Light, medium or heavy fight­ers?

Vayu Aerospace and Defence - - C O Mm E N T A R Y -

On the cusp of his re­tire­ment, In­dian Air Force CAS, Air Chief Mar­shal Arup Raha, had stated that the IAF re­quires about 200-250 medium fight­ers in ad­di­tion to the 36 Rafale multi-role fight­ers that were con­tracted with French ven­dor Das­sault in 2016. Value of that con­tract was € 7.8 bil­lion (Rs 55,600 crore), so an­other 200 Rafales, or com­pa­ra­ble fight­ers, would re­quire an es­ti­mated € 43.3 bil­lion (Rs 310,000 crore), which is far be­yond In­dia’s means, given cur­rent de­fence spend­ing.

But Raha did not hes­i­tate to put the IAF’s re­quire­ment on the ta­ble. “We have just or­dered 36 Rafales and we re­quire more air­craft in the medium weight cat­e­gory to give [the IAF] an en­tire spec­trum of ca­pa­bil­ity,” he said. The IAF cur­rently op­er­ates just 33 fighter squadrons against an as­sessed re­quire­ment of 42 squadrons needed to face China and Pak­istan jointly. Of th­ese, 11 squadrons of MiG-21 and MiG-27s are op­er­a­tionally sus­pect, be­ing long over­due for re­tire­ment. Re­fer­ring to this, Raha stated: “We have al­ready used them for four decades plus. It is time to re­tire them and get new air­craft… Over the next 10 years, we must have 200-250 air­craft. It has to be bal­anced out. In the heavy weight spec­trum, we have enough. But in the medium weight cat­e­gory, we need to have more. Yes, about 200 will be very good”.

An anal­y­sis of the IAF’s present ‘force mix’ re­veals that the short­fall in fight­ers is ac­tu­ally in the ‘light’ fighter seg­ment, not in ‘medium’ fight­ers. By 2022, when 11 squadrons of MiG-21s and MiG-27s would have to be phased out, there would be a dire short­fall of such equiv­a­lent weight fight­ers. At best, a lim­ited num­ber of Te­jas LCAs would have come in, leav­ing that seg­ment with just a few squadrons. In con­trast, there would re­main 12 squadrons of legacy fight­ers (Jaguar, Mirage 2000, MiG-29) in the medium fighter seg­ment plus a hefty 14 squadrons of Su-30MKI (heavy) fight­ers.

As re­puted avi­a­tion an­a­lysts have opined “The IAF’s needs to im­me­di­ately re­place 11 squadrons of ob­so­les­cent MiGs. Their re­place­ment, there­fore, must be af­ford­able to- buy and op­er­ate light- to- medium fight­ers. Since we can­not af­ford 200 Rafale­class fight­ers, and the Te­jas pro­duc­tion line is evolv­ing too slowly, the IAF is left with just one op­tion: set­ting up a sec­ond pro­duc­tion line to build fight­ers of this class in large num­bers for the IAF”.

The gov­ern­ment is ac­tu­ally mov­ing down that path. On 7 Oc­to­ber 2016, the IAF re­port­edly con­tacted sev­eral global aero­space gi­ants, in­clud­ing Lock­heedMartin, Boe­ing, Saab and Rus­sia’s Rosoboronex­port, so­lic­it­ing in­ter­est in set­ting up a pro­duc­tion line in In­dia to build sin­gle-en­gine, medium fight­ers. US firm Lock­heed Martin, which is of­fer­ing the F-16 Block 70 and Saab, which is in­tro­duc­ing their new fighter, the Gripen E, are the cur­rent front run­ners, both be­ing mar­keted ag­gres­sively in New Delhi.

Over the last 15 years, the IAF has been fram­ing its fighter air­craft re­quire­ments in terms of light, medium and heavy fight­ers. About the year 2000, Air Head­quar­ters stated that an ideal “force mix” would be 200 fight­ers each in the light, medium and heavy cat­e­gories. The ra­tionale for this was never made clear. Tra­di­tion­ally an air force’s ‘force mix’ has been based on air­craft roles, not their weight nor size.

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