No Al­ter­na­tive to Self Reliance

Pro­cure­ment of com­bat air­craft for the IAF is not only be­com­ing an ex­pen­sive propo­si­tion bor­der­ing the un­af­ford­able, but in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult as well.

SP's Aviation - - Table of Contents - By AIR MAR­SHAL B.K. PANDEY (RETD)

SINCE IN­CEP­TION IN 1932, THE IN­DIAN AIR FORCE (IAF) HAS

had to rely on plat­forms pro­cured from for­eign sources to equip its com­bat fleet. Begin­ning with the pis­ton-en­gine West­land Wapiti and the Spit­fire from the United King­dom (UK), the IAF en­tered the jet age with the in­duc­tion of the de Hav­il­land Vampire, the Hawker Hunter and the Fol­land Gnat, all sin­gleengine com­bat air­craft again from the UK. The IAF pro­cured the Our­gaon and the Mys­tere from France in small num­bers. Begin­ning in the mid 1960s, the IAF in­ducted large num­ber of MiG and Sukhoi com­bat air­craft and a few Jaguar and Mi­rage 2000 of the third gen­er­a­tion. Out of the plat­forms pro­cured from abroad, the Gnat, Jaguar, MiG-21, MiG-27 and the Su-30 MKI have been man­u­fac­tured in In­dia un­der li­cense by Hin­dus­tan Aero­nau­tics Limited (HAL), but un­for­tu­nately, with­out the ben­e­fit of trans­fer of tech­nol­ogy. As a re­sult, HAL has not been able to de­velop the ca­pa­bil­ity to man­u­fac­ture a cred­i­ble com­bat plat­form in­dige­nously. Sadly, this de­fi­ciency con­tin­ues to plague the In­dian aero­space in­dus­try even after seven decades of ex­is­tence.

In 1956, HAL as­sisted by the renowned Ger­man air­craft de­signer Kurt Tank, em­barked on the in­dige­nous de­vel­op­ment a su­per­sonic com­bat air­craft, the HF-24 Marut. The maiden flight by the pro­to­type was un­der­taken in 1961 and the air­craft en­tered ser­vice in 1967, in just 11 years from launch of the project. Com­pared with this feat, even 50 years later, the In­dian aero­space in­dus­try took 33 years to de­liver the first light com­bat air­craft (LCA) Te­jas to the IAF. Un­for­tu­nately, the Marut proved to be fail­ure on ac­count of lack of a suit­able en­gine to de­liver the thrust re­quired to ex­ploit the full po­ten­tial of the air­frame that was de­signed to op­er­ate at speeds up to Mach-2. The project was aban­doned and the Marut fleet was phased out in the 1980s, some­what pre­ma­turely. As for fu­ture prospects for the Te­jas, whether the IAF will be able to in­duct this in­dige­nous plat­form in the num­bers and in the time frame re­quired, can­not be pre­dicted with any de­gree of cer­tainty.

Given the state of the in­dige­nous aero­space in­dus­try, the IAF has no op­tion but to con­tinue to de­pend on pro­cure­ment of com­bat air­craft from abroad. After the col­lapse of the USSR, the IAF be­gan to ex­plore op­tions from global aero­space ma­jors in­clud­ing Rus­sian firms, for a fourth-gen­er­a­tion com­bat air­craft in large num­bers with the pre­con­di­tion of its man­u­fac­ture in In­dia in col­lab­o­ra­tion with HAL. De­fined as the Medium Multi-Role Com­bat Air­craft (MMRCA), the ten- der for 126 air­craft was floated in 2007, the year in which the Min­istry of De­fence (MOD) ini­ti­ated a project to de­velop a fifth-gen­er­a­tion fighter air­craft (FGFA) through a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween HAL and Sukhoi De­sign Bureau of Rus­sia. The FGFA for the IAF was to be de­vel­oped based on the Sukhoi T-50 PAK FA, a sin­gle-en­gine, sin­gle-seat, fifth-gen­er­a­tion com­bat air­craft that was al­ready un­der de­vel­op­ment in Rus­sia. The new plat­form for In­dia was planned to be a twin-seat plat­form and cus­tomised for the IAF.

The MMRCA ten­der of 2007 in which the Rafale was the win­ner, un­for­tu­nately en­coun­tered in­sur­mount­able prob­lems and eight years later, it was can­celled leav­ing the IAF in the lurch and with­out a plan B. With the re­tire­ment of the ob­so­les­cent fleets of com­bat plat­forms ac­quired in the 1960s and the 1970s, the strength of the com­bat fleet of the IAF was dwin­dling rapidly and to­day, the num­ber of com­bat squadrons stands at 31 as against an au­tho­rised level of 42. In 2015, Prime Min­is­ter Modi man­aged to ar­range a di­rect deal with the French Gov­ern­ment for 36 Rafale jets which will pro­vide only par­tial re­lief. With the re­tire­ment of the re­main­ing MiG-21 Bi­son and MiG27 fleets, the strength of the com­bat fleet of the IAF will drop fur­ther and by 2030, if there are no in­duc­tions, will re­duce to around 26 squadrons. There will be only a marginal im­prove­ment in the sit­u­a­tion in the next five years with the de­liv­ery of the 36 Rafale jets con­tracted for and if HAL is able to de­liver the num­ber of Te­jas or­dered. After con­sid­er­able dither­ing and de­lay, in the first week of April this year, the MOD is­sued a Re­quest for In­for­ma­tion for 110 com­bat jets cov­er­ing both sin­gle and twin-en­gine plat­forms. This vir­tu­ally ap­pears to be a re­peat of the MMRCA ten­der of 2007, hope­fully with not the same end­ing. Un­for­tu­nately, at­tempt by the IAF to foray into fifth gen­er­a­tion has failed as In­dia has pulled out of the In­doRus­sian pro­gramme to de­velop the FGFA. In­dige­nous ca­pa­bil­ity of HAL to foray into fifth gen­er­a­tion, is in­ad­e­quate.

Ex­pe­ri­ence over the last decade and a half has shown that pro­cure­ment of com­bat air­craft for the IAF is not only be­com­ing an ex­pen­sive propo­si­tion bor­der­ing the un­af­ford­able, but in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult as well. Un­less the In­dian aero­space in­dus­try de­vel­ops the re­quired level of self reliance in this do­main and is able to in­dige­nously pro­duce the lat­est gen­er­a­tion com­bat air­craft, the IAF is likely con­tinue to be plagued with crip­pling short­ages in this seg­ment. Fail­ure of the MMRCA ten­der and the FGFA pro­gramme ought to be a wake-up call.

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