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.