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.