SP's Aviation - - NEWS WITH VIEWS - —By Air Mar­shal B.K. Pandey (Retd)

THE FLEET OF COM­BAT air­craft of the In­dian Air Force (IAF) cur­rently con­sists of 32 squadrons as against the newly au­tho­rised strength of 42, a level the ser­vice is ex­pected to at­tain by 2022. To­day, the com­bat fleet of the IAF is de­fi­cient by ten squadrons around 200 air­craft. By 2022, with the re­tire­ment of the age­ing fleets of Rus­sian-ori­gin com­bat air­craft such as the MiG-21 and MiG-27 and even with the de­liv­ery of the ini­tial or­der of 272 Su-30 MKI fight­ers by Hin­dus­tan Aero­nau­tics Limited (HAL), in­duc­tion of 36 Rafale jets con­tracted for through a di­rect deal with the French gov­ern­ment and in­duc­tion of the in­dige­nous Te­jas in limited num­bers, the de­fi­ciency will go up to around 250 air­craft. The po­si­tion that the IAF is in to­day and is likely to be in the next five years, is nei­ther com­fort­able nor en­vi­able given the es­ca­lat­ing ten­sion with both China and Pak­istan and the pos­si­bil­ity of a mil­i­tary con­flict with one or worse still, with both the ad­ver­saries, loom­ing large over the hori­zon.

It is not that the state of af­fairs pre­vail­ing to­day was not fore­seen by the IAF. Hav­ing as­sessed the sit­u­a­tion fairly ac­cu­rately, in the be­gin­ning of the last decade, the IAF ini­ti­ated ac­tion to pro­cure com­bat plat­forms in suf­fi­ciently large num­bers to ob­vi­ate the de­bil­i­tat­ing ero­sion in the op­er­a­tional ca­pa­bil­ity of its com­bat fleet. The rather am­bi­tious plan to in­duct 126 medium multi-role com­bat air­craft (MMRCA) for which the Rafale had been iden­ti­fied by the IAF as the pre­ferred plat­form, had to be aban­doned in 2015. A move ini­ti­ated in 2016 by Manohar Par­rikar, the then Min­is­ter of De­fence, to sal­vage the sit­u­a­tion through pro­duc­tion of a proven com­bat plat­form in In­dia un­der the newly launched Make in In­dia scheme in part­ner­ship with an In­dian com­pany in ei­ther the pub­lic or pri­vate sec­tor, ap­pears to have hit a road­block. The of­fer by Lock­heed Martin Cor­po­ra­tion of the US to re­lo­cate the pro­duc­tion line in Fort Worth, Texas to a place in In­dia iden­ti­fied by the Gov­ern­ment of In­dia, to man­u­fac­ture the lat­est and fu­tur­is­tic ver­sion of the well known F-16 dubbed as the Block 70, is un­doubt­edly at­trac­tive. As the F-16 is cur­rently oper­ated by 26 na­tions around the globe and it is un­der­stood that that there are prospects of new cus­tomers com­ing on board, es­tab­lish­ment of a pro­duc­tion line in In­dia will open up a new range of op­por­tu­ni­ties for the In­dian aerospace in­dus­try es­pe­cially in the pri­vate sec­tor. Un­for­tu­nately, the pro­posal mil­i­tates against the phi­los­o­phy of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump on the is­sue of loss of em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties for the cit­i­zens of the US. While the fi­nal word on this case is yet to be said, the prospects of the pro­posal by Lock­heed Martin get­ting a nod by the US ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­pears some­what bleak. The second op­tion is to go for the JAS 39E Gripen of­fered by Saab of Swe­den. As com­pared to the of­fer by Lock­heed Martin, the of­fer by Saab is less at­trac­tive.

Of­fer by the Rus­sian aerospace in­dus­try of the MiG-35 at this junc­ture, opens a new win­dow of op­por­tu­nity for the IAF. The MiG-35 is Rus­sia’s most ad­vanced, near fifth gen­er­a­tion, mul­ti­role com­bat air­craft de­vel­oped from the MiG-29. This plat­form which was still un­der de­vel­op­ment, was of­fered against the MMRCA ten­der and was also dis­played at Aero In­dia Air Show in Fe­bru­ary 2007. How­ever, along with the F-16 and the Saab Gripen, it lost the race against the Rafale.

Comimg at this point in time, the MiG-35 of­fer has cer­tain ad­van­tages. The IAF has been op­er­at­ing com­bat air­craft of Rus­sian ori­gin since the mid 1960s. The list is long and in­cludes the MiG-21, its sev­eral vari­ants, the MiG-23 BN and MF, MiG25, MiG-27, MiG-29, Su-7 and the Su-30 MKI. The In­dian aerospace in­dus­try has li­cense-pro­duced a num­ber of these fight­ers of Rus­sian ori­gin and is to­tally fa­mil­iar with Rus­sian tech­nol­ogy. The Rus­sian orig­i­nal equip­ment man­u­fac­turer (OEM) is pre­pared to pro­vide train­ing, prod­uct sup­port and main­te­nance for 40 years. The OEM is also pre­pared to man­u­fac­ture the plat­form in In­dia un­der the Make in In­dia scheme and be­lieves that in com­par­i­son to its com­peti­tors, the unit cost of the MiG-35 will be 20 to 25 per cent lower.

Given the over five decades of re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia in the regime of de­fence and the im­pon­der­ables in build­ing new equa­tions with the West, at this junc­ture, the MiG-35 op­tion may be the most ex­pe­di­ent to tide of the cri­sis the IAF is in to­day.

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