Chas­ing a Chimera ?

Dr Manoj Joshi on the IAF’s lat­est RFI for fight­ers

Vayu Aerospace and Defence - - Opinion -

So now, two decades af­ter the In­dian Air Force (IAF) pro­jected a re­quire­ment for 126 medium-role com­bat air­craft (MRCA), we are back to the start­ing point. That jour­ney had ended in 2012 when the gov­ern­ment, af­ter a laboured process, se­lected the Das­sault Rafale and be­gan ne­go­ti­a­tions for its pro­cure­ment— only to have the suc­ceed­ing Naren­dra Modi ad­min­is­tra­tion scrap the deal and de­cide in 2015 to pur­chase only 36 Rafales off the shelf.

On 6 April 2018, the IAF is­sued a re­quest for in­for­ma­tion ( RFI) for the pur­chase of 110 fight­ers. Three-fourth of these will be sin­gle-seaters and the bal­ance twin-seat air­craft. Eigh­teen or so of the air­craft would be bought off the shelf. The rest would be ‘Made in In­dia’ through a part­ner­ship be­tween the man­u­fac­turer and a strate­gic part­ner. The fight­ers would thus add six squadrons to the IAF and the or­der could be worth be­tween $9 bil­lion and 15 bil­lion.

It is no se­cret that the IAF is in dire straits, both be­cause of its de­clin­ing fighter air­craft num­bers and the gov­ern­ment’s re­fusal to raise the de­fence bud­get. The num­bers are telling. The IAF has 31 com­bat squadrons to­day as against a de­sired 42. It will lose nine in the next five years when the re­main­ing 7 MiG-21 and 2 MiG-27 squadrons re­tire. And pre­sum­ing it gets the two Rafale, two LCA and one more Su-30MKI squadrons, it still will be at an un­com­fort­able 27 by 2022. If it re­peats the fi­asco of the first MMRCA deal, tak­ing more than a decade to se­lect an air­craft, it could well end up in a dis­as­ter where it is down to just 15 squadrons in 2032, when its re­main­ing six Jaguar, three MiG-29 and as many Mi­rage 2000 squadrons also re­tire.

The bud­getary part is vi­tal be­cause the IAF, at the in­sis­tence of the gov­ern­ment, wants the bulk of the air­craft to be ‘Made in In­dia’. Set­ting up an as­sem­bly line for just 80 or so fight­ers will ac­tu­ally re­quire the ex­che­quer to pay dou­ble or even triple the sum that would be needed if one sim­ply im­ported the air­craft off the shelf. When In­dia pur­chased the Su- 30MKI from Rus­sia di­rectly, its av­er­age cost was Rs 270.28 crore, but some years later when its man­u­fac­ture from raw ma­te­rial was be­gun by the Hin­dus­tan Aero­nau­tics Ltd it cost Rs 417.85 crore.

But the Air Force cer­tainly is to blame as well. In craft­ing an RFI that mixes sin­gle­and twin-engine air­craft, it makes se­lec­tion that much more dif­fi­cult. Ac­tu­ally, the IAF knows what it wants and has tac­itly been say­ing so loudly for decades: a lighter fighter, cheap to op­er­ate, one that would be the work-horse of its fighter fleet. Af­ter the forced re­jig­ging of the Rafale pur­chase in 2015, the IAF had is­sued an­other RFI for buy­ing and build­ing 100-200 sin­gle engine fight­ers in 2016. This had in ef­fect be­come a com­pe­ti­tion be­tween Lock­heed Martin’s F- 16 and Saab’s Gripen. By

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