF since the 1970s, have been marked by de­lays stretch­ing over a decade.

In 2015, the de­fence min­istry un­der Manohar Par­rikar de­cided to split this re­quire­ment for at least 220 sin­gleengined jets be­tween the indige­nous Te­jas Light Com­bat Air­craft and a for­eign sin­gle-en­gined fighter which would be built within the coun­try in col­lab­o­ra­tion with a pri­vate sec­tor firm. Both th­ese lines of ap­proach are now fac­ing trou­bles.

In 2005, Hin­dus­tan Aero­nau­tics Lim­ited (HAL) had promised to de­liver 40 LCA Mark-1 fighters by 2018. Pro­duc­tion de­lays have led to it de­liv­er­ing only four fighters till date. The de­liv­ery of 83 LCA Mark1A, for a to­tal of 123 Te­jas, is still farther away. The gov­ern­ment’s strate­gic part­ner­ship (SP) pol­icy, which was to se­lect a for­eign firm to lo­cally build a sin­gle-en­gined fighter, has once again slipped into the slow track. Un­der the SP pol­icy, first rec­om­mended by the Dhiren­dra Singh com­mit­tee in 2015, the In­dian pri­vate sec­tor would lo­cally man­u­fac­ture ur­gently-needed fighter jets, sub­marines and mil­i­tary he­li­copters worth over $30 bil­lion in col­lab­o­ra­tion with for­eign equip­ment man­u­fac­tur­ers.

The pol­icy was cleared by then de­fence min­is­ter Arun Jait­ley on May 20, but there has been no ma­jor for­ward move­ment on it in the past four months. The most cru­cial de­ci­sion

would have to be the se­lec­tion of six pri­vate sec­tor firms which could make the de­fence hard­ware lo­cally and form an al­ter­na­tive to the pub­lic sec­tor units. So far, all that has hap­pened is that the MoD has sent out ‘re­quests for in­for­ma­tion (RFI)’ to two sin­gle-en­gined air­craft man­u­fac­tur­ers, Lock­heed Martin which makes the F-16 Fight­ing Fal­con, and SAAB of Swe­den which makes the Gripen. The MoD was to have si­mul­ta­ne­ously iden­ti­fied the pri­vate sec­tor de­fence firms to part­ner with the for­eign OEMs (orig­i­nal equip­ment man­u­fac­tur­ers), but that has not hap­pened ei­ther.

“The RFI is just the first of 11 stages through which ev­ery pro­cure­ment pro­gramme has to pass be­fore a deal is signed. Each of th­ese stages car­ries with it the po­ten­tial to de­rail the pro­gramme,” says Amit Cow­shish, for­mer fi­nan­cial ad­vi­sor in the MoD.

On June 16, Lock­heed Martin teamed up with Tata Ad­vanced Sys­tems Lim­ited (TASL) to build the F-16 lo­cally while Saab on Septem­ber 1 an­nounced a tie-up with the Adani group to build the Gripen in In­dia.

Both Lock­heed Martin and Saab have made at­trac­tive of­fers to set up so­phis­ti­cated air­craft pro­duc­tion lines within In­dia. Th­ese fa­cil­i­ties, they say, will not only build their fighters within the coun­try but also cre­ate an aero­space ecosys­tem. (State-owned HAL is the only air­craft man­u­fac­turer in In­dia now.)

But both part­ner­ships are es­sen­tially sym­bolic be­cause the MoD is yet to even short­list which In­dian pri­vate sec­tor firms qual­ify for be­ing strate­gic part­ners. The process man­dates for the MoD to choose the for­eign man­u­fac­turer and then, in a sep­a­rate ex­er­cise, di­rect the short­listed In­dian com­pany to en­ter into le­gal bids with them be­fore sub­mit­ting sep­a­rate tech­ni­cal bids to man­u­fac­ture the weapons in In­dia.

IAF has as­sured pri­vate sec­tor play­ers that they would get the RFIs­for sin­gle-en­gine jet fighters by the end of Septem­ber. That hasn’t hap­pened yet. Sources fa­mil­iar with de­vel­op­ments said the min­istry was still de­bat­ing the ma­trix for de­cid­ing which In­dian firms would be short­listed as strate­gic part­ners. “The sys­tem lacks a process owner which is like a man­age­ment con­sul­tant who will iden­tify the whole process,” says a pri­vate sec­tor CEO.

Worse, the en­tire 2017-18 fi­nan­cial year seems to be slip­ping away with no de­ci­sion in sight. If the ex­pres­sion of in­ter­ests had gone out to the In­dian

pri­vate sec­tor firms by Septem­ber, as in­di­cated ear­lier, they would have sub­mit­ted bids in two months. That would have given the MoD at least un­til March 31 to de­cide on the bids. De­fence min­is­ter Nir­mala Sithara­man had said, af­ter tak­ing over on Septem­ber 4, that Make in In­dia in de­fence would be one of her key fo­cus ar­eas. But in the one month that she has been in of­fice, there has been lit­tle vis­i­ble progress on the SPs.

The strate­gic part­ner­ship would have been a sil­ver bul­let for at least one other trou­ble be­side the IAF’s two-decade-long quest for an air­craft to re­place the MiG-21s. It could re­sus­ci­tate the gov­ern­ment’s co­matose Make in In­dia ini­tia­tive. Apart from indige­nous ship­build­ing pro­jects and those for sur­faceto-air mis­siles (which, it can be ar­gued, would have been made in­dige­nously in any case), Make in In­dia in de­fence has so far seen only one ma­jor con­tract—a Rs 4,500 con­tract be­tween L&T and Han­hwa Tech­win an­nounced this April to do­mes­ti­cally build 100 self-pro­pelled 155 mm how­itzers.

The car­di­nal sin, of­fi­cials say, was the MoD’s di­lut­ing the SP con­cept af­ter Par­rikar’s de­par­ture from South Block in March. Ear­lier, the gov­ern­ment would have nom­i­nated the In­dian-for­eign part­ner­ship that emerged as the low­est bid­der in a con­tract to build a weapons plat­form. “The con­cept changed com­pletely af­ter March when the gov­ern­ment said that the for­eign and In­dian part­ner­ship would have to sub­mit price bids, just like any other con­tract,” says an of­fi­cial. The MoD also in­cluded de­fence pub­lic sec­tor un­der­tak­ings( D PS Us) into the SP model, a fea­ture that was not there ear­lier.

The in­tro­duc­tion of price bids con­verted strate­gic part­ner­ships into a pure com­pet­i­tive process, very sim­i­lar to the ex­ist­ing Buy and Make pro­gramme ex­ist­ing un­der the De­fence Pro­cure­ment Pro­ce­dure which gov­erns the MoD’s de­fence hard­ware ac­qui­si­tion. (Un­der Buy and Make, a for­eign OEM pro­duces de­fence hard­ware within the com­pany in col­lab­o­ra­tion with an In­dian firm.) There are two other fears within the pri­vate sec­tor de­fence in­dus­try vy­ing for th­ese multi-bil­lion con­tracts. With slug­gish eco­nomic growth, de­fence is un­likely to be a ma­jor spend­ing pri­or­ity for the gov­ern­ment. A spate of ma­jor state elec­tions be­gin­ning with the Gu­jarat elec­tions in De­cem­ber this year and end­ing with the gen­eral elec­tions in May 2019 is likely to fur­ther dis­tract the gov­ern­ment.

De­lays on the sin­gle-en­gined air­craft con­tract could see it go the way of an­other pro­gramme to plug its sin­gle-en­gined short­fall—the doomed Medium Multi-role Com­bat Air­craft (MMRCA) ac­qui­si­tion pro­gramme. The MMRCA con­test ran be­tween 2004 and 2015 when it was scrapped as it neared the fi­nal stage of con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions. The pro­gramme, which be­gan soon af­ter the Kargil War as an ad­di­tional buy of 126 Mi­rage-2000 air­craft, bal­looned into a mud­dled global con­test in­volv­ing both sin­gle and twin-en­gined French, Rus­sian, Swedish and Amer­i­can jets, be­fore be­ing scrapped (both the F-16 and Gripen were MMRCA con­tenders). A sep­a­rate con­tract for 36 Rafale multi-role jets worth $8.3 bil­lion was inked with France’s Das­sault in 2016. Sheet metal for the first In­dian Rafale jets were cut in the man­u­fac­turer’s plant in France last month with the first air­craft due for de­liv­ery by 2020.

The IAF, which wants larger num­bers of fighter jets to tackle a prob­a­ble two-front war with China and Pak­istan says it needs the jets quickly over the next five years. Not that the air­craft it has at present don’t meet the mark—the Su-30MKIs, over 250 of which form the back­bone of the IAF’s fleet, are highly ca­pa­ble plat­forms. Three Su-30s can carry as much ord­nance as an en­tire squadron of MiG-21s and at three times the range. HAL will de­liver the last batch of 35 lo­cally as­sem­bled Su-30MKIs to the IAF by 2020. The clos­ing of the Sukhoi line and the fad­ing of the MiGs is caus­ing much con­cern though. This is be­cause the IAF says it needs greater num­bers of multi-role air­craft when fac­ing the in­creas­ingly so­phis­ti­cated fighters be­ing fielded by the Chi­nese and Pak­istan air forces.

“It’s go­ing to be a cri­sis soon when all the MiG-21s are gone,” says Air Mar­shal P.S. Ah­luwalia, for­mer Air Of­fi­cer Com­mand­ing-in-Chief (AOC-in-C) West. “We don’t even have the lux­ury of wait­ing for trans­fer of tech­nol­ogy. We need to get ei­ther Lock­heed Martin or Saab to set up a plant here and start pro­duc­ing the air­craft.” The IAF’s next set of wor­ries, avi­a­tion ex­perts warn, is also around the cor­ner. In less than a decade, it will have to start re­tir­ing eight squadrons of twin-en­gined Jaguar strike air­craft and MiG-29 in­ter­cep­tor air­craft, again, with no re­place­ments in sight. The cost of de­lays is just pil­ing up.

GAU­TAM ADANI Adani Group: Saab AB con­sor­tium Air­craft: Gripen E

SIN­GLE EN­GINE LIGHT FIGHTERS Size of con­tract $10 bil­lion (es­ti­mated) Num­ber 100 fighters Re­quire­ment Re­place­ment of 11 MiG-21 squadrons RI­VAL PLAY­ERS

RATAN TATA Tata Ad­vanced Sys­tems Lim­ited: Lock­heed Martin con­sor­tium Air­craft: F-16 Block 70

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