Slow Re­vamp

The lat­est blow to the IAF is the aban­don­ment of a two-year-old plan to pro­duce sin­gle-en­gine fight­ers in large num­bers in­dige­nously with for­eign col­lab­o­ra­tion un­der the ‘Make in In­dia’ ini­tia­tive


In the re­cent past, hopes of the In­dian Air Force (IAF) of ar­rest­ing the pre­cip­i­tous drop in the strength of its com­bat fleet have been dashed yet again. The ser­vice has long been as­sured that “ac­tion is in hand” to at­tain its sanc­tioned strength of 42 squadrons by 2032, but achieve­ment of that goal now ap­pears im­pos­si­ble. As is well known, the fig­ure of 42 com­bat squadrons, each con­sist­ing of 18 to 20 air­craft, is the as­sessed min­i­mum the IAF re­quires to en­gage China and Pak­istan in a pu­ta­tive two-front con­flict. Even as the IAF’s num­bers plunge, the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army Air Force (PLAAF) of China is rapidly ex­pand­ing and mod­ernising. The Pak­istan Air Force is also up­grad­ing and at some point in time, could con­ceiv­ably cross the IAF’s strength nu­mer­i­cally, though the IAF would con­tinue to en­joy a qual­i­ta­tive edge.

The lat­est blow to the IAF’s punch is the ap­par­ent aban­don­ment by the govern­ment of a two-year-old plan to pro­duce sin­gle-en­gine fight­ers in large num­bers in­dige­nously with for­eign col­lab­o­ra­tion un­der the ‘Make in In­dia’ ini­tia­tive. The fron­trun­ners were Lock­heed Martin of the United States with the F-16 Block 70 and Saab of Swe­den with its JAS 39 Gripen E. How­ever, the Min­istry of De­fence (MoD) ap­par­ently wants to ex­pand the com­pe­ti­tion to twin-en­gine jets, in­clud­ing Boe­ing’s F/A-18 Su­per Hor­net, since the F-18E vari­ant is a strong con­tender for the In­dian Navy’s im­pend­ing con­tract for 57 car­rier-based fight-

ers. The IAF is re­port­edly strug­gling to for­mu­late an ap­proach in line with the MoD’s sud­den change of heart which has more to do with pol­i­tics than logic or op­er­a­tional im­per­a­tives.


How many squadrons does the IAF have? On pa­per, 32 of which 15 squadrons of the Sukhoi Su-30MKI to­talling 272 air­craft will be the main­stay for the fore­see­able fu­ture. But since the last ten squadrons of legacy MiG-21s and MiG-27s are due to be re­tired by 2022, the num­ber will plunge to 22 by 2022, and then de­crease more grad­u­ally to 19 squadrons by 2027 and 16 by 2032. The only way to re­vamp the IAF’s com­bat fleet there­fore is to in­duct new air­craft.

This sit­u­a­tion has not de­vel­oped overnight. Air­craft have a spec­i­fied To­tal Tech­ni­cal Life (TTL) which can to some ex­tent, be pro­longed by up­grades and the emerg­ing short­age of fight­ers has been pre­dicted since the turn of the cen­tury. The se­lec­tion of new plat­forms de­pends on var­i­ous op­er­a­tional, strate­gic and fi­nan­cial con­sid­er­a­tions; but the stick­ing point is of­ten the govern­ment’s re­quire­ment for tech­nol­ogy trans­fer and in­dus­trial co­op­er­a­tion. No coun­try cheer­fully parts with ad­vanced military tech­nol­ogy. Af­ter all, why would any­one want to en­cour­age com­pe­ti­tion? HAL has striven for decades to ac­quire tech­nol­ogy from the Rus­sians in re­turn for huge li­censed pro­duc­tion deals, but has ob­tained pre­cious lit­tle.

Al­though the IAF ini­ti­ated a case to in­duct 126 air­craft or six squadrons of Medium Multi-role Com­bat Air­craft ( MMRCA) in 2002, the ten­der was only is­sued in Au­gust 2007. Fol­low­ing ex­ten­sive flight-test­ing and tech­ni­cal eval­u­a­tion of the six air­craft com­pet­ing for the $10 bil­lion deal, the IAF iden­ti­fied the twin-en­gine Das­sault Rafale as the pre­ferred plat­form. How­ever, af­ter an­other eight years of ef­fort, the ten­der was can­celled in 2015 and re­placed by a govern­ment-to-govern­ment deal for just 36 Rafale jets off the shelf. The MoD which now wants the IAF to con­sider twin-en­gine jets, had un­der then De­fence Min­is­ter Manohar Par­rikar, de­cided that the IAF should first in­duct sin­gle-en­gine fight­ers. This made sense be­cause sin­gle-en­gine jets come cheaper and are less expensive to op­er­ate than the some­what more ca­pa­ble twin-en­gine type.


The next few months may see the MoD is­sue yet an­other Re­quest for In­for­ma­tion (RFI) for for­eign man­u­fac­tured fight­ers fol­lowed by a Re­quest for Pro­posal (RFP). There­after it is likely to take four to six years to ink the deal and a decade or more be­fore all the con­tracted air­craft are de­liv­ered.

It is still un­clear if there will be an­other lengthy process of bid­ding, eval­u­a­tion, and elim­i­na­tion be­fore the final choice. Will the same six con­tenders of the 2007 MMRCA shootout fea­ture this time too? They in­cluded the Mikoyan MiG-35, the Saab JAS 39 Gripen, the Das­sault Rafale, the Eurofighter Ty­phoon, the Lock­heed Martin F-16 and the Boe­ing F/A-18. Since these have al­ready been ex­haus­tively eval­u­ated by the IAF and the Rafale emerged the clear win­ner, the nee­dle of se­lec­tion could veer towards it once again. The Ty­phoon came in a close sec­ond, while the Gripen prom­ises value for money. The Su­per Hor­net is worth con­sid­er­ing only be­cause of its com­mon­al­ity with the Navy’s po­ten­tial choice. But this would amount to the tail wag­ging the dog.

An­other sug­ges­tion is to in­duct ad­di­tional Su-30MKI jets to rem­edy the short­fall. This must be re­jected due to the ex­ceed­ingly poor main­tain­abil­ity of the fleet. Be­sides, the IAF needs a ju­di­cious mix of medium and light jets and more Su-30s would skew the bal­ance. An­other pro­posal to opt for the fifth-gen­er­a­tion Lock­heed Martin F-35A Lightning II may be good for the fu­ture; but since well over 3,000 F-35s are al­ready on or­der, the IAF will not get any­thing for the next 10-12 years. Be­sides ‘Make in In­dia’ and tech­nol­ogy trans­fer will have to be com­pletely aban­doned.

Ul­ti­mately, it is prac­ti­cally a fore­gone con­clu­sion that ca­pa­bil­ity would again dic­tate a twin-en­gine jet while cost would point to a sin­gle-en­gine plat­form. Hence the lat­est move will merely re­sult in fur­ther de­lays and is very likely to fail. Since the final choice will prob­a­bly be po­lit­i­cal anyway, why not opt for a quick govern­ment-to-govern­ment deal?


The IAF has long known that it can­not in­def­i­nitely count on pro­hib­i­tively expensive air­craft from for­eign sources and would have been greatly pleased to in­duct indige­nous jets – pro­vided they were com­bat worthy and pro­duced in suf­fi­cient num­bers. The in­abil­ity

of the Aero­nau­ti­cal Devel­op­ment Agency (ADA) and the Hin­dus­tan Aero­nau­tics Lim­ited (HAL) to de­liver on these two essentials is there­fore partly re­spon­si­ble for the cur­rent deficit of IAF com­bat air­craft. The sin­gle-en­gine Light Com­bat Air­craft (LCA) Te­jas for which the IAF sub­mit­ted Air Staff Re­quire­ments (ASR) in Oc­to­ber 1985, first flew in 2001. Al­though it at­tained Ini­tial Op­er­a­tional Ca­pa­bil­ity (IOC) in 2011 it is still not fully op­er­a­tional. It may at­tain this cru­cial mile­stone this year.

The IAF’s rather vis­i­ble lack of en­thu­si­asm for the Te­jas Mk 1 stems from the fact that the jet is fit­ted with the Gen­eral Elec­tric F404-GE-IN20 tur­bo­fan which leaves it sig­nif­i­cantly un­der­pow­ered. It also has far less en­durance and weapon-car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity com­pared to fight­ers such as the Gripen E and the F-16 Block 70. Fol­low­ing con­sid­er­able pres­sure from the govern­ment, the IAF placed or­ders for two squadrons of Te­jas Mk 1 and is fi­nal­is­ing a con­tract for four squadrons of Te­jas Mk 1A, to­talling 123 air­craft. The Mk 1A is a some­what ad­vanced vari­ant with 59 im­prove­ments in­clud­ing ac­tive elec­tron­i­cally scanned ar­ray (AESA) radar, in­flight re­fu­elling, be­yond vis­ual range (BVR) mis­siles and ad­vanced elec­tronic war­fare (EW) ca­pa­bil­ity. HAL cur­rently builds just eight Te­jas per year and even tak­ing into ac­count its plans to set up a sec­ond pro­duc­tion line, the de­liv­ery of these 123 jets could stretch be­yond 2025.

The IAF is keener on the Te­jas Mk 2 with its en­hanced avion­ics and radar, be­sides in­creased fuel and weapons car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity. How­ever, the more pow­er­ful F414-GE-400 en­gine planned for it may en­tail con­sid­er­able re­design of the air­frame and a long devel­op­ment and test­ing pe­riod. A final de­sign is ex­pected only by end-2018 and the Te­jas Mk 2 may en­ter pro­duc­tion in 2027 or later. The IAF has ten­ta­tively agreed to in­duct 201 of these fight­ers, if they meet its ex­pec­ta­tions. If so, the to­tal Te­jas fleet would amount to 18 squadrons. How­ever, this would still leave a gap of eight to ten squadrons.


If only the LCA Te­jas had been pro­duced ac­cord­ing to its promised sched­ule and ca­pa­bil­ity, a large por­tion of the IAF com­bat fleet would by now, have been indige­nous and there would have been no short­fall. The govern­ment is try­ing to dou­ble Te­jas pro­duc­tion by in­volv­ing the pri­vate sec­tor, but it is slow go­ing. It is heartening that both the MoD and the IAF have ex­pressed full back­ing for the Te­jas pro­gramme; but words now need to be trans­lated into firm ac­tion, in par­tic­u­lar as re­gards speed­ily mak­ing the Te­jas Mk 1A op­er­a­tional and ex­pe­dit­ing its pro­duc­tion. Te­jas Mk 2 devel­op­ment too needs to be strictly time bound, lest it me­an­der end­lessly as has been the case with the Te­jas Mk 1. Mean­while, about 11 squadrons of older Jaguar, Mi­rage 2000 and MiG-29 air­craft are ei­ther un­der­go­ing or are planned for up­grade pro­grammes. These re­vamped jets should re­main op­er­a­tional till around 2030.

Years of dither­ing over new com­bat air­craft is fast lead­ing to an im­pos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion where the IAF may be hard-pressed even to fight with a sin­gle ad­ver­sary, leave alone two. The large short­fall in bud­get al­lo­ca­tions for cap­i­tal ac­qui­si­tion by the military, with the IAF get­ting less than half of its pro­jected de­mands for FY 2018-19, is not re­as­sur­ing. The IAF must get the air­craft best suited to its op­er­a­tional im­per­a­tives and that is un­likely to be the cheap­est op­tion. How­ever, a de­ci­sion on new jets can now be ex­pected only af­ter the in­stal­la­tion of a new govern­ment fol­low­ing gen­eral elec­tions due next year.

The IAF’s op­er­a­tional ca­pa­bil­ity must not be al­lowed to de­te­ri­o­rate any fur­ther. One step that should be taken im­me­di­ately is to dou­ble the ex­ist­ing or­der of 36 Rafale jets be­cause till HAL de­liv­ers, there’s no es­cap­ing the need for in­duct­ing for­eign man­u­fac­tured air­craft. In the in­terim, the IAF can ex­pect more twists and turns be­fore it comes within sniff­ing dis­tance of the cou­ple of hun­dred or so com­bat air­craft it so des­per­ately needs.

Years of dither­ing over new com­bat air­craft is lead­ing to an im­pos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion where the IAF may be hard­pressed even to fight with a sin­gle ad­ver­sary, leave alone two




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