Dwin­dling com­bat fleet of the IAF

With far too many im­pon­der­ables in the de­vel­op­ment of the Te­jas Mk II, the chances are that this air­craft may not see light of the day


By early 2015, hopes of the In­dian Air Force (IAF) of in­duct­ing 126 of the Rafale medium multi-role com­bat air­craft (MMRCA), equiv­a­lent of six squadrons, had be­gun to fade as the con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween the orig­i­nal equip­ment man­u­fac­turer (OEM) Das­sault Avi­a­tion of France and the In­dian Min­istry of De­fence (MoD) had en­coun­tered an in­sur­mount­able road­block. Apart from the huge es­ca­la­tion in the over­all cost of the project, the one ma­jor con­tentious is­sue be­tween the two par­ties was that Das­sault Avi­a­tion was not pre­pared to stand guar­an­tee for qual­ity stan­dards and de­liv­ery sched­ule in re­spect of the 108 Rafale jets to be man­u­fac­tured in In­dia by the In­dian aero­space ma­jor the Hin­dus­tan Aero­nau­tics Lim­ited (HAL). Das­sault Avi­a­tion was in­sis­tent on nom­i­nat­ing Reliance as the In­dian part­ner. MoD was not pre­pared to re­lent as in the re­quest for pro­posal (RFP), HAL had been spec­i­fied as the Lead In­te­gra­tor of the plat­form that would be built in In­dia. As Das­sault Avi­a­tion had sub­mit­ted its bid in re­sponse to the RFP, ac­cep­tance of the terms laid down therein was im­plicit in their re­sponse.

Cop­ing with Crip­pling Short­ages

In April this year, Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi sprung a pleas­ant sur­prise by suc­cess­fully ne­go­ti­at­ing a deal with the Gov­ern­ment of France for the direct pur­chase of 36 Rafale jets to equip two squadrons. The much re­duced num­ber was in­deed dis­ap­point­ing for the IAF in view of the rapidly dwin­dling com­bat fleet; but this move by the Prime Min­is­ter helped by­pass the dead­locked con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions and pro­vide par­tial re­lief for the IAF. As the ten­der for the 126 MMRCA was then for­mally can­celled, at that stage it was not clear as to which route would be fol­lowed for the IAF to ac­quire the re­main­ing 90 MMRCA to equip the re­main­ing four squadrons.

As the fleet of MiG-21 and MiG-27s are due to be phased out by the end of this decade, the size of the com­bat fleet of the IAF will re­duce dras­ti­cally to about 25 squadrons as against the newly au­tho­rised strength of 42, down to just un­der 60 per cent. Given the evolv­ing geopo­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in the re­gion and the emerg­ing chal­lenges to na­tional se­cu­rity, IAF is clearly not in a healthy state as it is des­per­ately short of com­bat air­craft. If IAF is to shoul­der its re­spon­si­bil­i­ties ef­fec­tively, it will need to in­duct soon­est pos­si­ble as many as 17 com­bat squadrons or around 300 com­bat plat­forms, all with multi-role ca­pa­bil­ity.

For the two squadrons of Rafale jets to be in­ducted into the IAF pos­si­bly in the next three years, the IAF would have to in­vest heav­ily in the cre­ation of main­te­nance and other sup­port­ing in­fra­struc­ture. As the huge in­vest­ment in this ex­er­cise would be dis­pro­por­tion­ate to the fleet strength of 36 air­craft and hence not a cost-ef­fec­tive propo­si­tion, it was only log­i­cal for the IAF to ini­ti­ate a case for the in­duc­tion of ad­di­tional Rafale jets which it did. As per re­ports ap­pear­ing in the me­dia, iron­i­cally on Air Force Day in Oc­to­ber this year, the Min­is­ter of De­fence Manohar Par­rikar had turned down the pro­posal for pur­chase of an­other 44 Rafale jets stat­ing that the gov­ern­ment did not have the funds to ex­pand the ac­qui­si­tion of th­ese plat­forms be­yond the ini­tial 36. In­stead, the IAF must in­duct the im­proved version of the HAL-built Te­jas des­ig­nated as the Mk IA, to build up the com­bat fleet to the re­quired level.

A Ques­tion­able Al­ter­na­tive

On be­ing granted ini­tial op­er­a­tional clear­ance (IOC), the Te­jas Mk I en­tered ser­vice with the IAF 21 years af­ter the project was ac­tu­ally launched in 1993. The gen­er­ally touted fig­ure of 32 years to IOC is not quite cor­rect as it took over a decade for the project to ac­tu­ally be­gin af­ter it was con­ceived in 1982. On ac­count of the fact that the Te­jas Mk I has a num­ber of de­fi­cien­cies, the IAF has re­stricted the ini­tial or­der to just 40 to equip two squadrons. With the rate at which HAL can man­u­fac­ture the Te­jas Mk I, de­liv­ery against the or­der for 40 air­craft may be com­pleted only by 2019 at best. When plac­ing a small or­der for the Te­jas Mk I, the IAF had in­di­cated in­ten­tions to place a much larger or­der, pos­si­bly 100 or even more, of the Te­jas Mk II which was ex­pected to be equipped with a more pow­er­ful en­gine, the GE F-114 and hence de­liver bet­ter per­for­mance.

Un­for­tu­nately, there are far too many im­pon­der­ables in the de­vel­op­ment of the Te­jas Mk II and the chances are that this air­craft which will prac­ti­cally be a new plat­form, may not see light of the day in a re­spectable time frame. In fact, un­con­firmed re­ports in­di­cate that the Te­jas Mk II de­vel­op­ment pro­gramme has been shelved. Given the rate at which the com­bat fleet of the IAF is shrink­ing, in any case, it may not be in a po­si­tion to wait in­def­i­nitely, with­out any cer­tainty of time frame for the de­liv­ery of the Te­jas Mk II.

Be­ing aware of the lim­i­ta­tions of the In­dian aero­space in­dus­try in the pub­lic sec­tor, the gov­ern­ment is re­ported to be con­sid­er­ing in­volv­ing the aero­space in­dus­try in the pri­vate sec­tor to build a new, im­proved version of the Te­jas des­ig­nated as the Mk IA. This version is ex­pected to be lighter than the Mk I by around 800 kg which in real terms would trans­late into bet­ter per­for­mance en­velop. But the moot point is whether the In­dian aero­space in­dus­try in the pri­vate sec­tor would be ca­pa­ble of step­ping in and tak­ing over the re­spon­si­bil­ity of de­vel­op­ing and build­ing the Te­jas Mk IA where the In­dian aero­space in­dus­try in the pub­lic sec­tor has proved to be in­ad­e­quate.

It should be ev­i­dent from the above that there is lit­tle cer­tainty of the Te­jas Mk IA as also the Te­jas Mk II be­ing avail­able to the IAF in the fore­see­able fu­ture. Is it there­fore rea­son­able to ex­pect the IAF to wait in­def­i­nitely for ei­ther of the in­dige­nous com­bat plat­forms the avail­abil­ity of which re­mains shrouded in un­cer­tainty and ac­cept se­ri­ous com­pro­mise to na­tional se­cu­rity? Or should the IAF be per­mit­ted by the gov­ern­ment to ac­quire the badly needed com­bat plat­forms from abroad to re­store the op­er­a­tional edge in the in­ter­est of na­tional se­cu­rity ? The whole is­sue needs a re­view by a high pow­ered com­mit­tee con­sist­ing of rep­re­sen­ta­tives of all the stake­hold­ers.

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