India Today - - UPFRONT - —San­deep Un­nithan

The de­fence min­istry has once again an­nounced its in­tent to buy mul­ti­role fighter jets to shore up its fast-de­plet­ing squadrons, the third such at­tempt in al­most two decades. The April 6 Re­quest for In­for­ma­tion (RFI) is­sued to six global man­u­fac­tur­ers for 110 fight­ers worth $20 bil­lion (Rs 1.25 lakh crore or nearly half the an­nual de­fence bud­get) is In­dia’s largest ever de­fence deal. It re­vives a decade-long process to buy multi-role fighter jets that was scrapped by the gov­ern­ment in 2015.

The par­tic­i­pants this time around are the same as be­fore. Be­sides France’s Rafale, there is Rus­sia’s MiG-35, the Lock­heed Martin F-16 Block 70, Boe­ing F/A-18, Swe­den’s Saab Gripen and the Eurofighter Typhoon. The win­ning firm will build the air­craft in col­lab­o­ra­tion with an In­dian part­ner un­der the MoD’s ‘Strate­gic Part­ner­ship’ pol­icy no­ti­fied last year.

The new pur­chase aims to bridge the gap caused by the im­pend­ing re­tire­ment of 11 squadrons of Soviet-era MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighter jets and the de­lay in the in­duc­tion of the home-built Te­jas. The Te­jas LCA pro­gramme, launched in 1983 to re­place all the MiG-21s, has made very slow progress. There are 83 Te­jas Mark-1As on or­der, but at the cur­rent pro­duc­tion rate, it will be a decade be­fore they can be de­liv­ered. A Mark-2 Te­jas vari­ant, with an im­proved en­gine, radar and pay­load, is still fur­ther away. This de­lay and the alarm­ing drop in squadron num­bers has been the crux of three pre­vi­ous in­terim so­lu­tions be­gin­ning in

2001 when the IAF de­bated buy­ing over 100 Mi­rage 2000-5 jets. That at­tempt was over­turned with the gov­ern­ment opt­ing for a global con­test pit­ting six fighter jets from the US, France, Rus­sia, Europe and Swe­den. The win­ner, the French Rafale, was never bought. A lim­ited num­ber was, how­ever, pur­chased in a gov­ern­ment-to-gov­ern­ment deal in 2016. Even this buy couldn’t as­suage the IAF’s wor­ries. The ‘con­test’ for the 126-plane or­der was scrapped. The force has a de­pleted strength of 31 squadrons (each with 18 jets) against a re­quire­ment of 42 squadrons needed to han­dle a col­lu­sive threat from China and Pak­istan.

As its num­bers dwin­dle to less than 600 fight­ers, the IAF is look­ing at vastly su­pe­rior num­bers across the bor­der— the PAF has 400 fighter jets and the rapidly mod­ernising PLAAF has over 1,500 fighter jets, in­clud­ing a core of 600 fourth-gen­er­a­tion fighter jets. As per a 2016 study by Ash­ley Tel­lis of the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace, the prob­lem is far deeper as “all three tiers of the IAF’s air/de­fence multi-role force—the light, medium and heavy com­po­nents—are in trou­ble”. The new fighter ten­der, thus, is crit­i­cal for the IAF to achieve its goal of 42 fighter squadrons by 2027. The $20 bil­lion price tag, spread over the 12 years of the life of this con­tract, seems a for­mi­da­ble in­vest­ment, and the MoD hopes to off­set this by get­ting the for­eign firm to share tech­nol­ogy with the In­dian part­ner. The new bid is am­bi­tious in that it at­tempts to cre­ate a de­fence aero­space ecosys­tem. The other im­pon­der­able is time, which the IAF is run­ning short of.

Air Mar­shal P.S. Ah­luwalia, former C-in-C of the IAF’s western air com­mand, be­lieves a con­tract can be signed in less than five years be­cause all the air­craft have been eval­u­ated by the IAF dur­ing the MMRCA con­test. One un­known area is the Strate­gic Part­ner­ships. “This is a chal­lenge as it has never been done be­fore. Sev­eral is­sues are yet to be clar­i­fied,” he says. Noth­ing, it seems, is a given when it comes to the IAF’s fighter buy.

Courtesy IAF

MiG BANG Air Chief Mar­shal B.S. Dhanoa with the su­per­an­nu­ated MiG-21 Type 96

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