Plus BRIEF­INGS Re-en­er­gis­ing In­dia’s Air Power

In­dia’s Air Power

Vayu Aerospace and Defence - - Vayu -

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

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