Plus BRIEFINGS Re-energising India’s Air Power
India’s Air Power
The Delhi Forum for Strategic Studies and Vayu Aerospace & Defence Review recently organised a round table conference at New Delhi where a score and more former senior Air Force, Navy and Army officers, defence bureaucrats and heads of industry met to agonise on the IAF’s dwindling fighter strength. Detailed presentations on the situation were followed by animated discussions on the way forward. Major General Ashok Mehta encapsulates the IAF’s current crisis.
Maj Gen Ashok Mehta, who took part in the recent roundtable conference organised by the Delhi Forum for Strategic Studies and Vayu Aerospace & Defence Review at New Delhi, encapsulates the IAF’s current crisis
The story can now be told about how the IAF, confronting an operational crisis after a protracted delay of many years, got the MoD to issue an RFI for 114 single-engine fighter aircraft in 2016 to start a new process of establishing an additional fighter assembly line in addition to production of the existing LCA. But the MoD and IAF are adept in self-attrition. The new RFI, made public on 6 April seems to be a repeat of the follies committed in the procurement rigmarole of the MMRCA in 2007. The process and competitors are the same, though Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra, at the DefExpo 2018 was evasive, telling the media“that these were early days. ”Earlier in Parliament, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that the IAF will have 32 squadrons by 2020. Remember this government had inherited 34 squadrons in 2014. The new process may well end up like it did in 2015, unable to conclude the contract and instead outright purchase 36 Rafale aircraft forfeiting additional numbers and transfer of technology. The IAF crisis is so serious that it requires the ‘Modi solution’ of 2015 and not the conventional defence procurement route given the acute deficiencies in India’s air power and looming threats.
Just a week before the RFI of 6 April, a Delhi-based think tank Delhi Forum For Strategic Studies along with Vayu Aerospace & Defence Review assembled a group of former senior Air Force, Navy and Army officers (including two former IAF Chiefs, a former Navy Chief, senior defence bureaucrats and ex-Chairman HAL, plus other strategic thinkers) to agonise on the IAF’s dwindling combat fighter strength which would plummet from the present 31 squadrons to 24 combat squadrons by 2032 – unless urgent strategic decisions are taken by the highest executive. Following the day-long brainstorming it was decided that former IAF Chiefs would seek a meeting with Prime Minister Modi apprising him of the growing crisis and requesting he immediately order an IAF capability review against a two front collusive threat and simultaneously order a government-to-government ‘Make in India’ contract with the Company for its chosen single engine fighter (the Saab Gripen was repeatedly hinted at)and establishing a new production line integral with transfer of technology but avoiding the tedious MMRCA tendering process which it has already gone through. This route was tentatively explored in October 2016 along with Lockheed Martin’s F-16 but the project mysteriously vanished. The DFSS/ Vayu conclusions were thereafter circulated and hopefully have been given due consideration.
Then on 6 April, the IAF issued an elaborate RFI (73 pages) for single/twin engined fighters against the one page RFI for 100 to 200 single engine fighters circulated in October 2016. The latter effort faded away without progress, the new process now seeks 110 aircraft with responses expected by early-July, and RFP to be issued by end-2018. Wishful thinking? The RFP for the MMRCA took three years after issue of the RFI. In the event and after strenuous evaluation, the French Rafale was declared as the lowest bidder (L1) in 2012. But after inconclusive negotiations, the new Prime Minister Modi chose to go directly for purchase of 36 Rafales and the original MMRCA tender was thereafter cancelled without clarification on
the balance 90 aircraft as per the original total requirement for 126.
History of the Crisis
For near two decades, the IAF has lived dangerously by not getting close to solving the problem of maintaining sufficiency in combat aircraft squadron strength – today’s 31 squadrons against the authorised 42 combat squadrons. In 1983, looking ahead, the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) programme had been launched to replace the aging MiG fleet and have an indigenous single engine light fighter. In 2002, when the LCA appeared going nowhere, an acceptance of necessity (AON) was secured from government for 126 MMRCAs.
The LCA programmes remains well behind schedule – only nine aircraft have been inducted into the very first operational squadron by end – March 2018, even as HAL attempts to increase its production capacity to some 12 LCAs per year. For the IAF, the LCA Mk.I is like the proverbial bird in hand being better than two in the bush but the improved Mk.IA is some time away as whose development still needs to be funded.
The Rafale for which excruciatingly difficult negotiations had been going on for two years without any closure for 126 aircraft – 18 in fly-away condition and the remaining 108 to be license-built in India – was foreclosed when, on 10 April 2015, like a bolt from the blue, Prime Minister Modi, invoking national security imperatives, announced that 36 Rafales would be bought in flyaway condition. How the government would make up for the residual 90 aircraft was not indicated and even three years later, there was no clarity until the convoluted RFI of 6 April 2018. The IAF is already 10 squadrons short of the authorised 42 squadrons, and given the government’s operational directive to be prepared for “a two-front war,” it is in the words of the present Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa:“like playing a T20 match with seven players”. Today, Pakistan has 20 combat squadrons and China, more than 80, which are increasing steadily.
The question is: why was the steady decline in combat squadrons not arrested earlier to avert the crisis which has long been confronting the IAF? In 1989- 92 when the Indian armed forces were at their peak in outreach and capability, Time magazine had put India’s formidable military machine on its cover, symbolised by the picture of the aircraft carrier, Vikrant. That was the first and last time India’s military might had made it to the cover in a leading international magazine with the IAF inventory then standing at 42 combat squadrons.
And so the ignomious descent began… between 2001-2005, numbers had slipped to 39.5 squadrons, in 2012 to 37 squadrons and in 2018 to its lowest ever of 31 squadrons. By 2022, even with addition of some two new squadrons of Rafales and LCAs, another 7- 8 squadrons of MiG21s and MiG-27s will have been phased
out. By 2032, if additional replacements are not ordered or made alongside the LCA, the fighting strength will plummet to 24 squadrons against an estimated 25 squadrons of PAF and 100 squadrons of the PLAAF. The only other active production line will be Su-30 MKIs which is the long range mainstay of the IAF and will peak at around 272 aircraft numbers in two years. The legacy aircraft types such as the Jaguar, MiG-29 and Mirage 2000 will also begin to retire by 2032.Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa has said that the IAF will reach its authorised strength of 42/44 Squadrons only by 2032. How this will happen from the present strength of the IAF, only he may know. Someone must have a magic wand !
Numbers and affordability
For making up numbers, cost, affordability and reliability have clearly to be factored. The predominant view among the IAF seniors at the DFSS/Vayu brainstorming last month was to select the most “costeffective” fighter to ‘Make in India’ and if possible draw interim aircraft from that country’s inventory to fast-track the process. At least three years will be lost in protracted decision making and the cost of each aircraft will exponentially increase every year. The new Defence Procurement Procedure permits proceeding with a single vendor situation, precisely what Modi unilaterally did in ordering 36 instead of 126 Rafales. Technically the order for 36 aircraft was a new contract. The Swedish Gripen, like the Rafale, has experienced turbulence of the MMRCA process but being relatively new, has considerable new development life ahead, the IAF factoring a life span of 50 to 60 years for its new acquisitions.
Let’s now take a macro look at Pakistan, whose air force is increasingly being equipped with the indigenously- built, Chinese-origin JF-17 Thunders, of which 150 are already in operational service. Contrast that with our handful of Tejas LCAs. The Chinese PLAAF on the other hand, have some 86 combat squadrons, with first of the fifth- generation J- 20s being fielded, also in Tibet, where there are four major air bases with sufficiently long runways and infrastructure to mount sustained air operations.
The IAF is facing an operational crisis, partly of its own making with lack of focus resulting in depletion of aircraft and squadron strength since the 1990s, when the geo-politics of the region is fragile and unfavourable to India. The IAF has to convince the government that its case for 42 combat squadrons is sacrosanct. The Cabinet Committee for Security must at least understand the imperatives of deterrence.
The way out of this crisis is not by reinventing the wheel: revisiting the MMRCA process, which however innovative, will only exacerbate the situation.
Air Marshal Ajit Bhavnani, former Vice Chief of the Air Staff, making his presentation
Moderating the Conference was Admiral Arun Prakash, former Chief Director-General Defence Intelligence Agency
Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy, former CAS, making an emphatic point
Air Marshal P Barbora, former VCAS along with Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi, former CAS, and other participants including Vinod Mishra, exSecretary Defence Finance and former Chairman HAL, Dr. R.K. Tyagi
Air Marshal Nirdosh Tyagi, former Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, at the Conference
Major General Ashok Mehta (right) emphasising his viewpoint to Admiral Arun Prakash